Sunday, August 2, 2015

On "Inside Out" and the Necessity of Tears

Confession: I'm a fairly emotional guy. The feeling of tears entering the corners of my eyes, wetting the surface with empathy and pathos--this is a normal sensation for me. (In fact, one of the strongest indicators I was experiencing burnout months ago was due to an emotional numbness and lack of such tears.) So it was both surprising and affirming to walk out of Pixar's latest film, Inside Out, and send the following Tweet:

Inside Out follows the five primary emotions--Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust--inside the mind of Riley, a girl navigating two painful transitions: the external transition of moving across the country, and the internal transition from childhood to adulthood.

The film, to use a cliche film critic term, is a triumph. It celebrates strong and intelligent female protagonists, both inside and outside of Riley's mind. The creativity expressed in the world-building is remarkable, and scenes inside the memory and subconscious of Riley are witty and enjoyable, with plenty of "cognitive" and brain-related jokes; I particularly loved a brief sequence in a tunnel for "abstract thinking" involving deconstruction and various dimensions. And who doesn't love a kids' film that makes allusions to film classics like Chinatown and Vertigo in its humor? (Side note: the short film Lava preceding Inside Out in theaters is just about the worst film Pixar has ever made. I nearly cried at how terrible it was.)

Inside Out is an excellent film about coming of age, the gift of being a parent, and the power of community and friendship. All of these themes are brought together in Inside Out's primary idea: the gift and power of all our emotions, even the ones we tend neglect. The emotion of Joy is clearly the leader inside Riley's mind, with Sadness often relegated to the margins in order for Joy to keep Riley happy. Yet when Riley is confronted with a very difficult situation--moving across the country to a new home--Sadness and Joy need to become co-laborers in serving Riley.

In his insightful essay on Inside Out, Matt Zoller Seitz offers a defense of sadness:
This movie is saying, "Listen to Sadness. Sadness is important. Sadness has something to teach you." "Inside Out" stands in opposition to an entire culture that tells people that happiness is the highest, best and sometimes only permissible emotion, and that sadness is an obstacle to being happy, and that we should concentrate all of our emotional and cultural energy on trying to eradicate sadness so that everyone can be happy.
As an advocate for sadness, Inside Out is a prophetic call to our "everything is fine" culture, inviting us to embrace the wisdom of our tears. In this film, while the two are initially foils, ultimately "Sadness is not the opposite of Joy, she's her partner." We need both happiness and sadness to be holistic beings. Tears are not only natural, they are deeply healing and vital to our spiritual lives. Professor MaryKate Morse writes the following about the power of tears in her helpful resource, A Guidebook to Prayer:
Tears reflect the entire human gamut of life experiences: grief, connection, despair, joy, frustration, anger and even physical stress. Crying is a significant human function.... Tears cannot be ignored. If someone is crying, everyone notices. Crying is an expression of powerlessness, if it is authentic and not manipulative. When we cry, it is a defining moment.... Tears uncover our life. Pretense is not possible. Masks fall off. Tears connect with the most primal part of our lives and tears connect us with others. Tears soften our hearts and open our minds.
I'm still struck by the simple profundity of her words: tears cannot be ignored. If a person is quietly sobbing on the subway across our way, weeping into their knees on a curb as we stroll past, or wiping their eyes at any social gathering, we cannot help but notice. Tears--particularly, tears due to sadness and grief--elicit a remarkable empathy. When we cannot cry, we cannot wholly love. When we authentically weep with those who weep, we practice the self-giving love of Christ.

Inside Out recognizes the value and necessity of all emotions and desires. I grew up in a conservative family context where conversations about emotions nearly always turned to the verse in Jeremiah 17:9: "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" Emotions were not to be trusted, and being overly emotional was paralleled with being sinful or self-deceived. For an emotional guy like me, this always rang false, and led more to shame and sin management than genuine spiritual freedom. So it was refreshing to read the same prophet, Jeremiah, wrote about God's covenant love for His people, and how He would write His law on their hearts, this prophet who is called "the weeping prophet." Ezekiel writes, "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh" (36:26). The psalms of David reveal a wide range of emotions, from joy to anger to fear to disgust to sadness. When reading the gospel accounts, it turns out Jesus is also an emotional person--he gets angry, he becomes saddened and distressed, he is joyful and excited, he is determined, he may even be fearful. As one reads the whole canon of Scripture, it appears that the full range of human emotions are normative, even healthy. Certainly they can lead us astray into sinful territory, but the profound example of Jesus allows us to embrace our emotions as good gifts from the Creator, not unnecessary cognitive baggage we need to stuff away.

I am learning to embrace my own emotional propensity, to allow myself to cry when the tears form in my eyes. We can neither stuff the feelings down into the recesses of our subconscious, nor can we allow ourselves to be overtaken by emotions, led along like a crazed roller coaster of passion and sentiment. That's the unique beauty of Inside Out--the emotions never fully control or dominate the person they inhabit. The human being is ultimately responsible for their actions and choices. The emotions react to Riley just as much as Riley reacts to her emotions; it is a beautiful dialogue between emotion, thought, action, and contemplation. We're not to ignore or disregard our emotions, but neither are we to simply "follow our feelings" without any sense of personal accountability or self-control.

Like Inside Out, we can recognize the goodness of emotions and desires, embracing the whole gamut--Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, Sadness--as a family of feelings residing inside our minds and hearts. We can laugh because we have a Creator who also expresses joy. We can cry because we have a Lord who is heart broken when His people turn away from Him. We can become angry, because while the Lord is slow to anger and abounding in love, His sense of justice often piques a righteous anger when the weak and marginalized are oppressed. We may experience fear, but we have a God who calmly and graciously reminds us in Scripture, "do not be afraid." We must become disgusted with our own sinful desires in order to repent and turn towards the one who will never look at us in disgust.

If you end up crying when you see Inside Out, it's okay. Embrace the tears of empathy. Jesus wept. We can, too.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Review of Mission: Impossible for Reel World Theology

I recently reviewed the original Mission: Impossible (1996, Brian De Palma) for Reel World Theology as a lead up to the fifth film in the M:I franchise:

The Mission: Impossible film franchise, with each sequel each promising bigger and more dangerous stunts for its star, Tom Cruise, to attempt, began less with a loud bang and more with a slow burn. Brian De Palma’s 1996 film is more of a spy thriller than a straightforward action film. Through mind-bending plot twists and some interesting cinematography and directorial decisions, De Palma takes the audience along for a thrill ride with Ethan Hunt (Cruise) as a young IMF agent trying to discover whodunit.

The opening sequence features the now-iconic scene of Ethan pulling off the mask to reveal the truth. This mask-removal trope—present in each of the sequels—serves as a sort of symbol of the entire franchise, a multi-layered mosaic of identity and styles, with each director giving the next film their own personal thumbprint. The audience is unsure where the film will be headed next, or what sort of identity this particular Mission: Impossible film holds. De Palma’s style is certainly present, with canted angle shots, split focus shots, and slow tracking shots all making for a very stylized action thriller. Some taut sequences–especially the Langley infiltration and the fish tank restaurant scene–are exhilarating, and Mission: Impossible is certainly never dull.

When the IMF team’s mission in Prague falls apart, leaving Ethan on the run and trying to pick up the pieces of the puzzle, it feels like a bold choice for so early on in the film. A stellar supporting cast with the likes of Kristin Scott Thomas and Emilio Estevez are killed off rather quickly and brutally, leaving the audience wondering who is truly alive or dead, and where this film is really headed. The first time I saw Mission: Impossible, I’m quite sure I didn’t know what was going on—the plot became so convoluted and confusing at times, I couldn’t keep up. The mask trope comes into play here—it’s difficult to tell the various identities and motivations of the primary characters, and the plot changes their tone from scene to scene. Ethan is capable and confident in one moment, scared and unnerved in the next; he is witty and charming, romantic, intellectual, brooding, a people person, a loner, etc. It’s hard to tell if he’s in control of a situation or simply going along for the ride. He’s a cipher, enigmatic and only serving as the carrier for the audience’s own queries and intrigue.

Jesus Goes to the Movies - The Religion of Movies

My upcoming book, Jesus Goes to the Movies: The Youth Ministry Film Guide, releases on August 11. You can purchase it through Amazon or The Youth Cartel. I'll be posting excerpts in the days leading up to the book. Be sure to buy your copy today!

The Religion of Movies

In many ways, going to the movies is synonymous with a religious practice or worship service. We gather a community of similar-minded disciples and arrive at the temple, also known as the movie theater. We pay our offering at the box office. We purchase the ritual food—soda and popcorn—then enter into the temple’s inner courts by way of the teenager checking our tickets. We find our place in the particular sanctum and wait with a quiet reverence as the lights are dimmed and our attention is drawn upwards towards the light. We behold the images before us with fascination and wonder. We are swept up in the sounds and music, and find ourselves strongly identifying with the hero while condemning the villain. We laugh and cry, we are inspired and challenged. When the credits role, we follow the ritual—we get out of our seats, walk through the doors, and express our thoughts and emotions with our fellow disciples. Films become religious icons, the images that reveal and inform our desires and devotion. The religious fervor and emotional catharsis found in these movie-watching practices compete with any church worship service. Betsy Brown writes about this worshipful connection to movies:
The architecture of the church and the cinema may vary from place to place, but whether ornate or not, the structure of the buildings promise something lovely to come. We enter doors into a large, dimly-lit room. It is a hushed, open space. We sit side-by-side. We hear music. We hear carefully-chosen words. We see a place that has been set with care, a place meant to be beautiful.
One of the biggest mistakes we make as moviegoers and churchgoers is thinking that we attend in order to be entertained. Entertainment is a passive process: We sit and wait for moments of amusement. I would argue that both film and church, although they often are pleasurable and entertaining, serve a higher purpose. They have the power to transform—to drive us to action. And, of course, with this transformation can come a far more lasting joy than mere entertainment can give.

What if movie-watching, like following Jesus, moved us into transformative and redemptive action? How might movies play a role in our spiritual formation?

Get your copy of Jesus Goes to the Movies here!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Jesus Goes to the Movies - Movies Move Us

My upcoming book, Jesus Goes to the Movies: The Youth Ministry Film Guide, releases on August 11. You can purchase it through Amazon or The Youth Cartel. I'll be posting excerpts in the days leading up to the book. Be sure to buy your copy today!

Movies Move Us

Star Wars launched me into a lifelong love for the medium of film and its unique power to captivate our minds and hearts. The Thin Red Line was my first divine encounter with a movie. Philomena compelled me to find my birth mother (a journey I’ll share a bit more about later in this book). Each story illustrates the power of movies to … well … move us. More than other forms of media, the presence of film as entertainment and art form has become culturally normative. We live in a movie world. From YouTube to Netflix, Blu-ray to the box office, filmmakers are the theologians and bards of this generation. Billions of dollars are spent on filmmaking and movie-watching each year. In 2013, the top ten grossing movies worldwide earned 8.7 billion dollars alone. Keep in mind, that’s only ten movies for one year. Even in difficult economic times, this is a lucrative business that is here to stay. In the same year, 68% of Americans and Canadians—about 228.7 million people—went to the movies. And 11% of them go at least once per month. This statistic doesn’t include the countless movies people watched in their homes, on their laptops or tablets, or while traveling in airplanes and on road trips.

How do people decide which movies they’re going to watch? According to a study performed by Google, four out of five movie-goers watch movie trailers on  YouTube before seeing a film; the official movie trailer influences their decision more than any other online research—including reviews, information about the cast, and friends’ opinions. And 70% consider more than one movie before deciding what to see. It’s fascinating to me that a significant number of people may not even know what movie they’re going to watch when they show up at the theater or turn on Netflix—they peruse the options and pick whatever seems interesting in the moment. If this is our culture’s typical posture, perhaps we need to imagine new methods in how we make decisions, especially when it comes to movies.

Movies are increasingly becoming the primary universally shared passion in Western culture, particularly with young people. One author describes film as “the central ritual of our technological civilization.” Fifty years ago, everyone listened to the same few radio stations or watched the same TV channels. Large-scale events affected literally everyone, young and old, regardless of demographic. There was a sense of a universally shared experience; we all watched The Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan show; we all saw the Neil Armstrong moon landing; we all remember where we were when JFK was shot. But in an information- and technology-driven culture where interests and factions are more nuanced and splintered than any previous generation, this universally-shared experience has been mostly lost in our culture. Everyone isn’t watching the same news channel or TV shows. Everyone isn’t listening to the same music or reading the same books. Yet even when they haven’t seen the film, everyone is still familiar with filmic characters and stories. Make a reference to a recent sports game or musical performance or TV special to a young person, and there’s a strong chance they aren’t even familiar with your experience. Make a reference to an upcoming Hollywood movie, and it’s very likely they’ll have knowledge of its details.

Monday, July 13, 2015

About Elly

"Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."
(John 8:32)

"What is truth?"
(John 18:38)

About Elly is a strikingly simple premise and story, but don't let its simplicity make you think this is an easy film to watch. Morally complex and devastating emotionally, About Elly at first feels like a Western romantic dramedy, until a pivotal moment reveals the underlying motivations and cultural values permeating the film. It may feel familiar at times, but this is still an Iranian film, through and through, and cultural context matters in a big way. This phenomenal film from Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, The Past) only affirms that he is a formidable and impressive filmmaker, capable of making ordinary dramas turn into moral parables of emotional and intellectual weight. While the film debuted in 2009, it only made its theatrical release to the U.S. this year, and if it counts as a 2015 film, it's my favorite film of the year thus far.

About Elly's titular character is the kindergarten teacher who has been invited to a weekend getaway at the beach by one of her student's parents, Sepideh. Elly is single and attractive, and Sepideh is less-than-subtle about her desire to set up Elly with one of her single friends, Ahmad, who has been living in Germany and was recently divorced. Ahmad is charming and handsome; Elly is shyly friendly and unassuming. Joined by two other couples and few of their children, the eight adults arrive at the beach house, only to realize that Sepideh hasn't actually made the reservations they all expected. Unfazed, Sepideh tells the landlady that Elly and Ahmad are newlyweds and wanted to stay longer at the beach, charming the older woman with her story. This tiny white lie earns the friends a beach home for the weekend, but it also is the first in a series of half-truths that will spiral into churning waves of turmoil and deceit.

It quickly becomes clear that the three couples and Ahmad are all close friends from college, unintentionally leaving Elly as the lone, uncomfortable outsider in their jokes and banter. It's clear she feels awkward, but Sepideh has high hopes for Elly and Ahmed, despite reservations from both single people. The first act of the film builds a solid foundation for each of the characters, revealing their personalities and traits, foibles and desires. It feels a bit like an indie hipster romance--actor Shahab Hosseini, who portrays Ahmed, could be the Iranian twin of filmmaker Mark Duplass--until a singular moment of dread which turns the entire film's narrative on its head.

I won't delve into the details of this particular moment, suffice to say that it defines the rest of the film and brings the film's title to the fore. Who exactly is Elly, after all? A kindergarten teacher, young and smart and quietly beautiful. But who is she, really? What is she capable of? The seven friends begin to realize that they don't actually know Elly very well at all--Sepideh can't even recall Elly's last name, despite being her child's teacher. As the layers of deceit are painfully torn off to expose the devastating truth underneath, the fidelity and sanity of the seven friends is put to the ultimate test.

About Elly is a devastating and emotionally tense film. Few films have literally caused me to sit on the edge of my seat, but a particular sequence left my stomach hurting afterwards due to the suspense and peril. The performances are all excellent, and each character is wonderfully developed without hogging the narrative. With such a large group of couples, it would be easy for the film to either feel bloated or to leave secondary characters out of the spotlight, but Farhadi wisely addresses each person's emotions and reactions with subtlety and balance. The film's atmosphere feels akin to drowning, a sort of heavy, weighty presence that pushes in your chest and catches your breath as you choke back the shock and tears. There are melodramatic and explosive scenes, but these don't feel like opportunities for actors to really show their chops; it's simply what the situation calls for, and the cast and script are wondrous partners in their affecting performance.

Farhadi's films are masterful examinations of the strengths, weaknesses, and emotional intricacies of marriage, featuring a common thematic thread of cultural clashes and the burden of social propriety. In A Separation, a husband and wife clash over whether or not to live abroad, and their familial responsibilities to their daughter and his father. In The Past, an Iranian man married-but-estranged to a French woman must head to France to sign the divorce papers, even while the woman is romantically involved with another man. In About Elly, there are three married couples, two single people, a divorce and an engagement between them all--all Iranian. (I would consider these films a thematic trilogy.) For each film, what is the right thing to do in an Iranian culture, where marriage and familial connections are viewed far differently than in our individualistic/consumeristic Western paradigm? It's not that Western values haven't affected the Middle East--sometimes the conversation topics between the friends feels like something directly from an indie American film--but the characters' actions and motivations when the situations become complex are distinctly non-Western, yet still understandable and relatable. The closest parallel I can find is that Farhadi is the Iranian Dardenne Brother, an extraordinary filmmaker who continually makes ethically and emotionally weighty films with simple-yet-profound stories. One distinction, though, is the Dardennes offer a bit more grace and catharsis in their films, while Farhadi leaves you in your devastation, with an ache in the gut and eyes filled with tears, in the best way possible. Tonally, the Dardennes tell the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), an unexpected story of compassion and grace. Farhadi tells the parable of the Shrewd Manager (Luke 16:1-13) or the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), layered and difficult stories featuring characters that don't do the right thing, but still offer us wisdom and truth to contemplate.

One scene lingers in my mind: a group of friends struggle to push a car stuck in the sand on the beach. The tires spin, the friends fall in the surf, the solemn looks on their faces of defeat and frustration. In contrast with this image of striving towards freedom is the view of the back of a woman quietly weeping, silent and alone, unable to help the friends in their struggle just as they feel unable (or unwilling) to help with hers. Her honesty--the truth--will set her free. But the truth only comes at a great cost, a willingness on her part to be vulnerable to the point of personal degradation, and the unknown acceptance of her companions.

I opened this review with two verses from the Gospel of John about the nature of truth, references which seem highly applicable to a film about the nature of truth and deceit in our intimate relationships. On the one hand, Christ makes a clear and salvific statement: the truth will set you free! Honesty, confession, authenticity, reality, encounter with the Divine--these are what bring freedom from guilt and oppression, an invitation into life. But Pilate's question is also a worthy one, particularly in our ever-confused and splintering world: what is truth? Your truth? My truth? How can one grasp hold of what is really real and truly true in a climate of hype, deceit, marketing, and shame? Both the statement and the question inform and affect the other in a sort of dialogue--the question posed by our culture, and the compassionate invitation Christ gives, all circling around the truth. About Elly dares to wrestle with our own fear and captivation with the truth, especially when that truth will cause pain in the lives of others. We have all been there. We have all been terrified that some dark deed or thought or comment will expose us, naked and ashamed in harsh light of the truth, Yet the truth will set us free, if we only let it. It just might be a painful and penetrating process to achieve such liberation.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Jesus, Forgive Me

June 27, 2015.

That's the day my 5-year-old son silently repeated the prayer I asked the high school students to pray.

He quietly listened, sprawled over two chairs in the back by the sound booth as Daddy, the camp speaker, shared about the brokenness of our sin and our need for a gracious and powerful savior. Sin isn't a popular concept to talk about, but it certainly has significant ramifications for our lives. I wanted to share good news, how we have hope in the midst of our brokenness due to God's immense love for us. Somehow the words sank into his little mind and heart, and the Spirit prompted him to pray.

"Jesus, forgive me."

That was it. A simple, three-word prayer. He didn't even tell me about it when it happened. I came and sat next to him after the talk was over, and he giggled and squirmed and made goofy faces at me. I put my arm around him and we sat there silently together. It was only the following day when, unprompted, he mentioned to Mom how Daddy had asked the people to pray, so he had prayed too.

"What did you pray?" she asked.

"Jesus, forgive me," he replied.

She asked if he knew what Jesus had done for humanity on the cross, how Jesus had risen from the dead.


Say what you will about the irrelevance of preaching in our culture. I can offer my own critiques. But those pale in comparison to this moment: My son listened and responded to God's voice.

I preached the Gospel. And he answered with repentance.

He knows that Jesus is God. (He also knows Jesus is also God's Son, which leaves him a bit perplexed. Paradoxes tend to do that, particularly for kindergartners.) He knows that Jesus forgives. He knows that Jesus saves, in every sense of that word. He knows that he, in his little 5-year-old way, needs forgiveness, and that God responds with love and mercy and grace when we turn to him. He essentially prayed a personalized version of the Jesus Prayer:

Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Sometimes we may have a tendency to cast doubt upon the faith of young children. "Well, did they really mean it? Did he/she truly understand what it means to follow Christ? Are they truly saved by the prayer they prayed?" I find these skeptical questions to be unhelpful, and betray a lack of confidence in both the God who saves, and the child who has responded to God's grace. Jesus makes it pretty clear: "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." I, for one, believe him.

I can learn a lot from my son's simple faith. His prayer is also my prayer. I still need forgiveness, still daily need to practice repentance, still need to experience God's grace through the process of sanctification.

Jesus, forgive me for my cynicism and doubt. Jesus, forgive me for my impatience and anxiety. Jesus, forgive me for the corners of my soul that still wallow in fleshly indulgences. Jesus, forgive me for the pain or harm I've caused others, knowingly or unknowingly. Jesus, forgive me.

God has had incredibly mercy on me, a sinner, for my son has listened and responded to the good news, and I am overwhelmed with joy.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Half-Year Favorites for 2015

The first six months of 2015 have come and gone, and they've certainly left an imprint on me. Both personal and pop culture experiences have been deeply emotional and memorable, and the past chapter might be one of the most significant seasons of my entire life. I'll write more about this transformative era, perhaps when I have more time to reflect upon the implications and themes.

In the midst of these affecting moments, the following films and albums have been the stories and soundtracks behind the scenes of my personal life, often adding their own flourishes and reverberations.


5. Something, Anything
A quiet, understated story of melancholy and spiritual searching that surprised me by its cathartic final moments. This story of loss and finding oneself was particularly meaningful for me during my season of recovering from burnout. Makes me want to read more Thomas Merton. (Essay coming soon for Christ and Pop Culture)

4. Inside Out
This now has the distinction of being the Pixar film that made me cry the most in the theater. Really, I ugly cried. Inside Out is back to what Pixar does best: telling simple-yet-profound stories in beautifully imaginative worlds. Joy is beautiful, but so is Sadness. #thefeels (Review coming soon)

3. World of Tomorrow
This 16-minute short film from animator Don Herztfeldt is full of more fascinating images and ideas than most full-length features. A sci-fi parable feature time travel, cloning, artificial intelligence, space travel, all revealed through the conversation between a little girl and her future self. Rent the movie here on Vimeo.

2. Mad Max: Fury Road
The best word to describe Mad Max: Fury Road is exceptional: uncommon, atypical, remarkable, freakish, outstanding, unique, special. Fury Road is a sort of "reversed exodus" story, the movement of a small band of liberated people who end up returning to their place of captivity in order to start afresh. It's also one of the top 10 action films I've ever seen, and even a significant, historic addition to the action pantheon. (My review.)

1. About Elly
The devastating film from Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi is actually from 2009, but was only released in the U.S. this spring. Like his later works, A Separation and The Past, About Elly offers both a universal and contextualized moral tale of incredible emotional weight. The story centers on a group of friends on a vacation excursion to the beach, where a single moment will cause their lives to wholly unravel. This is one of those films that leaves you with an ache in the gut and eyes filled with tears, in the best way possible. (Review coming soon).


5. Jamie xx - In Colour
An electronic dance album with far more going for it than four-on-the-floor bass drum beats and countless loops. Highly textured with synth, guitars, jazz drumming, and various vocalists, there's something on this album for everyone.

4. Josh Garrels - Home
Garrels follows up his excellent Love & War & The Sea In Between with Home, another fusion of reggae, folk, rap, and Garrels' unique vocalizations and spiritually-rich lyrics. Garrels' lyrics are a bit on-the-nose and explicitly Christian, which is a strength for these hymnic musical meditations.

3. Torres - Sprinter
Sprinter, the latest from 23-year-old Mackenzie Scott, feels like a manifesto for the millennial mantra of, "we like Jesus, but not the church." Intense and nuanced, Sprinter is a valuable album for spiritual seekers as she deconstructs her conservative Christian background, the ups and downs of one's spiritual journey perfectly paralleled in the songs' varying volumes and movement from quiet murmurs to angry outbursts.

2. Sleater-Kinney - No Cities to Love
This is classic, grungy grrl rock from Pacific Northwest veterans. Straightforward, loud, angry, and driving. The vocals and guitars are memorable, but it's Janet Weiss's frantic-yet-precise drumming that gets me every time. I listen to this when I'm angry for being stuck in Portland traffic.

1. Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell
The second half of the year will have to produce some incredible music to supplant this as my favorite album. An intimate, poetic reflection on childhood, familial ties, and the invisible bonds that draw us together, even when it's painful. Filled with Biblical allusions and striking confessions, it's the most personal and cathartic of Stevens' albums.

What movies and music from the past six months have been significant for you? Share in the comments!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

I Have No Non-Christian Friends, But I Need Them

After 25+ years of being a Christian, nine years of pastoral ministry in three different churches, and countless sermons, discussions, articles, and rants about the necessity of being in relationships and living out the good news of Jesus, I have made a sobering realization:

I have no non-Christian friends.

And that, frankly, sucks.

Oh, I've had plenty of acquaintances. Neighbors and folks in the community I would bump into, where I knew their name and they knew mine. Perhaps some high school students in schools, where I would volunteer once or twice a week. The barista or the video store manager or the parent at my kid's elementary school.

But friendship? A consistent, mutual bond of affection and affinity, something that goes beyond immediate proximity or a social media connection? I've woken up to the fact that I just don't have any.

I recall seeing a graph or chart created by pastor and author Dan Kimball, where he pointed out the following:

The longer you're a Christian, the less non-Christian friends you tend to have.

As a pastor in large evangelical churches, I have found that to be true to my experience. Much of my time throughout the week was spent focused on the programs and people of the church--preparing teaching lessons, setting up details for events, training volunteers, counseling and discipling teens, etc. This isn't necessarily bad or wrong, per se. But it does feel rather hypocritical for me to preach about sharing the good news of Jesus with the world when my own "world" was primarily people who, essentially, had already heard about Jesus.

I suppose it's my own fault, really. I was so caught up in the churchiness of church, that I missed out on the very people the church is meant to be for.

I was reading a book recently, and the author touched on this sentiment: Jesus's focus was quite different than the common evangelical pursuits:
[We] discourage people from building relationships with those who do not know the Lord. We've developed our own subculture within the larger culture.... In the evangelical church we focus on attending services, teaching Sunday school, becoming an elder or deacon, singing in the choir, getting involved in a small group, and exercising our spiritual gifts for the benefit of the body. Almost everything we do is focused on ourselves. And all of this is good. But God says, through the prophet Hosea, that this is not enough. What God wants more than anything else is that we show mercy to those who desperately need it.
As I look back on the past decade, I can see how the friendship decline happened. The nature of my job as a pastor entailed that my co-workers--often a primary context for Christians to rub shoulders with non-Christians--were all Christians; they were fellow pastors and church staff! I haven't had non-Christian co-workers since I worked in a pizza place in high school. I speak and teach in churches and Christian camps or colleges; I write for a primarily Christian audience; I went to a Catholic high school, and while everyone in the school certainly wasn't Christian, they were all very familiar with the Christian story. I was living primarily in the Christian subculture, and I didn't even realize it.

I did build some connections with my neighbors in each city I've lived--Portland, Mesa, and Langley--but with limited time in a location--five years (four different residences), five years (two residences), and two years (three residences), respectively--building long-term friendships with neighbors can be difficult. Just looking at my timeline now, I think, holy crap, I've moved a LOT. Nine different living spaces in the past twelve years. This transitory lifestyle makes long-term friendships difficult, unless those friendships have been established through means other than immediate proximity.

Which brings me to social media--I am nearing 1600 friends on Facebook, and am slowly building a network of folks I like to engage with on Twitter. But the vast majority of folks on both of these networks are also Christians, or at least have a history with the church and Jesus. They are people who attend the churches I've pastored, or fellow pastors and youth workers, or other graduates from the Catholic prep school. Sure, I'm following people like Hugh Jackman on Twitter--because, Hugh Jackman!--but it's not like we're on a first-name basis because of some social networking app. I have been able to have great conversations and build connections with non-Christians over our shared passion of film, so that's a good start, I suppose.

I hesitate to even write all this, as it inherently creates a dichotomy I'm uncomfortable with: the Christians and everyone else. This sort of us/them framing is one I don't tend to use in conversation, as it creates categories that are inherently polarizing and needless. Yet I can't help it with this subject. It legitimately pains me that I have no deep connections or conversations with those outside of the Christian subculture. I am grieving my own relational decisions and passivity that have led to this position. I wish to keep affinity with the church community, while also expanding my relational horizons, but am unsure even how to proceed. It feels like being in early adolescence as the new kid in school, awkward and hopeful for a friend, but very aware of one's faults and flaws and shortcomings. I'm a Christian doofus looking for someone to be my friend.

The thing is, I need non-Christians in my life. I desire friendships who view me first as a friend, not through the lens or label of pastor or believer. I want non-Christian friendships who challenge my paradigm and worldview, and remind me that not everyone thinks or acts exactly like me. I want to be and share good news in these friendships, but not to compromise or devalue the friendship as a means to an end, i.e. I became your friend so I could subversively slip you the Gospel. Gotcha! I need non-Christians in my life because they are human beings who need friends, and I am a human being who needs friends, so maybe, y'know, we can just be friends. I wouldn't call these great folks my "non-Christian friends." They'd just be my friends, just like the Christian friends I already have.

When Jesus was walking around his neighborhoods and community, he had plenty of non-Christian friends. (To be fair, Christianity wasn't even really a thing yet.) But Jesus was embedded in a Jewish culture, and lived as a faithful Jew. The religious leadership in his Jewish culture were often criticizing him for the friends he had, people who were the "outsiders" for the Jewish elite. The poor, the oppressed, the marginalized. Women and men, ordinary everyday people. Jews and Gentiles, the powerful and the weak. He seemed to befriend them all. I want to be like Jesus, and Jesus was friends with people outside of the religious institution of his era, so I want to do the same.

So, if you would not label yourself as a Christian, if you don't attend a church, if you're questioning the existence or nature of God, if you've embraced a faith and religion other than Christianity, then by all means: let's be friends. We need each other.

Photo Credit: Kristina Alexander (Creative Commons)

Monday, June 8, 2015

Let's Connect: Work With Me

I want to work with you.

I'm in a season of preparation, honing my gifts and learning much about myself and where God is leading our family. After nine years of pastoral ministry, I'm currently a full-time graduate student in seminary, moving towards a future goal of PhD studies and the creation of a new church community (more on that in a future post!).

In the meantime, I want to be a good steward of the gifts and experience I've been given. And I've gotta pay the bills and feed the kiddos. So, here's the blog post that describes what I do, the various ways we can work together. This is about as self-promote-y as I'll ever get, but it's because I genuinely believe in the work I do, and want to collaborate with others to do it. Let's connect. We'll create something awesome together.

Here's what I can do with and for you:

I write about theology, film, spirituality, youth ministry and leadership, or any variant and theme you can possibly imagine regarding those subjects. Articles, essays, teaching curriculum, film guides, and books are all on my writing resume. Contact me here about writing for your organization or publication.

Speaking and Preaching
I've spoken at camps and conferences, youth groups and church services. Middle school, high school college students, and adults--I've spoken for a variety of age groups. You can check out my speaking page for where I'll be sharing next. If you need someone to share about the good news of Jesus in fresh, authentic, and challenging ways, that's how I roll. Contact me here about speaking or preaching.

Training and Teaching (Webinars)
I've taught classes at college/university level, and numerous youth ministry training seminars for church leaders of all sorts. I can offer training seminars and webinars based on any of my books--film and youth culture; theology and sexuality; leadership and church dynamics, etc. My Leading Up webinar is a 30-60 minute online training resource for youth workers based on my book of the same name. These brief and engaging online video-call training sessions are great content for your volunteers, youth worker network, or classroom. Contact me here about training or teaching for you and your organization.

This is the newest addition to my toolbox--in addition to writing, I am also entering the editing world. If you have an essay or article, a full-length book manuscript, or something in between, ask me about editing your writing. I'm both grammatically ruthless and tonally gracious, and I'll bring out the best in your written voice. I'm also very affordable. Contact me here about editing your writing.

Before I ever was a pastor or author or speaker, I was a drummer. I haven't had the opportunity to play as much as I'd like over the years--too busy, and my cymbals were stolen in Arizona!--but my 1960s-era Ludwig kit is waiting to be played. If you need a drummer for your worship team, your one-time tavern gig, studio recording, or even an ongoing band, let's talk.

If you need something written, edited, shared, taught, preached, or drummed, let's connect. Contact me: jmayward (at)

If you know of any organizations, publications, friends, or connections who need any of the above, send 'em my way. I'd love to help and make new friends in the process. 

And please: share this post via your favorite social media networks. I'd love to connect with friends of friends (of friends) about ways we can work together!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Parable of the Backwards Bike

Check out this fascinating 8-minute video on riding a reversal bike and the incredible power/limits of the human brain:

Money quote: I had the knowledge, but I didn't have the understanding.

Consider this reversed bicycle a parable for Christian ministry and spirituality.

What are the practices and methods we've been using for so long, we can't imagine anything else?

What are the ruts in our individual and collective Christian minds?

What are the ways we need to rethink/relearn/represent the Gospel in our culture?

Where do we have knowledge, but if we're honest, we need to grow in understanding?

How does our pride affect our performance in ministry? Where are we acting like we can confidently ride the reverse bicycle, when we're really falling on our faces?

What disciplines do we need to incorporate into our personal lives and communities--like practicing reverse bike-riding daily for eight months--in order to see transformation in the long term?

What paradigms or habits would need to cease for us in order to start thinking and acting in new ways?

What other parallels and lessons can you find from this backwards bicycle parable?

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Top 10 Favorite Films of the Decade (2010s) So Far

The Twenty-Tens are nearly halfway over. Thus, it's (apparently) time to make a list of one's favorite films from the past half-decade, the exceptional movies from 2010-2015.

Movie list-making is one of those activities that has seemingly little purpose--hey world, here's an itemized examination of a bunch of stuff I like!--yet can also guide others into discovering or revisiting a filmic masterpiece or a new favorite.

For this list of my favorite films of the 2010s, I gave myself a few boundaries. First, this is a "favorites" list, not necessarily a "best of" list. Hence, it is deeply personal--these are the films I have both enjoyed and will continue to revisit in the years to come, regardless of critical merit (though, I believe, all the films listed would be found on similar film critic lists). I also attempted to list only one film per director. So, one Dardennes, one Malick, one Anderson, one Linklater, etc. I could have included multiples--how does one choose between The Kid with a Bike and Two Days, One Night; which is better, Before Midnight or Boyhood?--but ended up listing the film that personally resonated with me more. I also counted a film's year based not on IMDB or film festival runs, but on its release in New York city, aka the Mike D'Angelo Rule.

In creating this movie list, I noted something: 2011 was a remarkable year for film. I could make a solid Top 10 of the Decade list just from that year alone: Certified Copy, The Tree of Life, The Mill and the Cross, Take Shelter, Hugo, Pina, Drive, A Separation, Of Gods and Men, Incendies. There were also plenty of excellent films that almost made my top 20--Frances Ha, Ida, Inception, 12 Years a Slave, Toy Story 3Boyhood, and Two Days, One Night all rank very high in my estimation (some of these weren't included due to my "one film per director" rule.)

Finally, every list is personal, meaning there is a real-life human being--their hopes, dreams, stories, experiences, opinions, ideas, paradigm--behind the presented list. So I invite you to explore the films I've listed not only to experience some of the best films cinema offered us these past five years, but also to understand the Joel Mayward of the past five years. So, here are my top 10 favorite films of the decade so far:

1. The Tree of Life (2011, Terrence Malick). A poem and a prayer, both cosmic and intimate in scope, all centered on the marriage of nature and grace. The best film of the decade, and slowly becoming my personal favorite of all time.

2. The Kid with a Bike (2012, Jean-Luc and Pierre Dardenne). A parable of grace embodied in the simple narrative of a boy, his bike, and the adults who come in and out of his life.

3. Moonrise Kingdom (2012, Wes Anderson). Whimsical and wondrous, a nostalgic examination on romantic love and the lost innocence of childhood, set in the lush and quirky world of Wes Anderson.

4. Short Term 12 (2013, Destin Daniel Cretton). One of the best filmic portrayals of the emotional and wonderful world of youth ministry, all embodied in the broken-yet-beautiful person of Grace.

5. A Separation (2011, Asghar Farhadi). Relationships are complicated. Reconciliation is costly.

6. Upstream Color (2013, Shane Carruth). A mashup of Malick, Miyazaki, and memories. Also, pigs.

7. The Immigrant (2014, James Gray). This beautiful period piece examines the difficult trials of the sojourner in a new land, and the powerful price of forgiveness.

8. Of Gods and Men (2011, Xavier Beauvois). The most Christian film I've ever seen from this past decade shows the cost of discipleship and incarnational love. Haunting.

9. The Social Network (2010, David Fincher). The ultimate Facebook post, and still one of Fincher's finest. It also launched the careers of some of best young actors working today.

10. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, George Miller). A maddening and thrilling world of fire and blood, as well as a parable of personal trauma and the journey of redemption.

Honorable Mentions (Or, The Top 20, in alphabetical order):
  • The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2013)
  • Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, 2013)
  • Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011)
  • Gravity (2013, Alfonso Cuaron)
  • Her (2013, Spike Jonze)
  • The Lego Movie (2014, Phil Lord and Chris Miller)
  • Philomena (2013, Stephen Frears)
  • Selma (2014, Ava DuVernay)
  • Take Shelter (2011, Jeff Nichols)
  • This is Martin Bonner (2013, Chad Hartigan)
What were some of your favorite films of 2010-2015? Share your lists and links to films in the comments!

Sunday, May 24, 2015


When I was in fourth and fifth grade, I attended a private school for the gifted. "Gifted" meant "advanced intellectually," "academically mature," and "capable." Basically, it was supposed to be a school for the smart kids. Ironically, while I was intellectually and cognitively challenged by this educational environment, it also left me a bit socially stunted for the moment I entered the public middle school in sixth grade. It also tacitly fostered a subtle elitism in me, a sort of "know it all" aloofness that I've been trying to heal from ever since.

I brought up this "school for the gifted" story at a dinner conversation recently, and it ended up fostering laughs and ridicule, a derision seemingly stemming from a distaste for the word "gifted" in describing children. I admit, I find the phrase a bit strange. But I also think it's incredibly value to recognize gifts in young people, to encourage those individuals and foster those gifts for the good of our world, to inspire those who will inspire, to be advocates for the dreamers and creatives and artists and lifelong learners.

I bring this all up because Brad Bird's latest film, Tomorrowland, attempts to do the same thing--recognize and appreciate the special dreamers in our world. The titular environment is a special place for those special dreamers, a world meant to foster imagination and wonder. Much like the results of my experience in a school for the gifted, the notable ambitions behind Tomorrowland lead to disheartening and muddled results, marking the first time in history that Brad Bird has been behind the creation of a mediocre film. Tomorrowland reeks of elitism while also never achieving the same exceptionality it promotes.

The film opens on the cantankerous-but-charming Frank (George Clooney) and optimistic teenager Casey (Britt Robertson) as they tell us the story of Tomorrowland. As a young boy, Frank met Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a bright and capable young British girl who advocates for Frank's entrance into Tomorrowland, an alternate dimension where the best and the brightest of our world are recuited in order to experiment and tinker with freedom from bureaucracy and interference. Tomorrowland is the utopia for creative and intellectual types. Despite its confusing name, it's not the future, per se--it is another world separate from ours, a sort of cosmic realm of technological wonder.

Well, there's supposed to be wonder. Tomorrowland suffers from a serious lack of joy, awe, and fun. Some of the overly long scenes showing the sights of Tomorrowland clearly are intended to make us feel a sense of transcendence, but the world of Tomorrowland looks like a fancy mall. Clooney's Frank is perpetually sarcastic and grumpy, bitter at being exiled from Tomorrowland for creating something he shouldn't have. Casey is characterized as extra special, the hope of both Tomorrowland and Earth, but the film does nothing to explain or show her specialness apart from her ability to "know how things work." She does spend the early parts of her story lying to her father, effectively sabotaging NASA equipment, getting arrested, and blowing up buildings or stealing cars with Athena. But she does it with a positive spirit!

Tomorrowland is the tonal and narrative mashup of the National Treasure films--hey, let's travel to various locations and try to figure out elaborate clues behind this mystery!--Alex Proyas' sci-fi film Knowing--the world is going to end soon, and we need special children to save us--and an Old Navy commercial--think lots of fake smiles and bright colored nostalgic-yet-trendy clothes (this is Disney, after all). There are so many plots holes and confusing narrative elements that I am still unsure if the purpose of Tomorrowland is to *save* the earth or to ultimately *destroy* it. The recruitment of all the special individuals on Earth to another dimension feels a bit like escapism at best and manipulative kidnapping at worst (What happened to Frank's family on Earth? Who raised him in Tomorrowland?). What is very clear is the heavy-handed message of Tomorrowland, an idea made so overt and clear to draw comparisons to the didactic tone of faith-based films. Essentially, this is a secular evangelistic piece, a preachy sermon with a film built around it. The message: be more positive and give special privilege to the dreamers. If we don't, we're all doomed. So cheer up! Be more optimistic! Together, we can make the world a better place...or at least the gifted individuals can for us, if we give them enough money and get off their backs! *pats self on the back* Now, I'm all for optimism, positivity, creativity, and ideals--I'm probably too idealistic most days. But Tomorrowland espouses that the savior of our broken world is the power of positive thinking and the unreserved support of gifted individuals. We are both idealistic and optimistic; we just have differing views on the true Savior of this earth.

Tomorrowland is deeply confused about its intended audience, but I can make this claim with confidence: it is not a movie for kids. Despite being a PG-rated Disney film based on a section of the happiest place on earth, the film is surprisingly dark in tone and has a significant amount of violence. While much of the violence is between robots, they nonetheless look human, and far too much time is spent on their hand-to-hand combat. Robots also vaporize innocent police officers, try to kill Frank and Casey multiple times, and the final climactic scene involves the villain being crushed by his own technology. Spoiler: A particularly disturbing scene happens when Athena is suddenly hit by an oncoming truck and dragged many yards down the road. She isn't killed, of course--Athena is a robot--but this is still a scene involving a young girl being graphically hit by a vehicle. If my kindergartner son saw this, he'd immediately want to leave the theater.

There are a few positive aspects I should note. Cassidy as Athena is the highlight of the film, and she is far more charming than Clooney or Robertson in every scene she shares with them. Some of the visuals are interesting, if one is impressed by CGI cityscapes and the quick edits between earth and Tomorrowland. I liked the scene in Frank's farm house, as it was likely filmed in British Columbia about a mile from where I used to live, eliciting a nostalgic feeling for me. A brief scene in a sci-fi nostalgia shop is lots of fun due to the huge amount of classic sci-fi paraphernalia in the tiny store--I do love me some sci-fi!

Overall, in spite of its attempts to be special and positive, this is a disappointing and forgettable film. A thematic parallel is Martin Scorcese's Hugo, a far better film featuring an inventive and creative young protagonist who attempts to make the world a better place by fostering more creativity and wonder. Hugo's visuals and narrative elicited the childlike joy and delight that is missing from Tomorrowland. Were I a parent deciding whether to take my children to see a film this weekend, I would encourage them to seek out Hugo, or Brad Bird's previous masterpieces, The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, or Ratatouille. Those are special films made by a gifted person, and I'll wait with optimism for a well-crafted film made by that filmmaker. Mr. Brad Bird, I have hope.