Monday, March 28, 2016

“God’s Not Dead” and the Bastardization of Christian Filmmaking

If you’re a fan of the 2014 film God’s Not Dead, and if you’re excited about its upcoming sequel, you and I probably have several things in common. We likely agree that historic Christianity is becoming less and acceptable in the public sphere. We likely agree that many of our nation’s college campuses are becoming more and more hostile to individuals who adhere to any form of absolutes. We also likely agree that there is an increasing need for believers of all types—students, teachers, pastors, filmmakers, etc.—to engage with our world in an effective and countercultural way.

It’s actually because of these shared beliefs that I’m majorly concerned with the popularity of God’s Not Dead (and other movies like it). And it’s because of these shared beliefs that I want to explain my concerns to you.

I’ll put aside most of the artistic issues I have with the film. (For that, I’ll direct you to my cyber friends Steven D. Greydanus and Peter T. Chattaway). My main focus here will be on the movie’s message. In short, the film utilizes three dangerous techniques to craft its story: caricatures, wish fulfillment, and deception.

1. Caricatures

Don’t you hate how Christians are repeatedly misrepresented in movies and television? It’s as if screenwriters take no thought to learn what true Christians are actually like. We end up with a lot of hypocritical, narrow-minded, and/or worldly characters who don’t rightly represent the vast majority of genuine believers. It’s highly unfortunate at best, and outright shameful at worst.

This misrepresentation is exactly what God’s Not Dead does to all three of the main atheists (or antitheists) in the film. All of them are evil or absurd in the extreme: no redeeming qualities, no shades of gray. Each of them is one-dimensional, robbing them of any real humanity.

What do atheists think about this? Blogger Neil Carter says it well:

In the end the central injustice of this movie is its failure to fairly represent a class of people whom Christians purport to love. But it’s not loving people well to misrepresent them this badly. This movie caricatures, dehumanizes, and depersonalizes people like me, portraying us in the worst possible light.  How could I not find this movie disgustingly offensive?

Carter is right. You don’t caricature, insult, and demean skeptics and unbelievers if you want them to actually engage with you in a meaningful conversation. You can’t practice deception and then expect people to trust you, let alone hear you. It’s Evangelism 101.

2. Wish Fulfillment

Like many Christian films, God’s Not Dead takes places in an alternate reality, where circumstances unfold unnaturally or illogically so as to work toward a contrived outcome. The suspension of disbelief is heightened to nearly insufferable levels.

Consider just a couple examples. First, the film gives us a view of persecution so watered down that it’s practically meaningless. In an early scene, the movie sets the stage for its main protagonist, college student Josh Wheaton; he is told what his experience will be like in the philosophy class he signed up for: “Think Roman Colosseumlions, people cheering for your death.” That’s the kind of persecution young Josh has in store for him, according to the movie. (I guess it’s possible to interpret that line of dialogue as hyperbole, or even as a stab at humor, but nothing about the film lends itself to such an interpretation.)

What does Josh’s experience actually entail? His atheist professor ends up giving Josh three 20-minute segments in three separate classes to explain his faith to the entire class. And other than one girl asking Josh a question during his first presentation, there’s never even a hint of mob mentality persecution.

This is in stark contrast to what Christians actually experienced in the Roman Colosseum. Violent deaths aren’t usually inspiring, and yet historical accounts of Christian martyrdom fill us with a strong sense of catharsis. Why? Because martyrs show us most clearly how a person can lose the whole world and gain his soul. All his losses are temporary and all his gains are eternal.

In spite of what the movie foreshadows, Josh’s victory over his college professor isn’t anything remotely like that. He ends up losing nothing and gaining everything—including the accolades of pop culture icons in front of a massive crowd. (Technically Josh does lose his girlfriend, but it’s obvious almost from the beginning that he was better off without her anyway.)

One more example of wish fulfillment: Josh’s victory is based on a string of unrealistic circumstances. He is somehow able to prepare three apologetic presentations, complete with Hollywood-level visual aids, in a matter of a few days. Each presentation leads to a completely unreasonable response from his professor: dastardly threats after the first presentation (even though the professor wasn’t seriously challenged at all), a vulnerable confession after the second presentation (after Josh did directly challenge the professor’s authority), and a complete meltdown during the third presentation (which, with its infantile rhetoric, wouldn’t goad anyone).

As a result, every student in the entire class—each of which agreed just a few days before that God is dead—demonstrably joins Josh’s side and declares that God is not dead. To top it all off, this little squabble somehow makes it into the news, which quickly reaches the ears of the folks at Duck Dynasty, who mysteriously collaborate with the Newsboys to interrupt their concert that weekend to give a shout out to brave young Josh.

These contrived plot elements are nothing more than fantasy masquerading as reality. That’s not inspiring; it’s stoking up the fires of paranoia and victimization.

3. Deception

This isn’t so much a third factor of the movie’s message as it is a result of the first two factors. The film dishonestly handles almost every thematic element it touches: human nature, logic, philosophy, character development, etc. We’re not just talking about being sloppy. We’re talking about lying. In a court of law, it’s called perjury. Does anyone see a problem with Christians—supposed proponents of truth—resorting to lying as a rhetorical device?

Even as the end credits roll, several real-life court cases are highlighted as the supposed inspiration for the movie. YouTuber Kevin McCreary (a.k.a., Nostalgia Christian) actually researched every single one of these cases (which he begins discussing at the 32:40 mark). Here’s what he discovered:
                                                                                                                        
…most of [the court cases] don’t have anything to do with religion, but rather political issues that tend to be more conservative. And without exception, they’re cases of Christians filing lawsuits against schools. . . . Not a single one of them are cut-and-dried cases of Christians being mistreated, and they all result in the Alliance Defending Freedom [an organization that gets an ad at the end of the credits] making a lot of money.

In spite of all this, some might argue that believers have found genuine encouragement from movies like God’s Not Dead, or that some people may have actually gotten saved as a result of watching these films. While those are real possibilities, it’s still no excuse for dishonesty in our discourse. God forbid that professing Christians play fast and loose with the truth because “the end justifies the means.” As Andrew Barber says in his excellent examination of Christian films, “The idea that one conversion validates even the worst means can be used to justify all sorts of evils.”

God’s NOT Dead…But So What?

It’s theoretically possible, I suppose, that God’s Not Dead 2 will be an improvement on its predecessor. However, the filmmakers have shown no remorse over how they handled things the first time around. In fact, it seems clear that they’re copying everything about the original film that made it a financial success. Heck, even God’s Not Dead 2’s release date is problematic: April 1 (what many Evangelicals like to self-congratulatingly call National Atheist Day). Seriously? Are they being unnecessarily offensive just so they can get another one of their fingers in the eyes of their atheist neighbors? God’s Not Dead 2 is looking like it has all the subtlety, grace, nuance, and Christian spirit of the first film—that is to say, none.

Brothers and sisters in the faith, if we continue to push artistic and moral trash like God’s Not Dead on the world, we will only continue to sour the taste of Christianity in the mouths of those in our culture. By playing in a fantasy world of our own making while simultaneously vilifying those who disagree with us, we will fail to engage with our culture in any meaningful way. In fact, we will actually damage the very gospel message we seek to proclaim.

When we play dirty like the filmmakers of God’s Not Dead have done (and are still doing?), we show ourselves to be so desperate to spread our message that we will stoop to any level in order to get our society to hear us. In effect, we act as if…well, as if God is functionally dead. As if it’s solely up to us to make a difference in the world. We tarnish the best news in the universe, all for the sake of our own therapeutic hubris. And that is something for which we should be greatly ashamed.

Monday, February 22, 2016

RISEN (2016) – Film Review

They could have called it God’s Not Dead. But then it would have been cheesy, corny, and other food-related adjectives. Risen is devoid of most cheese and corn: no caricatures, no wish-fulfillment fantasies, and no deceptive ethos-building. It’s not a perfect film, but it is a welcome addition to the faith-based genre.

As a reminder, I rate movies based on three criteria: potentially objectionable content (C), artistry (A), and my personal preference (P).

CONTENT (C): 10 out of 10
Believe it or not, faith-based films often have questionable content—not the typical sex, violence, and profanity, but something just as problematic. What they often do is jettison artistic nuance and subtlety and instead beat audiences over the head with a blatant message that, true or not, alienates skeptics and ends up preaching only to the choir. Such tactics are morally and artistically deficient.

In the case of Risen, no such overt message exists. The film is obviously sympathetic to Christianity, and religious thematic elements abound, but such is the nature of the story being told. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ are ripe events for existential exploration, and this movie does an excellent job (for the most part) of showing and not telling.

There’s even an appropriate amount of ambiguity. The last line spoken in the movie leaves one character’s spiritual state open to interpretation. There’s a potent pause in the middle of what he says, and as grammarians know, how you punctuate a sentence can radically change its meaning. So is the case here, and it’s a welcome way to end the movie. It reminds me of the ending to Inception; the audience is given room to contemplate.

It should be noted that there is a fair amount of violence and gore related to battle killings, the crucifixion of three individuals, and the inspection of a few bloated corpses. This isn’t anywhere as brutal as The Passion of the Christ, but it’s still intense.

ARTISTRY (A): 7 out of 10
Unlike your typical faith-based feature, Risen has some serious caliber talent both behind and in front of the camera, and it shows. The originality of the central plot—a manhunt for the body of Jesus—puts a fresh and engaging spin on a familiar tale. Except for a few minor cases (including the first speaking role in the film, unfortunately), the acting is stellar. An especially artistic aspect of the movie is its cinematography, which, if my memory serves, only gets more and more beautiful as the narrative progresses.

Some might say that the opening battle is sub-par, being that it’s a small scale set piece. But that’s just a Hollywood-conditioned mindset talking. (It was an automatic emotional response I initially had, in fact, so I’m pointing the finger at myself first.) The truth is, not every battle in human history resembled the Orc siege at Helm’s Deep, and that’s perfectly fine.

It could also be argued that the insertion of some material in the last third or so of the film (scenes taken from the latter part of the gospels) doesn’t contribute much to the narrative, and could in fact prove confusing for those not familiar with the gospel story. My wife compared it to a Marvel superhero movie, in that it includes a lot of references to plot points and characters that only Christians will catch and/or understand. These scenes almost make it feel like the movie is meandering without a specific goal in mind.

At the same time, if we consider that the narrative follows the character arc of someone whose entire worldview has been challenged to the core, the meandering nature of the final section of the movie could be thematically appropriate. A lot of it depends, I guess, on audience expectations.

It’s also nice to see that the followers of Jesus are living, breathing humans, not overly saintly and unrelatable (unlike, say, Charlton Heston’s Moses after the burning bush sequence in The Ten Commandments). The forcefulness of Peter’s character, in one scene especially, is deliciously potent.

PREFERENCE (P): 8 out of 10
It took me a little while to warm up to the movie, but once the manhunt was underway, my enjoyment level exponentially increased. I absolutely loved all the details related to the search for Christ’s body: the political maneuvering, the interrogations, tracking down the disciples, and so on. Riveting stuff, that. With the addition of a surprising amount of humor, I was hooked.

A lot of reviewers have complained about how the film shifts its focus at the midpoint—what students of screenwriting guru Syd Field call the point of no return. It’s an effectively dramatic scene, and it in no way lost my interest. I remained engaged as Clavius’ investigation took a more personal turn, leading him to even aid his former adversaries in a sequence that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Only when the back-to-back miracles started in the final fourth of the film did I start to lose interest. It felt disjointed and aimless (as I already mentioned above). Perhaps a second viewing would prove to be a more positive and cathartic experience.

Whatever the case, I still appreciated how the screenplay handled the interactions between key characters. The conversation between a Roman tribune and Jesus, for example, could have been so cheesy and/or ham-handed, but it better revealed the true nature and character of God in its quiet assurance.

I also liked how the film avoided a complete whitewashing of the cast, giving us (among other things) one of the most authentic looking Jesus figures thus far in a film. It’s a most welcome change from the Hollywood casting status quo.

All in all, I’ve turned into something of a fan boy of Risen. I can’t wait to watch it again and own it on DVD. It may not be the artistic masterpiece that The Passion of the Christ was, but it is more accessible, more entertaining, and (ultimately) more uplifting.

CAP grade: 83%

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Ten Year Anniversary: My Decade of Blogging “Silence”

I recently came across a fascinating study by psychology professor John Hayes at Carnegie Mellon University. He evaluated pieces of music written from 1685 to 1900 by composers who are now considered successful. The focus? To answer the question, “How long after one becomes interested in music is it that one becomes world class?”

Professor Hayes narrowed the selection down to 500 compositions, written by 76 different composers, all of which are performed regularly in modern times and are generally considered to be the cream of the crop. He then created a timeline for each composer’s career, seeking to determine how long they had been composing music before writing these masterpieces. Here’s what he discovered:

[V]irtually every single “masterwork” was written after year ten of the composer’s career. . . . Not a single person produced incredible work without putting in a decade of practice first. Even a genius like Mozart had to work for at least ten years before he produced something that became popular. Professor Hayes began to refer to this period, which was filled with hard work and little recognition, as the “ten years of silence.”
                                                        
Even though my blog turns ten years old this Saturday, I can’t really call this my ten years of silence according to Hayes’ standards. I haven’t rigorously, or even steadily, been publishing content during that time. Over the years, I’ve sometimes posted several times a week, sometimes once a week, and more sporadically during other periods. Even so, when I wrote my very first blog post, I didn’t have a ten year plan in mind.

Yet I’m still blogging (at least occasionally), with plans to continue on into the future.

This time last year, I had planned on continuing my once-a-week posting schedule. But I had no clue that a career change was right around the corner. I’ve always claimed that I would never go into business for myself, and if you told me that’s what I’d be doing in the second half of 2015, I’d have said you were a couple tacos short of a fiesta platter. But here I am, an independent contractor offering copy writing and content editing services, as well as identity theft and legal protection services.
                                                   
And I’m absolutely loving it. Who would have guessed? Certainly not me.

So Happier Far will likely not be updated on a regular basis for at least a while longer. (Running your own businesses, while incredibly fun, happens to suck up most of your time.) The blog’s not dead, but it may be a while before we get back to a consistent schedule.

Nevertheless, I’m dedicated to pursuing the craft of writing. If I want to write books in the future (and I do), I’ll want to maximize my influence by spending more time on my metaphorical ten years of silence. This blog is a great place to do that.

To all my readers: thank you for your support, encouragement, and critiques. Thank you for visiting this site and sharing in the discussion. Thank you for allowing me to be one of the voices to which you have graciously lent your ears. I don’t ever want to take that lightly.

Promoting Porn for the Glory of God?

Pornography and Christian films. There’s a connection between the two that most people miss. And the longer we’re unaware of it, the more we’re hurt by it.

Last fall, the folks at Covenant Eyes graciously allowed me to explain this connection on their blog. (I—ahem—forgot to post a link to it here until now.) Here’s how the article begins:

It has happened too many times to count: professing Christians have defended the use of porn as a tool for truth and beauty. That may sound like an absurd statement, but it is not unfounded. In order to properly illuminate the problem, we need to address something that will initially seem off topic: the ways Christian film critics respond to faith-based films. (Please bear with me.)

If you’re embarrassed by heavy-handed Christian-themed movies, you’re not alone. The subtext of many faith-based films—poor acting, a mediocre script, perfunctory production values, and the like—indicates that Christians value substance (right thinking) over style (good aesthetics). This may be subversive to the filmmakers’ intent, but the message is still there.

Film critic Jeffrey Overstreet succinctly explains it this way: “Style is substance….If you change the style of something, you change what it can mean.”

You can read the entire article here.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A Plea to Supporters of Planned Parenthood

For the purposes of this blog post, let’s forget the unborn. I won’t ask you to change your views on abortion. In fact, we’ll put that issue completely aside.

The reason I’m willing to do that is because we have more common ground than might be readily apparent. Our divergent paths cross at least on one point: the sexual abuse of minors. Pro-life and pro-choice advocates can agree that it is a despicable evil for anyone to exploit underage children.

What does Planned Parenthood have to do with any of this? The answer is sobering, and I will divide it into two separate points below. In short, I want to show how Planned Parenthood is habitually guilty of aiding and abetting the sexual abuse of minors.

1. STATUTORY RAPE (NON-CONSENSUAL)

The website Child Predators has documented over 50 cases in 22 states in which an underage girl was sexually assaulted, taken to a Planned Parenthood (or PP-affiliated) center for an abortion by the perpetrator, and was not reported to authorities. If you do a little online research, you can find news articles confirming the details of these cases. Dates range from 1980 to 2012; about half took place after 2000.

Why is this such a big deal? Because it is illegal in all 50 states for an adult to engage in sexual activity with a minor. Furthermore, healthcare workers are required by law to report each incident of even alleged sexual assault.

Consider the facts of just one case from 2012. Timothy Smith took his stepdaughter, whom he had been sexually assaulting for years, to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Denver to get an abortion. The employees at PP learned that she was only thirteen, and noticed that, even though Timothy claimed to be her father, they both had different last names, and she referred to him as “Tim” instead of “Dad.” She received the abortion, as well as an injectable birth control shot—something to which she objected, but her stepfather overruled.

During all of this, the clinic workers at Planned Parenthood committed several acts of criminal negligence, including
  1. A failure to verify any of the information the stepfather gave them regarding the pregnancy, even though it was suspicious
  2. A failure to confirm consent from a birth parent before performing an abortion on a minor
As a result, Timothy was enabled to continue raping his stepdaughter for two more months before finally being caught by the girl’s birth mother. Later that year, he plead guilty to two counts of sexual abuse.

In all of this, keep in mind that a majority of sexual assaults are never reported. So, statistically speaking, the findings above represent just a fraction of the cases in which Planned Parenthood and its affiliates have turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse of minors.

2. STATUTORY RAPE (CONSENSUAL)

In 2002, an investigative group conducted a phone survey in which they called over 800 Planned Parenthood and National Abortion Federation centers throughout the country. In each case, the caller pretended to be a 13-year-old girl who was pregnant by her 22-year-old boyfriend. The purpose was to see how clinic representatives would respond to a presented case of statutory rape in which the girl was trying to keep her pregnancy secret. Here’s just a snippet from their findings:

[Planned Parenthood and NAF employees] were willing – and in many cases eager – to help this child hide from her parents and the authorities the fact that she was being sexually exploited. Toward that end they provide step-by-step instructions on how to circumvent state laws that were enacted specifically for the purpose of protecting children exactly like her in situations just like this. . . .

From start to finish, the attributes of the employees we talked to made it brutally obvious that this is an issue they deal with routinely. In fact, several of them volunteered that they get calls like this all the time.

You don’t have to take my word for it. You can listen to each and every phone call (if you really want to) here.

ALL SYSTEMS KNOW

As a pro-choice reader, you may have a hard time swallowing information given to you by pro-life sources. You’re afraid of confirmation bias, right? I can understand that.

Note, however, that the statistics and articles and media I’ve referenced or linked to aren’t mere hearsay. They are verifiable incidents, backed up by news reports and court records. As such, these facts are inherently damning no matter one’s political or ideological persuasion.

The Timothy Smith case is a good example of how Planned Parenthood has failed to implement any adequate reforms. After Smith was convicted in late 2012, a civil suit against PP confirmed that the organization still has a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Court documents show that current PP training materials state, “PPRM policy is to not ask partner’s age” (listed under a section entitled, “Partner Looks A Lot Older”).

Or consider this example from 2014, in which an Arizona Planned Parenthood counselor intentionally miscoded a case of sexual assault as a consensual encounter. Or consider this 2014 report by the Alabama Department of Public Health, detailing how a Planned Parenthood facility “failed to report reasonable suspected abuse or neglect for a minor,” even though the child had been brought in for two abortions in the span of several months.

It would be one thing if we were talking about a few isolated events. Instead, we’re dealing with literally hundreds of incidents all across the nation, spanning over three decades. These problems are systemic. As a whole, Planned Parenthood has repeatedly shown its willingness to circumvent the law, to the possible—if not certain—detriment of its patients.

PRO-LIFERS AND PRO-CHOICERS UNITE

Over the years, I have witnessed the exposure of certain religious leaders involved in the sexual abuse of minors. These stories have saddened and sickened those inside and outside the community of faith. And rightly so. The abuse of power on display is worthy of opposition and even prosecution.

The same goes for PP’s actions detailed above. It won’t work to argue, as many have, that “Planned Parenthood still does a lot of good.” This excuse is inadequate at best and sleight-of-hand at worst. A foster parent who has molested only one of his children is unfit to parent; a politician who has covered up a felony so as not to hurt his campaign is unfit for office; a charity that hides the misdeeds of its leadership in order to save face is not a trustworthy ministry; and an organization with a penchant for putting its clients at risk of physical and emotional harm is not fit to keep its doors open.

The evidence is mounting, causing increasing public concern, even among the media. That’s why pro-choice advocate Bunnie Riedel finds it “disturbing” that PP has spent so much time circling the wagons rather than addressing the legitimate criticisms leveled against it. That’s why Vox editor Sarah Kliff similarly finds it “disturbing” and “damaging” that some Planned Parenthood officials dismiss their ethics fudging as a “specious issue.” That’s why pro-choice proponent Ruben Navarrette Jr. has solemnly agreed with the assessment that “Planned Parenthood’s system-wide conspiracy to evade the law…is now undeniable.”

So would you please join me in advocating for the elimination of Planned Parenthood? Our government, and society as a whole, must not stand idly by. To ignore the plight of the vulnerable among us is irresponsible and just plain crazy. I don’t say that because I’m pro-life and you’re pro-choice. I say that because we are all human, and we can—and should—unite in protecting the dignity, innocence, and humanity of those we all inherently agree are worth protecting: our already-born children.

Friday, July 03, 2015

INSIDE OUT (2015) – Film Review

For those lamenting Pixar’s artistic decline, take heart: there is reason to celebrate. I’m even prepared to say Inside Out is Pixar’s best film yet. Granted, that’s just my opinion—but it’s true.

I’m thrilled about the movie’s opening weekend gross of $91 million—the best opening, actually, for an original story in cinema history, beating out James Cameron’s Avatar. To quote Entertainment Weekly, “Even though Inside Out ended the weekend in second place [behind Jurassic World], it’s the biggest No. 2 debut of all time, demolishing the $68.7 million record previously held by The Day After Tomorrow.” Yes, this movie is receiving the financial and critical accolades it so rightly deserves.

Oh, Pixar, how do I love thee? Let me recount the ways.

As a reminder, I rate movies based on three criteria: potentially objectionable content (C), artistic merit (A), and my personal opinions (P). (CAP. Get it?)

CONTENT (C): 10 out of 10
A typical Pixar film avoids trite platitudes and sophomoric humor. Instead, it takes the road less traveled, delving into realms disregarded by your average children’s movie. Inside Out is no exception. The drama of this story unfolds in a way that rings much more true to human experience than any other “family film” that’s come along in quite a while.

This is Pixar at its poignant best. It doesn’t shy away from some fairly weighty subjects, but not without a strong sense of felix culpa (i.e., an error or disaster that eventually leads to pleasant consequences), as well as a discerning perspective on pain and sadness.

As far as potentially problematic content goes, my main beef is with a brief (and ostensibly positive) reference to a girl’s fascination with vampire stories. That’s pretty much it. The film’s content may be too heavy for some young viewers, but morally inappropriate it is not.

ARTISTRY (A): 10 out of 10
If you evaluated the story based only on the external events—i.e., what takes place in the “real world”—you’d notice it’s about as simple and generic a story as you can get. What makes it incredibly novel is the focused attention on the inside of a young girl’s mind, personifying her emotions as individual characters. This perspective turns the story into a gold mine of originality. Inside Out is another shining example of Pixar’s out-of-the-box storytelling, right up there with the likes of WALL•E and Up.

Pete Docter and his team of filmmakers strike all the right keys, including everything from Michael Giacchino’s score to the storytellers’ intricate world-building. The script’s ability to deal with such complexity in such an easy-to-follow way is commendable.

The cheap and easy way to play the emotions for humor would have been to make them all self-serving and antagonistic toward each other. Instead, they work together as a team. Sure, there are moments of disagreement, but the relational dynamics between the emotions makes us sympathize with each character. In fact, all the major characters, both within and outside Riley’s mind, are relatable/likeable.

The film actually has no anthropomorphic antagonist, but it still grapples with sad and somber subjects, not the least of which involves irreparable loss. If you’ve ever wondered by humans have heartstrings, it’s so that movies like this could tug at them. The art of filmmaking exists so stories like this can be told.

No film is absolutely perfect, but Inside Out is about as close as they come. In a perfect world, this movie would receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Alas, we don’t live in a perfect world.

PREFERENCE (P): 9 out of 10
One of my major concerns going into the film was that humans would be turned into mere puppets at the service of the emotions controlling them. What I found was a more nuanced portrayal: at times, the emotions do seem to be calling the shots, whereas other instances point to the humans directing the emotions. It’s a clever and balanced portrayal of the paradoxical truths of predestination and human autonomy.

I freely admit that I cry in movies—especially Pixar films. Inside Out, however, reached deeper into my soul than any other Pixar film to date—possibly deeper than any other film period. My wife thinks it’s because this story is the most universally appealing and applicable that Pixar has ever created. Finding Nemo might resonate more with parents, and Up might resonate more with married couples, but no one is left out of Inside Out’s sights. Pete Docter has tapped into the universal human experience in a way no other Pixar film has done. It left Shannon and me emotionally undone.

There were several points in the film where even Shannon (who never cries in movies—and I mean never) was reduced to a bucket of tears. And during the clever and cathartic end credits, I was literally laughing and crying at the same time. As Shannon and I discussed the story afterward, neither of us could mention certain plot points without having to stop and compose ourselves. Yes, the movie is that affecting.

Furthermore, the movie’s thematic elements are complementary to a Tim Keller book Shannon and I are currently reading: Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. One aspect of the Christian view of pain is that it has a “soul making” affect, giving us greater capacities to experience and demonstrate emotions and virtues that would otherwise be impossible. Inside Out beautifully mirrors this truth—not in a preachy way, but in a subtle and organic way. In fact, this movie’s illustration of the “soul making” nature of suffering has directly affected my parenting; it has helped assuage certain fears I’ve had regarding my eldest daughter. It’s not often I can say something like that about a children’s film, or any film.

With all this raving, why am I not giving the movie a 10 for my personal opinion? Well, I wasn’t absolutely captivated by the film until the third act. I was interested from the get-go, but it didn’t fully hook and amaze me until the story rushed toward its climax. (In contrast, I gave Monster’s University a perfect score because it was a constant delight for me all the way through.) And while Giacchino’s music fits the film well, it’s my least favorite score of his for a Pixar film. (Up and Ratatouille are much more memorable.) At the same time, I can’t complain too much; each successive listen to the score has left me sobbing. Obviously, it does the job well. Nevertheless, my enjoyment of Inside Out is slightly below my appreciation for it. That’s the only reason why I’m not giving the movie an overall perfect score.

CAP score: 97%

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Rap Music: When Comedy Meets Poignancy

There are a couple things you may not know. First, this is Hip Hop Appreciation Week. Yes, it’s an actual thing. And second, hip hop is my second favorite genre of music. It may be hard to believe, but it’s true. Second only to my love of instrumental motion picture scores is my love of rap.

In fact, I’ve played around with the possibility of writing and recording some of my own rap music. If I did, you could then call me by my hip hop name: Skittles. (M&M is already taken…sort of.)

Rap songs have the unique ability to contain boatloads of information, which, depending on how the format is utilized, can lend itself well to either serious and weighty meditation or outlandish humor. I love both uses. So, in honor of Hip Hop Appreciation Week, I wanted to share some of my favorite rap songs/videos with you. I don’t necessarily think these are the cream of the crop from an aesthetic standpoint—only that I myself enjoy them immensely. I’ve divided my list into two groups: humorous rap songs and serious rap songs. We’ll start with the humorous ones first.

Top 5 Humorous Rap Songs

5. “Yo Mama Battle (of Compliments)” (Rhett & Link)

It’s hard to pick a favorite of Rhett and Link’s hip hop songs, but I like this one because of the twist on a rap battle (i.e., compliments instead of insults) and the cleverness of the lyrics. (My wife likes the “Epic Rap Battle of Manliness” better.)


4. “White and Nerdy” (Weird Al)

Weird Al’s parody skills are exceptional, and this hip hop song is…well, no exception.


3. “Tears of a Rapper” (Flight of the Conchords)

This song comes from the Fight of the Conchords TV show. The lyrics this dynamic duo comes up with are often hilarious. Unfortunately, the song cannot be imbedded, so here is the link. (Warning: song contains some language.)













2. “See You on Monday” (Roman Johnson)

Slathered with delicious lyrics, this song about a man pining for Chick-fil-A on a Sunday (when the restaurant chain is closed) is a real treat.


1. “Swagger Wagon” (Toyota)

Created by Toyota (yep, the car company), this is a clever and slick piece of marketing. As a standalone song (and music video), it’s an intense and entertaining laugh-fest.


Top 5 Serious Rap Songs

5. “Can I Live?” (Nick Cannon)

This song wears its message on its sleeve, but I still love it for two reasons: 1) it’s a message I’m passionate about, and 2) the “twist” ending gives the piece a nice rhetorical boost.



4. “Atonement Q&A” (Shai Linne)

This is a theologian’s dream: a hip hop catechism. Through a series of questions and answers, Shai Linne explains the nature, extent, and beauty of Christ’s atonement.


3. “The Interview” (Timothy Brindle)

Although this could technically fit in the humorous category, it still deals with a serious topic: finding and rooting out the sin in one’s life. Arranged in the form of an interview, and filled with clever lyrics/banter, this song expertly sets up the rest of Brindle’s Killing Sin album. (Yes, I know the album’s artwork leaves much to be desired; just focus on the words of the song.)


2. “Far Away” (Lecrae)

Written as a source of encouragement to those experiencing suffering, Lecrae dedicated all royalties to this song toward relief work in Haiti after a 2010 earthquake killed hundreds of thousands of people.


1. “Rebel” (Lecrae)

Lecrae is my favorite rapper, so it’s hard to pick my top selection from him. At long last, I decided on this one simply because I listen to it more than just about any of his other songs. (This music video is not officially from Lecrae, but I found it more visually interesting than those with just words on the screen.)

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Why Don’t More Christians Like “Fifty Shades of Grey”?

Let me tell you about a film that’s garnered a lot of publicity. The story revolves around a wealthy and debonair businessman with serious control issues. His sexual tastes involve perverse fantasies, but he gets what he wants because he’s rich, powerful, and handsome. In telling this story, the movie doesn’t shy away from depictions of the sex act. The audience is inundated with sex, in fact. The debauchery is enough to make a lot of people sick, either with revulsion, pleasure, or a mixture of both.

Do you think I’m talking about Fifty Shades of Grey? Actually, I’m referring to The Wolf of Wall Street, which came out on DVD just last year.

Many prominent Christian critics loved WoWS, as I pointed out earlier. Fifty Shades of Grey, on the other hand, has been either ignored or condemned. And yet there are some glaring similarities in how both movies handle sex.

They both employ stylistic techniques that were labeled as hardcore porn just a few decades ago. These techniques involve the filming of partially and/or fully nude actors who are engaged in sexual behavior with one another.

Both films dehumanize the actors who star in them. For WoWS, this is especially true for actor Margot Robbie, who is treated like a piece of meat. For Fifty Shades, the objectification of Dakota Johnson took a toll on both of the main actors, as evidenced by several cast interviews. Consider the following snippet from Glamour:

JAMIE: There were times when Dakota was not wearing much, and I had to do stuff to her that I’d never choose to do to a woman.

DAKOTA: It’s stressful enough to be tied to a bed naked in a scene. But then they call cut, and you’re still tied to the bed, naked. Jamie would be the first one to throw a blanket over me.

JAMIE: I felt very protective and aware that it probably wasn’t easy for her to be put in those situations, and exposed. . . .

DAKOTA: Sometimes
I did walk off the set feeling a bit shell-shocked. The drive home from work always helped me snap out of it. And a big glass of wine.

Or consider this excerpt from Johnson in TIME:

It was emotionally taxing. At first I was like, “Oh my God, this is the worst thing ever,” and then I was like, “All right, let’s get on with it.”

Johnson’s psychological distress is a milder version of the sexual trauma actors experience in the world of porn.

Am I going out on a limb by comparing these films to pornography? Not in the least. Reviewers of The Wolf of Wall Street—including those who loved the film—refer to it as being sexually explicit in the extreme (something we’ve examined in detail before). When a movie is “replete with…acts of sexual depravity” and “borderline NC-17,” how can its pornographic overtones be denied?

Similarly, audiences and critics alike have associated Fifty Shades with porn. Mike McGranaghan writes, “At its core, this is a rape fantasy. . . . If you think rape is a turn-on, this is the film for you.” Movie reviewer Gary Wolcott says, “Fifty Shades of Grey is basically a beautifully filmed, expensive piece of soft core pornography. It gives you the most explicit sex, bondage and spanking you’ll see this side of an Internet porn site.”

But that’s not all. There are ways in which The Wolf of Wall Street is actually more problematic than Fifty Shades. For example, the former has more sexually explicit content than the latter. WoWS has somewhere close to 22 sex scenes, whereas Fifty Shades involves the main characters having sex less than ten times.

And what about the use of the male gaze (which influences most mainstream sex scenes)? The visual objectification of the female form plays a prominent role in WoWS. While still succumbing to the male gaze in many respects, Fifty Shades reveals several aesthetic choices that speak more to a female audience.

With these considerations, how can Christians call WoWS a “great and possibly terrific movie while rejecting Fifty Shades out of hand because “frankly, life is too short”?

There are several answers to this question, I’m sure, but the one I’ve heard most often goes something like this: the message of Fifty Shades is bad, but the message of WoWS is good. WoWS shows how carnal and corrupt the main character really is, while Fifty Shades puts a positive spin on sexual abuse and manipulation.

In response, it could be argued that the overall trajectory of the Fifty Shades trilogy is actually a story about true love. After all, the narrative acknowledges the detrimental nature of Christian Grey’s sexual excursions. His abusive ways are rooted in the abuse he himself received. His character arc involves going from a hardened cynic into a true romantic—all because of the transforming power of love.

Even if you think that explanation is hogwash, there is an even deeper problem with the Christian’s argument that WoWS is commendable and Fifty Shades is condemnable. It’s found, among other places, in a Christianity Today article on Fifty Shades. The film, it says, “has no real cogent moral or cultural point buried within.” The implicit idea here is that if we could discern a moral point (even without changing the pornographic elements of the film), the story would become worthy of our patronage.

That line of reasoning, however, is not credible. Since when does a code of Christian sexual ethics submit to the principle that the ends justify the means? We would never blatantly say all storytelling methods are fair game so long as the message of a story is a moral one.

And yet it seems as if we’re trying to smuggle a deadly principle into our Christianity—the idea that the right thing pursued through the wrong means actually isn’t that bad after all. In effect, we are saying that a filmmaker can borrow techniques from the world of porn and somehow not subvert a film’s moral message. We’d be shocked and ashamed to see religious retail stores market “Christian porn,” but we’re quick to patronize pornographic content—so long as it is labeled as mainstream and comes with a worthwhile moral/cultural point.

So, I’ll end this piece right back where it began: Why don’t more Christians like Fifty Shades of Grey?