Friday, April 24, 2015

Movie Review: It Follows

The opening scene from It Follows sets its tone of invisible dread and intriguing visuals. The stationary camera pans in a slow 360-degree spin as unsettling events unfold in the middle of a suburban Detroit neighborhood. A teenage girl flees into the street, a look of terror on her face. She runs in a circle, ignoring the questions from her perplexed neighbor, then dodges her concerned father and heads back into her house, only to emerge again a moment later and drive away in her car to the edge of a lake. As she sits by the water, she calls her dad and gives a final farewell, then awaits her fate. What fate? We're unsure. We never see her invisible pursuer, but we are privy to the aftermath of their encounter--a violent, gruesome, lonely death. We get all we need to know about the film from this opening scene--impressive visual artistry, a notably frightening score, an unseen and formidable monster, a teenage protagonist, and the dark nights of a deteriorating Michigan.

It Follows transitions to Jay (Maika Monroe, in a phenomenal performance), a young woman enjoying the slow pace of suburban summer life. She has a new boyfriend, Hugh, and they're having enough fun together and share a strong enough mutual attraction to finally lead to sex. After their encounter, she lies on her stomach in the backseat of his classic car, letting her hand drift over the flowers and weeds in the abandoned Detroit lot, talking aloud about nothing in particular, relaxed and sentimental. This peaceful life is destroyed in a moment when Hugh drugs her, ties her to a wheelchair, brings her to an abandoned building, then shows her something he has passed on to her through their copulation--a specter, a phantom, slowly walking straight for her a steady pace, invisible to everyone else, but nevertheless real and dangerous. It won't stop its pursuit until she passes it on to someone else through sex, or it has killed her. Her peaceful adolescent reality and innocence is gone, replaced with the constant dread of an impending danger. Where did it come from? Why is it following her? How can she stop it? There are no clear answers here--there is only the monster, and it will not stop.

What I appreciate about It Follows and filmmaker David Robert Mitchell's previous film, The Myth of the American Sleepover, is its portrayal of teenagers and youth culture in America. The adults and authorities don't seem to be fully present in the film, and that's certainly intentional. The actions in the final climactic scene with the monster seemingly should prompt an adult response, but they just...don't. Or at least not a response one we're made privy to, mostly because it doesn't matter: this is a teen's narrative. Jay's mother is never full seen--her face is always just out of focus or off camera. The young protagonists adequately fend for themselves, and while some might wonder "where are the adults in this?" I think the events of the film play out in a realistic manner, as much as invisible STD zombies could be considered "realistic." (Yes, I'm calling it the STD zombie.) Each scene makes sense and is necessary for the plot to move forward, and each action and reaction from the characters is a natural outcome from the situation.

I think Mitchell's films capture the systemic abandonment of youth by adults in our culture. Much like the abandoned and tottering Detroit homes, the era of the 1950s suburban nuclear family is crumbling and antiquated. Teenagers are not only left to their own devices by parents, but they prefer it that way--it is the new normal. Adults, both in It Follows and real life, are often seen as incompetent and unable to help (at best) or an uncaring or dangerous power (at worst). As a youth pastor, I've been allowed to see glimpses of this underground youth culture, this world of teenagers when adults are not around, their conversations and actions, their dreams and fears. These are teenagers who deal with and fight against very real and adult subjects, sexuality in particular. Maika Monroe as Jay does a fantastic job of being both adult and childlike, responsible and immature. Sometimes she curls up in tears due to the horrors of her situation; other times, she faces the dread with an emotional-but-grounded confidence. The other teen actors do likewise. Mitchell has somehow tapped into the underground youth world in his films in a unique and realistic way, and I can't wait to see what he makes next.

It Follows offers more than just a sex-equals-death trope in the vein of past horror films. The sexuality of It Follows is more holistic, a sex that transcends the hookup culture's paradigm that "it's all just biology." The act of sex connects and unites two people in more ways than just physical interaction or the sharing of fluids--it intertwines their stories and fates, leaving lasting impressions and a deep connection, what evangelical pastor Matt Chandler recently called the "mingling of souls" in his recent book. While the sexuality portrayed in It Follows doesn't necessarily hold to a Christian worldview, it does suggest that sex involves more than bodies. Sex is also not without bodies, a sort of Gnostic spiritualization of sex that considers purity or holiness as being separated from our flesh. Bodies and souls, fears and dreams, are brought together in the two-become-one act of sex.

While the clear allegory lies in its connection between sexuality and consequence, the themes and ideas of It Follows move beyond moral messages about the dangers of sex and into the lingering wounds of the past. It Follows is wholly nostalgic. The decaying neighborhoods and abandoned buildings of Detroit, the 80s-era TVs and cars, the pulsing soundtrack--its all reminiscent of a bygone era, a relic from the past. Jay is haunted not only by the specter, but by the loss of a father. He is only present in Jay's family through faded pictures, and though we are unsure of the circumstances behind his absence, the pain quietly persists. We can run from this pain for a season, but it always reveals itself again, sometimes in unexpected ways. Beyond the pain of our past, the slow-moving phantom also represents our own mortality. Death is coming for each of us, and though it lingers, it will eventually catch us all. How we choose to face our own death--whether with fear and trembling, naive denial, or a quiet confidence--reveals our character and the foundation of our hope.

The "it" of It Follows is, at once, the consequences from our sexual actions, the lingering wounds of our past, and the impending certainty of death. Mitchell has crafted a new horror classic, one which takes a simple idea and builds upon it with remarkable craftsmanship and ambition. Its original ideas and haunting images remain in your mind, trailing you at a persistent pace, unable to leave you alone as you contemplate what follows.

Caution: It Follows contains scenes of sexuality, violence, and disturbing images. While the sex scenes aren't graphic, the phantom manifests itself a few times in full-frontal nudity. This is not an erotic film, but sexuality is one of its main themes. Use caution and discernment when choosing to view any film.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Golden Rule for Movies

Just because a film is quiet and contemplative, that doesn't mean it's "pretentious" or "snobby."

Just because a film explores new ideas and deep human emotions, that doesn't mean it's "dangerous" or "overly dramatic."

Just because a film is romantic, soft-hearted, and affecting, that doesn't mean it's "mushy" or "just for girls."

Just because a film is light-hearted, fun, and innocent, that doesn't mean it's "childish."

Just because a film is from another country, that doesn't mean it's "weird" or "unimportant."

Just because a film is old and gray and from a different era, that doesn't mean it's "boring."

Just because a film presents ideas you disagree with, that doesn't mean it's "sinful" or "wrong."

Now, replace the word "film" in the above statements with "person." The same rules apply.

Do unto movies--and people--what you you would have them do unto you.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

4 Problems with the Funnel of Youth Ministry

Photo Credit: C X 2 (Creative Commons)
The funnel of youth ministry is dead.

If you're a youth worker, you've probably seen or heard of this funnel diagram. I've used it before in training volunteers, and heard many use it as the model for describing their philosophy of youth ministry.

This funnel is the primary metaphor and model for how evangelical youth workers commonly do ministry in North America. I'll make a bold statement here: I believe the model is inherently flawed, and does more harm than good to our views and practices of Christian spirituality.

The funnel begins with the pool of humanity, which includes any teenager within range of our church. It's wide at the top for the come teens, who we invite to our big, fun events and programs. They're just in it for the fun and friendships, and maybe someone they have a crush on. But if we can convince them to stick around, the funnel narrows a bit for the grow teens who will attend our main youth group-style program, which has a bit more "spiritual" stuff like worship songs and a teaching lesson. The funnel further narrows for the disciple teens, who are going to be mentored by adult leaders in small groups, then moves into the level of student leaders who develop others. The funnel finally ends with the multiply kids who, having reached teenage spiritual maturity, will now practice that maturity by inviting their unsaved friends to the "come" events. Variations of the funnel exist, using different terms for students and programs, but all have a linear-driven narrowing effect--students move from one spiritual level/program to the next, with each level getting smaller in attendance numbers.

Here are four problems I see in the youth ministry funnel:

1. The funnel assumes spiritual growth is linear. While I can appreciate ministry leaders and practitioners who have given quality arguments for the value of such a strategic approach to ministry programming, I also believe real life just doesn't work like this. I've rarely seen a teenager (or anyone!) actually follow such a linear model in their relationship with Jesus. I've experienced long-term Christians complain about discipleship or student leader programs because they aren't as fun as the "come" events, and I've seen non- or new-Christian teens excited about serving on a missions trip, which falls in the "develop" or "multiply" level. Human beings and spiritual formation are more complex than linear systems. There are no absolute formulas for spiritual growth. My own spiritual journey has had ups and downs, back and forth, darkness and light, joy and pain. There are students who may not fit within our linear model who are genuinely wrestling with living by faith. I think a linear model of spirituality stems from more Western Enlightenment-influenced thinking than it does the person and ways of Jesus.

2. Discipleship and evangelism are separated. A student isn't considered worthy of discipleship until halfway through the funnel. Similarly, evangelism is only meant for the spiritual elite, when the teens are called to "multiply" by inviting their unsaved friends to Christian events. This model for evangelism also places less emphasis on truly knowing and living out the gospel in everyday life; it's more about figuring out how to get students to come to the church event so the pastor or youth worker can share the gospel message. When we create an evangelism-discipleship dichotomy, it promotes the false notion that discipleship is only for super-Christians. Yet we don't see this in Scripture; evangelism and discipleship are intertwined in the Great Commission: "go and make disciples."

3. The measure of success is programmatic involvement. Ministry success becomes less about actual spiritual growth and development, and more about giving clear metrics for the youth worker in order to defend their significance and value. "Hey, look, I moved more kids through the funnel, so they must be spiritually growing. I am clearly doing a good job!" If more students attended your "come" event this year than last year, you must be doing something right...right? But what if the students are just good at moving through funnels, the systems adults put in place to maintain a sense of control and have a linear metric of success? That's exactly what students do with our current education system--we funnel them through, they pass the tests we give them (the standardized one-size-fits-all tests, instead of practical application or personalized assessment), and we tell ourselves that students are prepared when they graduate from high school.

4. Spirituality is divided from fun. I've written before about the fun-spiritual dichotomy. The funnel model of youth ministry promotes this separation of personal enjoyment and spiritual maturity. The wider the funnel, the more fun it is. As the funnel narrows, the fun dissipates and becomes serious spiritual growth. When we equate "spirituality" with "serious" or "boring" or "elite," teens will likely lack a desire to pursue Jesus further. If it becomes increasingly less enjoyable or meaningful the further I grow, why bother? The thing is, living fully for Jesus *is* fun, though maybe not in the sense of being constantly entertained. It's meaningful, joyful, enriching, and full of authentic friendships and purpose and direction.

I'm not the only one declaring the funnel dead. But the more I've thought about this and seen the funnel used in various youth ministry contexts, the more I doubt its effectiveness. I'm all for having strategic approaches to youth ministry and using metaphors to communicate our ideas. I'm also not saying that those who continue to use the funnel are necessarily deceived or poor youth workers--I'm just saying that I disagree with the premise, and think we can do better.

Spirituality as a funnel is a bad metaphor. A funnel is inherently static and linear and inert. Taken literally, it's akin to a toilet. Do we want to promote a downward spiral of spiritual growth as our model of ministry?

A better metaphor for spiritual growth is a garden. The metaphors used in Scripture are dynamic, agricultural, and living:

A seed sown in good soil

Planting, watering, tilling, and reaping

Bearing good fruit

Abiding in the vine

The movement and changing of the seasons.

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed

Gardening requires creating healthy and safe environments for spirituality to flourish. Success is not measured by program attendance, but by spiritual fruit and character transformation. Patience and grace are required, because no formulas or linear methods will work here, and it requires time and a bit of the miraculous to see any growth. Most importantly, we don't make people grow--God does. We simply foster healthy environments and pray that the Lord of the harvest would do his thing.

Where I live, spring is slowly arriving with buds and flowers on the trees, sunshine breaking through the grey clouds of winter, and the chirping of birds in the trees. It feels like the whole world is experiencing resurrection. This is life, and I want to foster a living spirituality.

So let's kill the funnel. It was dead to begin with. Let's plant seeds, till soil, get our hands dirty, and pray for a fruitful harvest.

Youth workers: what do you think? Agree? Disagree?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Authenticity Spectrum

The language of "authenticity" has become ubiquitous in evangelical church circles. To be authentic is to be Christian. I almost included it as #9 on the list of 8 cliche youth ministry phrases, but this word goes beyond youth ministry into the larger church culture. More than just a common church term, it's a key value to the millennial generation, almost more than any other word or phrase:

Be real.

Be true to yourself.

Be genuine.

This is just who I am, take it or leave it.

If you're going to be anything in this world, be authentic.

Here's the thing: there is no Biblical command for authenticity. There *is* language in Scripture about living in the truth, speaking the truth in love, confessing one's sins, and bearing one another's burdens. There is the language of sincerity, most directly in the phrase, "love must be sincere" (Romans 12:9). But I can't find an explicit command in Scripture for "being real" or "be authentic." Looking at various translations, the word doesn't even appear once in the Bible in the NIV, ESV, NASB, or NLT. It does show up three times in The Message, most notably in Philippians 4:8, which replaces the word "pure" as "authentic" in the paraphrase.

I've noticed authenticity can become an excuse for being broken and sinful. This is using authenticity as a crutch, citing the reasoning of "I'm just being real" for unhealthy behavior. There is little sense of a repentant heart or having healthy boundaries with one's emotions. This sort of authenticity can cause all sorts of problems, because while God does call us to live in the truth, there is also a place for healthy boundaries, emotional self-awareness, and recognizing when a relationship or a community is safe to express one's authentic self. There's also a danger in over-sharing, placing our reputations and our hearts into the hands of strangers, who may use or abuse use due our lack of social boundaries.

I wonder if it's a generational thing. I've seen this in an approach to social media, where many of the baby boomers I know just don't get why their millennial children are sharing pictures of their dinner or embarrassing self portraits on the Internet. The older generation--or those older in spirit-- talk about not wanting to "air their dirty laundry" with others. They are guarded about their own struggles and doubts and failures, highly aware of social propriety and not wanting to make a fuss. Yet I wonder if they also quietly struggle with deep shame and brokenness, which often spills out into everyday life in (noticeable) poor habits or fears.

A lack of authenticity negates relational trust. You can't trust someone who won't be vulnerable with you; and you won't be vulnerable with someone you can't trust.

On the other hand, millennials and the younger generation (moniker TBD) seem eager and ready to share everything they can with everyone, ugliness and all. Their meals, their relational mishaps, their mistakes, their triumphs, their opinions--it's all recorded and shared via social media. They're confused when the employer doesn't hire them due to the Facebook profile pictures, or when someone is genuinely concerned or offended when they seem to be making unhealthy life choices. "I'm just being myself. You can't judge me," they say. Yet there is wisdom in having boundaries and recognizing when I've over-shared. I've had people emotionally vomit on me--or on the Internet--with their problems and issues that should have been handled in a more private setting.

Too much authenticity also negates relational trust. It rushes a relationship far past its present capacity, and it creates an anxiety about whether or not the overly-authentic person will over-share or over-step their relational boundaries.

I'm learning there's an authenticity spectrum. It's marked by two contrasting postures, held in tension by their approach to public genuineness:

On one end of the spectrum is being vulnerable. This is an open posture, where a person can be honest about brokenness and joy with sincerity of heart. It's being real, especially about one's failures and struggles and shame. It's bringing oneself out of the darkness into the light.

On the other end of the spectrum is being guarded. This is a reserved posture, having healthy boundaries where one has a clear sense of who they can trust with their heart. It's being cautious and discerning, guarding one's heart with wisdom and choosing relationships that are marked by sincerity and grace.

Vulnerability and guardedness aren't necessarily opposites, but I do think they create a natural tension. It's rather difficult to be vulnerable and guarded in the same moment. Yet both are necessary to foster trust in relationships, and doing too much of one or the other can break that trust. So what does healthy, holistic authenticity look like? Can we be both guarded and vulnerable, both open and closed?

The perfect model for authenticity is Jesus (of course). He was his true self everywhere he went, uncaring about social propriety or what others would say, while still very culturally aware. He was remarkably approachable. He was vulnerable and honest, open about his pains and doubts in Gethsemane while also clear about his mission and declaration of the good news of the kingdom. While vulnerable, he was also guarded, taking time to be secluded and alone, not driven by the crowds' needs or desires, but able to stay focused on his mission at hand while finding all worth through abiding in the Father. When I look to Jesus and abide in him, I can learn to be my fullest, truest self in every part of my life, living in freedom from shame or social anxiety.

Perhaps this is the secret to Christ-like authenticity--a constant abiding in God and a life motivated by mission. When I can find my whole worth and vocation outside of myself, recognizing identity as a gift to receive (rather than a persona I must form and create ex nihilo), I am free to be vulnerable, wise to be guarded, and healthy in practicing authenticity.

Where do you find yourself on the authenticity spectrum? Why are you drawn towards one side or the other?

Monday, April 13, 2015

Movie Review: The Babadook

I have a love/hate relationship with the horror genre. I've argued for a theology of horror films, recognizing spiritual themes and beautiful truths within the horrific images and narratives of these movies. However, I have a confession to make: horror movies scare me. Like, keep-a-pillow-nearby-to-cover-my-eyes scared. Yeah, I know: that's the whole point. A non-scary horror film isn't really fulfilling what it intended to accomplish. To confront the things that scare us, to open ourselves up to the fear and enter into it, wading into the terror and anxiety until we pass through the other side into the realm of confidence and courage--that's something the horror genre has the power to do to its audience. Scripture states that perfect love drives out fear. This statement only recognizes fear's existence and dominion, as it requires an active purging of the fear through the power of love. To drive out pain and death, one must be able to look fear in the face and walk straight into the valley of death, for love is present.

Such is the story of The Babadook, an Australian horror film about fear, grief, longing, and love. The film opens in the midst of a nightmare inside the mind of Amelia (Essie Davis), a subconscious recall of a past tragedy. On the drive to the hospital for the birth of their son, a car accident left Amelia to care for their new son without a husband. Her relationship with her boy Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is tainted with grief and guilt from the moment of his emergence into the world. Every time Amelia looks at her son, she is inevitably reminded of the loss of her husband.

Samuel is a high maintenance child. He requires checking every nook and cranny of the house before bed to expose the hidden monsters. There's the nightly routine of reading strange storybooks or watching amateur magic performances, or the moment Amelia is called into the principal's office after homemade weapons are found in his locker. He is pale and screechy, overly sensitive and a bit socially odd. Few people seem to truly understand and enjoy Samuel, including his mother, which only increases her feelings of shame. Any parent of a young child can empathize with the exhausted look on Amelia's face. The sleepless nights due to depression and his constant neediness are certainly getting to her, grinding her down to the shell of a person.

Samuel's fear of monsters is made manifest with the discovery of a macabre children's pop-up book on their bookshelf. Mr. Babadook, the titular character, is a shadowy figure of unknown origin, but his agenda is clear--once he's entered your life, you can't get rid of the Babadook. Disturbing images in the book make Amelia try to ignore it or destroy it, but the book strangely keeps coming back, popping up in their life with the alarming interruption like an unexpected knock at the door in the late hours of the night. Accompanying the book is a menacing presence, leaving Amelia questioning her own sanity and Samuel wondering if the monster has his mother in its grasp. As Amelia's lack of sleep, unsettled grief, and Samuel's neediness continue to escalate, the monster's influence becomes pervasive, threatening to destroy all within the house.

Filmmaker Jennifer Kent uses atmosphere, sound, design, excellent cinematography, and an affecting story to create one of the most compelling horror films I've experienced. There isn't much gore or violence, just a linger sense of dread and an unsettled feeling about the unknown nature of the Babadook. The design for the Babadook creature is like a German expressionism vision of Jack the Ripper, certainly a nod to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Kent builds the horror around the relationship between a mother and her child, an image we can certainly empathize with as an audience, and which makes the danger so much more palatable. These aren't foolish teenagers wandering into a cabin in the woods, or a celebration of gore and violence at the hands of a sadistic killer. It's an examination of parenthood, familial love, and the brokenness we experience despite our best efforts. Single parents or those who have experienced depression might even find comfort in The Babadook's narrative.

What makes The Babadook so effective is that the monster is a perfect personification of fear. It cannot be categorized as a subconscious projection from Amelia's grief, as if the horrors were only imagined in her shattered mind. Neither is it a wholly independent entity. It is both, paradoxically autonomous from Amelia while intricately intertwined with her being, particularly her grieving heart. This is fear--it dwells within us and around us, seeming to have a life of its own, irrational yet effectively powerful. How does one overcome fears, especially the emotional ones brought on by past griefs and tragedy? The Babadook suggests that we may never fully vanquish our fears, but that we can control them, staring them in the face and removing them of their power. Only when our fear and shame is brought into the light can grace prevail and freedom be realized.

The film landed at #7 in the Arts and Faith Ecumenical Jury Top 10 Films of 2014. The horror genre is done best when it personifies and examines our real-life struggles and fears, forcing us to confront that which we would rather avoid. Those fears may not leave us alone, but with time we can manage the anxious terrors hidden in the dark corners of our soul.

The Babadook begins streaming on Netflix (US) tomorrow, April 14.

Monday, April 6, 2015

On Death and Resurrection

Portland Sunrise (Photo Credit: urbanplanningdave; Creative Commons)
I am dying.

Don't worry. Not in an immediate, urgent, physical, oh-my-gosh-how-long-do-you-have sort of way (as far as I know).

No, this is a journey into the valley of the shadow of death, where every former part of my life is laid out on the table to be considered and deconstructed. My dreams. My goals. My fears. My beliefs. My identity.

They've all gotta die.

I think I have done this before. Back when I was six years old, I said a prayer acknowledging that Jesus had died for my sins and risen from the dead, that he was Savior and Lord. I believed then, and I believe now. Scripture says I died then, that the former life was gone (all six years of it) and my new life was wrapped up into the person of Christ. I've had to die to my false self in my teen and college years, had to die to my pride and independence when I was married, had to die to my sense of time and energy when I had children, had to die to my own power through a life of pastoral ministry. There is even a daily death, a repentance when the old life tries to subvert the new one and I once again have to wrestle with dueling identities who struggle for my heart.

But this is a new death. Everything is on the table, spread wide and viewed in harsh and exposing light. My pastoral vocation. My heart for the local church. Even my belief in God. I have to be willing to allow these to die. My concepts of these things are in the midst of deconstruction, a spiritual wrecking ball flying through my soul and leaving gaping holes that need to be restored.

I knew I couldn't enter into this death alone. The journey into deconstruction happens best within community. I have been blessed with friends and mentors, new and old, who have listened and prayed and asked questions and given encouragement and reminded me of truth. I have read books and listened to music and watched films--an artistic community of sorts, empathy machines within which I am understood and understand others. I've communed with the Creator, wrestling like Jacob in the wilderness, demanding a name be given, a promise be fulfilled.

Recently, I had a conversation with a local seminary professor. I heard he had been through burnout before, and I wanted to glean any wisdom I could from his experience. While he patiently listened to my story, these words tumbled out of my mouth unexpectedly: “I guess why I’m here is…I need a picture of hope. I need to know that there’s life beyond this.” My sudden tears confessed how raw I still was.

He quietly nodded. “You need to know, Joel: there is hope. But it will require death—the death of your pride, the death of your plans. It will even require the death of your current concept of Jesus. But there is resurrection, so there is hope! And the new, resurrected you will be more whole and more real. Jesus is not done with you yet.”

The death of my concept of Jesus? I initially feared and wondered at what he meant. But the more I've prayed and explored, the more I've realized that my former concepts of Jesus were still lacking, that there was more grace to experienced, more love and joy and peace to behold. Jesus is not a concept or an abstract truth; he is a person, and a person contains infinitely more mystery and glory. I am learning to love this person with greater depths than I thought possible, to experience him in new ways as lover and savior and sufferer and friend. It was only through the willingness to give up my own concepts of life that I could discover his resurrection power once again.

We celebrated the death and resurrection of Christ this past Easter weekend. This was the commemoration of the day sin was conquered and a new age was inaugurated, when the king showed his true colors shining through the glory, like a sunrise breaks through the darkened grey clouds of the dawn, giving light and life to the creation below. When all hope was seemingly lost, when love and grace were placed into the grave, when death seemed to swallow up life, resurrection said otherwise and changed the trajectory of the story. To quote the sermon series from our current church: death is not the end.

In the midst of these days of personal deconstruction and death, Jesus is present to resurrect. New vocation, new identity, new belief, a new heart for God's people and the call to be a shepherd. Death is not the end.

If anyone is in Christ...NEW CREATION! The old has gone, the new is here. (2 Cor 5:17)

Sunday, April 5, 2015

5 Great Resurrection Films

We celebrate the resurrection of Christ at Easter, the greatest moment in history, where death was defeated and the kingdom of God broke into our world. The motif of resurrection has played a prominent role in so many of our beloved narratives, from classic Greek tales and epics to the current comic book and superhero blockbusters.

Consider this a list of unconventional Easter films.

I've not included Jesus films for this particular list. Nor am I considering zombie or vampire films as depictions of resurrection (those are more like "depraved resuscitation"). Neither am I including the fairy tales of Disney's princess films, where true love's kiss awakens the slumbering heroine, like Sleeping Beauty or Snow White. I'm also not counting reincarnation or rebirth as resurrection, so films like 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Fountain, which feature a death and rebirth of a character, aren't listed. Finally, I'm not including films about redemption, i.e.stories with spiritual or metaphysical death-and-resurrection arc, where characters undergo a remarkable personal transformation or experience a "comeback" in their career or relationships.

Instead, these are films where resurrection--a literal death and a physical resurrection--play key roles within the plot. As resurrection is often the climactic moment of the film, there is a spoiler alert for this list. Including a film here implies that resurrection happens and death is not the end.

Here they are, in chronological order: 5 great resurrection films for resurrection Sunday.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, Robert Wise)

When the alien Klaatu arrives and tells the people of Earth they need to act peaceably, they (of course) shoot him. Twice. The second time is more effective, and Klaatu (aka "Mr. Carpenter") is killed. He is resurrected by his robot protector, Gort, and leaves the earth with an exhortation that they embrace peace rather than violence. An all-powerful outsider coming to earth to bring a message of peace and love, only to be betrayed and killed by humans, then subsequently resurrected? Sounds like a potential Christ figure to me.

Ordet (1955, Carl Theodor Dreyer)

Dreyer made masterful filmic parables, and Ordet is one of his finest films. An elderly father with a fundamentalist Christian belief has three sons. One is an agnostic; one is in love; and one is possibly insane due to reading too much Kierkegaard, thus believing himself to be Jesus. The wife of the faithless son is pregnant, but becomes ill and dies, leaving the family in deep sorrow and grief. In the midst of the funeral service, the crazy brother shows up and declares that the woman will rise again, if only they would have faith. In a miraculous and affecting scene, the woman stirs and comes back to life, to the praise of everyone. Her death and resurrection have a profound affect on all the relationships within the family, transforming everyone who witnesses the event.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982, Nicolas Meyer) and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984, Leonard Nimoy)

Yes, I know these are *two* films. Both of these films need to be included to encompass the theme of resurrection. The final moments in Wrath of Khan end in the death of Spock, the stoic and capable Vulcan portrayed by the late Leonard Nimoy. I've read that Nimoy wanted to resurrect the character so much he ended up in the director's chair for Search for Spock, which centers on the Enterprise team attempting to reunite Spock's spirit with his body. It's interesting to note the dichotomy between soul and body, and how the resulting resurrection of Spock can only occur when the two are affixed. Wrath of Khan is arguably the best Star Trek film made yet, and Search for Spock is a capable companion to its predecessor.

The Iron Giant (1999, Brad Bird)

A giant alien robot befriends a boy in rural Maine during the Cold War era. The iron giant has weaponized capabilities, but he doesn’t want to use his powers for hurting others any more. When the American military decides the iron giant is a threat, they end up firing a nuclear missile to destroy him, but mistakenly target their own location in an act of self-destruction. The giant chooses to forgo his weapons and flies directly into the oncoming bomb, sacrificing himself for the very people who just tried to destroy him. In the final scene, the iron giant’s various parts begin to gather as the giant is resurrected. The Iron Giant remains one of my favorite films, and perhaps one of the better on-screen Christ allegories.

The Tree of Life (2011, Terrence Malick)

The Tree of Life is an epic spiritual mediation on the nature of God, the cosmos, and our tiny-but-significant part to play in the vast narrative of creation. Focused on a family of three boys in Texas, the film's scope encompasses all of existence and history, from the beginning moments of creation to the resurrection and entrance into the kingdom of God, when all things will be made new. The scenes of resurrection where people wandering on a beach are reunited with loved ones are quiet and slow--some might even say they're boring--but I view them as contemplative and peaceful. In Christian theology, our future resurrection carries significant weight, because death is not the end in this larger story. The Tree of Life captures this theological reality in beautiful, cathartic ways.

What movies should I have included on the list? Share your favorite resurrection films in the comments!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Killing Jesus: A Review

Killing Jesus, the National Geographic Channel's film production based on the book by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugan, lives up to its title. Both the book and the film are intent on giving a historical perspective on the person of Jesus, the context and the motivations behind the man's life and, especially, his death.

There are some unique characters rarely seen in other films about Jesus. The prophet Isaiah is seen in a dream, tormenting Herod with woes of God's wrath upon him. Killing Jesus gives special emphasis to Jesus's family, especially his brother James, with scenes with Jesus and his family around the dinner table. I was really impressed with the inclusion of Joanna, the wife of a servant in Herod's court, found exclusively in Luke's Gospel account (Luke 8:3, 24:10). Nicodemus, the Pharisee, is seen following Jesus and standing up for him in the priestly court, and John the Baptist's life and death are also key moments in the story. Killing Jesus centers on the various characters responsible for the arrest and death of Jesus, like Caiaphas the high priest, Pontius Pilate and his wife, and Herod Antipas and Herodias. Each had their own reasons for disliking Jesus and participating in his death, and the film explores their relationships and motivations.

Killing Jesus highlights the politics behind the death of Jesus. In other films, it seemed almost cruel or unnecessary to kill Jesus--he's just a calm, nice guy who heals sick people, so why bother arresting and crucifying him? Killing Jesus shows Jesus as a threat to the political system and common good. Caiaphas often talks about maintaining order, that getting rid of Jesus will keep people under control. You can see his reasoning in moments where Jesus is declaring he will destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, or when he turns over the tables of the moneylenders, inciting mobs in both cases.

Haaz Sleiman's Jesus is deeply human--he's highly emotional and passionate, even moody and impulsive. He often seems unsure, like he's improvising or reacting to the situation at hand. This is not a calm and collected Jesus, but neither is this a fully confident Jesus. Unlike the angry political revolutionary Jesus of Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) or the blue-eyed melodramatic Messiah of Jesus of Nazareth (1977), this is an everyman Jesus, an ordinary guy somehow thrust into extraordinary circumstances, telling others of God's love as he figures it out himself. He is often angry and frustrated, and frequently storms out of situations in order to be alone to brood, calming himself through prayer.

There is also a lack of miracles in Killing Jesus. The miraculous scenes are all shown as being coincidental or in the realm of scientific possibility than caused by spiritual power, thus emphasizing Jesus's humanity over his divinity. This is Jesus the man, not Jesus the son of God. One can see in Killing Jesus how the people could have elevated him to Messianic status, but he rarely claims this for himself, and almost seems surprised when Peter confesses his belief in Jesus as Christ. The film emphasizes Jesus's teachings, mostly about loving God and loving one's neighbor, not judging others, and looking into your heart to find the kingdom of God. A particularly moving scene was Jesus's walk to Golgotha as a Jewish temple guard berates him, trying to get him to curse God. Jesus continues to tell the man that he loves him and forgives him, and the moment of redemptive love is affecting.

Overall, the production and filmmaking was strong, particularly some of the settings, which were filmed in Morocco and have a largely non-white cast. This felt like being back in first-century Jerusalem. Having a Middle Eastern Jesus (Sleiman is a Muslim who was born in Lebanon) and his followers gives the film an authentic tone, though I'm still unsure why Biblical and sword-and-sandal films frequently employ British actors and accents for their characters. Sleiman's performance is good, even great sometimes, and Kelsey Grammer as Herod and John Rhys-Davies as Annas stand out as excellent supporting cast.

There is one significant negative criticism I feel obligated to address: there is no bodily resurrection in Killing Jesus. There are no resurrection appearances; Jesus is never seen again after his burial. The tomb is shown as empty when Mary and the other women attend to the body, but the scene ends without Jesus appearing or angels addressing the group. There is no scene showing Mary Magdalene tell the disciples about the empty grave. The final scene shows Peter praying in his fishing boat after a miraculous catch of fish akin to John 21, feeling some sort of personal spiritual conviction, then telling the other disciples "he has come back to us!" Apparently, he means this in an invisible, spiritual sense. The lack of a bodily resurrection is a huge disappointment for me, and can't be ignored, either from a historical or a spiritual perspective. While the resurrection cannot be proven in an Enlightenment-minded scientific sense, it certainly has strong merit as being a historical reality. Smarter theologians and historians than I have written about the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, so I would encourage the reader to explore the works of N.T. Wright and J.D.G Dunn, scholars who have written extensively about first-century Judaism and the historical Jesus.

To choose to not include the resurrection is also poor storytelling, akin to changing the ending of a beloved and well-known narrative. What if Dorothy ended up staying stuck in Oz because the ruby slippers didn't work? Or what if Harry Potter had just remained in a dead state instead of coming back to life to defeat Voldemort? What if Luke missed with the proton torpedos, the Death Star remaining intact (or perhaps being destroyed later, but in a plausible and reasonable manner without the involvement of that silly Force)? How would that change the story and the audience's response? Films about Jesus don't necessarily have to include the resurrection--the upcoming Last Days in the Desert centers entirely on Jesus's temptation in the wilderness, and Scorcese's controversial The Last Temptation of Christ ends with the words "It is finished!" while Jesus is still on the cross--but a film that focuses so heavily on Jesus's historical death and burial might be obliged to offer resurrection. Even Pasolini, a Marxist and atheist, respected the historical weight of the Jesus narrative to include the bodily resurrection in his version. Killing Jesus's interpretation of a "spiritual" resurrection is, as far as I can tell, unique in the pantheon of Jesus films.

Killing Jesus wants to show the circumstances behind how Jesus, an ordinary Jewish man caught up in his own mythology, died at the hands of the political powers. As such, it is rather effective in its pursuits. However, to paraphrase the apostle Paul, "if Christ has not been raised, our film production is useless and so is your faith" (1 Corinthians 15:14).

Killing Jesus premieres on Sunday, March 29 on the National Geographic Channel.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Alister David

 Introducing Alister David Mayward, born March 7 at 12:41 PM. He weighed in at 6 pounds, 14 ounces, and 100% awesome.

Alister means "defender, protector of humanity." David means "beloved."

He is both, protected and beloved, deeply good and wholly a member of our little family. He's got some very caring and curious big siblings.

Alister, I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding. For I want you to understand what really matters, so that you may live pure and blameless lives until the day of Christ’s return. May you always be filled with the fruit of your salvation—the righteous character produced in your life by Jesus Christ—for this will bring much glory and praise to God.
(Philippians 1:9-11)

Monday, March 2, 2015

What Movie Should I Show My Youth Group?

Photo Credit: when i was a bird (Creative Commons)
My latest blog post for LeaderTreks centers on a single question I think every youth worker has asked themselves at some point:

What movie should I show my youth group?

Here's an excerpt from the post:

I’m often asked which movies are best to show youth groups. My personal blog gets thousands of hits from this googled question. While I could offer you a simple list of films, it’s best to understand how to choose a movie with wisdom and discretion. We live in a movie world. From YouTube to Netflix, Blu-ray to the box office, filmmakers are the bards of this generation, and they’re teaching our students a theology we may not be aware of. It’s not enough to know what to watch; we have to understand how to watch.
Here are five questions to ask when considering which movie to show your youth group:
1) Why are we watching a movie?
What’s the purpose of this movie-watching event? What do I hope to accomplish? Entertainment? Time-filler? A spiritual conversation? Life transformation and an encounter with Jesus? We all approach movies with different postures, ranging from condemnation (avoiding movies because you believe they are inherently sinful or tempting) toconsumption (watching anything and everything no matter what the content). What posture are you modeling to students by showing (or avoiding) a particular film? If you’re throwing a movie up on the tiny TVs of a bus, you’ll probably choose something different than you would in a small group study about using discernment with media. Know why you’ve decided to watch a film, and choose it with that purpose in mind.
2) What are the themes or truths I want to discuss?
This question assumes that you actually want to have a spiritual conversation, which means you’ll have to put some time into watching the film before you show it to students. (Never show a film you haven’t already screened!) Look for spiritual themes and truths, connections between students’ stories and the story presented on screen. Don’t just watch a movie without discussing it after. Foster conversations, even if they aren’t particularly “deep” or spiritual. Simply debriefing a film is an act of discipleship, modeling thoughtfulness and intentionality in the way we consume media. The things your students take in will affect who they become, so teach students not to watch things thoughtlessly.
Click here to read the rest of the post, including the remaining of the questions to ask when considering a movie.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

8 Cliche Youth Ministry Phrases

We have our own language in youth ministry. Our youth pastor colloquialisms are tribal in nature--I don't often hear these phrases or terms outside of the youth ministry context. But within that crazy and beautiful world, these are eight common expressions in the youth worker's vernacular:

1. Be Intentional
Based on how much we talk about it, the primary goal for youth ministry is to be more intentional about...well, just about anything! Relationships. Worship. Discipleship. Evangelism. Bathroom breaks. As long as we're being intentional about it, it's awesome. Just listen for this word in youth ministry training seminars or youth pastor gatherings--it's how we roll.

2. Fringe Kid
Describing the misfits and outcasts, the marginalized and downtrodden, we often talk about the "fringe kid(s)" who populate the social borders of our youth group. We love the fringe kids, but apparently not enough to refer to them as simply human beings. No relation to the bizarre J.J. Abrams TV show.

3. Making Purple
A boy is blue. A girl is pink. When they come together, they really make some sort of strange lilac or periwinkle color. But when it comes to retreat and camp rules, we're all about discouraging the making of purple. I'm gonna start saying "making periwinkle" to be more chromatically accurate.

4. Bring a Friend
If if the primary goal for youth pastors is to be intentional, the primary goal for students is bringing a friend. Bring 'em to church. Bring 'em to camp. Bring 'em to small groups. Bring 'em anywhere and everywhere. We're always encouraging it, especially if that friend is a fringe kid.

5. Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone
Especially on missions or service trips, youth workers frequently encourage students to get out of their comfort zone, i.e. that personal space where one feels safe and secure and warm and fuzzy. We don't want warm and fuzzy. We want terrified and emotional. That's called faith, right?

6. Love On
Marko wrote a brief post about the creepy factor of this phrase. A youth worker says they just want to "love on a student" or "love on the kids." But this sounds downright gross if you think about it. No one wants to be loved on; they just need love, period.

7. Big Church
As opposed to the youth group service, "big church" is the main church gathering or worship service. Heard in sentences like, "After youth group, we're going to skip big church and get donuts. Wanna come?"

8. Walk Along
A variation of "come alongside," this is how youth pastors often describe their jobs to others: "I just walk along with students and help them know Jesus." I don't think we do this literally, unless we're leading in a hiking ministry. Here's what we mean: we're making disciples. Intentionally, of course.

See also: Hip and Relevant Youth Group Names.
Examples: Elevate, eXtreme, Fusion, Journey, Revolution, Chaos, and Impact. Or, use some sort of variation on the concept of fire, i.e. Blaze or Flame or Fuel or Ignite or Spontaneous Combustion.

This is all tongue-in-cheek, of course, because I love (or love on) the youth ministry tribe. As you smirk and giggle at the above phrases, remember this: our language matters. We need to have self-awareness about the words we speak and the tone we use when sharing about matters of faith, love, and Jesus. We have to be mindful of using insider language that could be easily misunderstood or even harmful to relationships with young people. When we speak youth ministry-ese, let's be alert to how our words shape our actions and relationships.

What youth ministry language would you add here? Share in the comments!

Monday, February 23, 2015

Movie Review: The Overnighters

Ministry is messy.

The above sentence could be a spoken in a sigh given from a wise mentor to young clergy. The elder explains to the eager apprentice-shepherds that caring for a flock, while meaningful and transformative, can also take its toll. You're never really prepared, and often feel like you're caught up in some sort of battle that has been waging since the beginning of time (because, in fact, you are), equipped with a few spiritual tools and spurred forward by a profound hope that, with God's help and providence, you can actually make a difference in others' lives and hearts.

Ministry is messy, especially pastoral ministry. There are few films that capture the mess as honestly as The Overnighters, a weighty and complex documentary that captures a real-life drama which feels pulled directly from a John Steinbeck novel. Filmmaker Jesse Moss follows Lutheran pastor Jay Reinke, a modest and kind man serving a smallish flock in North Dakota. The small town has been the grail of many down-and-out men coming from all over the country hoping to find work in the oil fields. It's a present-day oil boom town, a sort of gold rush mentality that is a strikingly American ideal--head out west to find some work, make some money, and rebuild a life. The reverend Reinke wants to offer them a roof over their head and a meal to eat, supporting them as they look for a job. He's being a good neighbor and putting Matthew 25:34-40 into practice. Sounds pretty Jesus-y, right?

Remember: ministry is messy. Reinke's methods are strongly questioned by the people in the town, and particularly some members of his own parish. Using the church property as a sort of half-way house has brought to light some fears--some legitimate--into the minds of the community. With the presence of these rough-around-the-edges workers, crime in the community has gone up, and the murder of a woman has the town on edge about "the overnighters." Reinke isn't unaware of these fears, though he does encourage his church and neighbors to overcome fear with love and compassion. Reinke seems quite calm and friendly in the face of opposition, and practices hospitality with a generosity rarely seen. This is the Gospel in action, the willingness to sacrifice time, energy, money, and social standing for the sake of the other.

As the story unfolds, Reinke's compassion for the incoming workers might overwhelm his sense of judgment, and we begin to see the pastor falter. People turn on him due to feeling alienated and neglected, mostly by his overly busy ministry lifestyle. He begins to doubt his own calling and mission, wondering if he's even being effective (a struggle every pastor can empathize with). His interactions--or lack thereof--with a prying local reporter are questionable at best, and one wonders how his family really feels about his self-imposed ministry obligations. When he welcomes a convicted sex offender into his home in order to skirt some of the local laws, we have to wonder, does Gospel hospitality also allow for healthy boundaries? This act of unlawful cordiality, as well as a few unforeseen revelations and decisions, will lead to a provocative climax that leaves no one in the film unscathed. Moss, to his credit, creates a balanced documentary, villainizing no one and presenting the complexity of the situation in all its disarray. Ministry is messy, after all.

As a pastor, I haven't seen many films which address the weightiness of pastoral work like The Overnighters. It's a film every pastor in America should watch and discuss, both with fellow pastors and with their spouses (Reinke's wife is perhaps the most victimized and wounded of all the broken people in this documentary). Themes of justice, mercy, systemic and personal morality, and the American dream are all on display. Reinke is both admirable and deplorable, often neglecting his family and personal health for the sake of helping a down-and-out man trying to make his way in the world. There are moments of deep joy and life transformation. There are other moments of significant pain, deep heart wounds that will take significant time and grace to heal. The Overnighters is ultimately about integrity, being honest about oneself in both public ministry and private relationships, the willingness to share about one's brokenness without succumbing to it. To have integrity to one's missions, values, identity, and personal sins is a struggle every pastor must endure. Reinke acknowledges this in a conversation with a drug addict: "We’re more alike than we are different. I’m broken. You’re broken. We’re all broken." Ministry is messy. By bringing our sins into the light, we are both exposed and healed, mess and all.

The Overnighters is currently streaming on Netflix in the US. It was my favorite documentary of 2014.