Category Archives: Film

A Struggle for Authenticity

So in case you haven’t noticed, I’m continuing to write very sporadically. I think it’s because right now I’m in something of a spiritual wasteland in which God feels quiet and distant and I feel very disconnected from my spiritual life. Several times now, I’ve sat at my computer and started at an empty blog draft screen for minutes before realizing I just don’t care to write about my meager and sputtering faith right now.

This past weekend, I went on a retreat with my young adult group. We spent an evening, a whole day, and a morning at a cabin in the woods, having fun and chatting and kayaking in between listening to a speaker from our church and discussing his sessions.

I felt as though everyone there grew, and learned, and found a gold mine of truth there. I did, too, in a way…a non-spiritual way. I enjoyed laughing and having fun conversations and spending a whole day kayaking on a lake. I learned how much I value relationships.

And if you had been at the retreat, I bet I could have convinced you that I had just as much a good time during the spiritual talks and the discussions we had about them afterward. I offered well-thought out input in the form of carefully worded responses, and I listened attentively during the sessions (though I admit  I may have scoffed my displeasure at a few things he said. Real mature, I know.).

But inside, I spent this past weekend coming to a terrible realization: I feel as though I’ve been living out a farce. That whole time we spent talking about the Bible and how to live as Christians, that whole time we spent sharing testimonies and exchanging Bible verses…that whole time, I feel as though so little of what I said was truly the genuine expression of my heart.

I realized for the first time how much of my life I spend in fear of judgment, in fear of how others will perceive me if I’m honest about where I am in my spiritual journey. Behind closed doors, inside the recesses of my heart, I hold all these convictions that I earnestly believe reflect the heart and will of God. Be radically inclusive; don’t alienate people. It’s okay if you don’t have the answers to life’s hardest questions; the Bible teaches us, but it is not the direct Word of God himself, and it is certainly not a simple, cut-and-dry road map. Gay people can love God and have faith that is as genuine as  a pastor’s.

These are the things I was thinking, the things I feared to say aloud. And I realized: authenticity is one of the scariest things imaginable. To lay yourself bare, to express the truth as you best understand it, is freaking hard.

So I stayed silent while the speaker spoke. I stayed silent while he talked about Sodom and Gomorrah and how homosexuality is one of the few sins God says he especially hates. I stayed silent while he talked about how the mark of a “solid” Christian is that you read you’ve said the Sinner’s Prayer, you read your Bible daily, and you witness to nonbelievers.

I stayed silent through this, and a lot of other teaching that I have found to be life-draining and oversimplified and alienating of other human beings. And I realized that I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to craft careful answers that I know won’t raise red flags, for the sake of convincing others that I’m right on the same page as everyone else. I don’t want to hide my beliefs about homosexuality, about the Bible, about the way that I often struggle with doubt.

I want to be real. I want to be truthful.

But the next question is: do I have the guts? Because if I don’t, I fear leaving church may be the only way I will ever acquire authenticity in my life. And I know that running is just never the answer.

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Philomena: A Film Review

Before I delve into the wonderful gem of a film that is Philomena, let me offer a quick apology for the lengthy hiatus. Work and life have been keeping me very occupied these last few weeks, and I just haven’t had the time to write as much as I would like. Now that I’m falling back into a routine, hopefully I’ll be able to write much more regularly.

 

 

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Let me be blunt, right from the start: Philomena is one of the most captivating films I’ve seen in a very long time. The film touched my heart and left me in awe of the power of storytelling to leave such a profound impact. The acting is fantasic, the storyline is well-paced and the plot is irresistibly alluring. I found myself watching this film, and hoping desperately for a happy ending even as the tone of the film revealed itself for the bittersweet, realistic portrayal of heartbreak and healing.

Philomena  centers around two characters: Philomena Lee, an elderly woman with a gentle yet spirited character; and Martin Sixsmith, a cynical, witty journalist whose career has taken a turn for the worse. Together, Philomena and Martin embark on a quest to locate Philomena’s long-lost son, a boy she gave birth to in a convent as a teenager, who was later given up for adoption against her will. Through flashbacks, we learn of Philomena’s traumatic experiences at the convent and the injustices she endured as a young woman desperate to be with her son, yet parted from him unexpectedly. Martin, upon hearing what happened to her, agrees to accompany her on her search and write a human interest story about their journey.

One of the best qualities of this film is the masterful way it balances light, witty humor with heavy, serious content. The weight of the film lies almost exclusively on the relationship between Philomena and Martin, who form an unlikely friendship despite having personalities that couldn’t possibly be more different. There are moments of dialogue that left me breathless with laughter, followed by seamless shifts in tone when the film turns to its more sobering content.

Both Philomena and Martin process what she went through in different ways: Martin expresses his frustration and distaste for organized religion and the way the convent nuns mistreated Philomena. He defends Philomena in a way she refuses to do for herself, and angrily confronts the nuns responsible for giving her son away. He is blunt in his disapproval of Christianity, yet he never disrespects Philomena for her faith.

Philomena herself reacts very differently to everything that happened to her. She bears no ill will for the convent sisters, and even defends them in some cases. Yet her sorrow at a lifetime of not knowing the whereabouts of her son is also evident, so the terrible actions of the nuns are never presented as anything less than atrocious, despite Philomena’s forgiving spirit.

Sometimes, the best faith films are the ones that are subtle, as Philomena is. It is clear that Philomena is a woman of faith, and the audience sees the fruit of her faith in her ability to forgive and her simple, confident responses to Martin’s tirades about God. Conversely, Martin is a deeply conflicted character filled with angst and cynicism, yet as his character is fleshed out we come to see the goodness of his heart, expressed by his desire to achieve justice for Philomena.

From faith to doubt, hard revelations and redemptive forgiveness, this film is relatable on so many levels, and presents a perspective on the Christian faith that is both critical and positive at the same time. So if you’re the sort of person who appreciates incredible character development, a gripping storyline, and a realistic portrayal of the consequences of abusing religion while remaining true to its ability to bring peace in a troubled life, I highly recommend Philomena.

Noah: A Film Review

**Please be aware: this review contains significant spoilers for the film Noah**

Since its release, Darren Aronofsky’s film Noah has garnered extremely polarized responses. Some praised it as a masterpiece, and others deplored its alterations of the original story of Noah and the ark, which can be found in Genesis 6-9. I had been anticipating the film for some time, and my interest was piqued despite all the harsh Facebook statuses about how much it butchered God’s Word. Some of the more liberal blogs I follow were posting quite positive reviews, so I thought it was worth giving it a chance for myself.

I’m very glad that I did! I found so much to love about this movie, even if it did include a few plot lines that I felt were unnecessarily over-the-top. What I enjoyed most about Noah was how Aronofsky brought the characters to life and reminded us in very sobering fashion that the story of Noah is not happy one; it is a story about genocide.

I’ve read the Bible story many times throughout my life, but it wasn’t until I watched the film that it occurred to me how tragic it must have been for Noah and his family to live through the destruction of all human and animal life on earth except themselves and the animals on the ark. What a burden!

Aronofsky fleshes out every character in the film, infusing the story with humanity. Most especially, I found his treatment of the character Ham to be absolutely fascinating. Of all the characters in the film, it is with Ham that I sympathize most. He creates tension in the story because he is Noah’s foil; Noah seeks to preserve nature, but Ham has no qualms about uprooting flowers. Noah is merciless (or faithful, depending on what way you look at it) in his insistence that all humanity is condemned according to God’s will, but Ham has compassion for a girl and tries to take her on the ark as his wife. Noah advocates non-violence, and uses his weapons only to protect his family, but Ham is fascinated when the film’s antagonist, Tubal-Cain, offers him a battle-ax. Ham is a complicated character, clearly lured by the evil in his heart yet desperate to rescue the victims in his life at all costs—even the cost of his father’s life.

I also found the character of Noah to be compellingly faithful to the biblical account. His loyalty to God—whom he and others call the Creator—is unwavering. Though the viewer senses his anguish, he remains stubbornly obedient to God’s will. Throughout the film, Noah is faced with decisions in which his own moral conscience is pitted against what he believes is God’s divine will.  His resolute determination to carry out that will, despite the pleadings of his wife and sons to the contrary, reveal a character consistent with the man described in the Bible.

Noah is committed to righteousness and obedience, and he is willing to follow God’s commands even when they border on the heinousness. In one of the most shocking scenes in the film, Ham attempts to rescue a girl from Tubal-Cain’s camp and bring her on the ark. As they are escaping, however, her foot gets caught in an animal trap, and when Noah arrives to fetch his son, he drags Ham away and leaves the girl to suffer a grisly death at the hands of an approaching mob of men. And later, aboard the ark, Noah is faced with an even more impossible choice in his commitment to carry out the task he believes God gave him.

There are, of course, several parts of the film that have caused contention among Christians. However, I had no qualms with the liberties Aronofsky took with the source material for two reasons. First, poetic license is inevitable. Not only is the biblical story of Noah quite brief, I found through reading various articles that no major detractions from the Bible story were spun purely out of the director’s imagination. Other, non-canonical ancient manuscripts such as the Book of Enoch and the Book of Jubilee were also used as source material for the film, and it is from these manuscripts that characters such as the fallen, rock-encrusted angels are derived. For an analysis of how these manuscripts were used in the film, check out this article.

Other viewers were accepting of the film’s deviation from the biblical account, but took issue with Noah because of the way God was depicted. Instead of a loving Father who is grieved at humanity’s wickedness and in close relationship with his servant Noah, God is depicted as cold and distant, relentless in his judgment of humanity.

I disagree with this analysis, and that is the second reason I found the film to be a fair and faithful representation of the biblical account and the nature of God.  In the climax of the film, when Noah is faced with the most difficult decision of his life in which he must choose mercy or judgment, he chooses mercy, and listens to the compassion in his own heart rather than what he believes is the divine, wrathful edict of his Creator. And Ila, Shem’s wife and the recipient of this mercy, suggests that God chose to save Noah because he knew his heart, and he knew that in the end when faced with the choice between judgment and mercy, Noah would choose mercy; Noah would choose love.

In conclusion, I found the film to be a remarkably profound adaptation that explores the deepest questions offered by its source material: Is humanity worth saving? Is God’s character one of love or judgment?  Are human beings inherently evil or good? At the end of the day, which characterization will win out? Noah asks all these questions and more in a manner that is bold yet tactful, urging the viewer to think beyond the basic frame of the story. And an adaptation that accomplishes that is, in my opinion, a faithful one.

God’s Not Dead: A Film Review

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**Please be aware: this blog post contains spoilers for the film God’s Not Dead**

This is my third attempt at expressing my thoughts on this film. The first time, I took a stab at satiric writing and fake-gushed about how fantastic it was. The second time, I thought I’d do a character-by-character analysis delving into all the ways this film reinforced terrible stereotypes that have saturated the way evangelicals view those who believe differently than we do. But I realized as I wrote these things that while my issues with the film are quite legitimate, they don’t get to the heart of why this film is so problematic.

I believe the greatest travesty that God’s Not Dead committed was to reinforce the idea that Christians are courageous but persecuted in a culture that treats them with disdain and outright disrespect. The film played out on screen the same sentiments that many Christians want to believe about ourselves: we’re living in a culture that mocks and belittles our faith. We are modern-day martyrs, and we must fight to the end to defend the truth of God, and be kind but bold to those around us who are caught up in the bitterness of their own godlessness.

The main plot of the film’s storyline initiates when Professor Radisson, an atheist philosophy professor, demands that his students sign a statement that “God is dead” or receive a 0 for 30% of their grade in the class. We see the film’s agenda right from the start. Every student in the class has no issues with complying; they are all either atheists themselves, or willing to compromise their religious beliefs for the sake of a passing grade.

Every student except for one, of course. Josh Wheaton, a freshman who has been a Christian most of his life, refuses. In response, the professor challenges him to present the reasons for God’s existence in three 20-minute lectures, after which the professor will provide a rebuttal, and the class will determine the winner. Throughout this exchange—and truly, throughout the whole movie—Radisson is remarkably antagonistic, rude, and arrogant towards Wheaton. He is the absolute picture of the stereotype of atheists as hostile and rude, while Josh is presented as the kind young Christian victimized by his oppressive professor.

Throughout the film, other storylines emerge which are completely removed from the central conflict between Josh and Professor Radisson. Each of these reinforces the film’s agenda of presenting Christians as persecuted martyrs in a way that is laughably conspicuous. For example, a teenage Muslim girl named Ayisha who works at Josh’s college is revealed to have secretly converted to the Christian faith, despite having a father who is very fundamentalist and requires her to wear  a hijab over her head and face in public. When he finds out, the man is outraged, and after kicking her, hitting her, and screaming at her, he drags her out of the house and excommunicates her from her family.

Now, I understand that situations like this happen, and that men and women born into the Muslim faith who convert to Christianity sometimes endure the rejection that Ayisha endured in the film. But this story’s inclusion in this movie felt problematic to me for many reasons. First, this sort of thing is not likely to happen in the United States. It is as though the filmmakers capitalized on the very real oppression that occurs abroad and dropped it into an American, privileged, middle-class context. Ayisha’s family seemed to be an ordinary American family, and in fact, the hijab is the only indication we have that she is Muslim. Her story just doesn’t fit well into this nation’s context of religious liberty.

Now, all of this is just the tip of the ice berg when it comes to the plethora of issues I had with this film. Granted, I understand why so many Christians are gushing with praise for the film—it reinforces all the beliefs most of them already hold and does nothing to challenge the status quo or make viewers think more deeply about the questions it raises. Instead, God’s Not Dead resolves those questions in the neatest ending imaginable. The Christians to whom this film caters would leave the theater feeling gratified and inspired, while everyone else—myself included—felt utter frustration at its unrealistic treatment of persecution, its stereotyping, and its rejection of any sort of complexity or nuance.