Jurassic World and the Creative Obligation

“We can’t just let them die.”

As the newly released “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” opens, society is faced with a dilemma. After the natural disaster that occurred in Jurassic Park in the previous movie installment of “Jurassic World”, the island containing the dinosaurs has been abandoned. It was clear (yet again) that trying to create and control nature will only result in chaos and unintended consequences. But the island of “Isla Nublar” that continues to be home for the dinosaurs is about to experience a volcanic eruption that would once again bring the creatures to extinction. Is that nature’s way of self-correcting something that should never have happened in the first place, or is it an opportunity for environmental intervention? Not surprisingly, humans decide to act and make a Noah’s ark-esque attempt to preserve the species from a second extinction.

The rest of the film follows the quest to rescue the dinosaurs from the volcano and then to decide what to do with them afterwards. At times the storyline relies heavily on tropes and jump scares, but overall it is a solid offering of dino-packed action and suspense. Perhaps the strongest aspect of the movie is the question of what creators owe to the things they create. The Jurassic Park franchise has always explored the difference between “can” and “should” as modern science pushes the limits of possibilities and ethics. This latest film dives deeper into the aftermath of living with our decisions and assessing who is obligated to handle the clean-up that follows our actions.

“Fallen Kingdom” invites us to wrestle with our motivations for creating new things. From dinosaurs to other scientific ethical dilemmas, why do we use our creative capacities? Is it to gain wealth and status? Is it to try controlling life itself and the avoidance of death? Can it simply be to enjoy something that is good and beautiful? If something that we have produced becomes out of our control, do we recognize our limitations or double down on seeking to have power?

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The Jurassic films are so successful, not only because dinosaurs are real and that’s awesome, but because they tap into an urge that is core to being human. To be created by God in the image of God means that to be human is to desire to create. The imprint of God within us and the Cultural Mandate to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:26) propel us towards cultivating what is and wanting to make something that has never been. This is fundamentally a very good and Godly impulse. The world was not meant to be static but to be dynamic with humans acting as God’s stewards who would unlock more and more of the creation’s potential. Yet sin in the world and in our hearts projects a false narrative that we can be like God (Gen. 3:5), the ones who are in control. To be human is also to experience a perpetual struggle between producing things that are good in response to God’s character, and trying to obtain mastery in response to our sinful hearts. If we have cultivated out of evil intentions then our ability to steward the growth of what we create will be gravely impaired. Like “Fallen Kingdom”, will we seek flourishing for the beauty of the earth, or manipulate and violate the creation for our own ends?

Part of why we love to ask these questions about the motivations of the creator is because we feel that tension with God. Humans continually wonder if we were put here by a loving Creator who still cares for us. We fear the possibility that life could be random and that God could be careless or outright malicious. We wonder what we would do as creators of something new in order to find out what God might be doing with us. Our longing to be in control on earth is often to assuage our anxiety that there may be a lack of care in heaven. If we can establish that we take good care of what we produce, maybe we can believe that God will take care of us.

Pursuing that desire to be good caretakers can actually be exactly what God intended. If God gives us a picture of what it means to create, then God is also our best guide for tending the created order. God alone demonstrates pure motives and constant watchfulness towards the world.

24 Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!  27 “Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 28 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! – Luke 12:24, 27-28 (NIV)

If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:32, 35, 38-39

We tend the creation because God lovingly tends to us. We know what it looks like to care for the world because we serve a Savior who exemplifies sacrificial love. We can act out of pure desires for flourishing because the Spirit gives us new hearts and better minds. In all things we look to the One who calls forth beauty and goodness, and the One whose eye is on the sparrow.

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“This Is America” and the prophetic voice

The internet has been in an uproar. While Donald Glover was hosting Saturday Night Live he unexpectedly dropped a new music video from his hip-hop persona Childish Gambino, This Is America. It has 92 million views in less than a week, sparking debate and vigorous attempts to interpret the social meaning of the video. Directed by Hiro Murai, a frequent director on Glover’s FX show Atlanta, the camera follows Childish Gambino as he dances his way through a series of viscerally intense scenarios. The scenes depict Glover’s experience of being a black man in America, raising conversations around gun violence, black entertainment, the socializing of black children, protests, poverty, and more. (The video contains two brief scenes of shocking violence, a marijuana joint, and one curse word, all handled with artistic value.) For a thorough breakdown of the themes of the video without the moments of violence, go here.

TIA gif

From my vantage point as a white female viewer, I was most struck by This Is America’s use of distraction and redirection. The first time I watched the video I was captured by Gambino’s dance moves and expressions. The background action is often intentionally out of focus, making it that much easier to only notice the entertainment and ignore the chaos taking place behind him. Multiple times Gambino is surrounded by teenage school children, dancing in perfect synchronization with smiles on their faces. To be quite frank, my first thoughts were, “Wow, Donald Glover is actually a really good dancer!” For me that was a major part of the genius of the video. As a casual viewer I immediately fell into the trap of only being entertained without wrestling with the deeper themes of racism and violence in America. In so doing I was confronted with my willingness to only notice things that are pleasant to watch while tuning out harsh realities that lead to feelings of discomfort or sorrow. Is that not a widespread temptation in our society today? To be pleased when we are comfortable and angry when we are confronted with things we would rather ignore?

As I watched the video a few more times, I was soon reminded of the Old Testament prophets. From Isaiah to Malachi, the role of the prophets was to proclaim God’s word to God’s people. God spoke through the prophets over and over again to call the people away from sinful disobedience and back to God’s covenant relationship. The people continually fell into all kinds of destructive practices that were eroding their society. The prophets would call out the sins of the people, commanding them to return to the Lord before they became past the point of no return. There was always an assurance of restoration, God’s perfect balance of justice and mercy. God would act in response to violence and exploitation of the vulnerable, and would always seek the good of the people. Let’s look at a few of the prophetic exhortations:

The word of the Lord came to me:

“Son of man, will you judge her (Jerusalem)? Will you judge this city of bloodshed? Then confront her with all her detestable practices and say: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: You city that brings on herself doom by shedding blood in her midst and defiles herself by making idols, you have become guilty because of the blood you have shed and have become defiled by the idols you have made. You have brought your days to a close, and the end of your years has come. Therefore I will make you an object of scorn to the nations and a laughingstock to all the countries. Those who are near and those who are far away will mock you, you infamous city, full of turmoil. 29 The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the foreigner, denying them justice. ~ Ezekiel 22:1-5, 29

“My people, what have I done to you?
How have I burdened you? Answer me.

10 Am I still to forget your ill-gotten treasures, you wicked house,
and the short scales, which is accursed?
11 Shall I acquit someone with dishonest scales,
with a bag of false weights?
12 Your rich people are violent;
your inhabitants are liars
and their tongues speak deceitfully. ~ Micah 6:3, 10-12

27 Like cages full of birds,
their houses are full of deceit;
they have become rich and powerful
28     and have grown fat and sleek.
Their evil deeds have no limit;
they do not seek justice.
They do not promote the case of the fatherless;
they do not defend the just cause of the poor.
29 Should I not punish them for this?”
declares the Lord.
“Should I not avenge myself
on such a nation as this?

11 They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
“Peace, peace,” they say,
when there is no peace. ~ Jeremiah 5:27-29, 8:11

And the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah: “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. 10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’

11 “But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears. 12 They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the Lord Almighty was very angry. ~ Zechariah 7:8-12

Stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears. America is not the nation of Israel, and to my knowledge Glover does not profess a Christian faith, but This Is America is tapping into some universal biblical truth. The prophets frantically tried to hold a mirror up to Israel to show them where their comfort and self-indulgence were resulting in the dismantling of their society. Those themes are echoed in this modern expression. The video confronts its viewers with the ways that our desires for comfort and excess are causing us to ignore the marginalized, allowing violence to go unchecked.

TIA cars

It is also fitting that this call is coming in the form of a music video that makes use of symbols and extreme imagery. God frequently commanded the prophets to physically act out behaviors that were metaphorical for Israel. Hosea marries a prostitute who cheats on him and runs out on him. Yet Hosea pursues her and brings her home, symbolizing in a powerful way God’s love and pursuit of an unfaithful people (Hos. 1-3). Ezekiel builds a mini replica of the siege of Jerusalem and lies on his side for 390 days, then his other side for 40 days to symbolize God’s judgment on Israel and Judah. He is given instructions to make a specific bread with specific daily rations, indicating that the people would eat “unclean bread” during the Babylonian exile (Ez. 4). Jeremiah is commanded to buy a linen belt, place it in the cleft of a rock by the Euphrates and leave it for several days. He then went and retrieved it, revealing that it was now ruined as a garment in the same way that Israel had become worthless in their disobedience to God (Jer. 13). He is also commanded to break a clay jar to symbolize God breaking all their tools of idolatry (Jer. 19).

God is a brilliant communicator who understands that as humans, just being told something does not always mean that it will sink in. Sometimes we have to see it acted out in order for the gravity of a situation to become real. In a very similar style, This Is America puts forth jarring representations of uncomfortable realities in a way that causes them to be unavoidable.

All good art elicits a reaction. The question now is whether our reactions can move past cultural decoder rings and into hearts softened by compassion and repentance. The prophets were notoriously hated and often martyred. Anyone bearing a message that the public does not want to hear is putting themselves at risk. Will we be better listeners than those that came before us? Will we listen when confronted with experiences we may not all share but which call us to active engagement? Will we hear the cries of the prophets that echo across time and place? I pray that we will respond, not just to modern art, but to God’s timeless love of justice and mercy.

The Horrors of Parenting: A Quiet Place

“How can anyone bring a child into this world?”

Have you ever heard someone say those words, or perhaps said them yourself? In many ways that sentiment is understandable. The world is a harsh place, full of potential threats and abuses and hurts. Full of prejudice, division, and evil. Life is fragile with no guarantees of tomorrow. That is a lot of uncertainty to take on if one is going to be a parent. To be responsible for another life in a world where all you have to do is turn your back for a second and your child could vanish.

quiet place turned backs

It is this very fear that the horror/suspense film A Quiet Place confronts. On the surface it is a movie about a world inhabited by monsters (perhaps the result of an alien invasion) who are blind, but have an extremely heightened sense of hearing. The smallest sound could immediately attract them, throwing you, and anyone near you, into grave danger. The tagline of the movie is, “If they hear you, they hunt you.” It is in this environment that a family is attempting to survive together.  They’ve succeeded so far by living off the land, settled on a remote farm. With few, if any, people around them, the potential for sound is much more controlled.

The parents have created an elaborate system of silence. The father (played by John Krasinski who is also making his directorial debut) has created paths around the farm for the children to walk, lined with sand that will dampen any sound. They primarily live in the barn now because the old wood floors in the farmhouse are too creaky. Their eldest child is deaf (played beautifully by Millicent Simmons who is actually deaf) which provides a new blessing since the family all knows sign language and are able to communicate without speaking. Much of the film is silent, the dialogue and soundtrack are very limited. There in an ominous tension that pervades the film, but which is interwoven with sweet moments of the parents (made more believable by Krasinski and Blunt who are married in real life) connecting with their children and attempting to help them have semblances of normalcy. They are a loving family in a traumatic situation who are doing their best to live as a team.

quiet place family

As the film progresses you realize it is about much more than blind monsters, it is a metaphor for the fears of parenting. The setting of the story amplifies the reality that parents can never control their child’s every move.  Children will inevitably knock something over by accident. Even when you create literal paths for them to walk, they will veer off it. They will disobey and fail to understand the urgency behind their parents’ rules. They will perceive the world and have feelings that their parents will not understand or did not intend. The “horror” of A Quiet Place is the fact that it is impossible for parents to protect and control their children all the time, despite how much they love them or are trying to give them everything they need to live well. The frailty of the children is so keen. Beginning with the unpredictability of giving birth, to a newborn who needs to cry (Emily Blunt has some spectacular scenes here), to a pre-teen who is not always in control of her emotions. As an audience member you feel the parents’ anxieties and helplessness deeply.

And yet that is not all we are shown. As the suspense heightens, the children are separated from their parents forcing them to rely on their own wits and on each other to survive. As much as the kids are incredibly vulnerable, they are also profoundly resilient. We see flashes of deep emotional insight as they understand more than their parents expect. They are able to think on their feet and make connections that reveal they were listening to all the careful instruction. They are able to work together as they have seen their mom and dad work together. And what seemed like the greatest vulnerability of the family becomes their greatest strength. It was when the parents did not have perfect control that the kids grow and become stronger.

quiet place kids

A Quiet Place is ultimately a heart wrenching and hopeful picture of family. The world is a very scary place, but as the book It’s Not Too Late by Dan Dupee describes, being the perfect parent is not what kids need to be healthy. Kids need parents who love them, are involved with them, and who also allow them to experience life’s many facets. Sometimes the things we fear the most for our children, experiencing pain and unhappiness, are exactly what they need to become compassionate and resilient adults.

Black Panther: It’s really Nakia vs. Killmonger

Without a doubt Black Panther is a game changer. Ryan Coogler, director of Creed and Fruitvale Station has established himself as an incredibly insightful storyteller. A superhero movie that uses the genre to explore identity and the experience of the African Diaspora is very much worth the 1 billion it has already surpassed at the box office. Not only does the film break ground on creating the platform to imagine thriving African nations who are free to rule themselves, and the relationship between the continent of Africa and African-Americans, Coogler puts forth the best treatment of women that I have seen in any movie. Period. So much so that the Black Panther, T’Challa, is not actually the hero of the story. It’s Nakia.

Played flawlessly by Lupita Nyong’o, the character of Nakia at first seems like a love interest and a female supporting role with her own cool skills. But when I watched the movie a second time, I realized that the story actually pits her as the hero who stands in opposition to the “villain” Erik Killmonger. (Killmonger is a very complex and sympathetic character, the most poignant of the film for me. I think his approach is erroneous, but the question of the film is less “who” is the villain than “what” is the villain.)

(Warning: contains spoilers)

They both see the pain outside of Wakanda

Killmonger grew up in inner city Oakland, and also served in the military traveling extensively. He felt personally the pain of the African-American experience and the deep injustices that plague the world. Nakia has also spent extensive time outside Wakanda as a spy on missions around the globe. When we first meet her she is on a mission among human traffickers, not only rescuing the women who have been kidnapped but also protecting a male child soldier. They each have intimate knowledge of the ways that black people are suffering and in need of empowerment. Where they differ is in how they want to address it.

Nakia and Shuri

They both want to empower black people

After T’Challa is crowned king of Wakanda, he and Nakia have an important conversation as they stroll through the marketplace. T’Challa asks her what she would have him do as king. Without hesitation she replies, “Share our resources.” She is the first person in the film to suggest that Wakanda needs to look outward and move away from their seclusion. Herein lies a key difference between her and Killmonger: she looks at the mistakes of the world and wants to learn from them to improve upon what has been done before. She says to T’Challa, “Other countries offer aid and refuge, we could do it better!” Killmonger on the other hand looks at the mistakes of the world and seeks to recreate destructive patterns against the original perpetrators. When he and T’Challa are fighting he tells him, “I learned from my enemies that you have to beat them at their own game.” He sees suffering in the world and wants to use the resources of Wakanda to arm black people so they can turn the tables of colonization back on their oppressors. In the process he has no problem killing several black people. His plan would continue the cycle of death and endless power struggles. Nakia’s plan is to break the cycle entirely. When she rescues women and the child soldier from human trafficking she tells them, “Carry yourselves home now. Take the boy with you, get him to his people.” She gives them power to immediately take ownership of themselves and power to help someone else. Her every move preserves life. To learn from what has failed in the past and do something new and different that could truly change the world.

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They are both offered the heart shaped herb

Killmonger wins the right to be Black Panther and wastes no time consuming the heart shaped herb, the secret to the Black Panther’s abilities. His immediate next step is to destroy it so that no one other than him can have it. In that same moment Nakia slips in and plucks one last herb, again showing her drive towards preservation. As Nakia journeys with Shuri and Ramonda, T’Challa’s sister and mother, Ramonda urges Nakia to take the herb herself. Nakia is trained in combat and would make a very good Black Panther. But she refuses to grasp for power that is not rightly hers. She declines to join the power struggle and in so doing is later able to use the herb to save T’Challa’s life. She understands in a profound way how to use power in ways that are rightly ordered for the flourishing of all, not just for her own advancement.

They both exert power in Wakanda

Killmonger becomes king of Wakanda through an endless series of death. We see him kill multiple people on screen in his quest towards Black Panther, and he tells T’Challa about all the people he has killed along the way. “All this death just so I could kill you.” Killmonger is a man whose life has tragically been marked by death since childhood, and he sees no other way of living than to kill. When Nakia sees Wakanda teetering on the brink of destruction under his rule, she has a choice. She can support Killmonger as king and serve Wakanda in the hopes that things will turn out all right. She responds vehemently when asked to serve her country, “No, I’ll SAVE my country!” She partners with other women to fight Killmonger, and ultimately T’Challa tells her, “You saved me. You saved our nation.” The way they each exert power is diametrically opposed. Every choice she makes is for the furtherance of flourishing for all people.

They both interact with women

I did not see it clearly until my third viewing of the film (it really is that good), that Killmonger only has two significant interactions with women other than Nakia. We never see or hear of his mother, he is always surrounded by men and addresses men. He has a girlfriend who only has two lines of dialogue, and whom he treats as expendable. Then we see him strangle a female shaman when she initially balks at destroying the heard shaped herb. He threatens her, “When I tell you do to something, I mean that s***.” The only way he interacts with women is to dominate and treat them as objects. In refusing to be interdependent with women, Killmonger ultimately cuts himself off from true power and success. His life is lopsided and unidimensional.  He can only see one way of being and succumbs to the cycle of death. In sharp contrast, Nakia has thriving relationships with women and is nearly always working collaboratively with them. Together these women are creators and protectors, imagining many ways of being that can result in vibrant lives.

Nakia and squad

This is one of the strongest aspects of Black Panther, that the female characters are complex and diverse and all have meaningful relationships with each other. Part of what makes Nakia strong is her willingness to be interconnected with others, specifically other women. These women are also what make T’Challa and Wakanda strong. Their society is one that is marked by creativity and equity. When the women are shared partners in their national life, the possibilities become boundless. Wakanda is a fictional place that is giving all black people the opportunity to imagine different possibilities for themselves and their communities. Wakanda is also giving the whole world a chance to imagine what a shared future could look like for us all. If Nakia is leading the way, I’m here for it.

We just had an Epiphany

What takes up most of your time? What do you spend the most time doing? Would you notice if something new appeared in that setting? This past Sunday marked the first week of Epiphany, the season in the Church calendar where we celebrate the coming of the Wise Men to find the recently born Jesus (Matt. 2:1-12). It is one of my favorite seasons because it has so many layers. It asks us to reflect on the ways that Jesus has revealed Himself to us and appeared in our lives. It marks the expansion of the Gospel as the first Gentiles (the wise men) recognized Jesus as the Savior of the world. And it demonstrates that God honors years of faithfulness to bear fruit we might never have imagined. Epiphany lasts until Lent, let us dig into all that this season offers.

Where did Jesus appear to you in 2017?

We know very little about the wise men. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that they were scholars who specifically studied the stars and the natural world. They studied the night sky so closely that they noticed when a new star inexplicably appeared.

Wise-men from the east came to Jerusalem saying, ‘Where is he who is to be born King of the Jews? We have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him. – Matt. 2:2

I know next to nothing about astronomy, so it boggles my mind that a star could look so significant that it would cause observers to assume a great cosmic event must have occurred. What an incredible thing that God can communicate to humans through the natural world in such a way that we could realize deep spiritual thruths. The star was so special that it prompted these men to travel a great distance, likely over the course of months and even a couple of years, to find the Person that was living in its light.

The wise men saw the star because they were pursuing their vocations as scholars. They were doing their normal jobs and received this revelation in the process of their work. In the same way, where did you see Jesus show up in the course of your work and daily life last year? Where were you shaped in the process of living out your calling? Jesus can reveal Himself through the spectacular, and also through the very mundane. Spend some time thinking about where you saw Christ through simply paying attention to the life you have been given.

Jesus is for everyone

We have no indication that the wise men were Jewish, in fact they almost certainly were non-believers. They were definitely living far outside of Israel and were foreigners to the Jews. And yet Jesus revealed Himself to them in a way that they could understand. It made no difference that they spoke a different language or came from a different culture. Jesus is a savior who can cross any barrier that humans experience. Our current cultural moment is still very much defined by fear and distrust of anyone who is not like “us.” We struggle to find common ground and to reach out to one another. Let us draw on the power of Jesus to cross any border and find ourselves united by the Light of the world, the One who came to be a blessing to all nations.

What if Jesus saves your enemies?

Most Bible scholars have concluded that the wise men were from the region of Babylon, east of Israel. This is the place to which Israel had been exiled several centuries earlier. When God sent the people into exile there, He commanded them to make it count.

Build houses and dwell in them; and plant gardens and eat the fruit of them. Marry and be given in marriage, bear sons and daughters and multiply, do not diminish. Seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away into captivity, and pray to God for it; for in its peace you will have peace. – Jer. 29:5-7

They were not to just sit around, biding their time until they could leave. They were to see their time in Babylon as meaningful and capable of impact. What if the wise men were primed to see the star because of faithful Israelites who had lived out their worship of God in Babylon? Perhaps the period of the exile had left traces of God that the Babylonians were meant to find. They likely would have had access to Hebrew Scriptures and as scholars may have developed an interest in Yahweh (Hebrew for LORD) and a desire to learn more about Him. God may have honored the years of faithfulness in exile to allow new believers to find Jesus.

That is a beautiful thought, and also difficult. The Babylonians were not great people. Their attack on Jerusalem was brutal and they were a pagan culture. In every way they were enemies of God’s people. And yet Jesus chooses to intentionally target them for an invitation into the redemption story. It is easy to rejoice when people we love find Jesus, it is much harder when people we hate are called to become our spiritual brothers and sisters. And yet if we were all once enemies of God (Col. 1:21-22), Jesus saving enemies is very good news. Consider where you can be a blessing in places you might rather not be. A particular facet of your work, certain relationships in your life, classes you are tired of taking. Jesus may have plans for your presence in those places that you cannot yet imagine. Pray for the Holy Spirit to give you compassion for others and a desire for their good. May we all know Jesus more and make Him known in the places to which we have been called.

Prayer for Epiphany

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that Your people, illumined by Your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that He may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who with You and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, now and for ever. Amen.

– Book of Common Prayer

Ivan’s Top Ten Movies of 2017

It’s the end of another year in cinema and, looking back on the year that was, I can definitively say that we are living in a golden age of television. That’s right, with streaming services and cable channels churning out tons of risky, unique stories on the small screen, I can’t help but be disappointed by the onslaught of passable, at times directionless fare we got on the big.

I had a ton of fun with movies like Wonder Woman, Thor: Ragnarok, and Spider-man: Homecoming but then screamed in disappointment at a underwhelming new King Kong, a beautiful but bloated Blade Runner sequel, and, in my opinion, an offensively bad first shot at the Justice League. By the time awards season rolled around, I was feeling pessimistic about the movies 2017 had to offer.

I still don’t think it’s been a particularly strong year for film. Here’s hoping the trend of studios trying to make their own Stranger Things will pass soon. Even some of the early awards favorites like The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri failed to connect with me. However, after a solid binge of movies we missed or were recommended to us, I’ve filled out my top ten movies of the year.

10. Split

Confession time. I love M. Night Shyamalan. Sure he peaked way early with The 6th Sense, and may have made a few enemies with The Last Airbender, but I still think he’s brilliant. Thankfully, we are moving into an era of not having to hide Shymalan fandom any longer. After surprising fans with The Visit, the “Shy-man” was back to form and this year rocked my world with Split. An incredible performance by James McAvoy and a story that both narratively and visiually kept me guessing makes this one of Shymalan’s best. Perhaps my favorite parts of this film were the things unsaid, the nuanced details I’ve since gone back and realized. Toss in a beautiful theme that would make Alessia Cara proud, and I’m ready for the upcoming sequel.

9. The Lego Batman Movie

When 2014’s The Lego Movie came into my life, I thought there couldn’t be a movie more tailor made for me. To that, The Lego Batman Movie says, “hold my drink.” Legos, super heroes, jokes, stunning animation, and a story about friendship and, really, the family of God, come on! Does it get any better? Batman isn’t even my favorite superhero, but watching him make mouth sounds to lobster thermidor warming in his microwave made me fall in love. Here’s hoping for a Robin-centric sequel. Fly, Robin, fly.

8. Detroit

From two movies that I’ve already watched multiple times, to two movies I’m in no hurry to watch again. The first of which is Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit. Telling the story of the 1967 events that tore a city apart, Bigelow brings her expertise in depicting war to the streets of Civil Rights America. The content is horrific and has left audiences split, but I don’t remember this story even being a footnote in my history books. The story has to be told, and, to do the story justice, the horrors had to be real. Our history is ugly and Detroit puts that ugliness on display. There is so much in the movie that will break your heart, but, after everything Bigelow takes her audience through, watching John Boyega’s character, Melvin, in his final interrogation scene might bring you to your knees. Read Heather’s complete reflection on Detroit here.

7. Wind River

Throughout Wind River, you’ll hear again and again how desolate, how draining, how terrible the living conditions are in its rural Wyoming setting. That narrative is so present it’s often the sole excuse given for the deplorable actions in the film. You may even feel cold watching the movie. Then you realize, for many of the characters, they have no choice but to live there. Writer/director Taylor Sheridan, who topped by list last year with Hell or High Water, here tackles the shocking reality of missing indigenous women. I’ve got mixed feelings about depicting sexual violence in film, but, again if this story is going to be told it has to be given justice. Wind River is heartbreaking, suspenseful, and masterful storytelling but telling that story means shining a light on the dreadful things happening in America’s dark shadows.

6. Molly’s Game

Molly Bloom is a fascinating person and her story, written in her book “Molly’s Game,” is a fascinating story, but those things do not make a fascinating movie. Aaron Sorkin’s writing makes a fascinating movie especially when telling remarkable true stories. Just as he did with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Apple’s Steve Jobs, in Molly’s Game, Bloom, a former world-class skier who at 26 was earning millions of dollars running poker games for celebrities and mobsters, gets the total Sorkin treatment. In the hands of a less capable storyteller, this movie could have been a Rounders remake, but alongside thrilling performances by Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba, Sorkin’s directorial debut had me all in.

5. Baby Driver

Baby Driver is a technical achievement. If you’re unaware, director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), wrote this heist movie with the entire soundtrack in mind. The soundtrack is pumped through the headphones of lead character, Baby, who uses music to drown out his chronic tinnitus. Wright then took that soundtrack and blocked, crafted, and choreographed a symphony of chases and action scenes. It is breathtaking. Every step, every gunshot, every background noise plays into the music creating a chaotic harmony that puts fully on display Wright’s filmmaking genius. Underneath the technical skill, also lies a story about maintaining innocence in an increasingly harsh world. If you’re anything like me, you won’t want to put Baby in a corner, but straight into your blu ray player for repeat viewings as you unpack everything Wright jammed into the film. The soundtrack is also available on Spotify in case you find yourself on the run. Read my complete reflection with companion Psalms for Baby Driver here.

4. Get Out

The best theater experience I had this year (maybe ever), including Star Wars, was Get Out. With every twist and turn the the sold out theater came unglued with gasps, laughs, and screams. When it came to its climatic end, row after row jumped to their feet cheering, clapping, and dancing in the isles. It was cinematic magic. For many, it was a therapeutic, genre bending take on the horrors of their reality. With Get Out, Jordan Peele is giving audiences a creative taste of his own experiences. I suggest you watch it, maybe with someone who doesn’t look like you, because it is a film best enjoyed in community. Read my complete reflection on Get Out with discussion questions here.

3. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I love The Last Jedi. Come at me! I’ve often considered my Star Wars zeal to be fairly moderate. I’ve read some comics, but haven’t read the expanded universe novels. I have a few toys on display, but haven’t attended a convention or own my own stormtrooper armor. I’ve seen every episode of Clone Wars, most of Rebels, and both Ewok spin-off movies. I’m a fan and I know that fans love how much they know about Star Wars, and director Rian Johnson took that hubris and knocked us right off our high horse. I would say, the majority of the hardcore fans I know did like it, but still there’s a lot of hate out there and I just don’t get it.

I don’t want the galaxy to return to the state it was in when Episode I begins, a too-big-for-their-britches Jedi order and a world steeped in bureaucracy. It has to evolve to something more. For decades now, Star Wars has been a beautifully simple story that anyone can relate to, but as the universe expands, the complexity has to expand. War is not simple, and The Last Jedi, led by a conflicted and weathered Luke Skywalker, isn’t a simple story and one even the most learned fans couldn’t see coming. The original Star Wars was a surprise to fans in 1977, and now the finale of this new trilogy has the opportunity to do the same. Read my complete reflection on The Last Jedi here.

2. Mudbound

Mudbound is a beautiful and tragic film. Director Dee Rees took a book about life post-WWII in the Mississippi Delta and created a film that feels like your reading an epic southern novel. This is a time-period that feels like a world in flux. America just got back from helping to liberate countries at war, countries ravaged by hate, violence, and prejudice and, yet it was an America that was still being ravaged by hate, violence, and prejudice. Under their brilliant auteur, this cast gives so much life and breath to the lives of these characters. Sometime soon Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton, Detroit) will win an Oscar and I hope it comes from this one, along with a potential statue for Mary J. Blige as well. Mudbound has the ability in the matter of minutes to take you from the thrilling hope of progress, togetherness, and healing into a space of fear, division, and ignorance and still the characters keep pressing on into the future. As we keep pressing on today, it was a helpful reminder of the ups and downs of progress. Read my complete reflection on Mudbound here.

1. Logan

Logan did the impossible. I hate Wolverine. I hate that he is a terrible teammate. I hate that he constantly runs into battle with no plan just screaming and slashing. I have hated his two solo movies, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine, mostly because they feature him running, screaming, and slashing for two hours. Even in X-Men movies I like, for example Days of Future Past, Wolverine is the worst part. Seriously, watch the final battle in Days of Future Past…with no plan and no thought he runs straight at Magneto, who can control the very substance Wolverine is made of, and immediately gets tossed aside. He’s the worst, but Logan made me love him.

All of his mistakes, all of the running, screaming, and slashing, is coming back to haunt an older, regret-filled Wolverine. He now hates the things I hate about him. This is an uncomfortably violent and bloody film, but that is kind of the point. His life has been defined by violence and this is now a cycle he can’t rip his way out of. Tragedy has struck everyone he’s been close to and all of the running and screaming in the world couldn’t save them. Logan plays out as Wolverine’s penance. Throughout the film he is emotionally and physically torn apart piece by piece until there is little left.

Still, what is left, is hope. What Wolverine had never realized in movies before is that he’s not the X-Men’s greatest weapon, but he could have been their greatest protector. As he comes to terms with his mistakes, he begins to change his role and, in doing so, preserves the future of mutant-kind. Also, watching Logan care for an aging Professor X, with an awards-caliber performance by Sir Patrick Stewart, showed me vulnerability I’ve always wanted and had never seen from Wolverine. As superhero fans begin to expect more complex stories from their big blockbuster films, the brutal and emotional Logan has sent me running and screaming into the next era of comic book movies.

Check out Heather’s Top Ten movies of 2017 here!

Heather’s Top Ten Films of 2017

This has been a strange year for movies. Normally I have a very difficult time narrowing a list down to what I consider the best ten of the year, but in 2017 it has been a challenge to fill a list of ten. In my perception so many films lacked heart and focus. Movies like “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri” and even “The Shape of Water” felt flat or preachy or simply lacked resonance. For me there was a deficit of beauty, and stories that captivated. Perhaps it reflects our cultural moment in 2017 that we are all struggling to find meaning and honesty. We are still struggling to open our hearts to one another. That may have influenced the stories we told this year and the way we reacted to them. Here are the movies that stayed with me and caused me to think, feel, and connect to the human experience.

Honorable mention: These did not make the final cut but were well crafted stories that could be worth your time.

Molly’s Game – Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, Molly’s Game is terrific. Sorkin is known for snappy dialogue which Jessica Chastain and Idris Alba deliver perfectly. Based on the true story of a young woman who creates a high-stakes poker empire, you do not want to miss this superbly written, wonderfully acted film.

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The Square – This is a Swedish film so the European style may feel strange to some, but it is a thoughtful exploration of the way humans relate to each other. It is quirky and uncomfortable at times, but makes beautiful use of motifs and symbols. If you are looking for a movie to give you plenty to process later, give this one a try.

Ingrid Goes West – This was a small movie which came out over the summer that focuses on Instagram culture and how we curate ourselves to others. It highlights the tendency to collect experiences in order to present a meaningful life. What is special about this take on social media is that it explores how we use the platform rather than categorically condemning it. The ending is controversial, but I find myself frequently returning to the themes in the story.

The Big Sick – The ideas in this story will feel familiar to audiences of Aziz Ansari’s Netflix show “Master of None”, but it is a warm and funny true story. It is acted beautifully with Ray Romano and Holly Hunter turning in particularly poignant performances.

Top Ten:

  1. The Beguiled – Director Sophia Coppola’s most recent film, a clever remake of a 1970s “exploitation” film of the same name and based on a novel. The original film was heavily sexualized, focusing on the male lead Clint Eastwood. The novel was also authored by a man, and the story follows an inter-generational group of women living in a girl’s school during the Civil War when all the men were away. One injured soldier wanders to their home and they take him in to tend his wounds. What I love about this story is the way Coppola reclaims the emphasis of the film to turn the focus onto the dynamics of women relating to one another during an extraordinary time period. Make sure you watch the special features for the film, Coppola’s vision for the story is beautiful as are her relationships with her cast.

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  1. Coco – Pixar’s major film for the holidays is a charming and heartfelt story about family, legacy and forgiveness. The animation is stunning, the music is catchy, and the narrative is well developed and sweet. A great choice for the whole family!

 

  1. Baby Driver – The remarkable aspect of this film is the incredibly creative and precise use of the soundtrack. The story follows a young getaway car driver nicknamed Baby who suffers from constant tinnitus. To balance out the ringing in his ears, he has a collection of iPods with carefully selected playlists so he has music for every situation throughout his day. The soundtrack to the film is the music Baby is listening to, which is intricately choreographed with each movement and sound in the movie. Writer/director Edgar Wright gave the screenplay to the cast on iPads so they could listen to the corresponding music which would punctuate each scene as they read. The story is fairly simple but the use of sound editing makes it a feat of filmmaking that will you bring you back for multiple viewings.

 

  1. The Last Jedi – You do not have to be a Star Wars fan to enjoy this movie (although it probably helps). There are many things to appreciate about this installment. The cinematography is breathtaking, the characters are wonderful, the story is developed well. What struck me most is the theme of generational hand-off. How does the older generation work through their past failures and habits and empower the next generation to take their places? How does the younger generation step up to wisely channel our energy? These are important questions for the Church that Star Wars could help us think about.

 

  1. Ladybird – This is a great coming of age story that embraces and also transcends the genre. Director/writer Greta Gerwig lends an insightful take to not only depict youth but also parenthood and place. Ladybird beautifully explores adolescent ambivalence between trying to distance oneself from roots and what has shaped us, and desperately wanting to feel connected to those same things. With a wonderful lead performance by Saoirse Ronan and terrific supporting roles, this was a stand-out.

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  1. Wonder Woman – This movie produced one of the most emotional connections I had with a film this year. I think for me and for countless women in the US and around the world, Wonder Woman met a need we did not know we had. She is a female super hero in the truest sense. She is strong and capable and compassionate and determined. Her power is not in acting like a man, but in channeling the best of femininity. There is a specific scene in the middle of the film when Diana runs towards a fight, without hesitation and without fear. I still feel proud and empowered every time I think of this scene and what it means to see a woman act with courage and advocacy. The third act of the movie is a little clumsy, but otherwise it is a rare gift in the super hero genre.

 

  1. Silence – Based on the Japanese novel of the same name, this adaptation was ten years in the making for Martin Scorsese. It was released in early January 2017 which is why I am counting it in this year’s contention. The book is a haunting story of Portuguese Jesuit priests who were missionaries to Japan in the 1500s. The plot deals with faith, culture, doubt, martyrdom, and the question of where is God in human suffering. It is also a rare movie that portrays white characters entering a foreign culture in a way that honors and elevates the Japanese characters, treating them as equals with meaningful dialogue and autonomy. The runtime is long and the content is intense, but the story raises questions that are worthy of your wrestling.

 

  1. Mudbound – Ivan wrote a full review so mine will be brief. What I appreciated about this film is that it told a story not often highlighted. It follows two WWII GIs, one white, one African-American, coming back to the Mississippi Delta and readjusting to a Jim Crow South. The US tends to ignore our racial history between 1865-1965 so this is a story that very much needs to be told.

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  1. Detroit – This summer offering was met with some controversy, perhaps because director Kathryn Bigelow’s approach was misunderstood. As a director who has previously told stories that follow war and torture, she lends a fascinating take to US race relations. Her style brings a fresh lens to how we might view the policing of communities of color. It is very intense to watch, but that is the point. Check out my full review for synopsis and thematic analysis.

 

  1. Get Out – I typically avoid horror films and have mixed feelings about the genre, but writer/director Jordan Peele blew me away with his February release. He harnessed the best of what horror can be, turning a magnifying glass onto daily realities to reveal the underlying atrocities. The narrative is a horror film about racism, cultural appropriation, and turns many classic tropes on their heads to bring the audience face to face with our prejudices. It is wildly creative and I think a brilliant work. The violence is relatively minor for the genre, so even if you dislike horror as I do, consider giving it a watch.

 

Viewer content guide: Please note that some of my selections are rated R and/or contain adult content. In my opinion the value of the overall story is worth the potentially offensive content, but use your own discretion and look up ratings before viewing.

 

The Power of The Last Jedi

“You underestimate the power of the dark side,” says Darth Vader to his son and desired apprentice Luke Skywalker. It’s one of those Star Wars lines that sticks with you. The line is meant to strike fear in young Skywalker, but it puts on display one of the major themes of the saga and one that is so beautifully at the center in the newest installment, The Last Jedi. In an expansive galaxy like that of Star Wars, with expert pilots, exotic alien creatures, and supernatural warrior priests, who has the most power? What does true power look like?

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The easy answer for many long-time fans would be “The Force.” After all, according to Obi Wan Kenobi, The Force is “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” The genius of The Last Jedi is that it, not only calls into question what we know about The Force, but shows us that it is not the be-all-end-all of power in the galaxy. The ancient war that has been waging for decades across the saga, framed by a simple conflict between light and dark, just isn’t that simple after all. Which is a lesson Luke Skywalker, the legendary hero of the original trilogy, has had to learn the hard way.

What the new movies have done so well is thematically and narratively explore the lives of the old cast through the eyes of the new. 2015’s The Force Awakens did this through Han. Han Solo has always been the ultimate lone wolf, on the run from one thing or another. In Episode VII, we meet Finn and Rey, two people at a point in their lives where they are ready to escape and Han is the perfect spiritual guide. Throughout the movie Rey, ready for a father figure, bonds with Han and with his ship, the Millennium Falcon, which has been the ultimate getaway car throughout Star Wars cannon. Finn escapes his life as a Stormtrooper and is confronted with a decision to keep running or be a part of something bigger. There are so many parallels to what we know of Han’s story in both Finn and Rey. The Force Awakens was very much Han’s chapter. In the same way, The Last Jedi is Luke’s.

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Even in the final moments of Episode VII, there is a literal hand-off of the story taking place. Now if we’re going to explore the life of Luke Skywalker that means we have to explore The Force, the history of the Jedi, and the allure of the dark side. The Luke we meet in The Last Jedi is a failure. He tried to live up to his legend and lost control setting into motion many of the events of the new movies. He’s spent his time since absorbing all of the past mistakes of the Jedi, knowledge that brilliantly ties together the mythology of the prequels to the original trilogy. Back in 2015, I wrote about the failures of the Jedi order, but basically Luke has realized that the Jedi failed because of their own quest for power. At their peak, the Jedi assumed reign over the galaxy, but just when their power peaked, when they thought they had it locked down, they were vulnerable to manipulation, deceit, and were over thrown. This was the story of Episodes I-III.

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Into Luke’s despair and regret walks Rey pleading with him to be her mentor, to show her where she fits in the grand scheme of things. Really, what she is pleading for is exactly what the Jedi were supposed to be. It is very difficult to be defined by your power when you are actively trying to help someone become more powerful than you. At the end of The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren tells Rey she needs a teacher, a sentiment she repeats to Luke. She doesn’t need a Jedi knight to ride into battle, she needs a Jedi master. “We are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.” I won’t tell you who says this to whom in The Last Jedi, but it might as well have been Jesus talking to his disciples or Barnabas talking to Paul.

Pastor Efrem Smith tweeted recently, “If Christians were meant to pursue political power at any cost, Christ wouldn’t have turned down Satan’s offers in the wilderness.” At the height of Jesus’ ministry, he gave up his life and at the height of his power, after resurrecting from the dead, he ascends into Heaven giving space for the apostles to lead. This has to be the example Barnabas was following when it came time to develop his apprentice, Paul. In Barnabas we have the man who vouched for the murderer Paul, the man who took that villain and trained him to be a Biblical hero, but to do all that he had to risk all of his power and eventually give it all away to Paul.

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This is also a lesson ace pilot Poe Dameron must learn in The Last Jedi. He has been flying by on his ability and skills for too long, and now must learn what it really means to lead the rebellion. Luckily, he is surrounded by resistance leaders who, just like Luke has learned his lessons about the Force, have learned their lessons about war. Without the legend of Luke Skywalker supplying hope to the resistance, Poe and Leia are racing against the clock to keep the rebellion alive. What is perhaps most heartbreaking about The Last Jedi is that, as Han’s story handed off to Luke at the end of Episode VII, Episode VIII, in so many ways, hands the story off to Leia and the resistance. This, however, is a chapter we will never totally see. The story of Princess Leia has ended off of the silver screen.

There are times in The Last Jedi where it feels like everyone is failing, and they are. The film reminds us, though, that failure is the greatest teacher. When we feel like we can’t fail, like the prequels’ Jedi order or Supreme Leader Snoke, or when we are afraid to fail, like Luke when he was training Ben Solo, we may have failed already. What does it look like to give your power away to the next generation? What does it look like to lay your life down in the ultimate resignation of your power? The answers to those questions are the ones Rey, Poe, and the resistance learn in The Last Jedi and will guide the saga into Episode IX.

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Wrestling Your Friends to Church

I like to get there early. This gives me time to mill around in the lobby and do some people watching before I find my seat. Once I find my seat there is always a pleasant murmur filling the space as others file in. Everyone is excited, cheerful, brimming with anticipation for things to get started. Without warning, the lights go out. In the darkness, we all know…this is only the beginning.

Since the turn of the millennium, I’ve been to over 20 live professional wrestling shows and they have all started virtually the same way. There is a rhythm to the experience. The most seasoned wrestling fans are privy to the cues. They know the lights turning off is the call to worship. They know when a wrestler is punching another in the corner of the ring they need to start counting to ten. They know when a wrestler kicks out of a pin before the count of three it’s time to yell “TWO!” at the top of their lungs.

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Did you know there was such an ingrained cultural liturgy in professional wrestling? I recently took a group of non-wrestling fans to a live event put on by World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and I watched their faces as they witnessed the show play out. It was a consistent mix of confusion and unbelief. There was so much they didn’t know or understand and this left them bewildered and, dare I say, bored.

How did this happen? The art of wrestling has been capturing my imagination for almost two decades. The problem is I didn’t prepare them enough. I never gave them a chance to participate fully in the experience because I never told them about the liturgy of the event. Don’t we do the same thing with church, though? When you invite someone to church, how do you prepare them for the liturgy, the cultural norms that guide the experience? Do you prepare them at all? I wonder if there is anything I can glean from my experience bringing newbs to a wrestling event that can translate to how I invite people to church?

Call and Response

Wrestling fans are constantly Woooing. The lights go off at the beginning…”WOOO!” A wrestler open-hand chops another wrestler across the chest…”WOOO!” Basically, if there are any moments of stillness in the ambient noise in the arena…”WOOO!” It’s the fault of wrestling legend, “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair. The 16-time champion often slipped into fits of wild Woooing with the crowd jumping in. Now, because Woooing is fun and easy, it is the common response to a lot of what happens in the show. It might be the closest thing we have to a wrestling “Amen.” If you know nothing about Flair, however, it might sound like you’re surrounded by crazy people.

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This may have been how I felt the first few times I attended a more traditional church service. The person upfront would say or do something and the crowd would respond together. Of course, I had no idea what they were saying. It felt like there was so much I didn’t know. I felt left out, so confused, somewhat embarrassed, and started to check out. The Lord’s Prayer? The doxology? The people in the pews might as well have been Woooing. It was nonsense to me.

This isn’t confined to traditional churches, though. Most churches feature a set of music, right? Well, when I started going to church, this was my least favorite part. It wasn’t that the band was bad or the music was lame. It was because I had no idea why we were doing it. When was the last time you thought about every element of your worship service and wondered why you do it? Could you explain that to someone who had no context for it whatsoever?

Wrestling Psychology

When I was a novice pro wrestling fan there was one wrestler who grinded my every gear. His name was Bret “The Hitman” Hart. His style in the ring wasn’t flashy. Hart didn’t take many death defying dives off the top turnbuckle and wasn’t big enough to hit punishing clotheslines. The Hitman wrestled a slow, methodical pace that, as the uninitiated, I found to be the equivalent of a sleeper hold. As I begun to understand more about the art form, though, I discovered it wasn’t so much what you did in the ring but when you did it. Hart is a legend because he was a master at working the crowd, or as most people in the know would call it, wrestling psychology.

The most skilled at wrestling psychology are basically emotional conductors who pull the audience through a symphony of different feelings throughout the match. Performers read the temperature of the fans and that dictates what they do. The right move at the right time can take a match from average to phenomenal. As much wrestling as I’ve watched over the years, every once in a while, the best wrestlers can surprise me and send me off my couch into the air screaming with anger, shock, or pure joy.

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The mistake new wrestling fans often make is wanting a match filled with big stunts and not a big story. It’s the story that matters, though. The bigger picture, the greater context happening before, during, and after the match. When you invite someone to church do you prepare them by selling the big stunts? The music is amazing. The preaching is awesome. They serve awesome coffee. Experiencing a church service that way might send new attendees away from the Bret Hart of churches. Our greatest worship experiences come when the leaders move us into a big story, a story that taps into our lives and emotions, a story that moves us from sitting on the spiritual couch to leaping in the air in victory.

Wrestling Isn’t Fake

“Professional wrestling is fake isn’t it?” This is the question that most often follows any invite to watch wrestling. As my friend, Tommy, told me after I took him to a live event, “Why do people get so hyped about something that isn’t even real?” Let me settle this once and for all. Professional wrestling is scripted, live sports entertainment. The physical feats that happen in the 20’ by 20’ ring are real, the story is on par with any scripted show on television. Wrestling isn’t fake, it’s entertainment. People ask me all the time how I, a grown adult with advanced degrees, can enjoy professional wrestling. I show them this video.

Daniel Bryan, Triple H, John Cena, “The Macho Man” Randy Savage, and Chris Jericho are all 100% real to the kids who watch pro wrestling and sometimes I need to be reminded what it’s like to be a kid. Wrestling pulls me into mental spaces where anything is possible and the world is filled with fascinating, diverse casts of characters. Growing up has a way of beating skepticism and cynicism into our hearts. When I walk into the wrestling arena I get to leave the weight of disbelief the world has thrown on my shoulders at the door and start believing again.

I love the ways the Gospel of Jesus Christ inspires me to be creative and believe the place I live can be better than it is. When I first walked through the doors of a church sanctuary my guard was way up. I built a wall around me with bricks of guilt, shame, and mistrust. Not only that, I was terrified. I’m not sure if I was more afraid of being told I was a bad person, church making absolutely no sense to me, or that it might make perfect sense and change my life forever.

Jesus eventually broke through the wall and the fear. It might have happened sooner if someone told me that Jesus could handle all those things I was feeling. I didn’t have to build a wall, I didn’t have to be afraid. It wasn’t that I could leave all of that weight at the door when I walked in, but Jesus was inviting me to leave it at the foot of the cross. The Gospel becomes real when you approach it with fresh eyes like a kid watching The Rock deliver The People’s Elbow.

How intentional are you with your church invites? How intentional are you when planning a worship service? Are you setting your neighbors, friends, and loved ones up to have a genuine interaction with the Lord of All? If I can get my wife to drop the stigma of professional wrestling and give it an honest chance, I believe you might be able to do the same thing with someone that carries a pretty heavy stigma about church.

One of my favorite pastors is such because I feel so cared for by him through the course of any given worship service. The bulletin thoughtfully explains each element of the service and at several points he pauses to give easy-to-understand instructions, especially for elements like communion. I love it when a worship leader stops for a second to explain why they chose this particular hymn or why we’re reciting this particular creed. Coming from someone who still feels awkward at church sometimes, I promise these things aren’t a waste of time. What if we took greater care with our friends before, during, and after the church service? What if we set them up to become massive fans of Jesus and his bride? Occasionally, I wonder if our church leaders could learn a thing or two from the liturgy of professional wrestling

“Last Chance U” and You

Football season has begun. In today’s world, this means the season of talking about concussions, hearing about the horrors of domestic violence, your sports news crawl spelling out the newest round of DUI arrests, and debating the National Anthem. Has any professional sport come under more fire in past few years than football? In the midst of the controversy, comes another entry in the Netflix docuseries, “Last Chance U.” For some, football is life. Football is identity. Football is hope. As we debate football’s place in society, “Last Chance” has a great deal to say.

The show tells the story of East Mississippi Community College and their reputation for being the landing spot of college football’s most troubled top prospects. EMCC gives players with promise a chance to get their academic and criminal records in line in order to earn offers from the country’s most prestigious football powerhouses. Every man on the roster is missing a key that would unlock a position with the likes of Auburn or Ole Miss. After all, this is the place where brand new Denver Bronco, Chad Kelly, went to junior college.

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Wrapped in this premise are the stories of these young men. This is their last chance. If it were me, given a last chance, I would approach it with military precision. EMCC not only offers them a football team complete with the eyes of recruiters, but academic counseling to make sure they are eligible for those Division 1 scholarship offers when they come. Watching these young men, though, might send you searching for a tackling dummy to hit. They skip class, they sleep through coach’s meetings, they verbally assault professors, and as their counsellor, their biggest champion and cheerleader, is giving them advice, they nod to her blankly as music blares through their headphones. So many of these student athletes are playing fast and loose with their last chance.

Thankfully the series doesn’t show these seemingly disrespectful behaviors in a vacuum. Rather, the show gives the time to hear these young men out. As each episode plays, the pieces of their puzzle come together perfectly into a picture that is hard to reconcile. So much of their lives have been a series of confusing and painful contradictions.

The classroom doesn’t make sense. Now in college they are being told to work hard academically after years of schools giving them grades to keep them on the field. Meetings don’t make sense. They’re being told to listen and change when they’re athletic skills have always kept them out of trouble. They’re being told to sit there when, in their minds, they know all these professors and counsellors want is the use of their bodies. Society doesn’t make sense. They are so close to being like their heroes who appear bullet proof from racial oppression protected by fame and money, but they’re not there yet. They are still very much subjected to a world that often makes them feel like they can’t win, a society that makes them question if it wasn’t for football would they have any worth at all?

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The only place that does makes sense, the only small piece of sanctuary they’ve found, is that level patch of grass where they get to be heroes and saints. The football field has clear rules and clear systems of penalty and reward. If they do their job between whistles, they will succeed. This isn’t always the case off the field. On the field their enemy is easy to see. However, they can’t sack inequality. They can’t put a spin move on racism. At this point in their academic careers, no number of reps seems to help them understand algebra. Coaches scream in the locker room for harder hits. It takes a level of violence to play the game, but those same coaches then call them thugs when they use that violence to protect each other and lack compassion when that violence spills into the players’ lives. The game of life doesn’t make sense, football does. So that is where their hope, effort, and identity goes, everything else has become a waste of time.

I still believe football has a place in this world. I was never blessed with the stamina of a soccer player or the speed and agility of the best baseball players. The Lord did give me the size and strength to play football and the sport gave me a lot in return. When coached well, football can actually teach you discipline, resilience, teamwork, and how to manage your emotions for good. Coming from Steelers country, I also know how football can unite communities in powerful ways. For many of the Lions of EMCC, these helpful, good aspects of the game have been lost through lives lived in a world that tells them they’re winners in a system that has ill-equipped them to win.

In season one, this is most apparent in running back DJ Law. He feels inadequate in the classroom so he’s constantly falling behind and skipping class. The penalties of failing and missing class are outlined clearly at the beginning of the show and he has surpassed them all. Cut to the head coach saying they do everything they can to help players succeed only to roll that back admitting they don’t do everything. They do everything to win, so Law remains on the field. There are resources all around him to help him work through his academic challenges, but why go through that when all that really matters is football. Researching Law’s story after the show only provides more tragic evidence. He had an offer to play for a good school but got injured. Without football, his grades fell even further and now he’s no longer in school.

Towards the end of season two there is another heartbreaking example. Standout Isaiah Wright struggles through the season with several painful situations. Throughout his life, he’s been rewarded for what his body can do, but when he is injured and trying to take care of his body he’s penalized and yelled at. On top of this, Wright is dealing with a deeply sad life situation that I won’t spoil and has no idea how to handle his emotions. All of this amounts to incredible emotional and mental confusion. This confusion carries over onto the field. In one game, he fails to catch a punt that results in giving his team terrible position on the field and gets yelled at. Next time he tries hard to catch the punt but does so giving the team even worse position, and he gets yelled at. Even though anyone who has ever returned a punt knows when and when not to catch the ball, Wright, unable to reconcile everything that’s happened to him, can’t make these decisions and can’t handle the failure that results. He melts down. He loses his best scholarship offers and settles for a Division II school. Again, researching him after the show reveals he spent less than a year at his new school and has since dropped out with no prospect of returning elsewhere.

Last Chance U

Anyone working with young people would benefit from watching “Last Chance U.” Questions of identity constantly plague our next generation. Football, like anything else vying for our identities, can cause terrible damage if it is all a person has. “Last Chance” tells the story of young men who have had limited choices in where to place their identity. What could have happened if Law or Wright were given something else to motivate them? What if they could use sports for their intended purpose and not place the entirety of their hope in them?

Thankfully, season two also tells this story through linebacker Dakota Allen. Allen arrived at EMCC after nearly being charged with armed robbery. He lost his spot on Texas Tech’s football team and was labeled a menace to society. Episode 4 opens with Allen being baptized at the home of one of his coaches. After football was taken away, Allen needed something else to place his identity in and the advice he heard most often was to pray. This led to a deep belief in Jesus Christ. The episode in punctuated by Allen in church listening to his pastor exclaim the unending grace and mercy Jesus provides. As tears stream down Allen’s face, it’s obvious he knows what it means to have a another chance. I’ll let you see for yourself how his story plays out on the show, but I will tell you it was fun watching him playing on national TV as the season opened this year.

The title of the show is accurate. Football offers a finite number of chances and often takes more than it gives. If football is all that makes sense in the world, if it becomes the center of identity, then one bad hit or bad play will bring that world and identity down. With care, football can offer an avenue to express God-given gifts and achieve building blocks for life-long success. This can only happen if a young person is given the chance to place their identity into something that offers the infinite. In a world that is often unforgiving, the Gospel gives chance after chance after chance to be forgiven.