About thad

I’m Thad. I’m just a dude. With a beard. And a family. And a house. And the ability to write in complete sentences when I so choose. For reference, see the first two sentences in this paragraph. And the last one that references the first two. I also pastor (with some other good folks) the weirdest group of normal people on the planet, and when we all get together we let people call us community church. I wouldn’t trade them for your weird normal people even if you threw in all of China’s tea. This is partly because I love my people and partly because what business do I have depriving all those Chinese folks of tea? I might consider an offer involving homemade banana pudding, but only on the hard days.

I went to the movies in 2018. Here’s what happened.

For a record-breaking second year in a row, I’m going to write about my favorite movies from the last year. First, my standard context and disclaimers:

• This is a true mashup of serious film appreciation and me being surprised I didn’t hate someone other than Harrison Ford playing Han Solo. I strongly discourage you from viewing this as a list of the objectively best films of the year or from trying to make any sense of it at all.

• At 42 43 my instinct for what I should and shouldn’t put in front of my eyes is pretty sound. You should be intentional about developing that instinct for yourself. I’ll try to mention any more extreme content that might be a problem, but do your homework and be discerning. Don’t blame me if you watch something that offends you just because you noticed I saw or liked it. (Though you’re certainly free to ask me if you’re wondering why I was okay watching something that offends you.) I see a lot of movies, but I don’t see everything, including certain popular or critically-acclaimed movies that I know just aren’t wise choices for me. Even “mindless entertainment” isn’t value neutral. One example: I generally steer clear of raunchy comedies because my spirit revolts at such cynical treatments of sex. There are others, but the point is me seeing (or liking) a movie isn’t necessarily an endorsement. Be wise and thoughtful, even (maybe especially) about what you laugh at.

• I’m writing about these films all at once, and it’s been many months since I’ve seen some of them. That means I may not have a lot to say about a few, but they make the list based on my memory of what I felt or thought about them when I saw them. I also don’t plan to try to summarize the movies and instead just share some of my reasons for including them. This is exactly how real movie critics work, I’m pretty sure.

• I kept closer track of what I watched this year than ever before, and if you have any interest in doing that, I recommend letterboxd, which has been a fun discovery for me. For the two of you interested enough in my movie opinions to track them more than once a year, letterboxd has a social component that allows you to follow what your friends are seeing, liking, hating, and various lists they make. You can follow me here.

• Publishing this the night of the Oscars is only a mild form of protest for how bored I was by the overall list of the Academy’s nominees and winners this year.

• I’ll try to mark any major spoilers, but you know, no promises.

• I’m going to rank my top 15 16 (I had a late addition after I started writing this), though if I made the ranking next week there’s little doubt I would shuffle many of them around. This is just my personal mixed-up ranking of the movies from 2018 I loved and/or appreciated based on how I’m feeling today. Before I do that, I’ll ramble about some other movies I kind of liked, really hated, or just want to tack on a comment about. If you think you’ll get bored with those, feel free to skip down to the numbered list. I’ll never know.

2017 Addendum: Hostiles
I saw this in early 2018 and didn’t have it on last year’s list, but it was actually a 2017 release that just didn’t make it to our theaters for a while. I’m a sucker for period movies set in the American west dealing with the usually tragic complexities of the frontier. Hostiles is exactly that, forcing a white soldier who spent his career hating and brutalizing native Americans to reckon with his past and decide whether he wants to locate his lost humanity. It oversimplifies and fast forwards through that story, but it still manages to have something to say about evil, repentance, forgiveness, and the excruciating realities native Americans had to endure while trying to cling to their own humanity. Content warning: a good bit of brutal violence, including an attack in which children are killed, and an off-screen sexual assault of multiple women.

Green Book
I originally left this one out completely, but I’m adding it Monday morning since it won Best Picture. Green Book was sort of obviously made with an Oscar-inducing formula. It has been polarizing on several fronts, most notably due to the way it approaches the racial dynamics between the main characters. I confess I don’t completely know how I feel about it or how to sort out the various perspectives on it. Even before I knew there was controversy, I was uncomfortable with what felt like the kind of movie about race we would have seen 25-30 years ago. Then I discovered there was significant pushback in the areas that seemed off to me. I honestly haven’t taken the time to read how the cast and crew, including co-star Mahershala Ali and executive producer Octavia Spencer, are responding to the questions.

Those significant issues aside, I thought Green Book was just okay. It definitely wasn’t the best film of 2018, but the Academy isn’t actually that interested in “best,” it turns out.

The Sisters Brothers
My junior high/high school buddy Scott and I met up in Dallas this fall and saw this before it was released widely. Neither of us knew much about it going in, though I was hopeful since I’m always eager for quality westerns and since the cast is so darn good: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Riz Ahmed. Scott and I talked about the movie for an hour afterwards, and the longer we talked, the less we liked it. I later discussed it with a couple of others who also disliked it, and I was content to kind of hate it. About six weeks later, I found myself thinking about it more than most movies I don’t like, so I gave it another shot. I was surprised to find I liked it a lot more the second time around. It’s still morally problematic for me in its portrayal of violence and in its (lack of ) resolution. It’s still confusing and, at times, absurd. But I found the strangeness more endearing and the unpredictability more interesting. Mostly I just loved John C. Reilly’s portrayal of Eli Sisters, and as I’m writing this I’m having a hard time thinking of a character or performance from the 2018 list I liked more. Reilly has spent a lot of time on silly roles, but he’s a brilliant actor.

Vice
I’m not going to comment much on this year’s Academy Award nominees except to say that, with a few notable exceptions, it’s the least interesting or inspiring group of nominees I’ve seen in years. Vice, with nominations in six(!) major categories, is exhibit A. I loved Adam McKay’s work on The Big Short, which was my favorite film of 2015. That’s part of why I found Vice difficult to watch. I’m otherwise very interested in these kinds of stories, this particular story, and these particular characters, but McKay mostly applied the same formula to a different story with far less interesting results. The approach and script just didn’t work for me, and with the exception of Christian Bale, who was outstanding as Dick Cheney (think for a minute about that transformation), the performances ranged from flat to painfully awkward.

First Reformed
I’m supposed to love this, I guess. I mean it’s kind of become a darling of the thinking crowd, and after all it’s about a pastor (Ethan Hawke) struggling with his faith and calling. My kind are generally not represented with much accuracy or care on screen, so I was intrigued. The more elemental parts of the movie worked for me, and the complicated emotional and spiritual landscape of Hawke’s character made sense to me as a pastor. Gosh, we even get a healthy dose of Thomas Merton. Yes please. I just couldn’t hang with some of the extreme turns in the plot building to an ending that went from weird to really weird. Sometimes I see people gush about a film and think they either watched it while they were high or they’re pretending to get and love something because they know they’re supposed to. That’s how I feel about people who claim to get or love the last 15 minutes of First Reformed. And it definitely has to be one of those two options since it seems so unlikely I’m just not smart enough to get it myself.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Over time this collection of Coen-Brothers-create-Flannery-O’Connor-stories-as-Westerns might move its way up my list. I’ve only seen it once, but it’s the kind of work that I think needs multiple visits. Content warning: lots of people die in lots of really awful ways, and the Coens are happy to show it all to you.

BumbleBee
I don’t have much to say here except that I went and saw a Transformers movie for the first time, and it was a lot of fun. (That doesn’t mean I want to see any of the others.)

The Favourite
And then there’s the one where everyone gets what she deserves.

This is a beautifully made film about a lot of human ugliness and debauchery with masterful performances and no likable or admirable characters. I’ve grown weary of that routine, even when it’s done this well. Content warning: there’s some brief nudity, and a lot of the dysfunctional relationships are sexual in all kinds of ways and directions.

Eighth Grade
I was never an eighth grade girl, but I’m pretty sure this is exactly what it’s like, at least for many. The father-daughter dynamics are often uncomfortable but ultimately significant and sweet.

Solo
As much as I liked the idea of building Han Solo’s backstory, I was supremely skeptical that I’d be able to tolerate anyone other than Harrison Ford in the role. I was surprised how well Alden Ehrenreich pulled that off. The story was just okay, but I enjoyed it more than most, I think.

They Shall Not Grow Old
Peter Jackson set out to bring new life to hours and hours of existing film and audio from and about World War I. I would do a poor job of explaining all the unprecedented ways he and his team did this, but the result is remarkable. The narration is completely composed of audio interviews with veterans of the Great War, and the footage is colorized and presented in 3D (I’m normally not a fan of 3D, but it was terrific). The storytelling manages to capture both the spirit of that era when most common men were eager to serve in the war and the day-to-day horrors they lived once they got there. I caught one of only four local screenings [on the first run; it since returned for a few weeks], which also included an introduction from Jackson and an extra 30 minute doc after the credits about the making of the film.

Be sure to watch for this guy, who reminded me that people are made of the same stuff even when separated by the centuries:


Top 16 of 2018:

16. The Hate U Give

In terms of importance, this one is in my top ten for the year. It’s a mainstream movie about the realities of being black in America that generalizes real stories of police shootings into a particular fictional story. It’s a movie I think white people should watch, not because it’s the best film of the year or because it perfectly captures all the nuances the black experience, but because I think it’s an accessible look into a reality we just don’t know first-hand. It operates in stereotypes at times, sometimes awkwardly, but I think it does so for the sake of telling a broad story and not with malice. A better script would have made a big difference, and I’m a little confused that someone didn’t insist on that. Still, it’s an important movie, and I’m a big fan of Amandla Stenberg’s performance.

15. A Star is Born

[Spoilers live here.] I’ve gone back and forth a few times in my feelings about this one. The music is terrific (oh hi Jason Isbell) and I basically loved the performances across the board. Gaga is kind of great. Sam Elliott is one of my favorite actors on the planet, and he’s right in the pocket in this role. His Oscar nomination is one of only a few that I care anything about this year. Dave Chappelle also nails it; his part is relatively small, but his character is one of my favorites of the year. And then there’s Andrew Dice Clay, who had me thinking “Is that Andrew Dice Clay? It can’t be. But it is. Wait, maybe not,” as I watched. (It is.) I have issues with some of the turns in the story, but that’s almost inevitable for a movie like this. Even though I saw the end coming, it was still a gut punch. Suicide has so marked my life over the years that I struggle even with fictional stories about it. Still, this was such an ambitious undertaking for Bradley Cooper, and it’s hard to look at it as anything but a success. It’s the kind of effort that could have been a total flop for any number of reasons – bad script, bad music, disappointing results from taking a big risk on Lady Gaga, etc. But it sufficiently checks all of those boxes for me and in some cases goes well beyond.

14. The Rider

I didn’t put these two back-to-back on purpose, but I guess it’s fitting since they’re total opposites. A Star is Born could have been terrible by going big in every way and failing; this could have been terrible for completely different reasons. You won’t recognize anyone in The Rider because it’s a feature film (not a documentary) about true people in which the actual people play themselves. It’s unorthodox, but it works. The focus is Brady, a talented bronc rider searching for identity after a head injury makes continuing to ride a really bad idea. The story is slow and quiet, and though the perspective on Brady’s struggles is sometimes uncomfortably intimate, I haven’t often seen this kind of realism work on screen in a non-documentary format. I was particularly moved by his interactions with Lilly, his special needs sister, and Lane, his bull rider best friend who is living with profound brain damage. This is one that could slide toward my top five pretty easily on any given day.

13. Beautiful Boy

David Sheff’s memoir about living with and through his son’s battle with addiction is the source for this movie, and it has been on my “to read soon” shelf or my bedside table for a couple of years now. For some reason I kept bogging down and still haven’t finished it, but I was too interested in seeing Steve Carrell and Timothée Chalamet handle this story to put off watching it any longer. Though I’m still scrubbing my mental association of Chalamet with Call Me by Your Name (my disdain for that film explained here), he’s a gifted young actor. And, well, Steve Carrell is just terrific, and I’m so glad he continues to tackle dramatic roles (some better than others) instead of just setting up shop in the realm of absurd comedy where he could cash obscene check after obscene check, but where the well of truly funny roles runs dry in a hurry.

Beautiful Boy isn’t the most powerful or revealing movie ever made about addiction, but I think it’s better than it gets credit for if you remember that it’s intended to be the dad’s story, not the son’s. My friend Scott pointed out that a lot of the less than stellar reviews seem to misunderstand the perspective. No, you don’t get a deep dive into the addict’s gruesome realities, but that wasn’t the point. We’re looking into the pain and hope and exhaustion of the father. I’ve seen both active addiction and recovery up close. I’ve accompanied someone we love to AA meetings and experienced family night at rehab. Those rooms are full of people who have lived a dozen lives just trying to stay in the fight with and for their son or daughter or sister or father. Telling their stories doesn’t minimize the addict’s story; it completes it.

12. Isle of Dogs

My girls (13 and 11) who love dogs and still dig animated movies are totally creeped out by every poster, trailer, or mention of Isle of Dogs. Even when I remind them how great Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson’s first go at stop-motion animation) is, they still think something is wrong with me. And maybe they’re right. Something is probably wrong with most of us who continue to love Anderson’s work. I know a goodly number of folks who are more loyal fans than me, but I’ve been in since Bottle Rocket, and I’m still here. Isle of Dogs is not his best film, but it’s smart and sweet and funny. It also has something to say while not seeming burdened by the obligation to be sure you understand what it’s saying. Anderson’s tendency to be obscure at times does not make him unique, of course, but my sense is that most filmmakers taking this path are trying really hard to make sure you know they don’t care whether or not you get them. Wes Anderson is certainly trying really hard in many ways (no, no, we’ll need the deep burgundy smoking jacket that was only made in east Bombay in 1971), but I’ve never had the sense that he’s trying to be hard to understand. He’s just a quirky fellow trying to make really good films, and he almost always succeeds.

11. First Man

First Man wasn’t originally in my list, but I was a lot more affected by it watching it a second time. When I saw it at the theater, I realized about halfway through that I’m typically not as drawn into movies about the space program as a lot of folks are. Maybe my problem is I never dreamed of being an astronaut or wanted to go to Space Camp. It looked terrific on the big screen and I appreciated that the story was as much about the people as the drama of the moon landing, but I just drifted in and out of being engaged. That was apparently about me on that particular day, because the emotional arc was powerful as I watched it again. Gosling’s work here is excellent, tapping into the quiet depth of a man whose work requires such constant mental intensity that he simply can’t always be present in other parts of his life, even the parts that are most important to him. I’m never going to the moon, but I may or may not be able to relate a little. I’m also a fan of Jason Clarke, who I think is very good as another intense guy forced into multiple emotional moments with Armstrong. Mostly Amy and I were struck by how well the cast and crew seemed to see and convey the way the loss of a child marks every moment that follows for a husband and wife. (Which is not exactly what you expect to say after a movie about the first man to walk on the moon.)

10. Minding the Gap

This was the late entry that jumped into my list and pushed it from 15 to 16. Wow. First-time filmmaker Bing Liu has created a heartbreaking and deeply personal portrait of the particular and collective histories of his childhood circle of friends, now adults but not all grown-ups. I am astounded at his vision, heart, and skill. He not only made a stunning first film, but he did it by gently and honestly documenting the sin and pain and struggle of his closest friends, his family, and his own story. This is tough to watch at times because it is so intimate and revealing, but Liu’s love for the people whose stories he’s telling–even the ones who are least lovable–is never in doubt. Content warning: the language is intense throughout, and there is a lot of explicit discussion of domestic violence.

9. BlacKkKlansman

I just rewatched this last week wanting to be sure I remembered it well enough to place it among a lot of films I’ve seen more recently. I bumped it up several spots after the second viewing, mostly because I think Spike Lee’s direction is so very good. This is a (true) story that easily could have been fumbled if the approach was too serious or too humorous (the true story and the movie are definitely both), but Lee and the cast find just the right tone from start to finish. The primary storyline has no trouble as a feature film plot, but Lee manages to explore a number of related complexities of racial struggle without getting too bogged down in any of them. Content warning: the n-word is used A LOT, along with other racist language. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s authentic to the story, and it would probably seem pretty sanitized without it. There is another content warning in the spoiler section below.

[Spoilers from here on]: Once the movie itself concludes, we’re quickly jolted into the present with footage from the August 2017 protests and violence in Charlottesville. This is one of the reasons I wanted to take a second look. The first time around, the transition was jarring to the point of disorienting me. I think I expected more of a punch in the face from the movie itself than I felt, so that punch coming from news footage made me less certain about the power of the scripted film. The second viewing didn’t feel that way at all. Some of that was probably me picking up more of the nuance of the script and some was probably time and perspective to see the two pieces as a coherent whole. Content warning: I assume most have seen the Charlottesville footage by now, but it is brutal and includes the murder of Heather Heyer.

8. If Beale Street Could Talk

James Baldwin is a tragically under-read American truth-teller, and I think I Am Not Your Negro, the 2016 documentary riffing on Baldwin’s life and work, is one of the most important films of the last decade. If Beale Street Could Talk, based on a Baldwin novel, is a gorgeous and completely different take on his writing. Beale Street takes us into a specific story of innocence and love ultimately scarred by the crushing realities of a very broken system riddled with very broken people. I was floored by the portrayal of lifelong affection and budding romance between Tish and Fonny and can’t recall a gentler, more believably idyllic picture of young love on screen. My reaction to it left me wondering whether it’s a subtle, surgical excavation of some of my own lingering prejudice or if the fact that I think that exposing my prejudice even crossed Baldwin’s (or director Barry Jenkins’) mind is the real revelation. Either way, that’s the kind of conversation I think Baldwin wants me to have with myself. Content warning: there is a fairly long sex scene that I don’t quite know how to describe. I’m pretty careful about putting my eyes on this kind of thing, but I confess I was just excited we got this film in town, wasn’t sure it would be here more than a week, and ran out and saw it as soon as I could without doing much homework. Anyway, I say I don’t know how to describe it because the innocence and gentleness I describe above is almost the point of this scene; it is not at all “dirty” and is in fact purposefully the opposite. But it’s sex. And people are naked. And I always want to mention that and, again, suggest everyone exercise real wisdom in their movie-watching.

7. Free Solo

I honestly don’t know whether this will translate as a top ten film on a small screen. It was breath taking on the big screen. It’s also a marvelously crafted documentary about climbers and climbing, effectively telling Alex Honnold’s particular story while also introducing us to the fascinating world of absolutely insane people who climb tall things, often without any kind of safety net, and often until they eventually fall off something tall and die. I can’t imagine this will hit theaters again for any reason, but if it does, by all means, go see it (in IMAX if possible). It was one of my favorite visual experiences in a theater in the last several years.

6. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Yes, this is the third documentary in my top ten and the fourth on the list overall.

Was this a relatively weak year for feature films?

Was this just an exceptional year for docs?

Am I a nerd?

Yes.

What can I say about this beautiful look into the life and work of Fred Rogers other than it is exactly the film we need right now? If you haven’t seen it, please change that. Content warning: You’re probably gonna cry.

5. Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse

Gosh I love this movie. We’re firmly into territory where I could rearrange the order of these films on any given day, including putting this one at the very top of my list. It’s fun. It’s ground breaking. It’s exciting. It’s hilarious. It has heart. It looks great!

And I just wrote all of that about an animated comic book movie. I don’t see animated comic book movies. That’s worth noting so that I can urge you not to skip Spier-Verse just because you’re someone who doesn’t see animated comic book movies. Aiden and I took Amy and the girls back to see it and they all loved it. Of all the movies on my list, this might be the easiest one for me to universally recommend to pretty much anyone.

4. A Quiet Place

[Minor spoilers live here.] I don’t know what I loved more, seeing this in the theater for the first time and enduring the glorious silence and jump-out-of-your-seat terror or taking Aiden (16) back and watching him have that experience. I mentioned last year when I included Get Out in my top ten that I see very few horror movies these days, and A Quiet Place is only on the outskirts of the horror genre. But it will sho ’nuff scare you in all the best ways. Emily Blunt is fantastic, and the bathtub scene alone is Oscar-worthy, not that the Academy would notice when, you know, there’s a really unlikable Glenn Close character to celebrate or Amy Adams is making sure we know how hatable Dick Cheney’s wife is.

What was I talking about?

Oh yeah, Emily Blunt just SILENTLY gave birth in a bathtub while blood-thirsty creatures are roaming through the hallway and no one in Hollywood cares because she wasn’t wearing an 18th century gown.

Ok, I’m back. John Krasinski chose brilliant material for his first film, and I really mean it when I say he deserves the Best Director nomination that Adam McCay got for being Adam McCay and making a cartoonishly anti-Bush/Cheney movie. Many will think that’s silly, but I contend it’s not only okay but good to reward filmmakers who find new ways to make movie-going fun, and few movies did that better last year than A Quiet Place.

3. The Old Man & the Gun

Robert Redford says The Old Man & the Gun is his last film. While I certainly hope that’s not the case, Forrest Tucker feels like a fitting final Redford gentleman rogue. This film sitting in my top three is telling for my tastes in this season of life. It is patient in its storytelling, well-written, complex enough but not opaque, beautiful on the screen, and overrun with great actors at their best.

Though I did not get A Ghost Story at all, this is the third of director David Lowery’s four major works that have really landed for me, including Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon. I’m consistently drawn in by Lowery’s eye for light and landscapes, and composer David Hart’s scores are stunning at every turn.

This was easily my favorite cast of the year. I mean, I could watch Redford and Sissy Spacek on screen together for two hours without interruption. If Lowery had made that film, it might still be in my top three. But he somehow found a way to give Casey Affleck, Danny Glover, and Tom Waits memorable roles without stealing any thunder from his two legendary leads. This may be my favorite Affleck role to date, Glover is quietly perfect, and man oh man, I just don’t know what to say about Tom Waits except: “And that’s why I hate Christmas!”

2. Black Panther

I’m all in on Black Panther at every level. As a next piece in the expansive unfolding Marvel universe, it is right on point. But it’s so much more than than another superhero movie, though I won’t try to recreate what others have covered quite well. I’ll just say that it’s a remarkable thing to make a thoroughly entertaining action movie and next piece in a blockbuster franchise that also has something profound to say and show us. If you struggle to see the beauty and power in a film full of smart, noble, and strong characters who are also black, make an effort to watch Black Panther through the eyes of girls and boys—and girls and boys who have lived decades and become women and men—who have never in their lives seen a film like this full of people like this who look like them telling stories that feel like their stories. Like I said, I’m all in on Black Panther at every level.

1. Leave No Trace

I honestly don’t know how to write about Leave No Trace except to say it’s one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen in years. There is a quiet simplicity and depth to this story that needs to be seen rather than read about. I saw it at The Angelika in Dallas this summer and immediately knew it was going to be my favorite of 2018. I wish everyone could see it on the big screen. I mean, just look at that photo above.

Even more compelling than the lush Pacific Northwest scenery is the story of a father and daughter whose love for one another is as pure as it is complicated. I can’t recall a movie that offers a more affecting picture of a child learning to embrace her identity apart from her father while still loving and accepting him in all his damage.

As a dad of three (and two daughters) I’ll never ask my kids to live in the woods with me, but I hope they find what Tom finds in this story: a true sense of identity apart from me that includes a deep well of grace for the ways my mistakes and brokenness have become part of their lives.

Anyway, this was the best film of 2018 whether you know it or not. But now you know.

When the Church tries to save God: Good intentions born from bad theology have failed abuse victims

When the disjointed surges of awakening to the realities of sexual abuse and assault began to gather into a more identifiable #metoo movement, I knew it was only a matter of time before that momentum carried us to something like #churchtoo. The Catholic Church absorbed the lion’s share of the attention for years, but there has never been any doubt that the same nauseating secrets lurked in the shadows of many other Christian spaces. Now the headlines are catching up, extinguishing any lingering hope that we can stand at a distance and shake our heads at the sins of other institutions and groups, religious or otherwise. This week it’s the Southern Baptists, but they won’t be the last.

The reckoning is coming. I propose we say this together: May it come quickly.

That invitation will not land softly for many of us because we are keenly aware of the cost that accompanies exposure of abuse in the Church. Every new revelation cuts into the reputation of Christianity and into the capacity of many to believe. These stories will kick the one remaining leg out from under the fragile faith of some. They will strengthen the resolve of others to never set foot in church again. They will confirm the suspicion of many that Christians—even Christian leaders—are no better than anyone else [spoiler alert, they’re right] leading to the common but rarely properly-labeled theo-philosophical practice of What’sthepoint?ism.

Most Christians who care that the power and significance of our faith is commended well to the world want to avoid and resist these realities. This is not something we feel instead of wanting to protect and care for victims; it is something we feel in addition to wanting to protect and care for victims.

For people who believe Jesus offers real hope to the world, an altruistic desire to keep the news about His Church good is understandable. But I’m also convinced it’s one of the strongest forces at work when Christians make poor choices about how to respond to cases of suspected or confirmed abuse, a dynamic that is fueled by an unarticulated but spectacular error in our understanding of the Gospel we’re trying to protect.

Before I climb behind that particular pulpit I need to make a confession: I understand why this happens. No, I don’t just mean I understand it intellectually. I feel it. It makes sense to me. I’ve thought this way and sometimes still do.

I need to put that confession in writing so that I acknowledge the struggle and temptation. There are real complexities involved in these stories, and our social media diatribes about all the “awful people who let this happen” have to be followed by a more nuanced understanding of the ways good intentions rooted in a subtle but persistent lie are just as culpable as bad ones in this epidemic.

Here’s the lie: Christians—and particularly Christian leaders—are tasked with protecting the work of God, the ministry of the Church, and the reputation of the Gospel from the errors of people inside the Church and the attacks of the world outside the Church.

That’s a lie.

Read it again if you need to. It’s still a lie.

It’s just not true, but if you’ve spent any amount of time in the Church, you’ve almost certainly encountered or absorbed some amount of some version of that lie. I know I have.

Let me be clear that my particular temptation is not to justify the cover up of abuse. Thank God I’ve never been in a position of responsibility for dealing with an adult who was abusing or assaulting someone. So I’m not confessing that I’ve been a part of what you’re reading about in the news.

I am confessing that I’ve worried that people knowing about some sin, some mess in the church will negatively impact what others think about our church or the Church or even Jesus himself. I’m confessing that my worry has made me more likely to hope that certain people just won’t talk about certain things in certain circles. Sometimes those things have been my own mistakes. Sometimes they’ve been the missteps of others.

Too often we crave secrecy as a kind of anesthesia against the pain that accompanies the horrifying revelation that I’m a mess (and so are you). In the in-house vernacular, I’m a dirty sinner. Sure, I acknowledge this theologically, but I don’t want people to actually know it’s true in my day-to-day life. I don’t want you to look at me and suspect that I’m thinking the things about people I don’t like that I’m, you know, thinking about people I don’t like. [Not that there are people I don’t like.]

The worst (and very real) version of that is about self protection and pride. But there’s also voice-of-good-intentions in my head that sounds less like self-interest when it says, “You know Jesus is real. You know he’s changed you, just incompletely. You know there’s power here. But if people see this dark part of you, they’re going to be a lot less sure about those things being true than you are.”

I not only think those things sometimes, I’ve thought them today.

And I don’t just think them about myself. I think them about the whole Church. I hear about a rotten Catholic priest, and I don’t think less of Catholics. I just wish people didn’t have to wonder what it means about God.

I see some famous bro-dude claim to be a Christian, and I cringe knowing sooner or later he’s going to say or do something foolish and the word “Christian” will appear in the first line of the TMZ story.

Someone leaves our church over some disagreement in belief or personal offense, and I don’t worry that them telling their story will make our church unpopular. I grieve that we couldn’t see the reconciling power of the Gospel realized, and I hate that it might cause others to wonder if that power is real.

The voice-of-good-intentions says, “If people see these ongoing imperfections in professing Christians, they’ll become What’sthepoint?ists. How can we keep these things quieter so that people don’t get the wrong idea?”

What the voice doesn’t say is that every single one of our attempts to maintain perceptions that don’t reflect reality eventually prove malignant. They may produce a semblance of external peace for a while, but the roots of a false reality will always grow something false. And then what do we have to offer the world but a silly false god of our own making?

It’s a toxic and self-defeating cycle. Our efforts to protect God and his Church from the truth, when exposed, are the best evangelists available for What’sthepoint?ism. If the Church is a place where terrible things can still happen and the Church’s answer is to pretend they didn’t happen so everyone will think the Church is a place where terrible things can’t happen…I mean really, what is the point?

Our belief that we should work to protect or salvage God’s image or His Church’s reputation from human sin needs to find Jesus.

I mean this in two ways. First, the Gospel upends the lie that the mission of the Church is to establish and protect the credibility of the Church. The Gospel insists that the mission of the Church is to point to the cross, which is a nagging reminder that the Church has no credibility except the credibility of Jesus.

The exposure of my sin, no matter how heinous, doesn’t erode the integrity of Jesus or his cross; the exposure of my sin is an ongoing case for humanity’s inability to remedy what ails us without Jesus and his work on our behalf. The Church is the colony of people gathered around Jesus, and our power and uniqueness is God’s presence, not the presence of moral perfection. When the Church acknowledges that there is still darkness within us, we insist, “This is the point! We need a rescue and a redemption that can’t be sourced from our own spirit.”

Then there’s this: When abuse happens and we decide that we shouldn’t risk public exposure of sin in order to “protect the ministry” or “not damage God’s work,” we sacrifice the vulnerable on the altar of reputation. Abuse in the Church is ferocious wound upon wound, and when we silence victims or minimize the evil at work in and through perpetrators, we misrepresent God and his response to those who do harm to his kids (more on that momentarily).

How much have we bastardized our concept of “God’s work” when we find ourselves more concerned with how things will look than with protecting and honoring children and women who have suffered the kinds of evils we struggle to even make ourselves read about? What do we think God’s work is again?

What version of Jesus do we imagine would work to avoid bad press for the Church even if it meant the possibility of other women and children having their bodies and souls violated?

Why do we believe that the priority of Jesus is protecting the reputation of particular leaders or ministries when he demonstrated time and again his indifference to our frantic need to defend our institutions and reputations and his particular interest in seeing and lifting up the broken and bleeding?

“Don’t get in the way of children; let them come to me. The kingdom of heaven belongs to them,” Jesus says.

“You gave great faith,” Jesus publicly tells the woman whose presence is an embarrassment. “Your daughter is healed.”

“Whoever does harm to one of my little ones is better off getting the Tony Soprano treatment in the river,” Jesus says. [loose translation]

True religion, James says, is caring for vulnerable women and children.

Are we getting it yet? There is no ministry—there is no “God’s work”—that doesn’t join Jesus in the protection and healing of the broken and vulnerable.

In a time that demands we be specific, let me be clear: There is no ministry—there is no “God’s work”—that lets grown-ups who we know or suspect will do harm to other vulnerable people become someone else’s problem in order to spare ourselves or our church or the Church trouble or embarrassment.

Our temptation to believe otherwise is just bad theology. I’m not talking about theology I don’t agree with; I’m talking about bad theology. About forgetting that the Gospel frees us from needing to hide sin and compels us to readily confess our individual and collective sin and need for divine intervention.

The problem is not simply bad people. The problem is any people who have fallen prey to the slow creeping lie that we are expected or able to save God or his reputation.

If we’re going to turn from the sins that got us here, our sins have to come into the light and encounter Jesus, who always saves and redeems us and who never needs us to save or redeem Him.

On voting and following Jesus (in 2018)

Some voting thoughts for my Christian friends, particularly those for whom political decisions remain relatively simple:

A lot of your brothers and sisters are deeply conflicted. I’ve been voting for 25 years and paying attention to politics for longer than that, and I’ve never seen anything quite like this among generally theologically conservative Christians. What has long been obvious to most is not longer obvious to many. (This may confound or anger you, but ignoring or despising the truth won’t move us forward, so we have to find a way to engage and understand it.)

votedThe Cruz/O’Rourke race in Texas is the clear case in point here. I do not think O’Rourke will overcome the inertia of the consummate red state and unseat Cruz, but the final numbers will be interesting. Every day I see or hear another few people defect from the Republican base (official or assumed) and declare they’re voting for Beto. Many have never voted for a Democrat for national office and aren’t that excited about doing it now, but they’re just done with the alternative – done enough to make a decisive statement against it. Others I know are disillusioned with Trump and Cruz and Republican politics, but they can’t stomach voting for Democratic candidates whose politics violate so many of their deep and sincere convictions.

I understand and empathize with both groups. My goal isn’t to justify or criticize either choice.

Instead I want to plead with those on either side who don’t relate to this dilemma and for whom this choice (or other similar ballot decisions) are obvious: Kill your condescension. Stop shaking your head and wagging your finger at people who don’t find this as easy as you do. Quit sharing memes and posts that call Beto a “dumbass” or reduce Cruz to evil incarnate.

What are you doing? What Kingdom is this that needs your candidate so badly that it justifies such nonsense?

To the liberals who have emigrated out of conservative Christianity and now find it repulsive and obviously broken: Have you really forgotten that five minutes ago you shared these convictions? Can you not find humble, gracious ways to make the case for your new beliefs? You ought to be the most compelling witnesses for your side, but you win no converts to a kinder, gentler way by savaging your former kinsmen and women, especially those trying to find their way through a new kind of disorientation and uncertainty.

To the conservatives who find any support for liberal candidates laughable and absurd: Are you sure everyone tiring of the Republican act is an idiot? This is a fairly dramatic exodus from the current state of conservative politics, and if you choose to believe it’s populated by only gullible, ignorant folks, you choose gullibility and ignorance for yourself. Some of the smartest, most pro-life people I know – people who have adopted babies who otherwise might have been aborted or raised in state-funded systems, people with lingering resistance to big government – are leaving the fold. What if instead of dismissing them as fools you asked why and actually listened?

To both sides: The choice to condescend and ridicule is self-defeating, both pragmatically and spiritually. If your goal is to advance the cause you believe in, rolling your eyes at those who don’t see as you see is wildly counterproductive. I’m continually bewildered that as these races grow tighter, so many of the true believers on both sides resort to more extreme ways of communicating that only alienate the people they need to persuade. It would be laughable if it weren’t so sad, this inherent foolishness in trying to demonstrate your own wisdom and “rightness” by calling people stupid. This is the fast track to losing the undecided middle. If I’m unsure or on the edge, dismissing my confusion or uncertainty as silly just pushes me further out of the boat.

More importantly, if you identify yourself with Jesus and are therefore alive to be an ambassador of His Kingdom, you are compelled to live and breathe and embody the way the of the cross. The flourishing of the Kingdom is evident in love for others, even in political disagreement. No political end justifies the means of pretending you’re exempt from the explicit, essential command to let your love and gentleness be evident to all. God literally says he hates that noise. We should try not to make noise God hates, yes?

I do not believe this means always remaining silent about politics. I reject the notion that any and all political expressions are sinful disruptions of our call to unity. There are crucial issues at stake, and since we’re here to be ambassadors of the Kingdom, we sometimes must speak the Kingdom’s words into these political moments. Discerning how to do that with the spirit of the King is the Kingdom’s difficult demand.

So advocate for your convictions. Do it boldly and clearly. I’ve done more of that in the last few years than in many years prior, sometimes well, sometimes poorly. But let’s not make it so tough for people to find in our words the message of the cross, through which God has chosen the wisdom of the weak to shame the strong – chosen the triumph of sacrifice and love over human wealth and power.

“Don’t let selfishness and prideful agendas take over. Embrace true humility, and lift your heads to extend love to others. Get beyond yourselves and protecting your own interests; be sincere, and secure your neighbors’ interests first.

In other words, adopt the mind-set of Jesus the Anointed. Live with His attitude in your hearts. Remember:

Though He was in the form of God,
He chose not to cling to equality with God;
But He poured Himself out to fill a vessel brand new;
a servant in form
and a man indeed.”
“Shoulder each other’s burdens, and then you will live as the law of the Anointed teaches us. Don’t take this opportunity to think you are better than those who slip because you aren’t; then you become the fool and deceive even yourself.”

White Humility Matters

In recent years I’ve made no secret of my interest in the conversation about the way folks of different colors view and relate to one another. I’m particularly concerned with how this is going in the Church and with what Jesus and his Good News have to say about our pain, our sins, and our hope for healing and growth in these areas.

My personal history here is without a doubt a mixed bag — part typical white guy and part kid permanently rattled in fifth grade when C.L. Armstrong told me about Martin Luther King and why he mattered to black people. And a lot of other parts generally fitting one of those two categories.

But the gist of my more contemporary engagement has been the realization of how little my life and surroundings have changed, despite my sincere decades-long concern for racial reconciliation. In that awakening I began to hear the Lord ask me — yes I’m one of those; no, it was not an audible voice — if this was all about passive enlightenment for me (something I do quite well) or if I was going to be intentional about altering my life and relationships. In response to that, I decided I can’t get to the end of my days and find I never changed this part of my life. So far that has mostly meant seeking new voices and friends and just sitting, listening, and learning. I still give myself a C-minus in actually doing what I want to be doing, but I’m determined. 

Though both my life and my learning are works in progress, I have taken hold of one clear conviction which has led me to make one specific request of others who look and generally believe like me. The conviction: Humility is always the right posture for me in this conversation. The request: Just be willing to listen and learn before you speak. I’ve made my case for that in a few ways, perhaps most clearly in a sermon I preached last January on the words of Jesus about peacemakers.

My prompt for writing today is to give attention to and commend what I believe to be a helpful model for this kind of listening and learning. Andrew Peterson, a singer/songwriter I’ve long admired who is also now a friend, last week released a video for the song “Is He Worthy?” from his upcoming album, Resurrection Letters, Volume 1. You can watch the video here:


Soon after the video released, some observed that all the faces in the church are white, an unintentional but noticeable visual juxtaposition with these lyrics:

From every people and tribe
Every nation and tongue
He has made us a kingdom

I wasn’t in this corner of the internet when the video released, and I did not observe any of the reaction until Andrew wrote about it today. Here are some of his words (I’ll link to his full piece at the end):

If I could go back in time I would tell the Andrew of a month ago, “Don’t assume. Make sure that this video is a true reflection of the Kingdom. Make sure it paints a glorious picture of the promise in Revelation that every people, tribe, nation, and tongue will sing (indeed, already sing) of the worthiness of Christ, the Lamb who was slain to free the captives. Think about the subtext, about what this video will say, wordlessly, to your friends of all colors.”
– – – – – –
So, as a white American singer/songwriter whose only hope is Jesus, I’m asking forgiveness of the friends and listeners to whom this video brought any measure of grief. I’m also asking the good people who have come to my defense to refrain from using social media to do so. Be silent long enough to really listen. And then, if the Spirit leads, engage with love and patience and humility. As I said, the only way to learn something is to screw up. What was only a small voice in my head a few weeks ago will, I assure you, be a loud, clear voice of wisdom in the future. I’m sure I’m going to make a mountain of mistakes in the days to come, but, Lord willing, this won’t be one of them.

When I aim to be humble, and when I ask fellow white Christians to assume a listening posture when these conversations arise, this is the kind of thing I have in mind. I am convinced the cross compels us to believe we have nothing to lose and everything to gain in selflessly placing the experience of others above our own but the cross itself to lose in dismissing others for the sake of self-preservation and self-defense.

Andrew has a lot at stake here. This song is part of a decade-long gathering of creative and spiritual energy, and the video has to feel like part of his soul’s work coming to life. I can imagine that releasing it into the world and quickly receiving negative feedback is awfully painful. I’m not suggesting it’s equal to or greater than anyone else’s pain. I just know Andrew well enough to understand that he cares about his work pointing to the reconciling mission of Jesus, so the realization that it did something else for someone couldn’t have been fun for him.

And because I know his intentions were good, I know how easy it would have been to respond with self-defense or to try to excuse the situation with explanation.

It would have been completely natural to just say, “Of course I didn’t mean to be hurtful. Could everyone just cut me a break here?” After all, he certainly didn’t intend to be hurtful.

It would have been simple to insist, “Let’s all just focus on the point of the song and video — Jesus — and not get distracted by silly little arguments.” And focusing on Jesus is, of course, important. 

But the way of the cross is:

Deny yourself

and

If your brother has something against you

and

Don’t think of yourselves more highly than you ought

and

In humility value others above yourselves

and

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being.

This is not about shame or guilt, white- or otherwise. It is not about political correctness or safe spaces or anything of the sort. It’s about coming to terms with how we obey the directive to think like Jesus.

He was always right, but he didn’t cling to that. He instead gave up his privileges and served those of us who are often wrong.

He was God, but he didn’t stay separate from us or above us. He instead put himself in our skin, saw the world through our eyes, and suffered the pain we created.

Do that, the Bible says as clearly as it says anything. Do it for the people you don’t understand, don’t like, and don’t think are right. Do it and discover that real victory comes from selfless sacrifice, not superior arguments or standing your ground or trying to force God back into spaces he never left.

So when brothers and sisters say to us: “This part of what you do and how the world works is hurtful to me and to my children,” or ask us “How natural is it for you to think about how your words or work or life impact me and people who look like me?” our response ought to be to listen and consider how we might value and serve them rather than to leap to a posture of self defense or bemoan the demands to be fully inclusive all the time.

For the record, in my experience, the people I talk to aren’t asking for total inclusivity all the time. They’re asking me, as a person, to consider them, as a person, in the way I think, talk, and live. That request ought to be easy for me to honor because Jesus called me to that way of life long before any person of color ever asked it of me.

But of course it is not always easy for me. I don’t hold any high ground here. This requires death to self and to long-held points of view and to comfort and convenience, and I still resist all of that at every turn. But I’m convinced it’s the way of Jesus, and the promise is that it’s the death before the resurrection — the way to the life that is really life.

One last word: Sometimes in these moments we go a step too far in making heroes out of people for just doing the right thing and owning a mistake. That’s not my desire. Andrew is admitting an error that matters, and I’m sure part of him would rather no further attention be drawn to it. But I think his confession is one many of us need to join, acknowledging that we still aren’t as inclined as we should be to pause and consider how our words or lives impact people who aren’t like us. We don’t mean any harm, but we also don’t “value others above [ourselves]” in areas where doing so is completely reasonable and attainable.

So this isn’t about heroism; it’s just about seeing signs of the way forward and acknowledging them. This strikes me as such a sign.

There is longer, harder, deeper work to be done, but it will only be possible if there are beams of simple, sturdy humility to hold it up. Let’s build.

Andrew’s response in its entirety: Waking Up to “Is He Worthy?”: An Apology

My Favorite Films of 2017

Pardon me while I plagiarize myself:

Over time, my feelings for the movies — or for film, when I’m feeling pretentious — have morphed from common enjoyment to personal sanity hobby to deep appreciation for filmmaking as an art. I am still an amateur movie-watcher in every respect, but my perspective on movies and the ways I engage with them have evolved significantly. I pay attention to and appreciate smaller details and very specific elements of filmmaking that I never noticed at all in the past. I think about the intentions of the writers and directors and actors and can find value in their work even when I don’t particularly enjoy it or share their point of view. I’m even doing some research for a story a friend and I hope will eventually become a script, so I’m now watching movies with a deeper appetite for learning and understanding than ever before.

I should also add that I still go to the movies (and watch movies at home) for the pure joy of it. It’s true that on the whole I take a more thoughtful approach to movie-watching than I used to, but I also still like to just laugh and see things explode and pretend time travel is real for a couple of hours.

I generally hate having to rank things and always struggle to cough up a sincere answer when I’m asked what my favorite anything is, but I recently started keeping track of the movies I see, mostly to build a little scaffolding that might encourage me to write more. Also people like reading ranked lists (even people like me), so I decided to try to rank my favorites from the last year. This is a true mashup of serious film appreciation and me laughing at a guy made out of rocks who tried to start a revolution but didn’t print enough pamphlets. I strongly discourage you from viewing this as a list of the objectively best films of the year or from trying to make any sense of it at all.

A few other notes about the list:

  • At 42 my instinct for what I should and shouldn’t put in front of my eyes is pretty sound. You should be intentional about developing that instinct for yourself. I’ll try to mention any more extreme content that might be a problem, but do your homework and be discerning. I see a lot of movies, but I don’t see everything, including certain popular or critically-acclaimed movies that I know just aren’t wise choices for me. Even “mindless entertainment” isn’t value neutral. One example: I generally steer clear of raunchy comedies because my spirit revolts at such cynical treatments of sex. There are others, but the point is me seeing (or liking) a movie isn’t necessarily an endorsement. Be wise and thoughtful, even about what you laugh at.
  • I’m writing about these films all at once, and it’s been many months since I’ve seen some of them. That means I may not have a lot to say about a few, but they make the list based on my memory of what I felt or thought about them when I saw them. I also don’t plan to try to summarize the movies and instead just share some of my reasons for including them. This is exactly how real movie critics work, I’m pretty sure.
  • This is just my personal mixed-up ranking of the movies from 2017 (and early 2018) I loved and/or appreciated based on how I’m feeling as I make up the list, plus some tacked on comments about other movies I kind of liked, really hated, or just want to tack on a comment about. It turned out that 13 movies stood out above the others for me, so it’s a top 13 list. Here’s hoping next year’s list is at least a top 14.

I’ll try to mark any major spoilers, but you know, no promises.

13. The Big Sick

Big Sick The first time I went to see The Big Sick, there was a power outage about 45 minutes in and I didn’t have time to wait for the lights to come back on. The second time I showed up late since I’d already seen the first 45 minutes, so I actually haven’t watched it start to finish in one sitting. The movie tracks the unfolding relationship of star Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, whose near-fatal illness just after they’d broken up brought them back together and forged some very unusual and complicated bonds between the two of them and between Kumail and Emily’s parents. Having lived through some similar circumstances, I was drawn in by their willingness to share very vulnerable parts of their story with the world. The Big Sick is a smart, funny, and honest look into the complexities of a relationship interrupted by and then rebuilt in the valley of illness and trauma. Also, Ray Romano is perfectly cast here as Emily’s dad, and while I know he plays best in a fairly narrow lane, I think he’s become much more than just a silly sitcom actor.

12. Dunkirk

dunkirkMore than any other title on this list, Dunkirk leverages the power of the modern movie theater. Chris Nolan masterfully allows the oversized screen and dynamic sound system to carry as much of the freight of the story as scripted dialogue, and it works. Dunkirk is a cinematic force, visually stunning and paced start to finish by a mounting sonic landscape that seems to somehow emanate from inside your bones. It would rank higher on my list if the story and dialogue had more depth, though I know Nolan makes no apologies for the verbal sparseness. In a movie thin on scripted performances, Mark Rylance is again brilliant, filling the same kind of space he occupied in Bridge of Spies. He won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2016 for that role, and I’m a big fan of his work in both films. It’s hard not to root for a guy whose career didn’t really take off until he was 55.

11. Guardians of the Galaxy 2

Guardians-Vol-2Aiden (15) and I have been enthusiastically in on the Marvel movies since he has been old enough to watch them, but this crew is my favorite. James Gunn nailed the first installment, striking a near-perfect tone between superhero drama and legitimate comedy. Marvel was already succeeding on that front, but both Guardians movies have been high watermarks for the franchise. Part of what makes them work so well is a terrific ensemble of unusual characters who are all interesting beyond the first layer. Groot and baby Groot are not just talking trees, they are empathetic talking trees whose only words, “I am Groot,” somehow still constitute a full vocabulary that only a surly talking Racoon can understand. Chris Pratt is clearly the star here, but he grew up as an actor working among one of the best ensemble casts ever assembled (Parks and Rec) and is perfectly at ease as the center piece of a group of strong supporting characters.

10. Phantom Thread

Phantom-ThreadThis is a surprise entry on my list, not because it isn’t getting high marks from critics (it is) but because it’s a Paul Thomas Anderson film about a fastidious dress maker in post-war England. I have limited capacity for PTA’s affection for illogical plot structure and unresolved storylines, so I entered the theater with low expectations and left pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about this one until the very end; with about six minutes left, I was prepared to really hate it. That’s not because it had been terrible up to that point, but because I could see the unsatisfying, sideways ending that would make me regret spending money to see a movie about a fastidious dress maker in post-war England. And don’t get me wrong, it’s still a true Anderson film that keeps him solidly in “That boy ain’t right” territory. Many folks will find it weird and a little disturbing. But with all of its quirks and long stares in unsettling directions, I found it a lot more accessible than some of his previous work. It looks terrific on the screen, the music is gorgeous, and if there’s a better actor than Daniel Day-Lewis in the world, I don’t know who it is. Some scoff at these kinds of descriptions, but you get the sense that you’re watching a true artist do what he was born to do as he inhabits the character of Reynolds Woodcock. Day-Lewis has insisted that this was his final project and, already the only man to win three Best Actor Oscars, I suspect he’ll go out as the only man to win four.

9. Lady Bird

Lady BirdI have a theory that most teenage boys are subconsciously choosing to settle for a shallow existence at exactly the same time that most teenage girls are plunging their whole hearts into the depths of every possible human emotion. I’m sure someone came up with that theory before I did. And I’m sure someone else decided that it was a bad stereotype of both genders. But I’m still pretty convinced that it’s mostly true, and Lady Bird is a movie about the painful superiority of the choice to feel and care and risk in a world where half of your peers are not only doing the opposite, but are terribly ignorant that there’s another way. It’s about a lot of other things too. It’s also a smart, funny movie that manages to be both honest about and kind to American teenagers without relying on a pile of cliches.

8. Thor: Ragnarok

thorThirty minutes into Thor: Ragnarok, I thought to myself, “This is too funny. They can’t keep up this comedic pace and still execute a reasonable plot with any substance.” I was wrong. It is relentlessly funny start to finish, and it still manages to be a good movie that moves one of the marquee Marvel storylines forward. A lot of that credit goes to the three writers, who had worked almost exclusively on smaller Marvel projects, but it all happened under the guidance of director Taika Waititi, who I expect to become a real star. Marvel’s willingness to take a chance on young filmmakers who haven’t worked in the genre (or on any big budget film) is a refreshing departure from the Hollywood formula, and Waititi may be the best of the bunch. He began his career working with Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords), and that same comedic sensibility is evident in his more recent work. He wrote and directed the quirky, wonderful New Zealand hit Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which was one of my favorites last year. In his Marvel directorial debut, he also plays Korg, the aforementioned guy made out of rocks who tried to start a revolution but didn’t print enough pamphlets. And in a movie full of real laughs, Korg was understated comic brilliance. Oh yeah, Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hiddleston, Jeff Goldblum, Cate Blanchett, Tessa Thompson, etc. This one is big, loud, fun, and one of my favorite Marvel movies so far.

7. The Last Jedi

Last JediTen year-old Thad is furious with 42 year-old Thad for putting a very good Star Wars movie that gave us the return (and end) of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia this low on a list of Thad’s favorite movies. Heck, 21 year-old Thad probably would have vowed to put a quality Star Wars movie at number one for a decade if we could just, for the love of Yoda, get another good Star Wars movie. But what can I say? It’s 2017 (well, it was when The Last Jedi dropped) and this is the third good Star Wars movie in three years. So much digital ink (and blood) has been spilled about this one, and I don’t have a lot to add except to say that I think making a Star Wars movie that will please audiences is one of the tougher jobs in the movie industry. The standards of the purists are just impossibly high and often at odds with the the standards of the rest of the purists. It isn’t perfect, and I still prefer The Force Awakens of the three new installments, but I’ll be hard pressed to be too critical of any good Star Wars movie. We all know what a bad one looks like, and thankfully we haven’t even sniffed that territory in the reboots.

6. Get Out

Get OutI don’t do horror movies. I honestly can’t remember the last one I saw before this one. I was persuaded to push through my discomfort after learning a bit about what Jordan Peele was after with Get Out (but not so much that I knew what was coming plot-wise). If I had an Academy Award vote, I’d be hard pressed to vote for anyone but Peele in both the directing and original screenplay categories. Get Out is just so very smart from conception to execution. The backbone of the film is a cutting send-up of paternalistic racism, but the layers to the story and symbolism are seemingly endless. Fair warning, it really is a horror movie with all the creepiness and killing you’d expect.

5. Mudbound

mudboundMovies 2 through 5 could easily be reshuffled in almost any order depending on when you ask me. Mudbound is the only one on this list that I didn’t see in theaters since it’s a Netflix movie, and I have mixed feelings about the changing nature of film distribution. It’s hard to complain about the production of more quality movies, and the direct-to-streaming model has been especially valuable in the creation and distribution of powerful documentaries that most of us wouldn’t see otherwise. But there’s no reason Mudbound wouldn’t have been a successful theatrical release, and multiple times as I watched, I wished I could see it on the big screen. This is an excruciating and beautiful story about two families on the same piece of Mississippi land in the 1940s — the black sharecropping family who has lived on the farm for years and the white family who has just purchased the land. It’s a brilliant lens into the history of that era, race, war, family, and the nature of human dignity. Mary J. Blige (who is very good here) was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, but it was Rob Morgan’s work as her husband and the family patriarch, Hap Jackson, that I found most compelling. [Content warnings: There is a brief subplot about sexual abuse and a brutal scene where a black man is tortured by the KKK.]

4. I, Tonya

I TonyaIn almost any other year, this force of a movie probably would be at the top of my list. Anyone who lived through the bizarre Tonya Harding ordeal knows it was truly stranger than fiction, and that often makes it nearly impossible to create a feature film that does the story justice. But this movie is absolutely as b-a-n-a-n-a-s as the real thing. It is wonderful and terrible in all the ways Harding’s life story demands. I may write a more complete review of this soon since I saw it recently and I left the theater with a waterfall of thoughts and feelings. What makes the film so compelling is that it convinces you that Harding and everyone in her life are terminally broken, dares you to judge them, and then demands that you not only find some empathy for (almost) all of them, but reminds you that we’re all an unpredictable mix of the best and worst versions of ourselves. Margot Robbie and Allison Janney (Tonya’s mom on your screen, C.J. Cregg in your hearts) are both magnificent and deserve whatever praise is thrown their way.

3. Molly’s Game

mollys-game-molly_unit_01869r_rgbI don’t call myself a “fan” of many people or things, but when it comes to Molly’s Game writer and director Aaron Sorkin: I’m a big fan. I first became enamored with Sorkin’s writing through A Few Good Men, though I didn’t know for a while that it was Sorkin I was fanboying. I just loved the movie and watched it two dozen times back when it was one of the few VCR tapes I owned. I watched it again recently expecting to be a little disappointed relative to my memory, but the writing, particularly the dialogue, is still sharp and brimming with energy. Sorkin went on to create and write The West Wing for its first three seasons (I’m on my fourth trip through the series), which is where I became more directly aware of him. He also created and wrote the HBO series The Newsroom and wrote the scripts for The American President, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network (for which he won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar), Moneyball, and Steve Jobs. So I was eager for another full length feature from Sorkin, this one his first to direct.

Molly’s Game is a based-on-real-events biopic of Molly Bloom, a brilliant young woman and world class skier who missed out on the Salt Lake Olympics because of a catastrophic fall in qualifying. She eventually found herself running high stakes poker games in L.A. and then New York and was caught up in all kinds of associated darkness and trouble. The biggest strength of Molly’s Game (the insanity of Molly’s actual story) is also its biggest constraint (the arc of the story is already written), but Sorkin is predictably on point with the characters and dialogue. Jessica Chastain is fantastic as Molly, and I think it’s a shame that she isn’t a Best Actress nominee; Sorkin’s screenplay is the film’s only Academy Award nomination. But I loved it, and I think in a different year it would have garnered more attention and praise. In the midst of so much social upheaval and with so many films speaking to our angst, a movie about a rich girl running poker games just doesn’t register as special for a lot of folks. I get it, but a great film is still a great film, and it’s hard to beat a Sorkin-crafted script.

2. War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the PlanetYes, really. I was a late and almost accidental convert to the Apes trilogy. I remember being pretty disinterested in the first installment of the reboot (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and initially being no more intrigued by the second (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). One Friday afternoon I was in a “I need to go sit in a dark theater” state of mind, but the pickings were slim. I was surprised to see how positive the reviews for Dawn were, so I took a chance on it, going in completely blind to the context of the story. I really liked it and thought about it for days.

I then backtracked and watched the first movie, which was good and helpful for filling out the bigger picture. So I was definitely looking forward to War for the Planet of the Apes, but my hope was just for a solid, entertaining conclusion to the trilogy. I got that and a lot more. War for the Planet of the Apes is an epic about suffering, survival, family, loyalty, friendship, prejudice, oppression, bitterness, and sacrificial love.

Yes, really. All of that in a movie about talking apes.

One other note: I’m a purist in many ways, so I’m generally pretty unimpressed by CGI-enhanced performances. But Andy Serkis is phenomenal as Caesar, and the synergy of his acting and the visual effects team behind these films is the definition of movie magic. [Content warning: This is a movie about a war, so it’s fairly violent. There also is a suicide toward the end. It’s off screen, but we see the run up to the death including an image that will be difficult for anyone who has lost someone this way.]

1. Wind River

wind riverLet me get the big warning out of the way here: About two-thirds of the way through Wind River, there is a very intense sexual assault scene. So despite my clear affection for this movie, I struggle to recommend it without a strong qualification. I caution anyone with sensitivities in that area to avoid this one. No movie is so necessary that you need to risk new trauma to see it.

My favorite movie of 2016 was Hell or High Water, a kind of contemporary western starring Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine and written by Taylor Sheridan. Set in West Texas where I grew up, the look and tone of that movie are so perfect that everything about it felt familiar even though it was about two brothers robbing banks to save the family ranch and not at all about a preacher’s kid who was a high school debate nerd. This is another one I need to write about separately, because it shook something loose in me about my writing, and I’m still figuring out how to ride that wave of inspiration.

Wind River was both written and directed by Sheridan (his first time to direct), and it opens on the aftermath of the assault and murder of 19 year-old Natalie Hanson on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent who discovers Natalie’s body. Lambert’s specialty is tracking and killing animal predators, and he becomes a key member of the effort to identify and locate Natalie’s killer when rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (played by Elizabeth Olsen), who doesn’t know the area, arrives to investigate. I’d rather not write much more about the plot than that because it would be difficult to avoid giving away one of the key reveals that comes about halfway through the film.

Wind River flew under the radar a bit, which is a little surprising for a movie with Jeremy Renner in the lead and on the heels of HOHW’s success (it was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture). Whatever the reasons, it’s an underseen and underrated film. Set against a snowy Wyoming landscape that offers mountains in one moment and meth lab infested trailer homes in the next, it looks beautiful and bleak on the screen. The often haunting soundscape and silence become an actual character at certain moments in the film. And the key for me: Sheridan is in Sorkin’s league when it comes to writing dialogue.

I’ve been unsure of what I think about Jeremy Renner as an actor, but while his part here was probably too subtle to get a lot of attention, I think this is his best role to date. Olsen, who is the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley, is a pleasant surprise, and she’s a legit star in the making. I also was blown away by Gil Birmingham, who played Natalie’s father, and there are two scenes between him and Renner that are as authentic and moving as anything I’ve seen on screen. I’ve seen Wind River four times, and I cry through both scenes every time. Some of that is just being a dad; some of it is that those scenes are a master class in writing and acting.

[Mild spoilers in this paragraph.] The film is a slow burn until, well, until it isn’t…and then it really isn’t. The scene I mentioned at the outset is a flashback where we see exactly what happened to Natalie, and from that point forward the pacing and volume explode for a bit. I suspect the abrupt change gave a lot of critics whiplash, and I wasn’t sure about it at first myself, but I think I’ve made sense of the contrast Sheridan was creating. I’m less at ease with the way evil is dealt with in the end, primarily in one particular scene that taps into a deep well of moral and spiritual questions about justice and vengeance. But after multiple viewings I’ve realized that while hunger for vengeance is the most obvious theme in the story, Wind River isn’t ultimately about good overcoming evil through vengeance. It’s about the discovery that the triumph of good over evil happened in the very first scene in the film. The virtue in Natalie’s courage (and, I think, to a lesser extent Jane’s) is juxtaposed with both the monstrous cowardice of her attacker and the crusade to end her attacker by any means necessary, and it’s Natalie’s virtue that stands as the unmistakable hero of the story.

Like every movie on this list, Wind River is imperfect, and it likely won’t be atop many people’s year-end lists. But even as much as I value a refined metric for evaluating quality film, I’m still most affected by how a movie makes me feel. Quiet and deliberate most of the way, Wind River drew me into the pain of being human and the struggle to make some sense of the harshness and move forward. It was my favorite film of 2017.

Some tacked on comments about other movies I kind of liked, really hated, or just want to tack on a comment about:

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
[Some spoilers here.] I have a web of conflicted feelings about this one, which has done well on the awards circuit and may continue that at the Oscars. Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand both give terrific performances, and it’s a compelling story with a strong script. But I struggle with any story that appears to minimize the grievous tragedy of suicide, and I felt that in this movie after a significant character ends his life rather than endure a terminal illness. Both parts of that are probably just too personal for me, but it seemed we were being ask to sympathize with his choice in a way that I just hated. I also struggled to understand how I was supposed to feel about almost all of the main characters. I can live with some of that ambiguity and tension, but when the credits roll and I’m still that uncertain about almost everyone in the movie, I’m not sure I’m the problem.
Logan
[Content warning: This is an extraordinarily violent movie, and some of the violence is particularly troubling as it involves a little girl killing bad guys with her wolverine claws.]
I haven’t tracked with the X-Men franchise prior to Logan, but I was interested after reading some reviews. Like many of the films on my list, my experience with this one was complicated, mostly because it is so very saturated with bladed violence. But in the golden age of superhero movies, James Mangold (writer and director) did what many have tried and failed to do in creating a complex, deeply human story about a magnificently flawed superhero grappling with the purpose and value of his life. The sheer volume and intensity of the killing is actually meant to demonstrate the futility of even “justified” violence as Logan wrestles with that part of his legacy. But it’s hard to separate violence-as-anti-violent-plot-device from the truth that I’m still watching a one of the most brutal movies I’ve ever seen (are you picking up on my caution here?) and that I’m often still in that very familiar territory of knowing someone has to die, so subconsciously rooting for what’s going to be another brutal killing. Hugh Jackman is great as a weary, aging superhero plagued by a superhuman version of male midlife (and possibly end of life) crisis, and Dafne Keen owns the screen when it’s her turn. But it’s the story and script that set Logan apart, and Mangold and his cowriters were rewarded with an Academy Award nomination, a rare feat for a superhero movie screenplay.
Wonder Woman
My expectations for any DC movie not directed by Christopher Nolan are deservedly low, but this one somehow escaped whatever bad movie bacteria is clinging to everything else DC does. It was still pretty formulaic, and some of the dialogue was more cringeworthy than I’ve seen many people admit, but Gal Gadot owns the role, and Chris Pine is, as always, excellent. I also appreciate the empowerment that it represents for women and girls, but my enthusiasm for these triumphs continues to be tempered a bit when the route to liberation is just better violence. And yes, I feel the same way about violent male heroes, including many in the list above.
Spider-Man: Homecoming
Poor Spider-Man drew a tough break, rebooting in a year with several other very strong superhero movies. But I really liked this movie, and I continue to be impressed with what Marvel is doing, even with characters and stories that have previously struggled to find big screen footing.
Coco
I’ve sincerely enjoyed a lot of animated movies with my kids over the last 15 years, but it’s rare for me to connect with one in the same way I connect with live action features. Coco didn’t quite cross that threshold, but it’s a movie with real depth and offers a lovely portrait of Mexican culture and family values.
The Greatest Showman
Will I be banished from my home for not including The Greatest Showman in my actual ranked list of my favorite movies of the year? The answer is no, but only because my daughters would have to stop singing and dancing along with the soundtrack long enough to notice. I’m kind of amused by the divergent reactions to this thing, some calling it the best movie of the year and others declaring it deeply troubling (grumpy much?). I think both reactions are a bit much, but I understand why some folks love it and why others hate it. I thought it was fun and entertaining if you can really set aside your need to connect what you’re watching to the real world, and I love that it tapped a new well of wonder and joy in my kids. And my girls are right: The songs are fantastic.
Darkest Hour
This is another one that I like more over time as I reflect on it. Gary Oldman is mesmerizing and unrecognizable as Winston Churchill, so much so that I’m having a hard time with John Lithgow as Churchill in The Crown. Lily James is also delightful.
All the Money in the World
This feels like a movie that should have been great but was just good. Of course it’s easy to assume that the whirlwind reshoot to replace Kevin Spacey (a crazy story you should read about if you haven’t already) is to blame for that, but Christopher Plummer’s portrayal of a relentlessly loathsome J. Paul Getty is astounding. Michelle Williams is also terrific, but there are some structural and emotional holes in the story that held it back as a film.
The Post
The Post had every reason to be a movie that I’d love: Spielberg, Streep, Hanks, and a historical drama about the time I was born into that highlights the importance of a free press and the courage of a woman forced into a man’s world that didn’t want her. But I got bored and stayed bored for like 45 minutes. I couldn’t stop thinking, “It feels like the more interesting story is what’s happening at The New York Times.” The most compelling case offered in the film for why we’re seeing what’s happening at the Washington Post instead is to make sure Kay Graham’s (Streep) story is told. And that’s great, except that I felt like, on the whole, Streep’s character was written poorly. But a lot of smart people thought it all worked, so I’ll probably give it another chance just to make sure I didn’t catch it on a bad day.
Call me by your name
I’ve already written at length about my serious problems with a “love story” about sex between a 24 year-old and a 17 year-old. I should acknowledge that this film looks fantastic — something like what you might imagine a dream about literature or literature about a dream might look like on a screen. Michael Stuhlbarg also delivers a monologue at the end of the film that is so beautifully authentic and gentle that it’s uncomfortable, but that just aggravated me more because it was such poignant writing and acting about a relationship we never actually saw. (What a year for Stuhlbarg, by the way, who is in three of the films nominated for Best Picture, including this one, The Post, and The Shape of Water.) Anyway I still think this film and, even more so the response to it, is a creepy indictment of the entertainment industry’s selective morality.
A Ghost Story
I really wanted to love this, and I’ll probably give it another shot someday. But some kinds of esoteric are still just kind of weird, and that’s how my first attempt at A Ghost Story landed.
Last Flag Flying
This movie is underwhelming, somehow managing to be less than the sum of its pretty swell parts — written and directed by Richard Linklater and starring Steve Carrell, Bryan Cranston, and Laurence Fishburne. But I loved Carrell in this role, and I continue to be bowled over by his range and his genius.
Movies I haven’t seen that seem like they might have a shot to find their way onto this list:
Personal Shopper
The Shape of Water
Florida Project
Columbus
Their Finest
The Work
Ex Libris
Lucky

Call Me By Your Name: Even without Spacey and Weinstein, Hollywood is still impressively tone deaf to #MeToo

Over time, my feelings for the movies — or for film, when I’m feeling pretentious — have morphed from common enjoyment to personal sanity hobby to deep appreciation for filmmaking as an art. I am still an amateur movie-watcher in every respect, but my perspective on movies and the ways I engage with them have evolved significantly. I pay attention to and appreciate smaller details and very specific elements of filmmaking that I never noticed at all in the past. I think about the intentions of the writers and directors and actors and can find value in their work even when I don’t particularly enjoy it or share their point of view. I’m even doing some research for a story a friend and I hope will eventually become a script, so I’m now watching movies with a deeper appetite for learning and understanding than ever before.

The most important part of that information for the sake of this piece is this: I see a lot of movies, including movies I’m confident I won’t like very much. So in recent years I’ve made a point of catching a greater number of Academy Award nominated films. My skepticism of these awards runs deep, but I’m interested in what kind of work the people who are making our movies value and celebrate. If nothing else, the Oscar-nominated films give some rough estimate of that.

On Tuesday, this year’s nominees were announced, and as I always do, I began to make a mental note of which nominated films I haven’t seen, particularly in the major categories. There were only two Best Picture nominees – The Shape of Water and Call Me By Your Name – that I hadn’t seen. I had already decided to pass on Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water because it’s a fantasy love story about a woman and a sea monster and, well, no thanks. I don’t see everything.

I knew almost nothing about Call Me By Your Name, but it also received nominations for Best Actor (Timothée Chalamet) and Best Adapted Screenplay (James Ivory). As a writer I have a particular interest in the screenplay categories, so I skipped around the internet and read a summary, a review, and excerpts from several other reviews. Here’s what I assume is the studio’s summary:

It’s the summer of 1983, and precocious 17-year-old Elio Perlman is spending the days with his family at their 17th-century villa in Lombardy, Italy. He soon meets Oliver, a handsome doctoral student who’s working as an intern for Elio’s father. Amid the sun-drenched splendor of their surroundings, Elio and Oliver discover the heady beauty of awakening desire over the course of a summer that will alter their lives forever.

The reviews I skimmed revealed that Oliver is 24, which caught my attention because, you know, it’s 2018. And:

metoo

Despite my deepening appreciation for out-of-the-box films, this is one I normally wouldn’t see. I still make decisions about how I spend my time and money, and art romance films just don’t check many boxes for me. But I kept thinking about this one, bothered by the possibility that Hollywood might be shamelessly celebrating the kind of story this seemed to be even while the crescendo of outrage over sexual harassment and abuse is still building. So today I went to find out for myself.

Frankly, it’s as bad as I feared it might be. A 24 year-old man begins and carries on a sexual affair with a 17 year-old boy. And that’s the story.

Before I address the obvious, let me add: This is not a deeply textured love story. The affair is characterized mostly by sexual desire, briefly repressed, then turned loose with no looking back. Age aside, to characterize it as a love story is to accept a relatively low definition of love, where sex takes the lead, emotional intimacy is secondary (at best), and concern for the best interests of the other is acknowledged only to be bulldozed by lust. The attempt to persuade the viewer of a deeper connection or care between the two is feeble and disingenuous. We’re never given any true reason to believe that the older Oliver’s attraction to the teenaged Elio runs deeper than sexual attraction. Indeed, Oliver ultimately confesses to Elio that he first attempted to make his interest known when he put his hands on Elio just a day or two after they met.

Let’s deal with the facts first. Though both Oliver and Elio are Americans, the movie takes place in Italy where the age of consent is 14. In much of the U.S., the age of consent is 16 or 17. In a number of states, including New York, Florida, and (ahem) California, the age of consent is 18.

So technically speaking, the relationship depicted in the movie isn’t illegal. But it’s a movie about a 24 year-old man in a sexual relationship with a boy who still has a year of high school left. It’s a movie about a sexual relationship that would be illegal in Hollywood.

I won’t belabor the details, but Oliver plans and initiates the first true sexual encounter between the two. Both before and after that event, Oliver engages in several weird psychological and sexual tests that anyone even a little familiar with predatory behavior would identify as manipulation and grooming. The two have sex multiple times before Oliver leaves Elio to sort out the aftermath of his affair with a grown man, a thing I suppose we’re meant to see as a normal way for Elio to spend his senior year of high school.

I also can’t shake a subplot in which Elio deals with his mounting sexual interest in Oliver by having sex (at least twice) with a teenaged girl who clearly cares for him and thinks her love is reciprocated. Once his relationship with Oliver turns physical, he ignores the girl completely since he no longer needs her body as an outlet for his pent up sexual energy. When she confronts him and asks, “I’m not your girl?” he simply shrugs. She leaves on her bicycle, devastated. This storyline finds “resolution” at the end of the movie when the girl, for no particular reason at all, tells Elio, “I’m not angry at you. Not at all. I love you.” And then asks, “We can be friends?”

So, to summarize: A 24 year-old man grooms and teases a 17 year-old boy. The 17 year-old boy uses a girl as an outlet for his sexual frustration until the 24 year-old man finally has sex with him, at which point he ghosts the girl. The consequence for the 17 year-old is a “no big deal, I’m not mad at you, let’s be friends” response from the girl whose body he used without any apparent remorse. The consequence for the grown man is a free pass on any emotional aftermath and a return to America and his heterosexual relationship. Cue three major-category Oscar nominations.

Frankly, I don’t care that the relationship depicted is legal in Italy or in Texas, and neither should anyone else. It’s creepy as hell to watch, not because it’s a relationship between two males, but because it’s painfully tone deaf in a moment when the culture in general and Hollywood in particular is facing such a messy reckoning over the willingness to blur sexual boundaries and overlook sexual power dynamics. How can everyone from the production house to the cast and crew to a long line of critics fail to see or refuse to acknowledge what a bad time it is to romanticize sex between an older, powerful man and a teenager — sex that would be prosecutable in Hollywood, Manhattan, or Miami?

Think I’m being dramatic? Ask yourself how the folks heaping praise on this movie will respond if tomorrow’s headline reads: “Kevin Spacey defends relationship with high school boyfriend, 17.”

See?

I’ve paid close attention over the last several months as the downfall of Harvey Weinstein cascaded into a courageous movement of women—and some men—who have suffered and survived the painful wounds of sexual abuse and manipulation. I’m grateful for the unearthing of buried secrets as some of our crueler demons have been named and brought low. This is progress.

But we have a long way to go, and the collective cheers for Call Me By Your Name are a frustrating reminder that an unprincipled morality and selective outrage will not get us where we need to go. As long as we celebrate stories about grown-ups sexually “educating” teenagers as “coming of age love stories” and wink at depictions of teen boys using teen girls as “authentic tales of sexual awakening,” we are enabling a sexual ambiguity that empowers predatory behavior and shrugs at the real emotional and spiritual damage both kinds of stories produce.

But, you know, who wants to see that movie?

 

Let the ancient prophets speak: Frederick Douglass

The history of my faith, by which I mean both the people of my faith and my personal faith, is to readily see the errors of the history of my faith while insisting we have moved beyond those most egregious evils.

This is a centuries-old habit of self soothing. We recognize the wayward ignorance of our ancestors and venerate the prophets they rejected while doing exactly as they did: We resist suggestions of defects in our cherished ways, defend the infallibility of our certainties, and scoff at living prophets who name our faults.

But if our finely tuned capacity to dismiss and discredit our contemporary critics numbs us to their corrections, the prophets of old still see, still speak.

The ones who decades and centuries ago saw and named this repeating cycle of soul-destroying religion,

this refusal of even the possibility of systemic sins,

this resistance to the disruption of treasured “institutions,”

and all of this under the cover of false unity and so-called standing up for God and country,

those prophets whom we celebrate now that they are safely dead and unable to see us as we are,

still they see us, still they speak to us.

Frederick Douglass in a speech at Finsbury Chapel, May 12, 1846:

But you will ask me, can these things be possible in a land of professing Christianity? Yes, they are so; and this is not the worst.

I have to inform you that the religion of the southern states, at this time, is the great supporter, the great sanctioner of the bloody atrocities to which I have referred. While America is printing tracts and bibles; sending missionaries abroad to convert the heathen; expending her money in various ways for the promotion of the gospel in foreign landsthe slave not only lies forgotten, uncared for, but is trampled underfoot by the very churches of the land.

What have we in America? Why, we have slavery made part of the religion of the land. Yes, the pulpit there stands up as the great defender of this cursed “institution,” as it is called. Ministers of religion come forward and torture the hallowed pages of inspired wisdom to sanction the bloody deed.

I have found it difficult to speak on this matter without persons coming forward and saying, “Douglass, are you not afraid of injuring the cause of Christ? You do not desire to do so, we know; but are you not undermining religion?” This has been said to me again and again…but I cannot be induced to leave off these exposures. I love the religion of our blessed Savior. … It is because I love this religion that I hate the slaveholding, the woman-whipping, the mind-darkening, the soul-destroying religion that exists in the southern states of America.

WAR AND CONFLICT BOOK
ERA:  CIVIL WAR/BACKGROUND: SLAVERY & ABOLITIONISM

Blessed are the people from $*ithole countries

Eight years ago today a devastating earthquake split Haiti open, a disaster whose impact blew my mind when I saw it a full 16 months later. My words below were shaped by my trips to Haiti, by the strong people I’ve met there, and by my friends who live among and for the Haitian people. And by the words of Jesus.

H2

In recent months I’ve commented on only the silliest Trump moments, unwilling to be baited into the muck. But I know and love too many people in and from Haiti and Africa to just roll my eyes today. The spirit in the words spoken by the President about these people is an anti-Christ spirit. This is not surprising. It’s the same spirit that inhabits many of his words and actions over many years.

I’m not easily offended by bad words or frank talk about third world countries. I’m just sure of this: It’s not the spirit of Jesus who grows angry when people around him are concerned about caring for people from “$*ithole countries.”

It’s not.

My feelings aren’t hurt. This is just Sunday School 101. The spirit that births anger at compassion for people from lands scarred by poverty and war and exploitation and disease – the spirit that curses the presence of the vulnerable and the unclean is another spirit, and it’s one that opposes Christ.

There is no left-wing conspiracy here. I’ve not been hoodwinked by fake news. I’m a conservative-by-the-standards-of-the-world Christian pastor who simply believes Jesus when he tells us that Donald Trump’s mouth speaks the overflow of his heart. If I’m judging, I’m judging as Jesus told me to judge. I’m judging the plain fruit, not anyone’s interpretation of it.

I’m not seeking converts to my opinion, and I’m not shaming anyone for their vote. I am, however, indifferent to the ongoing protests that there is some truth other than the one that is in plain sight. And what an age of absurdity we live in that it feels odd to comment on what’s in plain sight because it so often seems like trying to apply reason to insanity.

So tonight I’m just voicing my small resistance to the insanity, if only to remind myself that sanity still exists. And to say out loud that the people from $*ithole countries are my people. And more importantly, they’re God’s people.

Bondye wè. Bondye tande. Bondye Bon.

H1 H3 

Buechner on X-mas and “your own business”

X is the Greek letter chi, which is the first letter of the word Christ. Thus Xmas is shorthand for Christmas, taking only about one-sixth as long to write. If you do your cards by hand, it is possible to save as much as seventy-five or eighty minutes a year.

It is tempting to say that what you do with this time that you save is your own business. Briefly stated, however, the Christian position is that there’s no such thing as your own business.

-Frederick Buechner
from Wishful Thinking

Romans 13: You keep using that text. I do not think it means what you think it means.

“Respect Authority. Romans 13.”

This has to stop. As a blanket, dismissive response to any and all protest or critique of government, king, and country, it has to stop. When you pull that reference out of context and use it to label as sinful anyone who doesn’t bow to a given authority or symbol of authority, you do violence to the text and to God’s people.

If you disagree and insist on holding to that generalized understanding and use of Romans 13, consider and be prepared to reconcile it with the following:

  • Paul himself, the author of those words, resisted government authorities and defied Roman and religious laws often enough that he wrote words that you probably have on your mirror or desk or bumper sticker or living room wall from prison. You don’t author four books of the New Testament behind bars if the intention of seven verses you wrote to folks in Rome was to require unqualified yielding to all laws and customs of king and country.

  • Jesus violated the patriotic, legal, and religious norms of his day so frequently that he was rejected and despised and, well, killed for it. You can’t strip Jesus down to a spiritual fairy tale and remove him from the legal and patriotic context in which he lived. He was a real man angering real people by not following their customs – customs which existed primarily to show respect and submission to human authority.

  • Exactly no one I know when having this conversation has ultimately held to this position: “Yes, I believe we should always respect and submit to and obey ruling authorities no matter what they do to, ask from, or demand of us.” There is a line of conscience and injustice for all of us; the appropriate drawing of that line is a matter of reasonable debate, but this haphazard invoking of Romans 13 suggests that any such line is sinfully rebellious. I don’t think most who use it that way actually believe that, and I don’t believe such a claim holds up to the weight of the Bible as a whole.

  • This broad application of Romans 13 has been one of the primary weapons against the growth of self-determining government (democracy) for centuries, because such a reading of Scripture easily dismisses even non-violent resistance of human authority (read: voting against an incumbent power) as rebellion against God.

  • We all look around at various ruling authorities in the world every day and hope and pray good people can resist them and free themselves from such oppression. We thank God for and sing hymns about successful revolutions.

  • The flag at the center of our current controversy and the government for which it stands came to be because a group of people decided to no longer be subject to their ruling authorities. We now call them our Founding Fathers. The original American heroes. Celebrating their decision and its successful implementation by means of war is the center of all American patriotism. That it happened a long time ago makes it no less subject to Romans 13. Now we turn around and accuse people who do not appropriately honor on our terms that authority-rejecting revolution and the nation it birthed of not respecting and and being subject to God-appointed authorities. This is a blatant inconsistency.

King George

After the Declaration of Independence was read in New York City for the first time, a crowd of budding Americans headed for the statue of King George in Manhattan. They pulled it down and later melted it into 42,088 musket balls to shoot at British authorities.

  • The flag at the center of our current controversy and the government for which it stands actively defies this universal application of Romans 13 and has done so for well over 100 years. Right or wrong, regime change is central to U.S. foreign policy, and the heart of our approach to regime change is encouraging, funding, and arming local peoples to resist, oppose, and overpower their governing authorities. We’ve done it on every continent but Antarctica and Australia. Recently. To assume Paul’s words uniquely apply to U.S. citizens but not others is not only ethnocentric, it is a terribly poor interpretation of Scripture.
  • Because of that last fact, demanding that people submit and show respect to that flag and the government for which it stands in uniform ways that you approve of actually demands they show allegiance to an entity actively defying the very principle that compels you to demand their allegiance in the first place. (I know, writing that makes my head hurt too, but it has the doubly painful quality of being true.)

I’ll stop there, though this list could continue. None of this means Paul’s words in Romans 13 (or other biblical instruction about governing authorities) are wrong or useless. It means they have a context and meaning that fits in the big picture of Scripture and isn’t determined by our current patriotic sensibilities. The Bible always demands a level of understanding and care that simply isn’t present when we turn texts into oversimplified weapons against those with whom we disagree.

One of the particular errors involved here is that we are allowing the human authority itself (and popular opinion that human authority has helped shape) to define respect and submission instead of letting the full counsel of Scripture and the lived examples of Scripture’s players form our understanding of those concepts. The assumption that the Bible’s and the world’s definitions of respect and submission would be the same or that the Bible is demanding we swallow whole the definitions of submission and respect given to us by human authority runs counter to the clear teachings of the Bible (instructive and modeled) in numerous other texts.

This isn’t an invitation to debate any particular protest, so please don’t do that here. This is a plea to use real care when handling the Scriptures – care for the Bible itself and care for the people you are using the Bible to accuse and dismiss. I know (almost) no one is purposefully misusing the text, but this is dangerous ground for people who love the Scriptures.