On the run with Baby Driver

What’s your favorite song? Sorry, that’s a vague question. What’s your go-to road trip song? How about your shower song? Do you have a song for rainy days? What do you listen to after a break up? Is there a song that makes you dance involuntarily? Music can serve so many of our emotional needs. It’s hard to imagine life without the songs we pull into our own personal soundtracks. Baby Driver, writer/director Edgar Wright’s new film, begs us to inspect our lists of go-to tracks and wonder what they tell us about how we see the world.

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For Baby, the title character in the film innocently played by Ansel Elgort, life is about escaping and there is no greater escape than music. The life pumped through his earbuds not only drowns out the tinnitus he acquired as a boy, but also pulls him out of the dangerous activities he’s being forced into. Baby has a face and a heart that fits his name but a life that’s filled with crime, drugs, and violence. This duality of morality pushes him into the songs in his many iPods to drown out the hum in is ears and the ringing of his conscience.

In his life of crime, is there a better profession for someone like Baby, constantly on the run from himself and others, than a getaway driver? In fact, Baby is the best getaway driver Atlanta has ever seen. The darkest day of his life happened in a car and as soon as he could see over the wheel (and learn how to steal cars) he made sure the driver’s seat would become his sanctuary. Somewhere along the line, Baby boosted the wrong car and found himself in serious debt with Doc, a notorious crime boss played by Kevin Spacey. Under Doc’s thumb, all Baby can do is listen to his music and drive. During the film, he pushes the pedal to the metal speeding closer and closer to freedom from what his life has become.

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It took Wright years to make this film because he broke many of the rules of traditional filmmaking. He assembled the soundtrack and wrote the scenes around the songs. Normally, movies are made the other way around…writing the scenes and then finding the music for them. It’s easier that way because you may not get licenses for the music. However, Wright had a vision and what a vision it was! He created a symphony with the world around Baby. Footsteps, car horns, tire squeals, sirens, screams, explosions, and gun shots sync to the beats placing the audience into Baby’s ears.

Anyone familiar with Wright’s other works (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) will appreciate his attention to detail. The soundtrack to Baby Driver has the diversity of a Guardians of the Galaxy more than it does the Pitbull laden playlists of your typical cars and crime action romps. Like a deep track book of Psalms, the music takes you on a ride through just about every possible human emotion. It is the kind of soundtrack that proves no song can be your favorite for every occasion.

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Baby Driver asks you to take this ride through Baby’s shuffle to find out just what kind of person he is. Is he a victim of circumstance? Is he more of a willing participant than he lets on? Baby can’t escape these questions forever. Luckily, music isn’t just a method of escape but is also how Baby experiences and processes the world. The life Baby leads is so saturated with music that his steps are in time. The slow jams give him time to reflect on his crimes, the screeching guitar solos perfectly accompany his anger, the break-up songs help explore his trauma, and the love songs help him hope for a better tomorrow.

Our favorite tunes offer us the same invitation to allow the words, the notes, and the spirit move us through whatever we’re dealing with. Watching and listening to Baby Driver might give you some new songs for your playlists but hopefully it also helps you think about what you’re using as your guide of melodic self-reflection. This is one of those films we’ll study in film schools because of its spectacular craftsmanship. It captures the complexity of being human in a unique way. So don’t be surprised if it also helps you study yourself. What songs are you drawn to and when? What are you often working through? What are you escaping from? Sometimes you have to face your music.

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Baby Driver Psalms Companion

Looking to take a ride through human emotion? The Book of Psalms in the Bible is God’s ultimate playlist. Here are some of the themes pulled out of Baby Driver and a selection of Psalms to help guide you through them.

Who are we?

Psalm 8

Psalm 139

Break up

Psalm 147

Love

Psalm 136

Conviction

Psalm 51

Celebration

Psalm 148-150

Hope

Psalms 16

Psalm 23

Don’t be surprised by Wonder Woman

Let me describe a scene to you from the most recent Star Wars movie, Rogue One. Tell me if it feels familiar to you. The story’s lead Jyn Erso has agreed to help the Rebel Alliance gain access to her former mentor Saw Gerrera. They travel to Empire occupied Jedha, home to Gerrera and an ancient Jedi Temple. It’s not long before Erso and the rebels are caught up in scuffle, as Star Wars rebels tend to do. Erso is being led around the planet by rebel leader Cassian Andor. Andor has been carrying the weight of rebellion on his shoulder for years. He is constantly burdened by the safety of the mission and his team. There is a pride to this burden and this pride leads to my least favorite scene in the movie.

In the middle of the skirmish, Andor is leading Erso around a chaotic battlefield reminiscent of scenes of modern warfare we’re used to today. Naturally, Andor can’t possibly account for every danger around every corner and he and Erso get cornered by a squad of dreaded Stormtroopers. Looking at Andor you see the face of failure. They’re doomed, dead where they stand. Suddenly, Erso kicks into high gear and drops both the troopers and Andor’s jaw. He can’t believe Erso single-handedly dismantled the troopers. He can’t believe Erso, who is the mentee of the very accomplished rebel they were there to find, who had been providing for herself for the better part of a decade in a conflict-heavy galaxy, who he had rescued from a prison labor camp alongside other hardened criminals, who is the daughter of one of the greatest geniuses in the galaxy, could possibly have the skills to survive that situation. So why is Andor surprised?

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Andor is probably surprised because decades of film history have told him that whenever a woman fends for herself, its surprising. This is a feeling of surprise Han and Luke felt the minute Princess Leia grabbed a blaster and led them down the garbage shoot. So here we are, it’s 2017, and we have our first big-screen adaptation of the world’s most famous superheroine, Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman has been around for decades, and, in that time, has fought her way from the Justice League’s secretary to one of the busts carved into DC Comics’ Mount Rushmore alongside her fellow pop culture icons of Batman and Superman. One would hope that, as we’ve entered a moment in cinematic history where studios are ready to put women in the title role and in the director chair, we would stop being surprised by what women are capable of. One would hope…

Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman and her male companion, Stever Trevor, enter a dark London alley. They’re carrying crucial intelligence the British military needs to gain an advantage in World War I and are being pursued by undercover German soldiers. Just like Erso and Andor in the battle on Jehda, Trevor leads them into a corner. He doesn’t see a way out, and he’s burdened by a need to find a way out of this hopeless situation. A German gun goes off and Trevor knows the bullet’s for him. A “ping” familiar to Wonder Woman fans rings out as Prince stops the bullet with her signature cuffs. Trevor’s jaw drops. He’s surprised that Wonder Woman, the one who saved him from a plane crash, the one who he watched take out a dozen German soldiers in an earlier battle, a woman he learned is from an advanced race of Amazon warriors from a supernaturally hidden home world, could possibly be the solution to them surviving the ambush.

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Wonder Woman, as a film, is filled with breathtaking action scenes, charmingly fun banter between interesting characters, and some of the coolest, most memorable superhero moments committed to film. It belongs at the top of the list of DC’s most recent efforts and right alongside its Marvel Comics (Avengers, Iron Man, etc.) peers. As reviews for the film have been positive, and as Wonder Woman continues to be a cultural icon, my fear is that story that comes out of the box office this weekend will be headlined by surprise.

Wonder Woman will lead the box office in bouncing back from the lowest Memorial Day numbers in about a decade. Last week, two movies were released that were supposed to kick start the summer cinema season. Helmed by a juggernaut franchise and a human juggernaut in The Rock, Pirates of the Caribbean 5 and Baywatch were financial disappointments. They led the summer into a dark alley and had studios questioning if they’d survive. Here comes Wonder Woman to save the day.

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Wonder Woman herself, Gal Gadot, with director Patty Jenkins

We live in a world with Aja Brown, the mayor of Compton, who led successful peace negotiations between rival gangs the Bloods and the Crips. We live in a world with Ava DuVernay, acclaimed director who not only became the first female African America director to helm a $100 million budget movie with Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time but, also, created the wildly complex and riveting Queen Sugar, a show she intentionally hires up-and-coming female directors to lead. We live in a world with Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for 15 years for her political activism before being elected to lead the Myanmar government. We live in a world with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Olympic Judo Gold Medalist and sexual assault survivor/activist Kayla Harrison, activist for female education Malala, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and astronaut and engineer Ellen Ochoa. We live in a world where more women than men are graduating college. We even live in a world where even American Ninja Warrior has seen Jessie Graff break course records. There are women of wonder all around us.

The success of Wonder Woman shouldn’t be a surprise, and, hopefully, will send a clear message that we’re ready for more. Just recently, Academy Award winning actress Jessica Chastain, while serving on the Canne Film Festival jury, commented on the current climate of female representation in film, “It was quite disturbing to me, to be honest.” For this to change, our view of what women are capable of has to change. We have to believe women can lead brilliant, complex and compelling stories because they live those stories every day.

We’ve come a long way and Wonder Woman might be the beginning of something great. Her character, like the women of the world, has fought for her place on the marquee. We have forced women to fight for their place at the voting booth, in the classroom, in the lab, on the hill, in the battlefield, at the finish line, and in the conference room. Women will continue to fight, so when will men stop being surprised when they can fight better than us?

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Getting the most out of “Get Out”

As a professional wrestling fan, I have been a participant in more than a few raucous wrestling crowds. The average pro wrestling crowd is a true cross section of America and, through years of observing the art form, I’ve come to recognize what kind of storytelling earns those crowd reactions. There are certain veins of the human experience wrestling easily taps into. Think about the saga of Stone Cold Steve Austin, the blue collar, unfiltered every-man, and his billionaire nemesis, Mr. McMahon.

The beats of this story were familiar to a wide audience. Who hasn’t had a bad experience with a boss? Who hasn’t felt bullied by someone to the breaking point? For months and months at a time Mr. McMahon would use his vast resources to keep Austin under his thumb. Then in the big matches…Austin would have his day and the crowd would go wild! The performers take the emotional stress and trauma many have experienced and supply a release of that pressure. When Austin punches McMahon, we all get the feeling of punching the evils in our life we can only dream of fighting back. It’s exhilarating and therapeutic. I love a good crowd reaction, but when similar cheers rang out from the audience at my viewing of Get Out, I couldn’t help but feel heartbreak.

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Get Out is a horror movie, written and directed by comedian Jordan Peele (Key & Peele). I’m no stranger to the horror genre so it’s easy for me to recognize the familiar tropes. What Peele does so beautifully is turn those tropes on their head and showcase the horror of the everyday experience of many people of color. Take away the wild twists, turns, and horror violence of the movie and there is still plenty of tension and horror. “[It] was to say there’s a monster lurking underneath this country. And even though you don’t always see it, it’s there, and a lot of us know it’s there,” Peele told Ebony magazine of the film’s real monster, racism.

Naturally, when the topic of race is approached in any medium, a flood of political backlash soon follows and this has already been the case with this movie. Get Out’s perfect 100% Rotten Tomatoes score was tarnished by a review from a right leaning website, a review that not only gets simple details wrong, it incorrectly categorizes the film as a comedy saying it doesn’t stand up against “classic” comedies such as the critical and financial flop Norbit. What is particularly difficult about reviews like this, is that, by reacting far too quickly and harshly, it misses the heart of what Get Out is saying.

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The story isn’t asking for political action. It’s not asking for widespread, big government intervention into issues of race. It’s not asking for the impeachment of the current president. It’s the cries of a biracial artist in America, from his celebrity platform, pleading for the majority culture to listen and immerse themselves in the horrors of everyday life for the minority. My viewing was so heartbreaking because it was clear this was the experience of many of the people I shared a theater with. Their cheers at the film’s climax were voices joining in to the cries of the filmmaker.

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Get Out is a gift, it’s a window into the life of our fellow human. My prayer is that viewers might be able to listen to the cries, to fight back the initial urge to react, and join in on the experience. While the film isn’t asking for political action, it is asking for the feelings and experiences of people of color in America to be validated. You might not immediately understand what is going on in every scene, but what an invitation to ask why you don’t or to see the movie with a friend of color. “That’s the nicest thing you can hear from a white person sometimes: ‘I don’t know,’” Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya told Vulture.

As much as this film is fun to examine (there are tons of small details pointing to the history of race in our country), Peele is also asking you to examine your reaction to each scene, particularly throughout the final act. This herculean, first-time directing effort manages to cover incredible ground touching on relationships between races, genders, cultures, and within races, genders, and cultures. Sometimes the movie features humor you’d expect from Peele while at other times it features situations akin to academic studies on race. The narrative you enter with Get Out is complicated but so is experiencing its themes in the everyday.

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“When I watched it, I was like, ‘This is how racism feels.’ You get really paranoid, and you internalize it, and you get really weird around people that are close to you, and you don’t understand it. You don’t know if you’ve got the right to be angry, and then it all goes f****** ape sh**, because you have this release of rage, because you’re not around people that you can talk about it with. The rage suits the genre. Like I said, there’s nothing more horrifying in life than racism,” Kaluuya says later in the Vulture interview.

If you are willing to ask some hard questions of the film and yourself, here are some I’d offer. *SPOILER WARNING* Some of these questions carry mild spoilers for the film.

– Rose’s father says a lot during the tour of the house…his relative was defeated by Jesse Owens, he would have voted for Obama for a third term, he feels bad about having people of color as servants…why might any or all of these situations make Chris uncomfortable?

– Even though the party scene is exaggerated, do you believe people of color often encounter conversations like these in real life (ex: a woman asks Rose if “being” with a black guy is better)?

– Once it’s revealed what is really going on at the Armitage home, what does it say about views of the black body through history? Have you or anyone you’ve known ever harbored anger or jealousy of the physical abilities of a person of color?

– Once it is revealed what is going on with Georgina and Walter, what does that tell you about the awkwardness of the interactions between them and Chris previously in the film? Why were these interactions so awkward?

– By the end of the movie you might realize there is actually more going on in the scene with the police officer at the beginning. Why might Rose have so adamantly jumped to Chris’s defense?

– Have you ever watched a slasher or horror movie before? They often feature a white female protagonist. Was your experience with the final villain showdowns in those movies the same or different than with Get Out? Particularly, when Chris has the film’s final villain in his grasp, do you feel differently than you might if the roles were reversed? Why?

This is a rated R film, so you may also want to take that into consideration before watching it.

What “Hamilton” and “Rogue One” have in common

There were no Skywalkers, no wookies, no Millennium Falcon but Rogue One was a great addition to the Star Wars Saga. The movie’s conception began with a line from the opening exposition of 1977’s A New Hope,

“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR…”

For the first time since this text initially crawled across the silver screen, we get to experience that story and I think I enjoyed it so much because I spent a large part of this year listening to Hamilton.

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A New Hope has never been my favorite Star Wars movie. Empire Strikes Back has always been the best, and nowadays I prefer the updated effects and filmmaking of The Force Awakens or the new stories in the animated Clone Wars or Rebels. Don’t get me wrong, I love episode four…I love the characters and the overall story but it has always felt more like a space adventure than it has a film about war and peace.

Watching the original trilogy over the years I always knew Luke, Han, and Leia would prevail, evil would lose, and at the end the Ewoks would throw a party that I’ve always wanted to be invited to. That is why I think I have never totally written off the prequels…their story is a tragedy and that is often more interesting than the feel-good original trilogy. The stakes of war have never been higher, though, then in Rogue One.

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This isn’t a movie about Seal Team 6, it’s about the soldiers that gave their lives before the glory was had. There are no blonde-haired, blue-eyed farm boys here. This is a movie about rebels, revolutionaries who are rough around the edges, riding the line between freedom fighter and terrorist. They’re more scruffy looking than any Star Wars character we’ve seen before and they aren’t chasing their destiny…they’re chasing freedom and basic human needs.  For decades, Luke Skywalker has walked around with a gold medal around his neck paid for with the blood of folks that must have thought it must be nice to have the force on your side.

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Luke, Han, and Leia all have one thing in common…they’re a little cocky. It is probably what has always put viewers at ease watching the original trilogy. We couldn’t imagine any of our main characters dying, because they couldn’t either. The characters in Rogue One don’t have the luxury of confidence. They are young, scrappy, and hungry and even knowing the chances of success are slim, the politicians aren’t behind them, and none of them are Jedis…they’re not throwing away their shot.

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Whereas the prequels were complex to a fault, Rogue One is complex in all the best ways. The weight of imperial control is heavier than it has ever been. The Death Star looms larger. The rebels struggle with giving up and some do. Even Darth Vader is scarier than he’s ever been. It’s more real. Our arts community has been living in the real-life story of Alexander Hamilton for more than a year now. Its highly relatable because it’s a human story that really happened. Rogue One felt more human, more complex. The characters are good guys until you get in the way of the rebellion. They are filled with contradictions, but so is independence.

The action of Rogue One also felt more grounded including a sequence that felt ripped from Black Hawk Down or The Kingdom. The movie felt familiar because we see these conflicts played out on the news every day. U.S. intervention in civil wars like what unfolded in Aleppo is made impossible to navigate because of the political and physical dangers. In the original trilogy, the rebel “alliance” could have just been a catchy name, but in this movie we get to see what that word means. It is a mix of governments, revolutionaries, terrorists, prisoners, and traitors.

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Hearing the dreams that Hamilton had of a free nation makes the American revolution more inspiring and relevant. Rogue One fills in some interesting gaps in the Star Wars Saga. Luke Skywalker’s victory in A New Hope means more because we have the names, the faces, and the acts that made it possible and they are normal people.

If I lost everything to the government, I would fight it. If I witnessed any of the horrors of imperial control, I’d be willing to defect. If I had spent my life dedicated to protecting and maintaining faith in the force, I would be willing to show what that faith looks like. The main character Jyn Erso says, “Rebellions are built on hope,” and there is truth to that, but if so, then they are held together by ordinary people. Rogue One asks us all to consider, if you had Darth Vader’s saber aimed at you, what would you stand for? What would you fall for?

We all look different in “Moonlight”

“Running around, fishing in a boat of light. In moonlight, black boys look blue. You’re blue. That’s what I’m gonna call you: ‘Blue’.”

What is the best setting to tell a scary story? I’m imagining that you visualize a dark, moonlit night with your friends surrounding a campfire. The low light of the fire casts deep, cavernous shadows around your eyes. Maybe to enhance the effect you’ll hold a flashlight just below your chin.

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Light has a funny way of influencing our perception. It’s interesting that often when we talk about our mistakes or successes we employ a metaphor of a positive or negative light being cast. Let me cast some light on the story of Moonlight, a terrific movie out now directed by Barry Jenkins based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. The film is about Chiron, a boy growing up in an impoverished project in Miami. His mother is an addict. His father is absent and his closest father figure is a local drug dealer. He also struggles with his sexuality. Take a minute and ask yourself where this story is going?

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Was it easy to write Chiron’s story for him? This is a light that we have seen shed before and Moonlight features many elements you might expect, but the beauty of the film lies in the unexpected, both for the audience as well as Chiron. The movie is divided into three acts providing snapshots of pivotal seasons in Chiron’s life that established his identity.

In each of the three acts, Chiron, who’s normal demeanor is stoic and silent, guarded against a world that has hurt him again and again, lets that guard down. He exposes himself to the love, support, and judgement of another. For fans of the Bible, this act is often translated to the sharpening of iron, right? We expose ourselves to have our rough edges smoothed out, to sharpen our character.

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This Biblical metaphor is intimidating to me for one reason, we are the iron. We all have the responsibility to sharpen and we are all vulnerable to the sharpening. My ability to sharpen comes with my bias, my emotions, and my selfish motivations that are part of being human. Which then begs the question, what bias, emotions, and motivations am I vulnerable to being sharpened by?

When you imagined how Chiron’s story would play out, what identity or narrative did you project on him? We often homogenize the people around us, fitting them into assimilated boxes of our cultural identity to fit roles that make us feel comfortable. Moonlight is, perhaps, equally about the dangers of forcing people’s identities into boxes as it is about the hope that comes when we are free to be defined by something that transcends stereotype.

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Chiron sits at the dinner table with Juan, his drug-dealing father figure. He asks him about a derogatory term he has heard which Juan explains is a word used to “make gay people feel bad.” Chiron then wonders if that term defines him. In this moment, Chiron is vulnerable to sharpening, wanting Juan, who has shown him compassion and love, to cast a light on him. Juan sets Chiron free by saying that he doesn’t need to have his whole identity figured out yet.

From there, Moonlight takes many turns you might not be prepared for…some expectedly tragic, some surprisingly uplifting, some powerfully universal. Fair warning this film will not be for everyone and an inspection of the film’s content rating will help frame your viewing. That said, the narrative of Chiron’s life features a complexity seldom seen in modern cinema. It is familiar, but unique. It doesn’t fit in a neat and tidy box.

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None of the specific instances, good or bad, define Chiron’s whole life. Each act is distinct. There is great freedom and hope in that. This is a freedom I am given by Christ. There have been many moments in my life that shined a negative light on me…but that light hasn’t defined my whole identity. There have also been moments that cast a positive light, that have brought me love and respect. That isn’t the full story either.

What if you were always seen in the perfect light? What would that change about the way you define yourself and make decisions? This is the beauty of the Gospel. Jesus not only took the punishment for our worst moments, he gave us the reward for his best so that God will always look upon us under a perfect, loving light. A light that will never be overcome by darkness.

While you watch:

What moments in the film surprised you? Why do you think that is?

What would you have told a young Chiron at the dinner table if he was asking you the questions he asks Juan?

When in the film does Chiron let others to define him? What is the result?

The creation story inside “Moana”

I remember the first time I saw the ocean. It was in high school on our senior trip. I sat on the top deck of our ship, the trip was a low budget cruise, and stared into the horizon for hours. That moment staring into the endless ocean made my small town in Pennsylvania feel like a cage surrounded by bars of mountains and hills.

Often our imaginations are limited by how far we can see in front of us and, growing up, each of my horizons had an end. This wasn’t the case on the water. Witnessing the vastness of our world first hand opened my mind and with each passing year my worldview got bigger and broader. The ocean was calling.

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Disney’s new movie Moana begins with the phrase, “In the beginning…” For Bible readers, this should be a familiar opening line. As with Moana, this is how our creation story begins. This is a great reminder that Christians aren’t the only culture that has a story of how the world began…but of interest is what is familiar and what is different about these stories.

In the writings of ancient cultures there are lots of stories about the world coming to be from the violent death of a beast or through a cataclysmic transformation of one piece of matter to the world as we know it. The world is formed from something. The outlier here is The Bible,

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty…” (ESV)

Or for those, like me, who like the Jesus Storybook Bible,

“In the beginning, there was nothing. Nothing to hear. Nothing to see. Only emptiness. And darkness. And…nothing but nothing. But there was God. And God had a wonderful plan.”

The creation narrative in Moana begins with a goddess in the form of an island, Te Fiti, springing from the ocean to create all that is alive. In an attempt to capture the island goddess’s creative potential, her heart is stolen by the demi-god, Maui (my personal life coach, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). Years later, this theft sets in motion an intersection of the personal journeys of Maui and Moana and, in doing so, models for us what it means to follow our calling and tap into our own creative potential.

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Maui’s mistaken assumption is that life comes from Te Fiti…but the truth is that Te Fiti’s power, her ability to create life, her creative potential comes from the ocean. Maui believes that he can earn this creative potential through godlike feats. The tale and music of Moana tell a different story.

“You may hear a voice inside

And if the voice starts to whisper

To follow the farthest star

Moana, that voice inside is

Who you are”

Moana’s parents have a plan for her life. She is tapped to be the next leader of her people, but Moana hears a different calling inside. Very quickly she realizes that in order for her culture and people to survive she must listen to that calling, not from her parents, but from the giver of life. Moana is about following your calling and realizing the same creative potential that the ocean placed in Te Fiti, resides in everyone. Similarly, The Bible continues from earlier,

“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’”

God, our creator, made us to be creative. We have the responsibility to cultivate creation. This looks very different for different people and every day as I work with college students I see this first hand. Some of them were born to create lesson plans that will inspire young people, others have an innate ability to read accounting spread sheets, while someone else might have a compassion that compels them to heal others. This creative potential is given, not earned. When we answer the call of our creator to live into that potential the world flourishes.

This is the heart of our story as daughters and sons of God. We are called to enter every realm of this creation and bring the heart of Jesus with us to bless those around us. When we do our work with other motivations (looking at you, Maui) we often experience the exact opposite of flourishing, destruction.

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Moana’s ancestors were culture makers. The ocean called them off their island to explore the world and cultivate the vast creation. Her voyage throughout the film brings her to a place where she answers her call, understands her legacy as a culture maker, and comes to know that the journey of life is hard and she’ll need reminders of her purpose. The songs in the film seek to write this on her heart.

“I am everything I’ve learned and more

Still it calls me

And the call isn’t out there at all

It’s inside me

It’s like the tide, always falling and rising

I will carry you here in my heart

You’ll remind me

That come what may, I know the way”

God may seem too big and too distant to have a relationship with us, but the story of scripture echoed in the story of Moana are telling us that God dwells inside us. When we look in the mirror we are staring at the image of God and that image is crying out, inviting you to cultivate God’s creation. God is calling…

While you watch:

What defines Moana’s identity? What defines Maui’s identity? What defines yours?

Is there a voice, a feeling inside you that you can’t shake? Is there something you feel down in your heart that you should…or shouldn’t be doing? What is preventing you from answering this call?

Are you aware of what God has created you for or leading you towards? How will you fulfill this? How will you use your passions and gifts to be a blessing to the world…to bring flourishing to creation?

Answering the big questions with “Arrival”

“What is your purpose on Earth?”

This is the central question of director Denis Villeneuve’s alien invasion thriller, Arrival. Villeneuve is known for slow-build, tense storytelling like Prisoners and Sicario and with Arrival he applies that expertise to a 300 level Comm Theory class. The film isn’t so much set around asking that question to the audience or the aliens as much as it is the journey to understanding how to ask this question, “What is your purpose on Earth?”

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This is the job of famous linguist Dr. Louise Banks played with care and intensity by Amy Adams. That’s right, Arrival is about the super sexy field of linguistics. It is Dr. Banks’ job to ask this question to alien visitors who showed up unannounced to 12 random places around the globe. Have you ever had a problem communicating with someone who speaks your language, maybe even someone in your own family? Where in the world would you even start with a brand-new alien race?

Here the tension of Arrival begins. What if this is an alien military invasion on a global scale? What if this is an elaborate plot by this alien race to pit Earth’s military powers against each other? What if the aliens have discovered we are the only planet in the universe to master having “pizza anytime” and have come to partake in some sweet, sweet Bagel Bites? Until we figure out how to communicate with the aliens, we will never know.

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If you’ve never thought about how complicated human communication is, Arrival will make your head spin. We live in a time with some of the most widely accessible and powerful communications technology, so why is it that we still find it so hard to talk to one another, to understand one another?

At its core, Arrival, is about learning to communicate with the “other.” The timeline of our history is littered with the consequences of fearing those who are different from us. Fear comes from the aliens’ unpredictable behavior. Is their behavior truly threatening or is it scary because it’s not what we would do? Tensions come from the frustration of not being able to talk to the aliens. Is this language barrier an act of war or does that frustration come from our belief that the burden of communication lies on our visitors? We would be put at ease if they just spoke our language. They came to us after all.

When we reach a comfortable cocktail of confusion and fear in our communication with others it is easy to find any number of meanings in their actions. If you watch Arrival, and I recommend that everyone should, allow the movie to reveal the barriers you have in communicating with people different from you. Do they look very different? Do they not speak your language? Do you fail to understand why they do some of the things they do the way they do them?

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Discovering these barriers and breaking them down are a worthy exercise. Intimacy with the “other” is something God calls us to in our human relationships. An easy example might be marriage, though this is not the sole relationship where emotional intimacy and support is possible. The further we get into our marriage, my wife and I continue to understand our biggest obstacle is that we are two different people.

We think differently, we perceive differently, we experience differently, and we respond differently. To me, a clean bathroom looks visibly clean. To my wife, a clean bathroom involves bleach. To me, laundry is separated into whites and colors, hot and cold wash. To my wife, laundry instructions are a humble suggestion. Yes, at times, the fact that we are the “other” causes pain, fear, and confusion but as we live into our otherness we experience some of life’s most profound beauty.

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Do we ever really know ourselves unless we experience ourselves through the eyes of the “other”? Do we ever really experience the love of God unless we have been loved by someone who objectively knows us…and loves us anyway? When we make space in our lives for the “other” we open ourselves up to the deeper mysteries of how God loves us. That is what we offer each other if we can learn how to talk to one another. You might just find your purpose for being on this Earth.

Breaking down these barriers is difficult and is the hard, emotional work we see Dr. Banks go through in the film. It requires strength, it requires grace, and it requires an open mind. We are always more comfortable with people that are most like ourselves. It is easy to love those with whom it is easy to communicate, but imagine how much bigger your love could be. Imagine how much bigger a love you could receive. Having your space invaded can be scary, but just imagine how terrifying you are to the “other.”

While you watch:

Most countries are finding it difficult to communicate with the aliens, what makes Dr. Banks different? How does her approach differ from her scientist and military co-workers? What are her beliefs behind her methods and why is it more successful?

Who do you have the most trouble communicating with? What are the barriers that make that difficult? What could you do to break those barriers? How does Dr. Banks break down barriers in the movie?

Finding your Roots: The mini-series and the Exodus

“You can’t buy a slave, you’ve got to make a slave.” So says Kunta Kinte’s slave overseer prior to a vicious whipping. This line summarizes the film’s history of the struggle to subjugate African slaves and their ensuing fight to keep their minds and hearts free. The goal of slavery is to rob a person and a people of who they are. To make them forget their identity, to strip away family ties, to stamp out any memories and relationships that could give one strength and purpose. To extinguish the spark of humanity and replace it with numbness, despair and faceless productivity.

This is the struggle that Roots (based on the 1976 novel by Alex Haley and 1977 original miniseries) chronicles as the miniseries follows the Kinte family from West Africa in the mid-1700s through the end of the Civil War in the United States. It follows their fight to remember where this family came from in the face of the horrors of slavery and this vile institution that desired to take everything from them. Kunta (played powerfully by Malachi Kirby) remains determined to hope for freedom and to keep his family name and story alive. He diligently teaches his daughter Kizzy the names of her grandparents and the place where he grew up as part of the Mandinka tribe. He passes on the tradition of naming their children under the stars of heaven, proclaiming that their name is their shield. The story fades a little with each generation, but the name continues to ring across the decades of persecution and oppression.

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One of the reasons why the miniseries originally struck such a nerve is because slave owners were very successful in suppressing the history and family lineage of African-Americans. It was a common practice to split up families, to severely punish slaves who learned how to read and write, to take every measure to erase the family trees of slaves. But we all have a deep longing to know our stories, to know where we came from and why we are in the world. Roots gave a glimpse into what that might look like for many African-Americans. To see what it took to remember one’s name and to survive with incredible strength in the face of deep evil and cruelty.

Roots isn’t the only origin story of an enslaved people. The first five books of the Bible (in Hebrew “Torah” or “Law”) are written to a newly freed people who have lost touch with their story and their cultural identity. Moses is widely held to be the primary author of these books, though others may have contributed as well, and he is writing to a people that have been slaves to the Egyptians for over 400 years. They had an oral history but no written account of what it meant to be a Hebrew and who their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob really were. The Egyptians were harsh slave owners who treated them “ruthlessly” (Exodus 1:14), so they knew about Egyptian culture and gods, but little about Yahweh. So Moses started telling them their story. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth…This is who we are, our God is so powerful that He created something out of nothing, and made it very good. And He made us in His image, men and women as partners with great value to be image-bearers and to mirror the character of God in this wonderful world. Our God made us on purpose to cultivate the beauty of the creation, and gave us a unique and important role to play.

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And then Moses gives them plenty of genealogies as the story continues. Names that are hard for modern readers to pronounce and which we often skip, but which would have been treasures to the enslaved Hebrews. They may have turned to each other and marveled, “Our God knows our names! He has a record of each of our people and kept close track of our history. He called our ancestors by name and made promises to them. And now he has heard our cries and kept a record of them too (Ex. 3:7-10), and He rescued us. Yahweh hasn’t forgotten us, He remembers everything.” When it seemed like they had lost everything after centuries of slavery, they found out that they served a God who watched them closely. Now He was calling them by name and leading them into freedom and His protection. When their oppressors told them they were expendable, their God told them they carry a glorious Image within them.

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God chose an enslaved people who were an ethnic minority to be the bearers of His redemptive story in history. The Bible was written by oppressed people for people suffering under physical and spiritual slavery. This was personified by the Israelites and has played out for all of humanity ever since. I think it’s little short of miraculous that despite heretical misuses of scripture to perpetuate slavery, so many African-Americans still managed to encounter the love of Jesus Christ and a deep hope and faith. I praise God for the Spirit’s ability to transcend evil and suffering to propel beautiful truth through terrible lies. We all serve a God whose light shines so brightly that no darkness can overcome it (John 1:5).

The realities depicted in Roots are gut-wrenching and I hated so much of what I saw. It called me to grieve and repent over the ways that America still falls short of full restoration and equality. There are ways in which I need to identify with the Egyptians and tremble over God’s judgment. It called me to explore what I can change about myself and my particular sphere of influence to move closer to God’s desire for healing. And it filled me with gratitude that no child of the Living God can ever truly be lost. Every person that God has created is endowed with eternal value that no other human can ever erase.

Luke 12:6 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

Viewer discretion guide: the mini-series seeks to depict slavery as accurately as possible. That means significant physical violence and three generations of sexual violence. There is no nudity and the sexual violence is depicted with sensitivity, but is still atrocious and hard to watch. You should expect to feel troubled and emotionally distraught. Check out Ebony’s review for additional guidance in this area.

Why I’m #TeamIronMan

In my most honorable hopes and dreams, on the political, ideological battlefield of Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War, I am #TeamCap all the way. Captain America is super strong, super genuine, super honest, super filled with integrity, and super human. He is everything I want to be. Tony Stark (Iron Man) on the other hand, he is flawed, riddled with guilt and shame, and guided by fear and arrogance. So if I’m being honest with myself, in my true/human heart, I am #TeamIronMan.

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If you haven’t seen Civil War yet and plan to this is the time to turn away, read my spoiler-free piece on grace and #TeamCap, and come back after. Because to talk about Tony’s flawed, human heart we have to go to Spoilertown. Yes, that was a *SPOILER ALERT*. This is a *SPOILER REVIEW*. Run away now if you don’t want *SPOILED*.

There are interesting parallels to the development of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the story they have built for the man that started it all, Tony Stark. It was all kind of an accident. Marvel took a B-level hero and by creating a fun story with a perfectly cast lead, launched a blockbuster-making machine. In the first Iron Man film, through a series of coincidences including Tony’s imprisonment by terrorists, his will to survive transforms him into a hero. This launched the Earth into a hero-assembling machine and began to bring bigger and bigger threats to humanity’s doorstep. Thus the trajectories of Iron Man and Captain America begin on their inevitable collision course.

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In the MCU, Captain America is an American soldier who fights throughout WWII. He’s been to basic training, he is willing to give up his life for his fellow soldiers and relies on them to feel the same way. Not only that but he is eventually frozen only to wake up 70 years in the future when everyone whom he loved was dead or dying. This leaves Cap’s world with only fellow soldiers…only people he keeps at arm’s length because he knows the cost of war. Cap’s world view is that of sacrificial servanthood. A servanthood he lives into as a superhuman with the powers to take on any threat with very little limitations.

Then there is Iron Man. Tony Stark grew up in privilege. He is a scientist, inventor, builder, businessman…not a soldier. The MCU takes place in his current life time that features a humanity that Tony increasingly cares for because he is a part of it. Throughout the first two Iron Man films he is strong, battle-tested, and has few limitations, but something happened through the course of The Avengers and Iron Man 3. The universe got bigger as did the threats to humanity. The Earth got smaller as did Tony Stark.

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Once Tony, who was fighting alongside a Norse God at the time, took a look through an intergalactic worm hole and saw one of the endless powerful threats on the other side, desperation set in. It was no longer enough to be a regular human in a suit of armor.

The world, the people he loves (primarily Pepper Potts), and Tony himself are vulnerable. In Tony’s mind we need thicker armor and better weapons. This mindset leads to the creation of Ultron, the A.I. baddie in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Which then leads to massive casualties. This then enslaves Tony by his guilt, shame, fear, and doubt.

For Cap, any loss incurred during war is expected. Mostly because he signed up to die if necessary and has the powers to make sure, under most circumstances, that won’t happen. For Tony, any loss experienced is devastating because the threats are now big enough that at any moment his armor could fail and the loss could be him or, worse, Pepper. In his deepest fears, he expects no loss at all.

Cap isn’t a mindless, emotionless drone, but because he sees the world and war in this way he fights with freedom from the fear of death. Tony fights under the constant fear of death, and because of that puts incredible pressure on himself to try to fix things. He creates more armor, and creates more weapons. Which, to this point, has only created more death. There is a telling scene in Iron Man 3 when Tony is attacked at his home and dons his armor only to fall into the ocean in his heavy metal suit as his house crumbles on top of him. Under water, confined in his suit, with concrete raining down on him. This is a situation he incited, locked in his own creation…is suffocating.

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Cap has witnessed his entire life fade away into the past. Governments and agencies have fallen or changed, and all of his friends and family have passed. He lives knowing death is inevitable. Tony thinks he is stronger than death and therefore it is his responsibility to save everyone else from it. We see him struggle with this to the point of panic attacks in Iron Man 3 and we see him fall even deeper through the course of Civil War. His quest to save everything has driven Pepper, the one he ultimately was trying to protect, away. He is confronted by the mother of a causality from the Ultron incident that causes him to make a deal with the government which drives away half of the Avengers.

Then the Civil War story ends with Tony being confronted one last time with the limitations of his humanity. He thinks he is stronger/smarter than death. He thinks that he can save everyone, but the moment in his past where he truly interacted with the death of his loved ones, there was nothing he could do. When his parents died back in 1991, it was an act of this war the Avengers are still fighting. They died at the hands of The Winter Soldier a.ka. Bucky a.k.a. Cap’s best friend. In the concluding sequences of Civil War, Tony watches the footage of Bucky, another superhuman, murdering his parents. In that moment, all of the guilt, all of the shame, all of the fear, all of the doubt, all of the human limitations are lighting a fire that makes his blood boil for vengeance.

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I think about the apostles of Jesus. Jesus told them of a kingdom to come, a kingdom defined by everlasting life in the freedom of a sinless world. Then, to their horror, Jesus is arrested, beaten, and violently murdered for the world to see. They had believed that Jesus was God. They had believed that they would live in freedom. They watched Jesus heal the terminally ill and raise the dead. On Good Friday, they were left with all of the same emotions Tony had watching his parents die. That is guilt and shame that they couldn’t save Jesus from death. Also, fear and doubt that they also won’t be saved from a similar fate. In those dreadful days, their lives were defined/confined by death’s sting.

But then, on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead. In that moment, the disciples were released from that guilt and shame, their fear and doubt began to dissolve. Knowing that death was out of their control, they were free. Now that death was conquered by Jesus, their lives were defined by eternal life. Tony sees that death is outside of his power and so he seeks to take control of it one last time in the form of revenge against Bucky. He tries to control death by taking it in his own hands. The end of Civil War isn’t a happy one, but I hope that in the next chapter Tony begins to see the error of his ways. This is a hope that I have for myself because I often live under the chains of guilt, shame, fear, and doubt.

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It’s also a change of heart vocalized by Black Panther. Talking to the film’s true villain, a man who lost everything in the Ultron incident and is now fueled by revenge, Panther says, “Vengeance has consumed you. It is consuming them. I’m done letting it consume me.” Maybe in time Tony will see that he cannot control death, but that he can live a life for others without the fear of dying. Maybe in time I’ll see that too if I remind myself of Paul’s words in Galatians 5:1…

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Why I’m #TeamCap

“He’s my friend.”

“So was I.”

This stand-out line of dialogue heard in the early Captain America: Civil War trailers might be the most central exchange to the overall theme/lesson of Marvel’s newest chapter in their expansive cinematic universe. The title of the film implies conflict between friends on our well-established Avengers team. So I’m hoping that knowing Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man and Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America fight in this film doesn’t come as a surprise to you, but if so turn away now. Otherwise, keep reading as that is as spoilery as we’ll get.

Leading up to the film’s release, the studio asked fans to choose whether their allegiances rest with #TeamIronMan or #TeamCap. One of the accomplishments of Civil War, and there are many, is that leaving it, you probably won’t have a clear answer. Both sides were well explored and well represented in the film, and it made for some great conversation in the car ride back. Still, looking at the motivations of both our heroes…I went in as #TeamCap and left as #TeamCap. My reasons point back to that line of dialogue.

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The “he” in that line is Cap’s longtime friend and titular character in the last Captain America movie, The Winter Soldier a.k.a. Bucky Barnes. The Cap films have been building this relationship across all three of his solo stories and so it makes sense that it is central to this installment. A lot happens in this movie and the political and emotional circumstances that lead to all of the superhero sparring matches would take a lot of explanation, but for my money we will focus on the most important motivation for Cap…Bucky.

Basically, without spoiling too much for those who haven’t seen the other Cap movies, what you need to know about Bucky is that he and Cap were BFF’s since day one. While on a mission something happened and Bucky was assumed dead only to reappear years later as The Winter Soldier, a Hydra (the baddies) sleeper agent/assassin who did a laundry list of Hydra’s evil biddings. He was experimented on, tormented, memory wiped, conditioned, and mind controlled to do these things and really hasn’t had a chance to deal with or heal from much of that. That is mostly what Captain America wants in Civil War, a fair shake and a second chance for Bucky. His main mission is to see that Bucky receives grace.

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Unfortunately for Cap and Bucky, this comes to a head during a very charged political climate in the superhero world and Iron Man is on the other side of the issue. Now, after years and years of friendship and fighting side-by-side, the ideological differences between Iron Man and Cap are revealed for the whole world to see.

This is largely what Civil War is about…this conflict, but it is also a conflict that arises after years of being on the mission field. Lots of things can happen when you’re on a mission. You win battles, you lose battles, you learn more about yourself, you learn how to focus your work, and relationships come and go. This is not a foreign concept to our Biblical story.

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Seeing Cap and Tony waxing politics, beliefs, and strategies reminded me of a brief but significant moment in the ministry of Paul. Barnabas and Paul were a missionary team that saw their fair share of battles on the mission field. These battles were dangerous. These battles left scars (Acts 14:19). Throughout their journeys, though, we see Paul coming into a better and better understanding of the calling on his life to be the apostle to the Gentiles. His specific mission gains focus and his strategies begin to form around that focus. Then in just a few, somewhat vague lines of scripture, we see that Barnabas doesn’t share the same vision. They disagree and they part ways (Acts 15:36-39).

When I read through Acts and Paul’s follow-up letters to the places where he started churches, what stands out is Paul’s deep love for the Gentiles. What an amazing testimony to the Gentiles to have a man that objected so loudly and violently against them being included in the Body of Christ be the one called by God to tell them that the story of Jesus is for them. Paul became so focused on his calling it became more important than his own health and safety (Acts 16:16-40) and it also took priority over his partnership with Barnabas. Paul cared so greatly that this message of grace got to the Gentiles he was willing to fight for his strategy.

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In Civil War, Cap risked losing friends, imprisonment, and death in order to protect Bucky so that one day he may experience the grace he so needed after his time as Hydra’s puppet. Being Bucky’s advocate was a dangerous position as was Paul’s being the advocate for the Gentiles. God has placed us all on our own personal mission fields surrounded by people that need grace, by people that need to be advocated for.

Civil War doesn’t have a very fun, clear cut conclusion. The battle is messy and it left a lot of physical and emotional scars. It was dangerous and scary. For Cap, though, Bucky was worth it because he is his friend, because he got a raw deal, and, perhaps, because he represents all of us. We all need second chances. We all need the freedom that comes from the gospel of our gracious God. If Bucky can’t receive that freedom what hope do we have? Is there someone in your life whose grace is worth fighting for?

Now Iron Man…that is a different story, a story about guilt, shame, and fear. Maybe I’ll have to write about that story too? To be continued…