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.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Beating Burnout - An Update

Photo Credit: Jaroslav A. Polak (Creative Commons)
About two months ago, I wrote a post confessing my entry into a season of burnout. Since then, I've received so many emails, messages, and phone calls filled with encouragement and wisdom. Friends and mentors have sat down for coffee and just listened to my story, simply asking questions and offering a listening ear and a caring presence. I've also had many ministry friends reach out to say, "I think I'm headed towards burnout too." I've been the listening ear for them, hearing their story and being a companion in the sometimes-painful trenches of ministry.

I've been ministered to, and been able to minister better to others. I can better empathize with those who have experienced seasons of depression, anxiety, and overwhelming stress. I have a better understanding about grieving with others, weeping with those who weep.

These past two months have been a season of debriefing, processing, discerning, confessing, repenting, healing, and praying. I don't think I realized just how deep my brokenness went, and how much healing and reformation is needed for my whole being.

I'm in the middle of beating burnout. A few particular resources have helped in this process. I've started going to counseling, which has been incredibly beneficial. I've given pastoral counsel to others, and encouraged plenty of people to seek professional therapy themselves, but hadn't been to a counselor myself. The experience has been refreshing and enlightening. I'd highly recommend church and ministry leaders to go to counseling at least once. It's a safe environment for processing and personal growth, where someone is asking *you* to open up as they listen, instead of the other way around.

I've also begun full-time classes at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, pursuing a graduate degree in hopes of getting a doctorate. Being around like-minded learners who are also in a season of personal growth and spiritual discernment has been a great environment for me. I'm taking two spiritual formation classes--one class on prayer, the other titled "spirituality and personality"--which have been just as personally eye-opening, convicting, and healing as my time in counseling.

I'm reading books about vocation, leadership, emotional health, prayer, intimacy, pain, and confession (See some of those books in the picture below). I've also been doing a lot of writing, including completing the manuscript for my third book, Jesus Goes to the Movies: The Youth Ministry Film Guide. (If you'd like me to write for your website, magazine, blog, or personal diary entries, contact me here!) Reading and writing are two life-giving exercises for me, so taking the time to read a stack of great books is awesome.

I've been able to spend significant quality time with my family. Having the energy and availability to be fully present with my wife and kids has been life-giving in so many ways. We go on walks, we play on playgrounds, we hang out at the Portland zoo and OMSI, and I've begun weekly daddy-son and daddy-daughter dates. We're eagerly awaiting our third kiddo in the next few weeks, and I'm sure having a new baby will bring even more love to our little family. I'm learning so much from my children, their innocence and growth and curiosity and apprehension and joy. Katie and I have had numerous dates and so many conversations processing our past and dreaming about the future. We're both on a vocational journey as we seek to continue schooling and imagine what the next ten years will look like, trusting the Lord with the vision and outcomes.

We have also been quietly attending various churches in the Portland area, seeking to find a church home for the foreseeable future, embedding ourselves into a community of grace, authenticity, and Jesus-y love. I wrote about 12 things that matter when searching for a church as part of this exploration. It's been strange, and a bit fun, to simply attend a church. As a pastor, I haven't had the opportunity to visit churches on Sundays for about a decade, or the freedom to *not* go to church on a particular morning. To gather with a community of believers and not be "on" in an official sense has been good for me. However, I already miss the beauty of discipleship and ministry, being a spiritual advocate and presence for others as they seek to follow Jesus. So, while we won't become overly busy with churchy things, we do want to dive into community within a body of Jesus-followers as we discern where I'll serve as a pastor next.

In all of this, I've wondered what God was up to. Did He know all this burnout stuff would happen? (Of course He did). So why allow this painful season? Did He lead me into it, or did I mistakenly stumble into it through a lack of discernment? Why does a life of ministry seem to inevitably involve a significant amount of emotional toil, weightiness, and suffering? How does one find the endurance to continue in ministry for the long haul? I've wondered if burnout--or at least "wilderness" seasons of exile and pain--are simply normal spiritual or ministry cycles, moments of disorientation as part of the spiritual life. I'm not sure. Beyond the counseling, the classes, the books, and the conversations with others, Jesus and I have had plenty of time together over these past weeks. Simply being with Jesus, wrestling and arguing and weeping and confessing and pleading and resting--this has been the primary source of healing and beating burnout. I've taken ownership of my own sin and pride, opening up my heart and allowing Jesus to heal deep wounds and unhealthy patterns. It's been so hard, yet so good.

This season of healing is not over yet, and may not be for a long time. But I have hope. There's a light at the end of the tunnel, a place of rest and renewed vision on the other side of the darkened valley. I'm reminded of my favorite book of the Old Testament, Habakkuk, and his final song to God after a season of questioning and doubt:
I heard and my heart pounded,
    my lips quivered at the sound;
decay crept into my bones,
    and my legs trembled.
Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity
    to come on the nation invading us.

Though the fig tree does not bud
    and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
    and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
    and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
    I will be joyful in God my Savior.

The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
    he enables me to tread on the heights.
Waiting patiently. 

Rejoicing in the midst of loss and pain. 

Finding strength in the Lord.

These are the postures I hope to maintain throughout my days. The sovereign Lord is my strength. He gives me firm footing in a world of unsteady foundations. He brings me up out of valleys into the heightened light of grace.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Remember Your Roots

Photo Credit: Ann Larie Valentine (Creative Commons)
I spoke at a middle school winter camp this past weekend, and I had an absolute blast. Despite the abnormally warm temperatures that made the atmosphere feel more akin to a summer camp than a snow-covered wintry retreat, it was deeply refreshing for my soul.

Why? Because it brought me back to the beginning of my youth ministry experience. Those early experiences, even when I was in middle school, haven't change all that much in the past 20 years:

Night games in the forest.

Broken-down busses.

Uncomfortable camp mattresses.

Consuming loads of sugar and fast food.

Loud jump-up-and-down worship.

Crazy, sweat-inducing games.

Messy sermon illustrations.

Spontaneous dance parties.

Last minute we-are-gonna-have-to-wing-it plans.

Volunteers who sacrifice their time, energy, and body parts for the sake of young people.

Late-night emotional conversations.








These are the experiences that were the foundation for my own spiritual formation. They're the things that have kept me in youth ministry for over a decade. They are the memories that dot the timeline, the camps and retreats and missions trips and small groups conversations and counseling meetings and spontaneous hang-out moments. Those are the marks of my first love.

If you're tired or cynical or wondering if this whole youth ministry thing is worth it, remember your roots.

Get back to the basics. Recall the reasons you got into this youth ministry gig. Remember those who poured their life and energy into you in the name of Jesus. Then, lean into His heart and do the same.

Monday, February 9, 2015

My Upcoming Book: Jesus Goes to the Movies

I love movies.

I love youth ministry.

I love writing.

So it's with great pleasure to announce that I recently turned in the first draft for my upcoming book:

Jesus Goes to the Movies: The Youth Ministry Film Guide.

That's the working title, at least. I rather like it. Essentially, I'm trying to articulate how and why I view movies, making the connections between film, theology, and the spiritual formation of young people. It's a book about theology, culture, critical thinking skills, history, discipleship, and youth ministry, all rolled into one. This is more than just a list of "good" or "bad" movies; it's about how to think about culture, Jesus, and the various forms of entertainment we consume.

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.

Here's a brief summary about Jesus Goes to the Movies:
We live in a movie culture. From YouTube and Netflix, Blu-ray and the box office, filmmakers are the theologians and bards of this generation. Our young people are saturated in a movie-watching ethos, yet they often don’t know how to think wisely or theologically about the films they consume. Since movies are so powerful and ubiquitous, how can we guide teens and young adults into becoming wise and discerning movie-viewers, an audience who looks at movies through a Jesus-colored lens? 
Jesus Goes to the Movies is the theological handbook for film-watching. Filled with engaging stories, thoughtful cultural critiques, and practical tools, this book will help young people know how to think about movies with wisdom and discernment, not just tell them what movies to watch or avoid. Beyond movie-watching, this guide will foster stronger critical thinking skills, a theology of engaging with culture, an understanding of worldviews, and a passion to love and follow Christ. Join cinephile and youth worker Joel Mayward in discovering the truth, beauty, and the grace of Jesus at the movies.
Jesus Goes to the Movies will be released by The Youth Cartel in later 2015 or early 2016. Keep checking back at for more updates, excerpts, and maybe a few movie-related surprises! You can subscribe to via email or RSS updates by subscribing through the links on the right of this page.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Movie Review: As It Is in Heaven

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)

What happens when the "things hoped for" simply don't happen? How can you be sure you're following the right convictions? Or is that the point of faith--to move forward in confidence even in the midst of uncertainty and doubt?

In Joshua Overbay's As It is in Heaven, the question of faith hangs in the eerie stillness of a small gathering of believers as they await the coming Lord. These faithful disciples find strength in the words of the Prophet, Edward, who tells them of Christ's imminent return. Worshiping and waiting in a large Kentucky farmhouse, Edward's charisma and kindness has drawn an eclectic band of believers. One of these believers is David (Chris Nelson), ruddy and handsome, with bright eyes (see 1 Samuel 16:12). When Edward is suddenly on his deathbed, his son Eamon (Luke Beavers) prepares to lead the religious sect, only to have Edward anoint David as the successor to lead the people into the presence of Christ. His charisma and passion notwithstanding, David's capacity as the next prophet is quickly called into question by both the disciples and himself. When he leads the group into a 30-day fast to await the Lord's coming, the tensions slowly start to build. Is he truly a prophet chosen by God?

A chilling, slow-burn thriller, As It is in Heaven is haunting in every sense. The beautiful Kentucky landscape is wonderfully captured in dream-like visions, while the orchestral soundtrack sets an unsettling tone for the alluring images. While this film draws parallels to Martha Marcy May Marlene--another film about the ongoing impact of cult paradigms and behavior--As It Is in Heaven centers on the cult's impact on its leader, not its followers. The film's focus is almost entirely on David; every other character reacts and responds to his words and actions, many of which are questionable or disturbing. David is an unsettling leader because he clearly cares so deeply about the people he is guiding, yet he is also young and frightened, caught up in a role he never asked for and likely wasn't ready to undertake.

Eamon is clearly the most distressed at David's leadership, and plays the role of foil to David's protagonist. But Eamon is also the only one who seems to clearly see David for who he is--a fraud. So it's strange that he doesn't see his own father in this light, even though both are considered Prophets of a doomsday cult. The world of this religious group is so cut off from the rest of society, isolated in its beliefs and chosen version of reality. Morals, decisions, convictions--they are all run through the controlling framework of "what would David say?" The filmmakers don't paint either David or Eamon as a clear hero or villain; both men are compassionate yet flawed, trying to make the most of the situation at hand and only seeking to do what's right in their own eyes.

Most frightening: As It Is in Heaven feels strikingly similar some churches and ministry leaders I've encountered. The sermons he preaches, the warnings and exhortations, the spiritualized excuses for behavior or immoral decisions, and the zealous worship all ring true to experiences within the evangelical realm. Only, this story is about a doomsday cult. These are ordinary people, mostly likable and considerate, simply trying to live by faith in a seemingly faithless world. They're no different from you and me, which is exactly the point. Sometimes it's unclear who the spiritual heroes and villains truly are. Discerning the true shepherds from the false ones requires wisdom, authentic community, and a strong hold on the truth. We're told in Scripture to recognize a true prophet by their fruits, whether or not they produce life or death in others.

As you watch As It Is in Heaven--and as you decide which faith tradition and leaders to trust--look for the fruits. To have assurance of things hoped for and certainty in the unseen, we'll need the courage and humility to know if and when we've gone astray. Beautiful, disturbing, and provoking, As It Is in Heaven invites us to question our faith in the healthiest possible way, to seek the truth in all things while praying for God's will to be done.

As It is in Heaven is available through online and streaming services, including Apple TV and iTunes, in the U.S. and Canada starting tomorrow, February 3.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

American Sniper

In an early scene from American Sniper, a young Chris Kyle receives some wisdom from his strict father: in this world, there are three kinds of people--wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs. He makes it very clear that there is no room for wolves or sheep in the Kyle family. Instead of humility or power, the primary value for the Kyles is one of protection. You defend your own. It's a value Chris will carry into adulthood as a Navy SEAL sniper in the Iraq war, defending his fellow military brethren through the estimated 160+ kills he inflicts upon the enemy.

American Sniper portrays Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) as a real-life version of G.I. Joe, "a real American hero." This heroism is due to his excellent sniper skills and seeming invincibility, earning him the title of "Legend" among the troops and a sort of celebrity status both with his peers and the Iraqi enemy. It's certainly a remarkable skill, as Chris is able to make difficult life-and-death decisions with a collected composure, breathing slowly and pulling the trigger with confidence. His first kills are a mother and son about to toss a grenade at a convoy, but this doesn't seem to bother him much. There are no scenes of haunted dreams or of emotional turmoil; Chris tucks any pain inside himself, only revealing it in a few brief (though cathartic) moments where tears well up in his eyes. He's a real cowboy, an American hero. And real cowboys don't cry.

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.

To ask questions about life and death, faith and God, morality and sin--those are irrelevant to the task at hand, which is to defend America and kill the enemy. For Chris, protecting his own is the prime objective, and it's the excuse he gives Taya when he's physically absent in Iraq and emotionally absent back home. He's protecting her, and that's that. When the mission is over, then he'll come home. So it's interesting in a final battle where Chris is escaping from incoming Iraqi troops, the three objects left behind in the dust are his helmet, his sniper rifle, and his Bible. What's to make of this image? Perhaps for Chris--and for many Americans--these objects are intertwined, vital weapons in the war before us which are deemed unnecessary when there isn't a conflict in need of our defense.

I don't want to critique American Sniper based on political leanings. To some degree, liberalism or conservatism don't matter. A well-made film deserves its awards and merits, and a poorly crafted film earns its appraisal. This is a mediocre war movie with strange editing choices, abrupt and jarring pacing, and a good-but-not-great performance from Bradley Cooper in the titular role. Secondary characters aren't given much to work with--Sienna Miller as Taya spends most of her scenes crying and complaining while Chris silently stares. When contemporary war films like Fury, The Hurt Locker, and Letters from Iwo Jima (a superior Clint Eastwood-directed war film) offer gut-wrenching portrayals of military life, brilliant performances and aesthetics, and manage to ask thoughtful spiritual questions about the nature of human depravity, I can't help but wonder why American Sniper is being so highly lauded, despite its flaws. Maybe we're unsure about who the real American heroes are these days. In a world filled with wolves and sheep, maybe we need a few more sheepdogs.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Mayward Oscars

The 2015 Oscar nominees have been announced, and as usual, it has people in distress. You can read the whole list of nominees here. The snubs and surprises, plenty of predictions, and lots of online chatter, all for an awards ceremony that doesn't necessarily highlight the actual *best* films and filmmakers of the past year (you can read my top 10 favorite films of 2014 here)

I have a love/hate relationship with Oscar. I recognize that the awards are akin to a high school student government race. You vote for your friends or the most popular people, the ones who have played their political cards right and charmed the crowds of voters. There are the usual guarantees--does Meryl Streep really deserve another nomination this year?--and the worthy films that were generally ignored despite their merits--The ImmigrantSelma and The LEGO Movie in particular. It's all a big elaborate display of religious idolatry; they even use golden statues! Yet, like so many, I still find myself drawn to the spectacle if only to see whether my personal favorites will be recognized for their achievements. And the hosts can be funny.

If I could created my own version of the Oscars, here are the winners of the Mayward Oscars (Note: there is some align with the Oscar nominees, but many films and categories here aren't included in the actual Academy Awards):

Best Picture: Selma

Best Director: Richard Linklater (Boyhood)

Best Actor: David Oyelowo (Selma)

Best Actress: Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night / The Immigrant)

Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

Best Supporting Actress: Tilda Swinton (Snowpiercer / Only Lovers Left Alive)

Best Original Screenplay: Whiplash

Best Adapted Screenplay: Guardians of the Galaxy

Best Foreign Film: Two Days, One Night

Best Animated Film: The LEGO Movie

Best Documentary: The Overnighters

Best Superhero Film: X-Men: Days of Future Past

Best Film I Didn't Really Understand: Horse Money

Best Horror Film: The Babadook

Best Biblical Film: Noah

Best Christian Film: Selma

Best Coming-of-Age Film: Ida

Best Performance by Batman: The LEGO Movie

What were your favorite films of the past year? What were your Oscar snubs and surprises?

Friday, January 9, 2015

Movie Review: Selma

One day / when the glory comes / it will be ours / it will be ours
One day / when the war is won / we will be sure / we will be sure
Glory. Glory. Glory. Glory.

Selma is the gripping biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This is how biopics are best told--intimate, personal, affecting, a behind-the-scenes dirt-and-all look at an important icon in American history without pandering to hero-worship or scornful criticism. Rather than attempt a sweeping story of King's entire life, Selma focuses on a particular moment in his life: the fight for voting rights for the black community and the subsequent demonstration and march from Selma, Alabama to the capital of Montgomery. Selma devotes all its energy to the actions and characters within this short period of time, and its better for it. This choice in storytelling allows for a focused narrative and increased depth in the characters--we are given an "inch wide and mile deep" instead of a "mile wide and inch deep."

So many scenes from Selma are etched in my mind: the startling opening scene with four little girls in a church; the 84-year-old grandfather crying over the death of his grandson; the intimate kitchen conversations between Martin and Coretta, especially when she asks him if he truly loves her; the Edmund Pettus bridge leading out of Selma and the battles waged upon it; the heated argument between president Lyndon Johnson and Alabama governor George Wallace; the speeches King gives throughout the film, but especially in the finale. These scenes come together as a compelling and affecting narrative. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay uses just the right amount of sentimentality without becoming mawkish; the tone of the film is haunting, genuine, and inspiring, and its message feels weighty without being heavy-handed.

Oyelowo is simply extraordinary in his portrayal of the American icon. He wholly embodies the spirit of King, especially the speeches and preaching. There is a power behind his voice, and no wonder people were either passionate followers or outraged detractors. One couldn't hear King's words and remained unmoved or apathetic. My heart raced, my eyes wet with tears, and King/Oyelowo's pleas and exhortations washed over me like a baptism into a rolling stream of justice. And Selma doesn't even show the historic "I Have a Dream" speech or the compelling "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." It would be a challenge for an actor to take on a role like this, carrying the mantle of a man who dramatically changed the course of American history. Oyelowo's performance sits alongside Daniel Day-Lewis's portrayal of Abraham Lincoln or Ben Kingsley as Gandhi--exemplary acting honoring exemplary men. In Selma, he is both confident and humble, a leader of a movement but also an ordinary man who was in need of encouragement, as he had been fighting for civil rights for nearly a decade at this point. He's a human being, a husband struggling to maintain the health of his marriage, a father who misses his children, a friend, and a pastor driven by his obedience to Christ.

This latter point strikes me as significant--Selma is a "Christian" film in the best sense of that term. It doesn't edit out or avoid the impact of Jesus Christ on King's decisions. Selma portrays Christianity in the best possible light, offering a real-life example of people who are compelled by obedience to Christ to stand for justice and work diligently to love our neighbor, regardless of location or race. When King calls for people who care about racial equality to come join them in Selma for the march, clergy of all types flock to the staging grounds, ready to walk alongside King and Christ for the movement of justice. Near the final act of the film, a worried security officer is worried that he cannot protect King if he chooses to walk into the Alabama capital. "Aren't you worried about your own safety?" he inquires. King's response is remarkable: turning aside and shot from over his shoulder as he looks through a dusty window, he replies, "I am not different than anyone else. But I must be obedient to God." His life is a compelling picture of vocational fidelity and commitment to doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.

Selma is a powerful film, a haunting film, and an important film. It's a must-see for pastors in America as we look to examples like Dr. King to be our prophets and the voice for justice. This sounds painfully obvious, but it must be said: racism is still a significant problem in America, and the church has not always been at the forefront of standing for compassion and change. Selma reminds us that the church can be a healthy force of compassionate good, a promoter of human rights and social justice in our society. Striving for racial equality and freedom is often an uphill battle filled with casualties, but it's a battle worth dying for. Selma points us to the glory to come, a picture of hope in the darkness of racial tension and systemic injustice.

But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
Amos 5:24