Friday, July 3, 2015

Half-Year Favorites for 2015

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

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

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

I have no non-Christian friends.

And that, frankly, sucks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Kristina Alexander (Creative Commons)

Monday, June 8, 2015

Let's Connect: Work With Me

I want to work with you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Parable of the Backwards Bike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 24, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Pre-Order "Jesus Goes to the Movies" Today!

Update: Pre-order the book on here.

My next book, Jesus Goes to the Movies: The Youth Ministry Film Guide has a publishing birthday: August 11, 2015. Check out the cover below:

Here's the back cover blurb:
Movies can and do have tremendous influence in shaping young lives in the realm of entertainment towards the ideals and objectives of normal adulthood.-Walt Disney

Today’s youth are growing up in a culture where films are no longer relegated to the big screen and the family television. Movies have spilled onto our computers, our tablets, and even our smartphones. Our young people are saturated in a movie-watching ethos, yet they often don’t know how to process the films they consume. How can we guide teens and young adults into viewing films through a Jesus-colored lens?

Drawing on engaging stories and thoughtful cultural critique, Jesus Goes to the Movies provides a framework for discipleship and faith formation. It offers youth workers a theology of movies that can be passed to the next generation, equipping them with critical-thinking skills, discernment, and the ability to engage the film culture surrounding them with wisdom, grace, and truth.
I'm so excited to get this book into the hands of youth workers and parents, but it's really for any person who wants to dive deeper into their faith and film. The first half of the book unpacks theological frameworks, worldviews, the history between Hollywood and Christianity, youth culture, and some very practical ways to engage with movies in youth ministry. The second half of the book is a rich resource of 50 film discussion guides, with movies ranging from last year's blockbusters to black-and-white classics, and everything in between.

You can get ready for my book's birthday right now by pre-ordering the book at The Youth Cartel's online store. Click on this link, and pre-order the book today, on sale for $17.49! Please share this post on Facebook and Twitter with your youth ministry and film-loving friends!

Looking forward to heading to the movies with you in August. I think Jesus will be there with us.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

"My name is Max."

Those are both the first and final words spoken by Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) in Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth chapter in George Miller's post-apocalyptic mythology. Max doesn't say much in Fury Road, partly due to circumstances--a metal grate attached to his face, or intense car chase sequences not suitable for small talk--but mostly due to his character: he is a man of great action and few words. His weary-but-sharp eyes reveal much of the complicated soul inside this weathered road warrior.

Max is quickly caught up in circumstances beyond his control, captured by a marauding gang from the Citadel, a desert butte-turned-fortress ruled by the depraved Immortan Joe, a disturbing villain who has set himself up as a deity ruling over the War Boys--his gang--and the suffering crowds below his elevated stronghold. When one of Joe's best warriors/drivers, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), takes off with a war rig and his harem of wives used for breeding, it sets off the chase sequence which makes up the bulk of the film. Essentially, Fury Road is an extended chase sequence, with Furiosa and Co. on the run from Joe's War Boys, various vehicular gangs, and the desert environment itself. Ever the loner, Max finds himself on the side of Furiosa and the liberated women in their search for a hope and redemption in a new, greener home.

I don't often make such expansive claims, but I'll do so here: Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the top 10 action films I've ever seen, and even a significant, historic addition to the action pantheon, fitting nicely alongside Die Hard, Hard Boiled, and Terminator 2 as action films that will stand the test of time as influential and groundbreaking. The design, the art direction, the choreography, the cinematography, the story, the world-building--every aspect of Fury Road is exceptional and valuable. There's not a single wasted scene, and this is the epitome of the motto "show, not tell." Fury Road is incredibly cinematic, a visual smorgasbord both beautiful and harsh in its palette. The performances are outlandish where they need to be, but often are quietly affecting, especially Theron as Furiosa. She truly is the star of the film, a powerhouse of femininity and strength, and a perfect partner in survival with Max. Filmmaker George Miller can move quickly from elaborate overhead shots of the desert landscape, to intense and gritty action moments alongside the vehicles, to intimate close-ups of the human face, particularly the eyes. This visual rhythm makes Fury Road both intimate and sweeping in scope--it's both ridiculously huge, and authentically accessible.

The best word to describe Mad Max: Fury Road is exceptional: uncommon, atypical, remarkable, freakish, outstanding, unique, special. I still cannot believe a Hollywood studio would pay to make this, sending movie stars and inane vehicles into the desert to get blown up. To put it bluntly, Fury Road is batsh*t crazy in the best way possible. Example: one vehicle in Immortan Joe's war party is essentially a stack of amps and speakers carrying four enormous drums and a blind maniac strapped by bungee cords who plays a flame-throwing electric guitar. If that sounds bizarre, yet intriguing...well, this is Mad Max, a steampunk-meets-Revelation action flick. Also, in a film genre where women are typically relegated to being sex objects or sidekicks--the recent Avengers: Age of Ultron hullabaloo is indicative of this propensity--Fury Road gives women agency, character, significance, and intelligence, all while retaining their femininity. Furiosa and Max are peers and partners; their relationship is no budding romance, but instead is marked by a growing care, empathy, and even friendship that compels Max to remain at Furiosa's side through thick and thin. And he's at her side, not the other way around.

The Mad Max films are unique as post-apocalyptic action narratives, and I appreciate how Max is always the reluctant protagonist, a wounded person reeling more from his personal tragedy than the world gone to hell. In each Mad Max film, he's caught up in circumstances where it initially has little or no agency to cause significant change, but eventually accepts his role in the narrative as someone able to heal and save others, even if he cannot save himself. He's never looking for trouble or on some mission; he's just wandering this world of fire and blood, angry and dejected, until some larger communal struggle pulls him into its center and he becomes a hesitant-but-eventually-willing savior. The Mad Max films remind us we can never survive and wholly live entirely in isolation. Max always ends up in some sort of community and embraced. True life beyond mere survival can only be experienced in the context of relationship. Yet despite the significant of community, Max also reminds us that the wilderness-both literal and spiritual--is often a lonely place. These deserts of personal pain are normative, and even healthy to navigate alone. Max is a man who has experienced great personal pain and trauma; he is the walking wounded. Max's journey towards healing becomes an ongoing dialogue between solitude and communal life. As he embraces community to liberate and redeem those who are lost, he, too, finds healing and redemption. 

I don't think it's an accident that Max is a "blood bag" to those who are dying in Fury Road, a universal donor whose very existence in this world of death can bring about restoration and new life. Fury Road is a sort of "reversed exodus" story, the movement of a small band of liberated people who end up returning to their place of captivity in order to start afresh. They discover the home they seek is right where they started, but only when that home is freed from tyranny and depravity. For Max and Furiosa, the only way to truly go home is through the long journey into the wilderness, akin to Walter Brueggeman's spirituality of the Psalms and its movement from orientation to disorientation to new orientation. Then the cycle continues, spiraling into greater depths as individuals and communities experience both great loss and hope. Mad Max: Fury Road is a thrilling picture of this spiritual cycle, as well as the best action film of the year (perhaps the decade). 

He is Max. "Max" means the ultimate, the limit, the intensity, the most. Mad Max: Fury Road certainly lives up to his name.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

On Fires and Football, or What Really Matters in Your Ministry?

Take a moment to examine the above photo. Do you see what's really happening?

There's a football game. And a fire. Simultaneously, and in close proximity. And it's not a fake or posed. Here's what's happening, from this post at
Spectators divide their attention as the Mount Hermon High School football team in Massachusetts hosts Deerfield Academy during a structure fire in the Mount Hermon science building on November 24, 1965. The science building was destroyed, and Mount Hermon lost the football game, ending a two-year-long winning streak.
What I find so fascinating is the spectators' willingness to ignore the clear danger and urgency of the volatile situation right next to them in order to stay focused on the game.

I wonder how often fire-and-football situations happen for our church ministries.

Are we focused on what really matters?

We can often focus on church program attendance or events. But what about underfunded local schools, racial and economic disparity, destruction and exploitation of creation, systemic abandonment of children and youth, lack of unity between church leaders, dissolving marriages, or the countless people in neighborhoods who don't know Jesus and will never attend our church programs?

In youth ministry, we may spend our time crafting the perfect game, the ideal video for our talk, or the well-crafted logo for our next summer camp flyer. But what about the teens in public schools who don't have an advocate or mentor in their life? What about the fearful youth struggling to find a place to belong due to same-sex attraction? What is being done about the homeless teens, the young women and men manipulated into sex trafficking, or the lonely emerging adults trying to find any sense of belonging and community?

It's not that programs don't matter. They have their place, just like football. But when there's an urgent situation--a fire--it can seem a bit trivial to focus on the football game in front of us. It's a question of values--what is important to us enough to draw our focus? Sometimes we need to pause the football game in order to address the fire.

We can examine our actual ministry values based on where we invest our time, attention, relationships, and money. What does your weekly schedule look like? What draws the majority of your attention? How much time is spent with actual real-life people, shepherding and discipling them in the ways of Jesus? What ministry tasks preoccupy your thoughts, conversations, and prayers? Where do your day-dreams lead? Examining our values helps us discern between the fire and the football, the life-and-death important stuff and the take-it-or-leave-it stuff.

What are the football games in your church? What are the fires in your community, your city? What do you think matters most for your church or ministry? What is taking the majority of your attention each week? Let me know what you think in the comments!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Top 10 Great Train Movies

Will you celebrate National Train Day this May?

I probably won't.

But that doesn't mean we can't remember and celebrate the best movies about trains. My son loves playing with trains. He has a huge toy train set that takes up a good portion of his bedroom. From Thomas the Tank Engine sheets, to the amazing TV show "Dinosaur Train," to shouting, "a train, Daddy!" at the sound of a distant horn, he adores trains.

These are ten great movies that prominently feature trains in their setting and story arc. More than just a few brief scenes, trains are significant in each of these films, with much or all of the film set on or around a train. Whether you're a train-lover or not, here's an eclectic look at great films featuring great trains:

10. Source Code (2011, Duncan Jones). In this heady sci-fi thriller set on a commuter train entering Chicago, a soldier wakes up inside the body of someone else and has eight minutes to find a bomb on the train. When the bomb explodes--as it inevitably does--he is sent back over and over again until he can find the terrorist behind the explosion.

9. The Train (1964, John Frankenheimer). Near the end of WWII, a German colonel attempts to steal priceless works of French art and take them back to German. He procures a train and loads it with his cargo, but is unaware the French resistance will try to stop him and the train at any cost.

8. The Darjeeling Limited (2007, Wes Anderson). This quirky Wes Anderson film centers on three brothers traveling on the Darjeeling Limited through India in search of their estranged mother. Hilarity and tragedy ensues.

7. Snowpiercer (2014, Bong Joon Ho). Set in a frozen future where the remnants of humanity live on a constantly moving train, this sci-fi allegory about class systems, wealth distribution, and injustice is an intense action film, and surprisingly funny.

6. Before Sunrise (1995, Richard Linklater). The first encounter between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) occurs on a train. The two sit and talk, walk and talk, eat and talk, and talk some more, all in the beautiful setting of Vienna.

5. Murder on the Orient Express (1974, Sidney Lumet). Featuring a phenomenal ensemble cast--Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, and Vanessa Redgrave--this British mystery based on an Agatha Christie novel was a box office success and won multiple awards. Also, Ingrid Bergman.

4. The Lady Vanishes (1938, Alfred Hitchcock). One of Hitchcock's earlier masterpieces--I also considered Strangers on a Train for this list--a few passengers on a train are alarmed when a fellow passenger suddenly disappears, but nobody seems to recall her existence. A gripping thriller made all the more claustrophobic and tense due to the train setting.

3. Brief Encounter (1945, David Lean). In a cafe at a train station, a fateful encounter between housewife and a doctor sparks a tragic romance. The desperate affair is set mostly in the train station, signifying the transitory and charged nature of the romantic tension between the two.

2. Arrival of a Train (1896, Lumiere Brothers). One of the very first publicly-shown films, and the center of a filmic legend--the audience members at a screening were alarmed when the oncoming train seemed about to crash right into them. Whether or not this is true, Arrival of a Train--a simple, 50-second silent film--remains a movie classic.

1. The General (1926, Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman). The greatest train film is Keaton's comedic action film, featuring Keaton as a bumbling conductor during the Civil War who embarks on an elaborate and hilarious train chase. The final sequence is legendary for featuring a collapsing bridge and an actual train wreck, shot in one impressive take.

What train films did I miss? Share your favorite train-related films in the comments!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Movie Review: Lost River

I wrote a review of Ryan Gosling's directorial debut, Lost River, for Reel World Theology, an excellent Christian film criticism blog hosted by Mikey Fissel and Josh Crabb:
Ryan Gosling’s debut as a director is an ambitious mess. As an actor, he’s come a long way from early films and matured into a capable, brooding, interesting actor who tackles a diverse load of projects. Lost River certainly ain’t The Notebook, and finds much in common with Gosling’s recent collaborative work with director Nicolas Winding Refn. Clearly influenced by Refn, David Lynch, and John Carpenter, Lost River features bizarre and haunting images stretched around a paper-thin plot that holds the viewer at a distance. 
The town of Lost River is dying, and so are the hopes of Billy (Christina Hendricks), a single mother with two boys living in the decrepit remains of her childhood home. Surrounded by abandoned buildings tottering from neglect, the only things that seem to thrive in Lost River are weeds, rust, and violent thugs. Billy’s teenage son Bones (Iain De Caestecker) earns money by stripping copper from the neighborhood in order to buy parts for his rusty car, though he’s always on the lookout for Bully (Matt Smith), the local small-time gangster. Billy takes on a new job from her banker, Dave (Ben Mendelsohn), who hires her as a performer for his seedy, morbid nightclub known for its pseudo-violent productions. Billy’s desperation is evident; she clearly doesn’t want her sons to know about her job, but she’ll also do anything to keep their house. Bones’ motives are unclear—we’re not sure if he’s trying to save the house, or earn enough funds to help his family escape their deteriorating environment. When Bones discovers an underwater city in the nearby reservoir, he turns to his neighbor Rat (Saoirse Ronan) for insight and friendship, plunging them into a dangerous journey to discover the history of Lost River and break the spell that seems to hold it captive.
Read the rest of the review here.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Top Youth Ministry Movies: Part 6

(Links to Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4, and Part 5. Link to Top Youth Ministry Movies You Can Show To Your Youth Group)

I love movies and I love youth ministry, so when the two interconnect, it's a beautiful thing. Here is part six of my top youth ministry movies: ten more films about adolescence, youth culture, discipleship, and identity formation, listed in alphabetical order. These aren't films for showing to your youth group; these are films for youth workers and parents to explore youth ministry themes. Use discretion and wisdom when deciding to watch any film, and let me know what you think about the films in the comments.

Au Hasard Balthazar (1966, Robert Bresson). A parable of grace and depravity through the eyes of a donkey. The film follows the donkey Balthazar as he is passed between owners, sometimes receiving love and compassion, but often experiencing abuse and violence. The human parallel to his experience is found in Marie, the young woman who is Balthazar's single gracious caretaker, though she often rejects him for other frivolities. Marie grows from a girl to a teenager, and engages in activities teens have always done--the rejection of parental authority, a draw into rebellious community, and a sexual awakening. Au Hasard Balthazar is a deeply frustrating film to watch, partly due to the violence inflicted upon the donkey, and partly because of the reasoning behind the violence. As in, there is none--much of the abuse appears haphazard, impulsive, and random. The titular phrase "au hasard" means "by chance" or "at random." Bresson offers us a picture of how the world often feels--a harsh place where people's choices often make little sense, goodness is rarely rewarded or noticed, and death awaits us all. Through all the randomness, Balthazar remains stoic and present, fully aware of the painful circumstances yet seemingly unable to stop them. One character calls him a saint. I'd consider him more of a martyr, a silent witness of human beauty and depravity.

Boyhood (2014, Richard Linklater). Boyhood is like a series of scenes that flash before one's eyes in the moments immediately prior to death, one's whole life in an immediate glance. Episodic and often with little context, each moment plays out with both ordinariness and profundity. Watching Boyhood is like opening up a stranger's family photo albums and glancing through all the pictures, trying to make sense of the person's life in the images. This can be a beautiful and a boring exercise, and Boyhood is frequently both. Richard Linklater's 12-year experiment in storytelling is a remarkable success, though Mason might be considered an overly passive and uninteresting character. By the third act, I was beginning to become fidgety from the tedium, hoping for a moment of catharsis that never fully came. I suppose real life is like that. Our personal narratives are a series of events, some more influential and transformative than others, yet simply a series of interconnected moments linked in time.

Class Enemy (2014, Rok Bicek). As a youth pastor and a cinephile, Class Enemy is right in my wheelhouse--a tense, relentless morality tale set in a high school classroom which kept me on my intellectual and philosophical toes for its entirety. It's a Slovenian film about a rigid substitute teacher and the escalating rebellion of his high school class in the wake of a classmate's suicide. What makes Class Enemy so fascinating and why it works so well is its ability to navigate the realms of the morally grey with apparent ease. Even the color palette is stark, using natural grey lighting from Slovenia to give a pale and monotone look to the film. Neither the teacher, the class, the parents, or the deceased student are the clear antagonist or protagonist--each elicits both sympathy and denouncement from the audience. Akin to 12 Angry Men, the film can feel taut and claustrophobic, a volatile film about ethics and groupthink.

Donnie Darko (2001, Richard Kelly). A bizarre sci-fi film about time travel, hypnosis, cellar doors, and a large creepy bunny named Frank, Donnie Darko has amassed a cult following due to its ambitious narrative and breakout performance from Jake Gyllenhaal. A brooding and lonely teenager, Donnie (Gyllenhaal) attempts to navigate the tragedies of his life by following the leadings of his invisible friend, Frank, a man in a bunny costume from another time/dimension. Darko offered a dark but sympathetic look at the underground world of teenage depression, anxiety, existential longing, and brokenness.

Ida (2014, Pawel Pawilkowski)The first thing you'll notice about Ida is the beauty. Shot in gorgeous black and white and structured in 4:3, every moment is out of a painting, picturesque and affecting. The story follows an innocent young nun, Anna, on the verge of taking her vows. She goes on a quest with her secular aunt, Wanda, to discover the secrets of her past and the dark history of both her origins and the Polish nation. A coming-of-age journey with a young woman wrestling with identity, spirituality, and her own ontology. Every person has a name, every person has a story, and every person undergoes a crisis of faith in their own way.

It Follows (2015, David Robert Mitchell). A creepy and original horror film, the "it" of It Follows is, at once, the consequences from our sexual actions, the lingering wounds of our past, and the impending certainty of death.  What I appreciate about It Follows and filmmaker David Robert Mitchell's previous film, The Myth of the American Sleepover, is its portrayal of teenagers and youth culture in America. The adults and authorities don't seem to be fully present in the film, and that's certainly intentional. I think Mitchell's films capture the systemic abandonment of youth by adults in our culture. Much like the abandoned and tottering Detroit homes, the era of the 1950s suburban nuclear family is crumbling and antiquated.

The Kid (1921, Charlie Chaplin). A silent masterpiece, Charlie Chaplin's classic opens with this title card: "A comedy with a smile--and perhaps a tear." A distraught woman abandons her newborn baby in a car, which ends up being stolen. The thieves discard the baby in the garbage, only to be discovered by a bumbling and lovable Tramp (Chaplin). The Tramp takes in the child and raises him as his own son. Their relationship is put in danger when officers and the mother attempt to take back the Kid. While the Kid is no more than a boy in the film, this is still a youth ministry film in my mind. When both individuals (the mother) and the system have abandoned the child, the kindness of the Tramp models the sort of compassion and care we can embody for teens.

The Spectacular Now (2013, James Pondsolt). Sutter (Miles Teller) is a charismatic high school senior who has built the reputation for being the life of the party. He plays hard, works little, and drinks often. His lack of ambition for the future and desire to live for the moment are the embodiment of the teenage spirit, the "spectacular now" of the present. When he feels drawn to Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a quiet and intelligent girl with hopes for the future, he's ultimately confronted with the vapidity of his lifestyle and the potential future (or lack thereof) it holds. Honest, contemplative, charming, and insightful, The Spectacular Now could be considered a version of Ecclesiastes set in the life of a suburban America teen.

Spirited Away (2001, Hayao Miyazaki). Hayao Miyazaki's animated masterpiece is a meditation on childhood, a prophetic voice for environmental care, and an ambitious fantasy that elicits admiration and wonder. A 10-year-old girl, Chihiro, wanders into an abandoned amusement park with her parents as they move from the city to the country. The reluctant Chihiro's fears are affirmed when her parents are suddenly turned into pigs and the family tumbles into a world of spirits, dragons, witches, and monsters. It's difficult to describe Chihiro's journey--Spirited Away is a film that simply must be seen, as its visuals, story, and imaginative grandeur are both childlike and mature, a perfect metaphor for the adolescent journey.

Wadjda (2012, Haifaa Al-Mansour). The first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia was also the first feature-length film from a Saudi female filmmaker. The story centers on Wadjda, an 11-year-old girl who dreams of owning a new green bicycle in order to race her neighborhood friend, Abdullah. The film addresses themes of gender roles, religion, marriage, and childhood as Wadjda's struggle to procure the bike parallel her struggle to grow up as an independent young woman (who wears purple-laced Converse shoes!) in a Muslim culture. An inspirational and affecting film, Wadjda joins the ranks of The Kid with a Bike, Breaking Away, and Bicycle Thieves as a bicycle-themed coming-of-age masterpiece.

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