Friday, December 30, 2016

Top Music and Books of 2016

I didn't purchase many new albums or books in 2016. Much of the soundtrack and literature I consumed were from years past, discovering albums I'd overlooked or books from long ago which piqued my curiosity. Still, these 2016 albums and books served as my friends this past year. Inspiring, affecting, challenging, and enlightening, these are the dozen cultural companions who accompanied me on my journey. Perhaps they'll serve as faithful companions for you too.

In alphabetical order:

Top 6 Albums of 2016

Audrey Assad - Inheritance

Bon Iver - 22, A Million

David Bowie - Blackstar

Explosions in the Sky - The Wilderness

Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool

Soundtrack from the film Sing Street

Top 6 Books of 2016

Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith (D.L. Mayfield). A spiritual memoir filled with pathos and wisdom, snark and substance.

Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth (A.O. Scott). Scott's philosophical rambling approach might be off-putting to some, but I found it winsome and affirming in his advocacy for the art of criticism, and the criticism of art.

Dreams, Doubt, and Dread: The Spiritual in Film (ed. Zachary Settle, Taylor Worley). Featuring some excellent writers on faith and film (David Dark, Michael Leary, Joe Kickasola) discussing phenomenology and various films and filmmakers (Jeff Nichols, Andrei Tarkovsky, Wes Anderson, David Lynch), this academic book is an excellent compilation.

The Dusty Ones: Why Wandering Deepens Your Faith (A.J. Swoboda). One should expect to be challenged and frustrated by this treatise on the practice of spiritual wandering. That's just how wandering goes, and A.J. has a gift for weaving the perfect tangent and anecdote into his writings.

How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World (Alissa Wilkinson, Robert Joustra) Essentially an introduction to the philosophy of Charles Taylor by way of pop culture, Wilkinson and Joustra have crafted something quite unique in its compelling critique of modern/postmodern culture, as well as celebration of truth and beauty wherever it can be found. The chapter on the film Her is worth the price of the book.

Profane Parables: Film and the American Dream (Matthew Rindge). At the intersection of political commentary, film criticism, and Biblical hermeneutics, this short-but-sweet book looks at three films--Fight Club, American Beauty, and About Schmidt--as filmic parables subverting the ethos of American civil religion and nationalism.

What were your favorite books and music albums from 2016? Share in the comments.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

On Reformation-Era Ministry with Youth

For my master's thesis, I've been reading on families and the spiritual formation of youth in the Reformation era. The main question I'm asking in my research revolves around the historical theology and significance of children and youth ministry. What are our historical roots? What can we learn from those who came before us? What have been historical practices within the church regarding the spiritual formation of youth? In particular, how did the theological views of Luther, Calvin, and the Anabaptists inform practices regarding spiritual formation, such as catechisms, confirmation, and baptism? There is a lack of critical and scholarly engagement with the historical origins of ministry with children and adolescents, particularly any theological studies devoted to teenagers prior to the 20th century.

In my research so far, I've noted that the churches struggled with waning faith as young people approached adulthood. From Gerald Strauss' book Luther's House of Learning
"This slackening of religious commitment was a common phenomenon. The question for reformers was not only: How well is instruction given in youth? But also, does it last throughout life? The evidence on this point was discouraging." 
While children were inclined to take up the faith of their family, faith began to lapse with the approach of adulthood. This was a common enough occurrence for pastors and church leaders to write treatises about how to keep this from happening, offering plenty of tools and advice for parents and pastors to keep young people engaged with their faith. New books and manuals were being printed in order to keep the youth and young adults from abandoning their Protestant faith.

Sound familiar?

The Reformers also emphasized the family context as primary for children's spiritual formation. Yet they found that families rarely lived up to this ideal, leading to the plethora of catechisms and religious education programs that emerged during the era in order to equip the parents to take up their vocation as the "bishops" of their family. Pastors expected the parents--especially the fathers--to ask their children about the sermons, to teach them to memorize Bible verses, and to lead a sort of family devotion at dinnertime.

Other children and youth ministry issues they were facing in Reformation-era Europe:
  • The onset of puberty between ages 11-14 led to issues with sexual promiscuity, while average marriage ages were in the early 20s for women and mid 20s for men. In the sixteenth century, people were getting married later and later.
  • Youth were often bored with church services and sermons, and religious education had to use creative tactics to keep children engaged, such as stage plays (skits),  stories, comedies, rhymes, case studies ("example stories"), and other forms. One pedagogue put it this way: "By means of these entertainments we may win them over to the lessons we want to teach them."
  • Parents were inclined not to be aloof or uncaring towards their children (as is sometimes assumed of the era) but to be overindulgent, spoiling their children through coddling them.
  • The ultimate goal for many churches and families was good behavior in children and youth--sexual purity, avoiding drunkenness, obedient to authorities, church attendance, and doing one's duty for society.
So, does any of this sound familiar? After 500 years of the Protestant church, we are still addressing the same issues in youth ministry in very similar ways. Of course, there certainly were differences. Yet I'm finding more similarity than disparity in my research thus far. Perhaps there's something we can learn from our ministry ancestors. As I continue in my research, I'll post more updates. For now, which of these findings surprises you or resonates with you?

Monday, August 15, 2016

Writing Roundup for Summer 2016

Illustration by Brianna Ashby for BW/DR
It's been awhile since I've posted anything on my personal blog, but that doesn't mean I haven't been writing. Here are the links and descriptions for the various essays, reviews, and musings I've written elsewhere:

Bright Wall / Dark Room. I wrote an essay on the filmic adaptation of my favorite novel, Cormac McCarthy's The Road called "Carrying the Fire." It's one of the most personal essays I've ever published, and I'm grateful for how it turned out. Subscribe to BW/DR for $3 a month, as they're publishing some of the most interesting and creative film criticism I've ever encountered.

Christianity Today. Continuing the yearlong series "The Year in Liturgical Cinema," I wrote a piece on Ordinary Time and slow-and-boring films, like those from Ozu, Bresson, and other filmmakers who highlight the mundane and everydayness of life. This series of essays exploring the themes of the liturgical calendar has been akin to a spiritual discipline for me, forcing me to look at films and spiritual practices in new ways.

Journal of Religion & Film. In my first foray into the world of academic publishing, I wrote a book review on Matthew Rindge's excellent new book Profane Parables: Film and the American Dream for the Journal of Religion & Film. The book focuses on three films--Fight Club, American Beauty, and About Schmidt--as subversive stories dismantling and critiquing the American dream. My review should be published in Spring 2017.

Youthworker Journal. My feature article "The Unexpected Gift of Burnout" is now available online. I also continue to write book reviews for YWJ; you can see all my latest for YWJ here.

I've also written lots of film reviews at Cinemayward, including The Innocents, Jason Bourne, Finding Dory, The Lobster, and Swiss Army Man. You can keep up with my writing by following me on Twitter or Cinemayward on Facebook.

If you'd like me to write for your publication, contact me via email.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Writing Roundup for Early 2016

Like I use a ball-point pen to write....

I've been doing quite a bit of writing this first quarter of 2016, so here is the roundup of links to where you can find my work:

The Year in Liturgical Cinema. This is an ongoing series at Christianity Today movies, where I explore the themes of the Christian liturgical calendar and draw connections and parallels with a variety of films.

Reel Spirituality. I wrote an essay for the Brehm Center at Fuller Seminary on The Hunger Games films and the systemic abandonment of youth in our culture.

Reel World Theology. Here's my review of Casablanca, one of my all-time favorite films and a beautiful picture of redemption.

YouthWorker Journal. For the movie-loving youth ministry folks, I wrote a post on "5 Ways to Effectively Use Movies as Illustrations."

Seeing and Believing Podcast. Okay, so I didn't *write* anything for this--I just talked about movies with Kevin McLenithan as a guest host for Christ and Pop Culture's podcast about film and TV. We discussed 10 Cloverfield Lane and our top 5 single-location movies.

I've also created downloadable movie discussion guides called CINE, which you can find at the online store. The latest one is called Superheroes, and the upcoming CINE guide will be Classic Youth Ministry Comedies (I'm looking at you, Princess Bride and Napoleon Dynamite)

You can also find my movie reviews at, like The Jungle Book, Midnight Special, Zootopia, and Knight of Cups.

Thanks for reading! Follow me on Twitter to keep the conversation going. If you'd like me to write for your publication, contact me here.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Winding Paths: A Mayward Life Update

The Tianmen Mountain road in China is a beautiful, dangerous wonder. The serpentine roads traverse misty green cliffs and pointed peaks. There are 99 switchbacks leading up the mountain, many of which wrap around each other like a coiled snake. I found this image to be a striking portrayal of my spiritual journey in following Jesus. The path of spiritual transformation doesn't look like a straight-lined trajectory; it's a series of twists and turns, ups and downs, awe-inspiring while also risky. We revisit the places we once were, only we pass by with a more mature perspective as we're further along the journey.

Since my last life update, God has continued to guide us along new, winding paths which take unexpected turns. Here's what's been happening over the past few months:

Alister: Our youngest son went through open heart surgery this past August. It's the most difficult experience my wife and I have encountered as parents. We hope we're on the far side of this suffering; our son is healed, and has the scars to show for it. He's approaching his first birthday in the next two weeks, and we're deeply grateful for the past year and the joy he brings our family. We're also thankful for a God who comforts and sustains in the midst of suffering and unknowns, who is with us and for us, even when the outcome is unclear. God loves our kids more than we do. We're finding hope in that reality.

Cinemayward: I'm writing frequently for, my new website for all my film reviews and musings. I've been importing my old reviews from this blog to Cinemayward, and it's been fun to see how my writing and perspective has matured over the years. My first film review is this one for God Grew Tired of Us from August 2007; I've come a long way since that one. Check out all my reviews here. I've also launched a new downloadable resource with The Youth Cartel called CINE. Each CINE centers on a theme and features 4 films and discussion guides, which include games, discussion questions, and a devotional guide for small groups. So far, we have CINE: Christmas Movies and CINE: Superhero.

Writing: I've both limited and expanded my writing, saying "no" to some projects while diving deeper into others. I've written two essays for Christianity Today Movies (here and here) in a series we're calling The Year in Liturgical Cinema, following the Christian calendar and connecting films to the theological themes that emerge. I also wrote a chapter on the film Something, Anything for an e-book, Christ and Pop Culture Goes to the Movies: 2015. It's a phenomenal collection of 15 essays from the fine folks at Christ and Pop Culture. I'm working on essays for Reel Spirituality at Fuller, and continue to write book reviews and articles for Youthworker Journal.

Ministry: As of this month, my temporary interim role as the high school director at Lake Grove Presbyterian Church has taken a bit more of a permanent status--I'm working there 3/4 time while finishing up my masters degree at George Fox Evangelical Seminary. Lake Grove has been a wonderful community of mission- and discipleship-centered followers of Christ. As I'm still learning much about the Presbyterian world and culture, I'm enjoying this season of being back in a youth ministry role.

Church Planting: To make a long story short, our journey into church planting is on hold for the foreseeable future. Through the assessment process and our prayerful discernment, I ended up having to make a choice between two desirable paths--one towards church planting, the other towards getting my PhD. This doesn't mean our desire for church planting has dissipated, but it has taken the back seat for the next thing...

PhD: Through the past year of being in seminary and going through a significant vocational discernment process, climaxing in our church planting assessment, it's become more and more clear that I'm gifted and passionate about teaching and equipping people. I love writing, researching, teaching, communicating, guiding, nurturing, and enlightening others, particularly the emerging generation (i.e. youth and young adults). I find that I'm thriving in an academic environment. I'm also finding that many, if not most, of the youth ministry and pastoral folks I encounter *aren't* wired this way--they're not as thrilled about the academic/education process as I am. I want to be a good steward of the gifts I've been given, as well as find my "fit" as a member within the body of Christ. So, I'm taking steps to pursue PhD studies in theology and religion, and I'm especially interested in subjects like the intersection of film, ethics, theology, and spiritual formation. One of these steps involves visiting the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK. Katie and I will be traveling to the UK in May, both to explore the potential of doctoral studies and as an early celebration of our 10-year wedding anniversary. My ultimate goal is to teach at the university and/or graduate level, though that's certainly a few years off.

You can be praying for us--if we do go the route of PhD studies, it'll mean another big move (there aren't any theology PhD programs in the Pacific Northwest), at least 3 years in a new (possibly international) location, and we'll need some financial help (hopefully in the way of scholarships or job opportunities). It'll also be a significant move for our kids--moving three kiddos, especially one with past heart disease, is daunting. But we're also willing to take the step of faith and go on this adventure together.

And it's quite the adventure God is leading us on. We're still unsure where it ultimately leads. Lots of winding paths and unknowns, but certain to encounter beautiful vistas and moments of awe and clarity. One certainty that gives us comfort is Christ's presence and grace throughout the adventure. We're stepping forward in faith. We want to live a great story. I hope we're doing it.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Top 10 Favorite Films of 2015

At, my new film review website, I posted my top 10 favorite films of 2015, as well as an ode to my wife, Katie, and her strength for our family in 2015:

Let’s face it: end-of-year list-making is a complex task. You have to go back and think of all the stories and images that have worked their way into your mind and heart, evaluating what has lingered. Some films made a strong first impression, but waned quickly. Others were initially met with hesitation or frustration, but proved to be more powerful than I imagined due to their ability to endure in my thoughts and bring up new ideas. These top 10 favorite films are the ones that made a lasting impression, that moved or challenged me, that communicated deep or weighty ideas and offered spiritual insights. (You can read my Top 5 Documentaries and #25-21 here, and my Top #20-11 here.)
If there was a common theme threading its way through my favorite films list, it might be the presence of strong, beautiful, heroic female characters. I wonder what’s drawn me to such a motif, or if the year of 2015 has simply been a banner year for females in films. Think about both the major blockbusters and the critically-acclaimed art films: The Force Awakens, Carol, Mad Max: Fury Road, Room, Brooklyn, Inside Out, The Assassin, Sicario, Ex Machina, Joy. They all feature strong female leads giving memorable performances as fully-realized characters. Plenty of films in 2015 passed the Bechdel Test with flying colors. Two-thousand and fifteen was The Year of the Female Lead Role.
Personally, the past year has been one of the most difficult, painful, and transformative years in my entire life. It’s also been a character-developing year for my beloved wife. She has been the strong and beautiful female presence in our story, the heroine who kept me and our children afloat in a season of distress and suffering. In the past year, our third child was born with a significant heart defect, one which led to open heart surgery a few months later. The months of doctor appointments were filled with waiting and wondering. Those hours in the hospital as we handed off our boy to the doctors so they could repair holes were the most painful moments we have yet experienced as a couple. When your child’s life is in question, when their safety and well-being are out of your hands, well…it’s difficult, to say the least. Add my personal struggle with healing from burnout and depression, as well as a few identity crises moments and vocational revelations, and I’ve been a mess. But Katie, my wife–she’s the one who carried us. I think of the moment in Mad Max: Fury Road where Max is taking aim with a rifle at a distant enemy and misses. Furiosa approaches and asks for the gun, which Max reluctantly but knowingly hands over to her. She uses his shoulder as a base to steady her aim, then makes the shot he couldn’t make. That’s been my marriage this year–we’ve struggled through this as a team, but she’s been the foundation while I play the supporting role. She’s made the shots I couldn’t make on my own.
So, consider this list an ode to my wife. She’s not invested much in films, but she’s certainly invested in me, in our children, and in our life together. We have a value as a family: live a great story. It’s a value that continues to prompt us to take the more difficult, risky, exciting path in life. I can’t think of anyone else I’d want to live out this story with. My wife has been the hero of our story in 2015. If there was a real-life award for Best Female in a Lead Role, my vote goes to her.
These are the films that moved me, captivated me, terrified me, challenged me, and inspired me. These are my top 10 favorite films from 2015
Read the list here.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Top 10 Blog Posts from 2015

These are the ten most-read, most-shared blog posts I've written in 2015 on Whether or not they're indicative of my best writing, they're the posts that resonated with the most people. My most-read film review was about Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, a film I didn't really enjoy, but apparently struck a chord with movie-goers. My #1 shared post had a brief "viral" moment via Facebook, sparking a bit of controversy as folks debated and defended the merits of faith-based films. 

Some of the most honest and best-written posts I've crafted haven't been read or shared as much, like this post about being a theological mutt, or this reflection on the risks of authenticity in ministry, or my critique of the funnel of youth ministry. It's always fascinating to see what connects with people and what doesn't. I'm simply grateful for this space to write and the people like you who continue to read. Thanks for reading over the past year! Enjoy this look in the rearview mirror:

10. About Elly.
"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 SeparationThe 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."

9. 12 Things that Matter in Searching for a Church.
"What's the criteria for finding a church? How can you tell if a church is the right fit based on one or two visits? I'm realizing that finding a great church is like discerning compatibility within a romantic relationship--there needs to be an alignment of values and ethos, a sense of mutual benefit and joy, a movement in the same direction in life, and a healthy dose of the guidance and wisdom of the Holy Spirit. We need to be able to do this following Jesus thing together, as partners in the gospel."

8. My Upcoming Book: Jesus Goes to the Movies.
"Part One of the book offers a theological grid and framework for watching movies with wisdom and discernment. This section is the meat of the book, helping us to foster spiritual conversations with young people. There are chapters on a theology of culture, the history of the church and Hollywood, various worldviews presented in films, the history of youth culture, various theological approaches to movie-watching, and seeing Christ figures in films, as well as a practical chapter on how to incorporate movies into your ministry.

Part Two is a compilation of 50 films and spiritual discussion guides meant for small groups, families, or one-on-one conversations. The cool part: an ongoing supply of these discussion guides will be downloadable as new films are released. Imagine a new movie is coming out, and you'd like to take your small group to see it and talk about it. You download the super-inexpensive-yet-awesome guide, keep it on your phone or print it off, and use it to foster a spiritual discussion."

7. Unplanned Parenthood: On the Hopeful Choice for Life.
"The false dichotomy created by the labels of “pro-life’ and “pro-choice” seems unhelpful in the abortion debate. The pro-life folks are not anti-choice in every respect, nor do I imagine the pro-choice advocates being anti-life. In fact, I would consider myself “pro-choice” in the sense that I believe in human freedom and flourishing, and I have genuine hope regarding the human heart and its potential for making good choices in our world. While I recognize the brokenness and depravity human beings are capable of inflicting, I also have an optimism about people."

6. American Sniper.
"An Americanized Christianity is evident in American Sniper, particularly through Chris's good luck charm--a pew Bible he took from a church in his boyhood, which he keeps tucked beneath his body armor. This type of Christianity is a moralistic therapeutic deism, a God intended to make us feel good when we really need Him, but is mostly absent and unnecessary for our daily tasks. A fellow SEAL, Marc Lee, is a man of faith and a former seminary student who serves as an embodied conscience for Chris. Marc asks Chris about his Bible, if he ever opens it. He doesn't. Marc is clearly troubled about the direction of the Iraq war, wondering about its purpose and his involvement. Chris essentially shuts him down, asking "you're not going to get all soft on me, are you?" Marc wonders about Chris's obsession with his task, asking Chris if he may have a savior complex. But when Marc is killed in an ambush, his mother reads aloud a letter at his funeral sharing his doubts about the American military and the Iraqi conflict. Driving away from the funeral, Chris is unflinching. "That letter killed him," he tells Taya brusquely. Then, a tense silence."

5. 8 Questions to Ask Before Leaving a Ministry.
"If you choose to enter full-time ministry as your vocation, you'll eventually have to face this question: should I stay or should I go?

It could be due to all sorts of factors--a new job offer, a family crisis, lack of chemistry in the current ministry, serious conflicts with boss or co-workers, or it just feels like "it's time."

How do you know when to leave a ministry position and when to stick it through? Do you need to move on to something else, or should you remain faithful where you are? It can be difficult to discern what you need to do and what questions to ask."

4. New: A Mayward Life Update.
"So much has happened in my life and with our family over the past few months, it's hard to even keep up with it all. The emotional ups and downs of recent days have been significant, and I am trying to keep up with Jesus as we follow him into new territory. I am discovering that the horizon looks different than it did a year ago. Things have changed.

All things are new.

Fresh. Different. Recent. Revived.

With so much newness, I want to give you a glimpse into what God has been up to in our lives, some snapshots of the new."

3. 12 Great Films About Christianity.
"Thankfully, there are films that do live up to the moniker of "Christian movie" in that they exhibit the truth and beauty of Christ. These films wonderfully communicate the nature of what it means to be a Christian, the theology of Christian spirituality, and the ups and downs of true discipleship, all in a well-crafted cinematic experience. If someone was investigating or exploring Christianity, and they wanted to watch a movie about the Christian faith, these are some of the films I'd watch with them. Or, if a disciple of Jesus wanted to watch an artistic portrayal of the faith as a source of encouragement and inspiration in their pursuit of Christ, these films would certainly fit the bill."

2. 8 Cliche Youth Ministry Phrases.
"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."

1. The "Faith" of Faith-Based Films: On Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in Christian Movies.
"In true Christianity, there is room for difference and grace. I am not saying that we cannot have differing opinions on films, or that the subculture of evangelical Christianity cannot have its own art and stories to celebrate. This is not the cynical rant of someone who believes Christians incapable of making good art, but as someone who believes we can--and should--make art that resonates with the truth and beauty found in Christ. I am concerned as a pastor and a film critic because it's not just that these films aren't that good, it's that they seem to advocate for a less-than-true form of Christianity. And audiences are buying it, both literally and spiritually."


Thanks for reading! You can continue to read my musings on life, youth ministry, theology, and culture here at Check out more of my film-related writing at Cinemayward.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Top 12 Favorite Albums of 2015

In 2015, I purchased fewer albums than in previous years, but still listened to a significant amount of music thanks to various streaming services and this new revolution called The Internet. There is more music available than ever before, which makes it more difficult to sift through the abundance of mediocrity, yet also means certain musical treasures, when discovered, are deeply cherished. The list is indicative of my eclectic taste, featuring hip-hop, pop remakes, indie grunge, electronic/dance, alt-rock, and plenty in between. These aren't necessarily recommendations for every listener; these are simply the songs and artist who captivated my ears, mind, and heart over the past season of new life.

The follow dozen albums served as my soundtrack for 2015:

12. Ryan Adams - 1989

11. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly

10. Laura Marling - Short Movie

9. Passion Pit - Kindred

8. Wilco - Star Wars

7. Josh Garrels - Home

6. Jamie xx - In Colour

5. Bear Carver - In the Dogwoods

4. Sleater-Kinney - No Cities to Love

3. Chvrches - Every Open Eye

2. Torres - Sprinter

1. Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell

What was your soundtrack for 2015? Share your recommended albums in the comments.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

2015: A Year in Review


The year we moved from Canada back to Portland.

The year I began full-time seminary at George Fox.

The year my son was born.

The year that same son had open heart surgery.

The year I met my birth mother.

The year I published my third book, Jesus Goes to the Movies.

The year I launched my film review website,

The year I healed from burnout, a year of death and resurrection, a year of new life.

Perhaps that's the theme of 2015: new life. A new heart. A new paradigm. Renewed faith and hope and love. New direction and purpose and vision. All things new.

It may be too early to tell, but I imagine I'll look back on 2015 as a year of incredible significance, a sort of historical BC/AD moment where everything changed. It's hard to articulate how different I am now from one year ago. Everything is new.

New. I suppose that tiny three-letter word will have to do.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!

Sunday, November 29, 2015 is Here

In case you haven't checked it out already, my new website devoted to my film writings is here:

The tagline: "Reviews, essays, resources, and musings on film and spirituality."

I started writing about films in 2007 at my personal blog mostly as a personal outlet for processing the variety of films I was viewing. Since then, I’ve written hundreds of reviews, culminating in my book about film and theology called Jesus Goes to the Movies: The Youth Ministry Film Guide (The Youth Cartel, 2015). I’ve written about film and spirituality for Christ and Pop Culture, Reel World Theology, Reel Thinking, 1More Film Blog, and Youth Worker Journal. And now, I have an online home for everything movie-related.

I hope that can be a unique film review website, one written from a pastoral and Christian perspective, yet is for any reader interested in the deeper truths and spiritual ideas found in movies. I hope to point to new filmic treasures you may not have heard of yet, as well as dig into the ideas found in popular blockbusters. I hope to write quality film criticism, not just my own opinions or a list of reasons why you should/shouldn't see a film. Finally, I hope to challenge and inspire movie-goers--especially Christians--to think critically, wisely, and joyfully about the art they consume.

I'll be importing my previous film reviews from to Cinemayward, and all my new film-related content will be at the new site. I'll still write here about my life, youth ministry, theology, culture, leadership, and anything else that comes to mind. Check out the Reviews page to see new reviews on Spectre, The Martian, Spotlight, and more. I'll be posting Essays and links to articles at other film websites, as well as recommendations for movies you can be streaming

You can also check out the Cinemayward store, which has a new downloadable resource from The Youth Cartel called CINE. Like the popular VIVA series from The Youth Cartel, CINE is a downloadable curriculum for using with your youth group or small group, featuring four film discussion guides around a central theme. This first CINE is "Christmas Movies" and it's free. Repeat: FREE. Merry Christmas. Go download it. For free.

Thanks to my friend Adam McLane and his Internet skills for helping create the Cinemayward website! If you want an awesome website, check out what Adam does.

Here's what you can do:
1. Check out and add it to your preferred RSS feed reader.
3. Follow Cinemayward on Twitter: @cinemayward
4. Watch movies, then discuss them with me in any of those places (website, FB, Twitter). I'd love to hear what you think.

Thanks for reading, sharing, liking, and commenting on my film reviews over the past eight years. Let's keep the film and spirituality conversation going.

Monday, November 23, 2015

A Theological Mutt

I am a theological mutt.

I'm a doctrinal mixed-breed, a unique mashup of diverse orthodoxy and orthopraxy. I rarely find churches or theological systems where I completely fit.

I'm too conservative for the liberal and mainline denominations. I self-identify as evangelical, believe in the truth and authority of Scripture as God's inspired Word, have a strong push for personal evangelism and the salvation of the lost, still believe the locally-gathered Jesus-following church is God's primary method for saving and healing the world, lean towards historic premillenialism in my eschatology, and still think there's a real heaven and a real hell. I even once voted for George W. Bush.

I'm too progressive for the evangelicals and fundamentalists. I don't use or condone the term "inerrancy" in describing the Bible (because it doesn't describe itself this way, and the word's historical roots are politically charged and intentionally divisive), I don't use a wholly "literal" hermeneutic in my exegesis of Scripture, I believe women have an equal seat at table in both the church and family, I'm strongly leaning towards annihilationism regarding the doctrine of hell, and I believe social justice, serving the poor, and radical discipleship is essential to the gospel and ways of Jesus. I even once voted for Barack Obama.

I grew up in the Baptist church, attended a Catholic high school, went to a non-denominational evangelical Bible college (Multnomah University), pastored at Baptist, Evangelical Free, and Mennonite Brethren churches, briefly attended a Canadian non-denominational theological graduate school (Regent College), and now I'm a full-time student at a Wesleyan/Quaker seminary (George Fox Evangelical Seminary). I'm presently in an interim ministry role with a Presbyterian church, though I'm also very involved with the Christian & Missionary Alliance church we attend.

My favorite theologians and pastoral writers are Anglican (N.T. Wright), Lutheran (Dietrich Bonhoeffer), Catholic (Henri Nouwen, G.K. Chesterton, Thomas Merton), Presbyterian (Eugene Peterson, Tim Keller), Methodist/Anabaptist (Stanley Hauerwas), Quaker (Richard Foster), Baptist (Dallas Willard), and Jewish (Martin Buber). I have wonderful friends in just about any denominational camp you can imagine--Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Pentecostal, Mennonite, Nazarene, Episcopal, Free Methodist, non-denominational megachurch, etc.

Perhaps I'm a moderate. Maybe I'm just confused or unsettled about certain doctrinal issues. Or maybe the kingdom of God is vast enough for a sense of personal nuance, a unity blooming from diversity.

One of my theology professors made a passing comment about the variety of doctrinal beliefs and the multiplication of denominations over church history. It may look and feel disjointed and splintered, and we may long for The One True Denomination to unite them all. Yet we don't see this sort of uniformity within the Bible itself. From the beginning of Israel's origins, there were twelve tribes, not one (really, there were thirteen, but who's counting?). There were twelve apostles chosen by Jesus, as well as the variety of other disciples who followed in his footsteps--women and men, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, young and old, conservative and liberal. There are four Gospel accounts of the life of Christ, each with their unique flavor, perspective, emphases, and tone (and they often appear to contradict each other!). In the few images we have of the future kingdom of God, we see cultural and ethnic diversity retained.

We also see people progressing and changing in their personal beliefs. For example, look at the life of Peter and his transformation from an ordinary fisherman into the rock of the church. His own beliefs about the relationship between Jews and Gentiles is challenged in the book of Acts, and later re-challenged by Paul in Galatians. To be a follower of Jesus is to live in a dynamic, ever-transforming reality, as opposed to static "this is how it is" rigidity. This doesn't mean one has zero actual convictions or wallows in postmodern whateverism. It simply means a mutt's leash is anchored to Christ, not a denominational perspective or theological system or a church's statement of faith.

I am learning to love and embrace my muttness. If you're a fellow theological mutt, fear not: you are not alone in the wide world of Christian beliefs. I recognize it's risky to even post something like this, as it could be misunderstood--Joel, you don't use the word "inerrancy"? Are you even still a Christian?--or somehow used against me. But I think there are more mutts out there, and I want y'all to know that it's okay to be in process and to not quite fit. I genuinely respect and appreciate the variety of tribes within the kingdom of God, and find I have a fuller relationship with Jesus when I can hold my theological beliefs with open hands, learning to embrace the tension within orthodoxy. I find I can navigate within the world of conservatives and liberals both with comfortability and a bit of the prophetic (i.e. I can help others see the value in the other side.) My anchor is in Christ rather than a particular system, and there is much to be learned when one chooses to listen beyond a theological echo chamber. Perhaps in an ever-polarizing purebred world of politics and religion, we need a few more mixed-breeds to shake things up.

Photo Credit: Bad Apple Photography (Creative Commons)

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

On Racism, Youth Ministry, and Cultural Intelligence

I was recently at a high school weekend retreat, spending the weekend at a beautiful camp in eastern Oregon with a variety of other churches from around the Pacific northwest. At a climactic moment in the evening session, a youth pastor introduced a group of teens performing a drama illustrating the gospel. The group of teens piled onto the stage, all dressed in black apart from the singular figure of a young man in a white shirt. The group performed the Lifehouse "Everything" skit, a pantomime drama set to music where the figure of Jesus (the young man in white) protects and saves a young woman who has been attacked by an increasingly-violent onslaught of diabolical figures.

The young man portraying Jesus was Caucasian, as was the teen girl in the central role. What drew my attention and alarm were the supporting characters, the black figures on the side. They were not only dressed in dark clothes; at least three of the eight teens were minorities, black and Asian. When I watched the YouTube video of the "Everything" skit, I noticed the same thing: the man portraying Jesus was white, the young woman was white, and most of the devilish figures were minorities.

I wondered how the black, Asian, and Latino teens were feeling watching the drama unfold before them. If I was new to Christianity and watching this skit, I might think that the gospel message involved a white Jesus saving me from the sinful clutches of people with brown skin. Y'know, Jesus will rescue you from the hell of ever having to date a black man or hang out with an Asian girl. Is this the best way to communicate the gospel to young people?


When I was a youth pastor in the suburbs of British Columbia, I spent a significant amount of time on the campus of one of the largest high schools in the Vancouver area. I would walk the halls during lunch time, saying hi to the teens in my youth group and making new relational connections through the community youth workers who were devoted to serving the campus. The school was a vast maze of hallways, with scores of young people lining the passages in social clusters, eating their lunch and filling the air with laughter and chatter.

The greater Vancouver area is a multi-cultural mosaic. Many of the cities have a larger primarily Asian or Indian population than white/Caucasian, and the Hispanic population is rapidly increasing. As I walked around the high school hallways, I noticed the plethora of cultures and languages represented. Yet our large suburban youth group remained primarily white. (We did have one Asian adult volunteer and a high schooler from Honduras, both who were often mistaken as Mexican.) I wondered what a multicultural church would truly look like, and if our church demographic was in alignment with our surrounding neighborhood and culture. How does the church embrace and embody its surrounding racial diversity?


A friend from Uganda told me a story about how a group of Americans on a short-term mission trip handed out color gospel bracelets to the children in his village. The bracelets are an evangelism tool commonly used in evangelical circles in order to cross cultural boundaries in order to share the gospel.

The black bead stands for sin, the red bead represents Christ's blood, the white bead is forgiveness and salvation, the blue bead is baptism, the green is growth in Christ, and the yellow is the golden roads of Heaven. My Ugandan friend told me that the Africans accepted the bracelets from the Americans with propriety, though they weren't really that interested in having a cheap bracelet with such few colors.

After the Americans left, the Ugandans talked about how the Americans said black represented sin and death, and how white represented salvation. Black is sinful and wrong; white is Christlike and holy. They wondered aloud about the Christian gospel message. Where was any good news in this?

This past summer, I took a month-long job teaching English literature to incoming Latino freshman at a high school in Gresham, OR. (Read more about that experience here.) The program was aimed primarily at helping Latino students grow academically and mature in their understanding of Latino culture and heritage. One of my students had moved from Mexico only a few weeks prior to the course and was adjusting to life in a new country. Another student, a charismatic Cuban young man, was still learning to speak English; he read the Y.A. novel I assigned in a Spanish translation.

The students were very willing to share their stories, opinions, and experiences with me, especially around the subject of race in America. They had all sorts of perspectives on Donald Trump's campaign, El Chapo's prison escape, immigration policies, fighting Russian gangs, growing up as a Latino in Portland, and soccer players they liked (they loved soccer). They'd often shift into speaking Spanish around me, unaware of my ability to understand much of what they were saying. They talked about their school experiences with teachers who treated them differently than other races, and seemed more comfortable in this environment where they could be fully themselves. They were the majority; I was the minority. A few students shared about their relatives who were undocumented immigrants. I wondered how many of the teens before me worried about deportation, racial profiling, or systemic racism. What would good news look like for Latino teens in east Portland?


I once read a helpful book called Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church, by Soong-Chan Rah, a professor in the Chicago area. Rah describes the need for cultural intelligence as vital for the church's gospel presence in our ever-diversifying culture, where white folks will be the minority in America by 2050. Cultural intelligence is the capacity to understand, empathize, and work with people across a variety of cultures. It is fostering a cultural awareness, noticing the differences between people and cultures, and recognizing one's own biases and racial missteps.

I imagine the youth pastor who introduced the Lifehouse skit wouldn't consider himself a racist, but the drama on the stage showed a lack of cultural intelligence when it placed minorities in those positions. What would it look like if a black or Asian or Latino or Middle Eastern teenager was in the role of Jesus next time? How might that better communicate the gospel to others?

I imagine the Americans sharing beaded bracelets in Uganda weren't intending to offend or send a message of racial superiority or remind Ugandans of Western colonialism. But, they did. Good intentions don't always equal loving actions. How can we teach young people to be on mission with cultural awareness and a sense of humility?

I imagine the few Asian, black, and Hispanic teenagers that dot the populations of mostly-white suburban youth groups across North America are very self-aware of their race, and quietly do their best to fit in with the rest of the group. I also imagine many of the mostly-white youth workers and teens in these contexts are unaware of any racial issues. This is the nature of racial privilege--it means we don't even have to be aware of or worry about racial tension or cultural intelligence, because we're the majority ethnicity in the room. What would it look like if youth workers were on the front lines of the racial divides and actively pursuing creating the multi-cultural kingdom environments we see in places like Isaiah 60 and Revelation 22?

I'm asking myself: How can I be aware and sensitive of my own whiteness as I disciple a diverse population of young people in the name of Jesus?

In youth ministry and the American evangelical church, we need to be aware of unintentional cultural messages we may be sending which are antithetical to the gospel we hope to communicate, lest we dilute the good news of Jesus with bad news of racial and cultural ignorance.

Photo Credit: Frerieke (Creative Commons)