Empty Yourself

Gaugain

“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8)

This is one of my favorite passages of Scripture. It’s Paul exhorting the Philippian church to emulate the humility of Christ–a countercultural concept especially within the intense honor/status culture of Philippi, a Roman colony. But it’s also a passage that speaks clearly to all Christians today. Christ-like humility is the way we should live. It all comes back to this.

In a culture that beckons us to broadcast ourselves, pose for the Selfie, maneuver for maximum online exposure and obsess about our social media followings… It all comes back to this. Amidst our impulses to privilege our success,  our security and our every whim and inkling in the direction of the great idol of happiness, it all comes back to this.

Humility. Pouring ourselves out for others rather than pontificating on Twitter or posturing on Facebook. Serving the needs of others before sulking about what we don’t have. Seeing ourselves rightly and privileging the Other in a culture that worships the sovereign self. As Spurgeon once said, “Humility is to make a right estimate of oneself.”

It’s simple, and yet it’s always a struggle.

If the most fundamental and original sin of mankind is pride, the most fundamental virtue is humility. It’s Christ-likeness in microcosm. It’s not thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought. It’s giving ourselves away for Christ and his gospel, which is also to say giving ourselves away for others.

Life is short. The universe is huge. I am but a tiny particle in a millisecond of God’s ongoing epic. No matter how great I think I am, my life is but a vapor in the wind. Humility isn’t just a virtue I’m called to; it’s reality.

On this Good Friday, I think John Wesley’s “Covenant Prayer” offers a beautiful articulation of what it means to humbly serve our Servant King:

I am no longer my own but yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed for you or laid aside for you, exalted for you or brought low for you. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.

And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours. So be it. And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

Review: Noah

Noah

[Excerpt from my review of Noah for Converge Magazine]

One of the images that lingers from Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is that of a huge rock protruding from the sea, with hundreds of screaming people climbing desperately to its top, being swept off like toys by mighty waves. In the background we see the massive wooden ark, peaceful and secure amidst the deadly raging sea. Inside, Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family are safe, but they can hear the screams of the dying outside.

Among other things, this horrific scene underscores the darkness of the Noah story. Though many children reared in Sunday School remember Noah’s ark through a cheerfully colourful flannelgraph lens, the tale is actually quite sobering. Aronfosky (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan) — not exactly a flannelgraph sort of filmmaker — does the story justice by confronting its disturbing darkness head-on…

Does Noah take liberties with the biblical account? Does it embellish and expand upon what’s there in the text? Yes and yes. And it must. The Noah account in the Bible covers four chapters in Genesis for a grand total of about 2,500 words. Everything that happened is surely not recorded. Furthermore, the film’s setting — a mere ten generations removed from Eden — is so unknown to history and so charged with mystery and the miraculous; it’s difficult to tell any sort of story in this context without lots of educated guesses as to what it was like.

Noah’s filmmakers must fill in the gaps to fill out a coherent cinematic story, speculating as to things we don’t know about. What was the mindset of Noah (who, apart from Gen. 9:25-27, never actually speaks in the biblical narrative) during this crazy episode in his life? What did his family think? What were the interactions between Noah and the wicked population doomed for destruction? Did Noah have a relationship with his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins)? The film explores all of this in the spirit of midrashic interpretation, and takes the story far beyond the source material. Some of it works and some of it doesn’t, but (as far as I can tell) none of it directly contradicts anything in the biblical account. Most importantly I believe the film — which ends up being an epic somewhere between Tolkien’s The Two Towers and Shakespeare’s Hamlet — retains the theological themes of the Noah story, powerfully bringing to life a “second Eden” tale that highlights both the justice and mercy of the Creator, a God of grace and second chances.

Read the rest of my review for Converge, in which I discuss the film’s environmentalism and drawn upon Tim Keller and Charles Spurgeon, here.

Also, read this piece I wrote for TGC on the question of what Christians should think about biblical movies made by secular filmmakers.

For a few other reviews of the film, check out those by Alissa Wilkinson and Steven Greydanus.

If you’ve seen Noah, what were your thoughts?

10 Films for Lent

A few years ago I thought it would an interesting challenge to think of films that reflected the heart of the season of Advent. You can see that list of “10 Films for Advent” here. This year I decided to create a similar list for Lent. What makes a film “Lenten”? As I thought about it, I first thought of images: films of desert, spartan landscapes; faces of lament and suffering; gray and drab color palettes. Then I thought of tone:  somber, contemplative, quiet, yet with a glimmer of hope or a moment of catharsis. Finally I thought of themes: suffering, isolation, hunger, penance, hope. I came up with the list below (in alphabetical order).

Ballast (2008): Lance Hammer’s debut film is a quiet (indeed, sometimes silent) look at the hard times of a downtrodden family in Mississippi. Amidst the film’s pervasive squalor, destitution, and grim grayness, there is an affirmation of life and a building towards hope. It’s a film about people on the brink getting a second chance, gradually finding their bearings and ballast as they move through the mire of life’s hard knocks.

Diary of a Country Priest (1951): French director Robert Bresson’s Priest charts the everyday struggles of a young priest trying his best to follow God’s will in shepherding a small parish in rural France. Quiet, contemplative, lonely, quotidian and yet transcendent (Paul Schrader would say), Priest is a gorgeous picture of a devoted-yet-imperfect believer leaning on God in the mundane isolation of modern life.

Gerry (2002): Gus Van Sant’s avant garde film is essentially a silent observation of two hikers (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) who get lost in the unforgiving deserts of the American Southwest. There are scant more than a couple dozen lines of dialogue to be found in its 103 minutes, nothing like a “plot” to speak of, and yet the film is utterly spellbinding. The desolate, waterless wilderness is ominous but strangely beautiful.

Hunger (2008): The debut feature from Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), Hunger is a raw, visceral depiction of IRA leader Bobby Sands’ 1981 prison hunger strike. Less political than existential, Hunger is about self-imposed suffering for a cause. Bleak, brutal, hard to watch, Hunger nevertheless ends with a note of hope/catharsis.

Into Great Silence (2007): Philip Gröning’s film is nearly three hours long, pretty much silent, actionless, and repetitive. But all of this is appropriate for a documentary about the ascetic life of monks. The film, like Lent, is quiet, contemplative, beautiful in its simplicity and a truly worshipful experience.

L’enfant (2005): I was debating which Dardenne brothers film to include here, because I think many of their films have a Lenten feel to them. I chose L’enfant (The Child) because of its cold, stark tone and its exploration of sin, suffering and penance. The “penance” part comes really only as a hint, in the final cathartic minutes, but what a powerful climax it is.

The New World (2005): Terrence Malick’s The New World centers on the story of Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher), whose journey in the film is decidedly Lenten. At one point she has her own “ashes to ashes” moment when she covers her face in ash and dirt as she grieves the supposed death of John Smith. She undergoes profound suffering in the film but is beautifully resilient, learning from every up and down and growing “towards the light” like a tree even when a branch breaks off.

Of Gods and Men (2011): A true story about monks in North Africa who risk it all in pursuit of their mission, Gods is one of the most inspiring films about faith, sacrifice, and community that I’ve ever seen. A quiet, austere, but utterly transcendent film, Gods paints a picture of what it means to be faithfully present as Christ’s ambassadors in hostile world. It’s a film about joy in suffering, and the beauty of picking up one’s cross in pursuit of Christ.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928): This silent masterpiece from Danish director Carl Dreyer provides an amazingly artful and moving account of the suffering and martyrdom of Joan of Arc. Shot almost entirely in close-up, the film’s striking images—especially Joan’s face—are gripping and evoke the holy, even in their spartan simplicity.

The Road (2009): John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel is a dark, gray, horrifying film about suffering and survival in a bleak post-apocalyptic landscape. This was actually the first film that came to mind when I thought about “Lenten films.” As dark and painful as the film is to watch, there is a quietness and slowness to it that engenders contemplation. And though 90% of the film feels like Good Friday, its hopeful ending nods in direction of Easter.

Ego and Influence

I recently was invited to contribute an article to the ERLC‘s excellent new “Canon & Culture” blog (which you should check out). I wrote about a topic I’ve thought a lot about: how does one truly make an impact on culture without obsessing over building platform, managing one’s personal “brand” and constantly doing and saying things specifically to rile up and expand an audience? How can artists, writers, and other cultural creators who truly care about ideas and art avoid the pitfalls of ego and hubris while also wanting their work to have a wide reach?

I wrote the essay “Ego & Influence” to think through these questions, inspired in large part by an article I read recently in The Atlantic discussing Lady Gaga and Banksy. In my reflections I note the work of everyone from Beyoncé and Jay-Z to Emily Dickinson and Terrence Malick. Here’s an excerpt:

The Atlantic published an insightful essay by James Bowen in November 2013 on this very topic. Bowen discusses the recent Warhol-esque mergers between pop stardom and fine art: Lady Gaga’s collaboration with Jeff Koons and Jay-Z getting jiggy with performance artist Marina Abramović. Rightly observing that both Gaga and Jay-Z “seem more interested in aligning themselves with art for its cultural cachet, rather than out of much appreciation for the work itself,” Bowen goes on to say that what’s even more significant “is the way that musicians such as Gaga and Jay-Z, artists like Abramović, and aspiring creative polymaths such as James Franco have put the projection of their own image and experience to the fore of their endeavors: They’re known more for being who they are than for what they create.”

Indeed, in our age of selfie-obsessed Insta-fame and TMZ celebreality, where “Kardashian” is code for the fame-for-its-own-sake celebrity industrial complex, it seems true that being famous is now infinitely more desirable than being excellent at something.

“If a tree falls in a forest…” applies here: If an actor delivers a dynamic performance in an art film that is ignored by critics, audiences and awards shows, is there any value to it? If a singer-songwriter records a masterpiece album and plays transcendently beautiful shows in small clubs, but never makes it to the Saturday Night Live stage or crosses over into the worlds of film and fragrances, are they to feel like a failure in the vein of, say, the title character from Inside Llewyn Davis?

In bygone eras celebrity was mostly an occasional byproduct of success; today it’s the standard by which success is measured. How many Twitter followers do you have? YouTube channel subscribers? What is the traffic on your blog? These questions are now more pressing to cultural creators than the process of cultural creation itself. But does it have to be this way? Must one secure their firstandlastname.com domain and obsess about their “brand” and “platform” in order to have a fighting chance at cultural relevance? Must we all be egocentrics in order to make a difference?

You can read the rest of the article here.

The Lent Project

I’ve been very honored to be a part of the initiatives coming out of the new Biola University Center for Christianity, Culture & the Arts, which launched at Biola back in September. In December the CCCA produced a wonderful online devotional series for Advent called “The Advent Project,” which offered daily liturgical reflections on art, music and Scripture. Last week we launched “The Lent Project,” which will mirror the style of the Advent Project.

I wrote the first devotional for Ash Wednesday, which you can read here. Here’s an excerpt:

For me Ash Wednesday symbolizes, rather neatly, what it means to be a Christian. It’s not about being beautiful or powerful or triumphant; it’s about being scarred and humble and sacrificial. This is not to say it’s about defeat, despair or self-flagellation. On the contrary, to “give up” or “sacrifice” in the name of Christ is (or should be) the height of our joy. Suffering is not something to shrink from. Giving ourselves away to others is our calling. Dying to ourselves is our glorious inheritance.

“Whoever loses his life for My sake will find it,” said Jesus (Matt. 16:25). “To live is Christ and to die is gain,” wrote Paul (Phil. 1:21).

We should strive to be like Christ, “who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame…” (Hebrews 12:2).

For the joy set before him… That should be why we endure suffering and embrace self-denial. It’s paradoxical and mysterious and counterintuitive — certainly. But when I feel the cold ashes spread across my forehead on Ash Wednesday, it makes some sort of wonderful sense.

Check out the full Lent Project at http://ccca.biola.edu/lent/ and click on the RSS button at the bottom if you’d like to subscribe to the daily devotionals.

Spiritual Themes in 2013′s Best Films

I recently hosted a video panel discussion on 2013′s best films for the Biola University Center for Christianity, Culture & the Arts. In the discussion, which you can watch below, I discussed the spiritual resonances of 2013 films alongside film professors Lisa Swain and Nate Bell and student/writer Mack Hayden. Among the films we discussed: All is Lost, Inside Llewyn Davis, Her, To the Wonder, Prisoners, Stories We Tell, Museum Hours, Frances Ha and The Wolf of Wall Street. 

R.I.P. Philip Seymour Hoffman

It’s always tragic when a great talent dies young. The death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman at age 46, however, hits me especially hard. As actors go, Hoffman wasn’t just great. He was a genius. He was the type of dynamic, passionate actor who gave it his all in every role, making even small roles utterly huge. His career happened to coincide largely with my own awakening to the beauty of what cinema could be. I first noticed him when I saw Twister in fifth grade. It sounds silly now, but I remember thinking he was the best part of the film. In high school, he blew me away in films like Magnolia, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Almost Famous. As I eased into a part-time career as a film critic in college and after, Hoffman was a frequent force in some of my favorite films: 25th Hour, Capote, Synecdoche, New York, Moneyball, The Master. His filmography really does read like a greatest hits of the contemporary indie/auteur boom.

My favorite Hoffman film is probably Capote (2005), for which he won the Oscar for best actor. Not only is it his best performance in a career full of exceptional performances, but it’s the performance that I think I’ll remember him by. His take on Truman Capote is so very humane, yet so tortured, like the actor himself. The film itself is cold, bleak and beautiful, set on the harsh plains of my native state (Kansas). Its quiet spirit and yet foreboding nature makes Capote a film that ultimately feels like an elegy to Hoffman’s own life: a artist in pursuit of beauty, committed to excellence and the elusive masterpiece, yet haunted by the immensity of the existential questions he so thoroughly excavated in his work. Like many artists, including some he portrayed–Capote for instance, or Synecdoche‘s Caden Cotard–Hoffman was clearly present in his work, fully immersed to the point that greatness was possible, but not without great personal cost.

We’ll never know what brilliance could have come in Hoffman’s middle and old age, but we do know that he gave the world some beautiful things in his time. I’m thankful for that, and thankful for his life.