On the Poor Quality of Christian-Made Movies: A Proposition

GodsNotDead

A year ago at this time, discussion of Hollywood’s “religious renaissance” began in earnest. Movies like Son of God, Noah, Heaven is for Real and God’s Not Dead were preparing to release, with more faith-oriented films set to come out later in the year (Mom’s Night Out, The Identical, Left Behind, Exodus). A year later, after mixed box office results and plenty of heated blogosphere chatter, what have we learned about what works and what doesn’t when faith and film collide?

There is a lot that could be said about this topic, and a lot that has already been written. Brandon Ambrosino’s excellent recent Vox piece, “Why are Christian movies so painfully bad?” summarizes many of the key themes. I’ve done a lot of thinking and writing about this topic over the years and hate to belabor familiar points, but the increasing ubiquity and decreasing quality of the “by and for Christians” genre has me pondering anew what is wrong and what can be done. 2014 saw a new low for an already low bar, after all.

Take a look at the following list of “made by and for Christians” films, with their Rottentomatoes.com scores in parentheses: Son of God (21%), God’s Not Dead (17%), Heaven is for Real (46%), Mom’s Night Out (18%), The Identical (7%), Left Behind (2%), Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas (0%). The average score of these seven films is 16%. Even Christian critics joined the critical consensus in acknowledging the poor quality of these films.

Peter Chattaway called God’s Not Dead “a sloppily written, badly argued, unevenly acted film,” and suggested that “if this becomes the standard for all Christian films to come, then the genre is truly in deep, deep trouble.” The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday, who recently wrote about being a Christian and a film critic, described Mom’s Night Out as a “strained, clunkily orchestrated and dismally retrograde film.” Christianity Today critic Jackson Cuidon gave Left Behind half of a star (out of four), writing that “Left Behind is not a Christian Movie, whatever ‘Christian Movie’ could even possibly mean.”

Why are these movies so terrible? I’d like to propose that the problem is propositional. That is, these are films that reflect the propositional bent of evangelicalism (think three point sermons with clear “life application” takeaways).

Consider the very titles of God’s Not Dead and Heaven is for Real. They are themselves propositions, unambiguous assertions stating a truth: God is NOT dead! Heaven is for REAL! The films’ flimsy conflicts are only temporary doubts and objections systematically overcome en route to the black-and-white conclusions already asserted in their titles. God’s Not Dead is literally mostly an argument in a lecture hall, and Heaven is For Real spends far too much time literally preaching from the pulpit.

Art should neither preach nor lecture, and yet many Christian films do too much of both, telling us what faith is rather than showing us.

It’s not that films shouldn’t have messages; they should. But the message should not be a foregone conclusion based on the title, nor should it (I would argue) be self-evident even after the end credits roll. The best art gives shape to a “message” (or maybe “reflection” or “revelation” are better words) that is considered, wrestled with, debated and engaged far after we initially encounter it. And sometimes the construal of a message is secondary to the experience of beauty; something few Christian filmmakers seem to understand.

Christians should be the first to acknowledge that the mysteries of God and the grace of Jesus Christ are not concepts to be understood or arguments to be won as much as goodness we receive, beauty that confronts and truth that transforms. This is why art is so urgent and necessary. It sometimes comes the closest to capturing the aspects of religious truth and transcendent experience that words, sermons and propositions cannot adequately communicate.

When I think about the most affecting “Christian” films to come out in 2014, the ones that come to mind are not the clear-cut, “the answer is in the title” films but rather the ones that feature complex portraits of believing characters or journeys of faith. Films like Calvary, Ida, The Overnighters and Selma are powerful films that take belief seriously yet do not present tidy resolutions to the tensions they explore. They are powerful in part because they are sincere without being saccharine and beautiful without being unblemished. It’s perhaps notable that the average Rottentomatoes.com score of these four films is 95%. Critics are not inherently opposed to sincere films about Christianity. But what they respond to is not a message preached or points made as much as truths explored and beauty unveiled.

The problem of the “by and for Christians” films is that they assume that the packaging or the how of storytelling is important only insofar as the what being proposed is clearly and unmistakably communicated. It stems from the evangelical failure to recognize that the relationship between medium and message is inextricable rather than incidental.

Most evangelicals acknowledge that the medium is important, and for that reason they often put lots of money and resources into the latest and greatest communication technologies: using the newest and most expensive cameras to make their movies; expertly employing social media in their ministries; hiring design firms to create cutting edge brand identity for a church. But making medium a point of emphasis is not enough. Christians need to recognize that medium and message are related to each other in an ontological and not just instrumentalist way. Style, form, packaging, etc. cannot and should not be employed simply in service of the message. They are the message. To see the forms of art and worship as irrelevant or merely instrumental to the communication of content is dangerous and downright Gnostic.

Evangelical filmmakers need to focus on becoming masters of form not so that they can make the message more pretty; but because form can itself be a powerful message, revealing things that might otherwise be lost if we focused solely on the intelligibility or “takeaway value” of what we have to say. The saying itself, and the living, matter at least as much as what is said.

The Incarnation is the perfect example of this. Jesus was not formless content or simply content with form. He was the Word made flesh, fully God and fully man, salvation and hope in embodied, storied form. He wasn’t just a walking powerpoint presentation; he healed and lived and worked his way through a very specific story. In the fullness of time God sent his son because He recognized that the salvation of humanity required not a message but a man; not concepts but a cross: a real, tangible, splintery, beautifully ugly cross.

Church Should be Uncomfortable

the holy book

I grew up attending Baptist churches in the Midwest–the kind where men’s quartets sing gospel songs as “special music” but no one dares raise their hands during a worship song. For most of my 20s I attended a Presbyterian church where things like Maundy Thursday and Advent candles were a big deal. These days I consider myself Reformed and read books about Thomas Cranmer for fun. My ideal church service would involve the Book of Common Prayer, an organ, eucharist and a sermon out of a Pauline epistle that referenced everyone from Augustine and Spurgeon to Marilynne Robinson and N.T. Wright. In my dream church the “peace” would be exchanged every Sunday, ashes imposed every Ash Wednesday, and G.K. Chesterton discussed in the high school youth group.

The picture I’ve just painted of my “dream church” looks nothing like the church where I am now a member. The local church where I now serve is non denominational, meets in a renovated warehouse and has no liturgical bent. The music is loud and contemporary. It’s Reformed-ish but Holy Spirit focused, with impromptu “words” from the congregation and quiet prayer in tongues a not-uncommon occasion. To be honest the worship services often make me a bit uncomfortable.

And I’m perfectly happy with that. I love my church.

Talking about one’s “dream church” is–increasingly, I’ve come to think–an exercise in not only futility but flat-out gospel denial. The church does not exist to meet our every need and satisfy our various checklists of tastes and “comfort zone” preferences. If anything it exists to destabilize such things. The church should draw us out of the dead-eye stupor of a culture of comfort-worship. It should jostle us awake to the reality that comfort is one of the greatest obstacles to growth.

The two years I’ve attended my current church have been difficult and full of discomfort, but also probably the most spiritually enriching two years of my life. There’s serious wisdom in the familiar adage to “get out of your comfort zone.” Nothing matures you quite like faithfulness amidst discomfort.

For too long the mantra in Christian culture has been seeker-sensitive and “have it your way.” The mentality has been consumer comfort. Find a church that meets your needs! Find a church that feels like home! Find a church where the worship music moves you, the pastor’s preaching compels you and the homogenous community welcomes you! If it gets difficult or uncomfortable, cut ties immediately; there are a dozen other options waiting to be discovered!

But this model doesn’t work. Not only is it coldly transactional (what have you done for me lately?) and devoid of covenantal commitment (seeker-sensitive church attendance is basically a Kim Kardashian marriage without a prenup), it’s also anti-gospel. A true gospel community is not about convenience and comfort and chai lattes in the vestibule. It’s about pushing each other forward in holiness and striving together for the kingdom, joining along in the ongoing work of the Spirit in this world. Those interested only in their comfort and happiness need not apply. Being the church is difficult.

In Love in Hard Places, D.A. Carson suggests that ideally the church is not comprised of natural “friends” but rather “natural enemies.”

What binds us together is not common education, common race, common income levels, common politics, common nationality, common accents, common jobs, or anything of the sort. Christians come together, not because they form a natural collocation, but because they have been saved by Jesus Christ and owe him a common allegiance. In the light of this common allegiance, in light of the fact that they have all been loved by Jesus himself, they commit themselves to doing what he says – and he commands them to love one another. In this light, they are a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus’ sake.

Taking up the challenge of committing to a local church is incredibly difficult but decidedly biblical. You don’t have to read much of the New Testament to see how messy things get when natural enemies commit to being the unified people of God (e.g. Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, etc… Gal. 3:28). It’s inevitably uncomfortable but undeniably important.

The thing is, young people today resonate with this. They’re sick of being sold spiritual comfort food. They want to be part of something that isn’t afraid of a challenge, something that has forward momentum and doesn’t slow down so that the fickle, oh-so-important Millennials can decide whether or not they want to get on board. They want a community that is so compelled by the gospel and so confident in Christ that they pay little heed to target-demographics and CNN articles about what twentysomethings are saying today about their “dream church.”

College students I know are not interested in a church with a nice shiny college ministry. They want a church that is alive, bearing fruit and making disciples. The young professionals in our life group do not meet week after week because hanging out with a diverse array of awkward personalities after a long day’s work makes their lives easier. No. They come because there is power in living beyond the comfort of one’s own life. There is growth when believers help each other look outside of themselves and to Jesus.

Looking outside of oneself. Serving someone beyond the self. Putting aside personal comfort and coming often to the cross. This is what being the church means.

It means worshipping all together without segregating by age or interest (e.g. “contemporary” or “traditional”). It means preaching the whole counsel of God, even the unpopular bits. It means fighting against homogeneity and cultivating diversity as much as possible, even if this makes people uncomfortable. It means prioritizing the values of church membership and tithing, even if it turns people off. It means being OK with the music that is played even if it’s not your favorite style. It means sticking around even when the church goes through hard times. It means building a tight-knit community but not an insular one, engaging the community and sending out members when mission calls them away. It means bearing with one another in love on matters of debate and yet not shying away from discipline. It means preaching truth and love in tension, even when the culture calls it bigotry. It means focusing on long-term healing rather than symptom-fixing medication.

None of this is easy, and none of it is comfortable. But by the grace of God and with the Holy Spirit’s help, uncomfortable church can become something we treasure.

Favorites of 2014

Mad Men

For the past few years on this blog I have spent much of the month of December compiling best-of lists of various genres (books, movies, music, food). This year I’ve decided to list all my favorites of the year in one place. In addition to simply being a fun activity for me to reflect back on the year, I hope the following also serves the purpose of putting some good recommendations on your radar. Below are, in order, my favorite books, films, documentaries, TV shows, albums, songs and food experiences of 2014. What were your favorites of 2014?

BOOKS: 
I try to read new books at least as much (and hopefully more) as I watch new films and television, and this year there were quite a few that I loved or greatly admired. Below are my favorite books released in 2014:

  1. Lila by Marilynne Robinson
  2. Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness by Richard Hays
  3. Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World by Michael Horton
  4. How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor  by James K.A. Smith
  5. Beginning With the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief by Roger Lundin
  6. Once in the West: Poems by Christian Wiman
  7. United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity by Trillia Newbell
  8. 1927: One Summer by Bill Bryson
  9. Theology and California: Theological Refraction on California’s Culture edited by Fred Sanders and Jason Sexton
  10. Culture and the Death of God by Terry Eagleton

MOVIES: 
In spite of North Korea-sponsored hacks and Hollywood’s subsequent self-censorship, constant doomsday talk of box office decline and much ink spilt about The End of Movies, it was a terrific year for cinema. It’s always difficult in years like this to narrow down to ten favorites, but  below is my attempt. These are films that moved me, astonished me, taught me, and focused my attention more clearly than any others this year. I heartily recommend them all to you.

Top 10 Movies (more detailed descriptions here): 

  1. Boyhood
  2. Two Days, One Night
  3. Under the Skin
  4. The Immigrant
  5. Locke
  6. Noah
  7. Ida
  8. It Felt Like Love
  9. Calvary
  10. Only Lovers Left Alive

Honorable Mention: Cold in July, Foxcatcher, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Interstellar, Nightcrawler, Night Moves, Snowpiercer, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely,  The Wind Rises, Whiplash.

Top 10 Documentaries: 

  1. The Overnighters
  2. Life Itself
  3. Manakamana
  4. Rich Hill
  5. The Unknown Known
  6. The Internet’s Own Boy
  7. Desire of the Everlasting Hills
  8. Mitt
  9. Sing Over Me
  10. Korengal

TELEVISION: 
The onward march of television’s cinematic ascent continued in 2014, as “prestige” TV become more than the norm than the novelty it once was. These days, television is mostly where artistic boundaries are being pushed. It’s exciting to see, even as it’s a bit overwhelming given how much quality there is and how little time one has to see it all. I admit I’ve not watched nearly as many of the acclaimed shows as I wished to. Of those I did see, here are my favorites.

Top 5 Television Shows: 

  1. True Detective
  2. Mad Men
  3. The Leftovers
  4. Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts
  5. The Walking Dead

MUSIC: 
I suspect that I purchased fewer albums this year than I did any year in the last two decades. But I probably listened to more new music this year than I have in years (thank you Spotify!). Is this a good thing? Probably not for the artists (Taylor Swift, of all people, became their advocate this year). But for music lovers, it’s great! More opportunities to enjoy all the creative variety that is out there.

Top 10 Albums:

  1. War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream 
  2. The Antlers, Strangers
  3. Sleeping At Last, Atlas: Year One
  4. Sam Smith, In the Lonely Hour
  5. Chromeo, White Women
  6. Erik Hassle, Somebody’s Party EP
  7. Bombay Bicycle Club, So Long, See You Tomorrow
  8. RAC, Strangers
  9. Sun Kil Moon, Benji
  10. St. Vincent, St. Vincent

Honorable Mention: New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers; Real Estate, Atlas; Beck, Morning Phase; First Aid Kid, Stay Gold; Coldplay, Ghost Stories; Bootstraps, Bootstraps; Matthew and the Atlas, Other Rivers; Pharrell Williams, GIRL, Mr. Little Jeans, Pocketknife, Ghost Beach, Blonde.

Best Songs of 2014: Spotify playlist here.

FOOD
For the past few years, in keeping with the cultural genres I explicated in my book Gray Matters, I’ve also made year-end lists of the best food I ate that year. Not only is this relatively easy to do (taste is remarkably tied to memory), but it’s a fun and I think beneficial exercise in gratitude for the blessed gift of culinary art, which so often gets relegated to disposable, forgettable consumption. As with any list of this sort, the act of remembering and praising that which is memorable and praiseworthy can, I think, be a healthy process.

Top 10 Savory:

  1. KGB (Paris) – Grilled White Tuna, tomatoes, sesame and balsamic
  2. The Clove Club (London): Steamed Cornish turbot, courgette, basil & Indian spiced butter
  3. KGB (Paris) – Grilled and confit pork, white peach and galanga condiment
  4. Little Beast (Eagle Rock): Crispy brussel sprouts with sweet potato, maple vinaigrette, cashew and mori
  5. Cafe Constant (Paris) – Beef stew with boiled potatoes and carrots
  6. Wedgewood (Edinburgh) – Cheddar and onion bread and butter pudding, roast tomato, soused fennel, fennel ice cream
  7. The Old Parsonage (Oxford) – Rabbit, girolle, onion and garlic savory pie
  8. Lockeland Table (Nashville) – Empanadas with chimichurri
  9. Fifty-Seven L.A. – Hot Parker House rolls with local olive oil
  10. Pizzeria mozza (Newport Beach): Goat cheese, scallions, leeks, garlic and bacon pizza

Top 10 Sweet:

  1. KGB (Paris) – Confit apricot, ginger, meadowsweet flower ice cream
  2. Galette Cafe (Paris) – Caramel apple buckwheat crepe with ice cream
  3. Cafe Constant (Paris) – Ile flottante with salty caramel sauce
  4. Fatamorgana (Rome): Basil, honey and walnut gelato
  5. The Abingdon (London) – Sticky toffee pudding with clotted cream
  6. Little Beast (Eagle Rock): Warm “Fallen Apple” pastry with dulce de leche and vanilla cream
  7. Ristorante PorriOne (Siena): Sunchoke Ice Cream
  8. Ristorante Il Campo (Siena): Cioccolata Calda
  9. KGB (Paris) – Mango and passion fruit cappuccino with vanilla ice cream
  10. The Clove Club (London) – Lea Valley strawberries and cream

Top 5 home-made (by Kira Joy McCracken):

  1. Ribollita
  2. Apple pie with streusel topping and homemade vanilla ice cream
  3. Pumpkin pecan sugar cookies
  4. Butternut squash, sage and ricotta pizza
  5. Crostini with whipped feta, tomatoes and shallots

A Prayer for Christmas

26--remb_aanb_herders2_grt_advent_image

I was asked by Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture & the Arts to pen a Christmas day reflection for the “Advent Project,” reflecting in part on Rembrandt’s painting, “The Adoration of the Shepherds.” Here is part of what I wrote, followed by a prayer:

In the nativity there is the joy of the world’s deliverance and the tragedy of what it will cost. There is the child and there is the cross. Light and dark.

We see it well in Rembrandt’s Adoration of the Shepherds. The painting is all about darkness and light. The newborn Messiah is the brightest source of light in an otherwise dominantly dark scene; brighter even than the lantern held by a bystander. He is the light of the world. But notice what looms in the darkness in the upper half of the painting: the beams in the rafters form a cross.

The joy of Advent is inextricable from the pain of sin, suffering and longing. Joy’s potency comes not from negating suffering but from relating to it, emanating from it, embracing the longing. Joy is Sehnsucht, wrote C.S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy: “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”

The curious tension of joy is beautifully present in Advent, a season of celebration but also longing. We rejoice over God’s coming to dwell with us and redeem the world. And we wait, wait, wait for the day when he will return to bring justice and peace to this unjust and bloody planet. In the meantime we exist in a state of hopeful expectancy, a frail world that wearily waits for a new and glorious morn.

Prayer:

Father,
Thank you for your illuminating light.
You, who let there be light in the beginning,
Whose light shines on those living in the land of darkness,
Who remains the light of the world,
Shine brightly.
Overcome the darkness.
Shine through us.
Let your light shine in us, before men, so that they would glorify you.
Let the Light of your presence guide us,
for in your Light do we see light.
Enlighten us, Oh Lord.
Help us to walk in the light, as You are in the light.
So that others would see and know
The joy of knowing You.
Amen.

Read the rest of the post here.

Best Films of 2014

BOYHOOD

In spite of North Korea-sponsored hacks and Hollywood’s subsequent self-censorship, constant doomsday talk of box office decline and much ink spilt about The End of Movies, it was a terrific year for cinema. It’s always difficult in years like this to narrow down to ten favorites, but  below is my attempt. These are films that moved me, astonished me, taught me, and focused my attention more clearly than any others this year. I heartily recommend them all to you:

10) Only Lovers Left Alive: Jim Jarmusch has long been one of my favorite directors, and his goth-hipster take on the vampire genre did not disappoint. Starring the always wonderful Tilda Swinton and Tom “Loki” Hiddleston as a pair of vampire lovers with impeccable taste (Basquiat, Lord Byron, David Foster Wallace), Only Lovers Left Alive is both darkly funny, elegant and mournful in a way only Jarmusch (Down By Law, Broken Flowers) can quite pull off.

9) Calvary: This dark comedy from John Michael McDonagh (Ned Kelly) tells the story of an Irish priest (Brendan Gleeson) who receives a death threat from one of his parishioners. The film plays at times like a Clue-esque whodunit but what I found most compelling about it is how it shows the day-to-day ministry of a priest caring for his flock. Against the backdrop of a post-Christendom Europe, where churches and clergy are viewed by many with suspicion if not contempt, Calvary shows one the beauty of one man’s faithfulness and burden for the lost.

8) It Felt Like Love: This stunning debut film from Eliza Hittman follows a 14-year-old girl (Gina Piersanti) in Brooklyn as she navigates relationships and sexuality in those awkward girl-to-woman years. Subtle, realistic, quiet and immensely perceptive, the film reminded me a bit of Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2010). More than anything I’ve seen, It Felt Like Love shows the disturbing ways that our sex-saturated society and misogynistic media landscape warp young people’s senses of love, body image, relationships and sexuality.

7) Ida: This Polish film from Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love) is quiet, spare (filmed in black and white) and understated, yet it packs a punch. Set in the devastated (physically, emotional, existentially) landscape of post-Holocaust Poland, the film follows a novitiate nun as she discovers details about her family from the time of the Nazi occupation. Perhaps the most beautifully shot film of the year, Ida is also one of the most insightful films I’ve seen about the lingering ghosts of WWII in contemporary Europe.

6) Noah: I’ve been unabashed in my acclaim for Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and my insistence that, in spite of all the controversy surrounding the ROCK MONSTERS, “liberties taken with the story” and accusations of Gnosticism, it’s actually a pretty excellent film–one of Aronofsky’s best. Not only is it a great film but it’s a rather reverential one too, taking faith in God more seriously (ironically) than some of the more on-the-nose God films that came out this year (I’m looking at you, God’s Not Dead). Yes, its an unfamiliar take on the story. Yes, it’s environmentalist (so is the Bible). Yes, it draws from more than just the Bible in its telling of a biblical story (so did The Passion of the Christ). Whatever. I loved it, I’m a Christian and my faith is richer because of this film. (my review)

5) Locke: The more I think about this film, a one-man-in-a-car-for-90-minutes tour de force from Tom Hardy, the more I find it impressive. Not only is it another fine entry into the growing genre of “minimalist actor showcase” films (see also: Robert Redford in the criminally under seen All is Lost), but it’s also a master class in filmmaking. Only after the film is over, and just as you’re getting used to Hardy’s peculiar Welsh accent, does the force of its power start to hit you. It’s a film that doesn’t tell you what it’s about but reveals itself over time (days, weeks, months in my case) and after much reflection to be a film that is about nearly everything. Countless times over the last few months, whether reading Genesis, watching the news, dealing with relational stress or driving the L.A. freeways, my thoughts have returned to Locke. That’s the mark of a great film. (my review)

4) The Immigrant: The latest from James Gray (Two Lovers, We Own the Night), The Immigrant is a glorious and deceptively simple throwback to classic Hollywood melodrama. Featuring exceptional work from the always terrific Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix, The Immigrant explores the very American mingling of God and mammon, as well as grace and work, as it tells the tale of America’s messy dream. (my review)

3) Under the Skin: Jonathan Glazer’s follow-up to his stylish enigma Birth (2004), Under the Skin is a similarly provocative exploration of what it means to be human, particularly what it means to be embodied. Starring Scarlett Johansson in her second non-human role in a row (see also: Her), Under the Skin is quite literally about skin: the phenomenon of a soul clothed in a body, of our bodily substance, of what an alien’s gaze at the awkwardness of humanity might look like if it spent some time in our shoes. It’s also about incarnation, which is also a theme in Her. In the midst of our disembodying, digital age, films like these help remind us of the complexity and wonder of what it means to be human.

2) Two Days, One Night: The Belgian Dardenne brothers (The Son, The Child, The Kid With a Bike) make masterpieces so often it would be easy to take them for granted. “It’s just another tour-de-force triumph of humane neorealism,” one might say of their latest film, Two Days, One Night. “Ho hum.” But the film, starring Marion Cotillard (her second Oscar-worthy performance of the year, in my estimation), is nevertheless worthy to be counted among the best movies of the year, even if it feels like another effortless outing in Dardenne-land. What makes Two Days stand out this year is how timely it seems, touching as it does on issues of depression and mental health, as well as economic malaise and the struggle between individual profit and collective responsibility. Like all the Dardenne brothers’ films, Two Days feels beautifully specific and yet at the same time universal–a film about a woman, a husband and a community which we can all identify with.

1) Boyhood: Even if its acting and story were a bust (they aren’t), Richard Linklater’s Boyhood would still be something of a monumental achievement in cinema. Shot over 12 years (the patience!) with the same actors, showing on film the real growing up of a boy (real in the sense of each year he is visibly older, as are his family members), Boyhood chisels away from a mound of time to form an unprecedented cinematic sculpture of temporality and family-shaping childhood development. It’s sort of like the Up series meets David Brooks’ The Social Animal. As I’ve reflected on the film I’ve thought about the inaccessible reality of one’s childhood: photographs and video documentation of it may exist, and one has memories. But they are fading and will one day disappear, as will the physical artifacts and photos. Eventually one’s descendants will render their life only sketchily in their imaginations, and then not at all. The power of films like Boyhood is that they do what any human with memories longs to do: they reconstruct the elusive past, vividly conjuring holy moments of old that would otherwise be lost. (my review)

Honorable Mention: Cold in July, Foxcatcher, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Interstellar, Nightcrawler, The Wind Rises, Snowpiercer, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely,  Selma, Whiplash.

Note: Several of the films on this list contain content (violence, nudity, sex, drugs, language, etc.) that should be approached with caution. 

Advent Time

Screen Shot 2014-12-03 at 1.26.58 PM

I love the season of Advent for a lot of reasons, not least the way it embraces the messiness of existence in a manner appropriate to the chaos of the month in which it falls.

But today I’ve been thinking about the way that Advent forces us to reflect on time in a unique way, in both looking back and looking forward, remembrance and imagination of times past and times to come.  The fact that today is my birthday aids in my reflection. Birthdays are steps out of time in a weird way, “just another day” but also not. They are 24 hours long just like any day, but they hold a disproportionate place in our memories and our hopes. They are kairos moments (as opposed to chronos)and as such they remind us that time is less mundane and more miraculous than we often give it credit.

Movies capture this as well. An excellent recent essay on Interstellar illustrates how the film becomes a sort of meta reflection on the way movies reflect the realities of time back to us:

A movie is, itself, an act of relativistic time compression. All movies are a capture of moments of time reconstructed into a semblance of persistence… The universe’s rules are given dramatic life after [Interstellar’s] tragic first expedition to the water planet. Upon return the astronauts learn that 23 years have passed in just over an hour. When Cooper watches a series of messages taking him through two decades of his children’s lives, it is the maximal example of the universal act of anyone watching recorded footage of a loved one. Because all recorded media is a capture of a moment of the past, and to view it is to observe that the true constant in the universe is not the speed of light but our passage through time. Time may distort, your reference perception of it may shift, but we only ever move forward through it. Interstellar compresses the brutal truth of this absolute into a purely expressionistic tragedy, the movie itself distorting time in order to let us feel the full weight of its tragedy, the way our lives slip through our hands, our loved ones age, our children proceed into the future, into a few minutes.

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, one of 2014’s best films, also captures this “lives slipping through our hands well.” Time is a frequent subject of Linklater’s (see the Before trilogy), but Boyhood is the director’s most forceful embrace of cinema’s ability to confront the viewer with the reality of time. As Andrei Tarkovsky wrote in Sculpting in Time:

“As he buys his ticket, it’s as if the cinema-goer were seeking to make up for the gaps in his own experience, throwing himself into a search for ‘lost time.’ In other words he seeks to fill that spiritual vacuum which has formed as a result of the specific conditions of his modern existence: constant activity, curtailment of human contact, and the materialist bent of modern education.”

Advent does the same thing; it meets us where we are but helps us transcend time. On one hand it zooms us back to history’s most kairotic moment ever: the incarnation of God in flesh, the Creator involving himself in the physical story of creation, in the fulness of time. But Advent also zooms us forward to the “not yet” consummation of history, the coming again of Christ judge and rule and restore this broken world. All of it is held together in the mystery of the incarnation.

In our house this week we’ve been listening a lot to “Nine Lessons & Carols” by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge. It’s beautiful Christmas music. As I listen to it I feel the back-and-forward, now-and-not-yet tension of Advent. The live recording makes me imagine what it must have been like to be there, in the glorious King’s College Chapel, listening to the choral voices and organ in person. It reminds me of times I’ve been in that sacred space myself, worshipping with dear friends who I may not see again in my lifetime. The music stirs longing in my heart for eschatological resolution–for the day when the absence of friends, family members, and the agony of time’s relentless forward motion will give way to a cathartic presence and rest.

The relentlessness of time can be unbearable, but Advent helps us bear it. It allows us to slow down, pause, and enter into time in a new way. Devotionals like the Biola Advent Project help us in this. I pray that God grants you a profound, out-of-time encounter with his presence this Advent.

Interstellar

interstellar

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is one of those films I wish I could have seen three times before I wrote my review. As it is I only had a few hours to process the (insanely mind-bending) film before I had to turn in my review for Christianity Today. Because of that I want to share a few further thoughts I’ve been mulling over in the week since I’ve seen the film:

I’m generally happy with the review I wrote and stand by my arguments about the film’s “secular, yet curiously devout vision of the cosmos.” Also at CT, Alissa offered a different view, suggesting a reading of the film as fundamentally religious. While I agree that the film asks metaphysical questions and looks and feels religious (it “feels a bit like a three-hour church service set in the cathedral of space,” I wrote) I can’t get past the film’s insistent refusal to allow for anything supernatural. I read the film that way in part because of Nolan’s whole body of work. He goes out of his way in his films to strip away the supernatural and ground things painstakingly in the natural. Take the Dark Knight films: One of the most distinctive aspects of them, relative to the superhero genre as a whole, is how de-mystified and stripped of the “super” they are. Or take The Prestige. It’s a film about magic that feels supernatural but, in the end, is explained with the natural (I hope that’s not a spoiler!)Or consider Inception, which feels like there must be something otherworldly or surreal about it, right? But no, it’s all explainable because of psychology and science.

Of course this is not to suggest that these are bad films. On the contrary; they are wonderful and awe-inspiring films. I totally agree with Alissa that science does not negate mystery and that “just because we understand a mystery doesn’t make it less worthy of marvel.” But I do think awe/marvel/wonder takes on a different meaning and posture in the context of a strictly material universe (the awe is directed to the object/phenomena itself, or the science which understands it) than it does in the context of a God-created universe (the awe-inspiring object/phenomena points beyond itself, to the divine).

I suspect Christopher Nolan is inspired by Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey (clearly a major influence on Interstellar), who famously said that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That is to say, what appears magical or supernatural to us is probably just science we haven’t yet understood completely. Everything can ultimately be explained. Certainly this is the concept put forth in Interstellar that makes sense of the movie’s “ghosts” and other phantasmagoric mysteries. If you think about it, cinema is the perfect medium for someone who ascribes to the Clarke mantra. Movie-making is essentially making magic via technology. Certainly Nolan excels at this, as his films do a tremendous job giving the illusion of “magic” by exploiting the technologies of the medium.

A few other random reflections on the film:

  • I still think one of the film’s most powerful themes is survival–that mankind’s instincts to survive make almost anything possible. The “rage against the dying of the light” idea (Dylan Thomas) reminded me of other recent “fighting to the last breath” movies I love, like last year’s All is Lost or 2006’s United 93. It also struck me as a powerful contrast to the Brittany Maynard “die with dignity” story which has grabbed headlines in recent weeks. Watching humans do literally anything to survive (because it’s their inborn instinct), even when the prognosis is hopeless, is so much more compelling than applauding the premature ending of a life.
  • The more I consider Nolan and his body of work the more I think about Nolan’s decidedly British gaze. What I mean is this: There’s a meticulous perfectionism and yet coldness to his filmmaking. There’s an appreciation for artistry and beauty, yet an avoidance of religion and God (intentionally) and a discomfort with touchy feely emotions (unintentionally?). This is very British. Britain today is thoroughly post-Christian and yet unavoidably informed by its Christian heritage (especially aesthetically and narratively). The British gaze today is (for the most part) coldly rational, yet bound by an optimism and moral compass that comes from the vestiges of Christendom. In this way I think Interstellar is a very British film.