My personal highlights for the month of May…
Born To Battle by D.A. Stewart
The author D.A. Stewart actually noticed my love and affection for my favorite author Lawhead and sent me an early copy of this book to read and review. I was honored to do so of course, but my honest thoughts also spill out into my genuine appreciation for the book itself. It will definitely hit the mark for fans of Lawhead, but what I appreciated most about it is the way the author distinguishes himself in a busy field and genre. Narrowing in on a key figure in legend and history, and a specific time in legend and history, Stewart weaves a story that stays simple in scope, concise in its focus and noted in its thematic concern. Usually these narratives juggle the larger world that surrounds it. Carson narrows in on the key figure, telling a story that brings together faith, struggle, ancient systems and adventure. Genuinely hard to put down.
Hope of the Gospel by George MacDonald
Part two of my noted effort to read some MacDonald in 2021. Beautiful, concise, aware and challenging. MacDonald has a way of pushing back against religious conventions while bringing all of the questions and concerns to light within the frame of scripture, Tradition and the Christian faith. The end result being a refocusing on the essential nature of the Christian Gospel itself.
The Giver by Lois Lowry
A classic that I fell in love with immediately. I loved the way Lowry offers a critique of modernism by weaving a dystopian narrative chalk full of progressive ideas and developed moral and ethical concerns with an old world setting open to the spiritual and the religious and filled with myth and metaphor. I can see this being a challenge for some modern readers, but it is something I think many of us in this present age are craving and longing to recover, that sense that there is more to this world than what mere rationalism can provide.
In this same way, Lowry has written a children’s story with grown up perspectives. It’s a marriage of the childlike questions and grown up cynicism. These kinds of stories always land for me in a special way, and in the Giver we see Lowry looking to explore an aspect of the human experience that has perhaps been neglected in the modern age.
Lowry has written a story about how it is that choices shape us, and it is within this that we are able to see this idea of ‘memory” emerging as one aspect of the stories central concern. For modernists, memories are not trustworthy. In the Giver they are a gift precisely because they hold the power to tell our stories in meaningful ways.
In Pursuit of Disobedient Women: A Memoir of Love, Rebellion, And Family, Far Away by Dionne Searcey
I did not think I was going to like this book when I picked up, but did so upon recommendation. Turns out this will likely be in contention for read of the year when things are said and done. I loved it, the way the author, telling her story of subplanting her family from America to Nigeria to report for the Times on the plight of Nigerian woman, intersects her story with the revelations that emerge from her time in Nigeria. It never gets bogged down in politics, instead providing something personal, entertaining, funny, meaningful and and inspiring. That it ends up so readable is as much a testament to her story and her willingness to live it and learn it as it is to her ability to write so succinctly and effortlessly about it.
Confessions of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
A year in the life of an independent bookseller in Scotland. He’s brash, cynical, funny, and, well, Scottish. But his particular experience, documented in a diary that goes day by day and month by month, provides a window into the honest plight, investment and experience of independent booksellers everywhere, with its very real challenges and joys in tow. The quaint and storied Scottish seaside setting is simply a bonus.
Honorable Mention: Faye, Faraway by Helen Fisher (a spiritual and personal drama about faith, doubt, struggle and hope, told from both a personal and familial perspective)
The Classics: A Special Day (1977), Safety Last (1923)
Safety Last is an early silent era film that has long been overshadowed by more prominant voices. But it is no less influential in what it does and what it accomplishes. The deeply rooted humor is ripe with social commentary, particularly as the world it captures forges ahead into the modern era. This is irony at its best. Equally important in the way it captures the waning hours of Italian neo-realism’s long and storied influence is A Special Day, Set in the 30’s and incorporating some stunning historical footage, the film is an exploration of tensions that run rampant through the dramatzation of its period and the represenations of its characters on this very “special day”. There’s a poetry to the film’s bookends, but the real stuff is found in the gradually unfolding relationship that occupies the films body. Personal, universal, gender and political, particular and cultural divides are on full and equal display.
Horror/Thrillers: Session 9 (2009), Joint Security Area (2000), The Hitcher, Belzebuth (2017), Thelma (2017), Sator (2019)
I watched a number of thriller/horror films this month. I guess I’m in a mood. Two of the more memorable films came from the current Fear of God Podcast series, which is exploring what scares us as “listeners” (The Hitcher and Session 9), one of which veers more psychological the other towards a more direct moral quesiton and crisis. Perhaps the most disturbing and effecting watch comes from Shudder’s recently added Belzebuth, a film that had my jaw on the floor in the early going. Be aware, this is not for the faint of heart, but as a blending of spiritual themes, real psycholgoical drama, and religious imagery the film’s steady and even handed first three quarters gets blown wide open in the final act. Truly unnerving and frightening.
Perhaps in a slightly different vein (or most certainly) is 2000’s Joint Security Area. A culturally centred thriller that sets us on that symbolic and quite literal line that divides North and South Korea. As a story about family bonds, social conflict, and the power of our often arbitrarily defined borders proves as effective in evoking humor and tension as it does in delivering an emotional punch.
Still on a different level yet is the subdued, patient, high minded horror of Sator (a film that revels in tone and atmosphere as its driving force) and Thelma (a unsuspecting supernatural/psychological horror that delves into its symbolism and is characters). They are both less traditional and more experimental in their approach, but equally fascinating and effective works of art in their own right.
The Oscar Line-up: Judas and the Black Messiah (2021), Minari (2020), The Mauritarian (2021), The Father (2020)
These are old news for many elswhere, but here in Canada the Oscar favorites are finally and slowly getting released. That includes the spiritual and pastoral Minari, a film that is as entrenched in is sense of the particular American story as it is in exploring its essential humanity, the powerful and weighty Judas and the Black Messiah, a film that captures a similar point in history as The Trial of the Chicago 7 but with much greater resolve and effect, the Mauritatrian, a tight and taut poltical/court room thriller that spotlights Foster while delivering an entertaining and well paced narrative, and the emotionally gripping The Father, which not only gives us Hopkin’s career defining performance but also offers us the best depictment of dementia ever put to film. All worthy of your attention.
For The Children: Anina (2013), Raya and the Last Dragon. Psycho Goreman (2020), The City of Lost Children (1995)
So these might not all be your traditional children’s films (so veto accordingly), but from the compassionate edge of Anina’s focus on childhood struggle (including its simple but endearing style of old school animation) to the fresh and invigorating cultural adventure of Raya and the Last Dragon (Disney really needs to make more films like this), to the laugh out loud nature of Psycho Goreman’s tame horror filled galavant through a young minded adventure, to the creative, weird and quirky nature of The City of Lost Children’s imagination (featuring an early Ron Perlman central performance), they all fit the bill for me in their own way.
Dramas: Wild Mountain Thyme (2020), A Hijacking (2012), The Half of It (2020), The Night of the Shooting Stars (1982),
I also, as per usual, watched a lot of dramas this month. The standouts for me- the unexpected Wild Mountain Thyme, a film that has been panned by critics (not sure why), seemed tailor made for my sensibilities. It’s an Irish romantic comedy at its core, and it infuses metaphor, romanaticism and a fairy tale like appraoch in order to tell what is a deeply poetic story. On the flip side of this is A Hijacking, a film that would make a perfect doduble billing with Captain Phillips, but which is underrepresnted in the shadow of that films much more visible presence. It’s success comes from its intentional focus on the negotions, which are white knuckle tense. The coming of age drama The Half of It also came out of nowhere for me. It’s a classic love story with a twist that weaves its way through the story in all kinds of intersting and unique ways. There are religious elements interewoven throughout, giving it the feel of a sort of Biblical epic as it navigates the notion of a divided self being made whole in community with the other. Lastly was the Italian fairytale The Night of the Shooting Stars, a film that uses realism to break through the reality of war and locate a people and their dreams hanging in the balance. It’s poetic, profound, and well realized in its ability to use the motif of a “children’s story” to tell a genuine adult tale.
Honorable Mention: Mostly Martha (Fun, humor, cooking, drama, a love story, wonderful chemistry, Italian culture set against German tendencies. I watched this with a smile on my face the whole time. All the right ingredients to create the perfect, savory rom-com with just a touch of that seasoned dramatic conern).
Biblical World: Ugarit and the Bible with Mary Buck (Episode 4)
The Biblical World is a new addition to the On Script brand that uses its connection to the rich world of Christian studies to explore archealogy in relationship to scripture. These are experts in the field, and in this particular episode it explores the important findings of Ugarit and what they can tell us about the ancient and Biblical world.
The Sacred: Chris French on skepticism and the psychology of paranormal beliefs (Episode 98); On Being With Krista Tippett: Jill Tarter- It Takes a Cosmos to Make a Human (Episode 868)
Two episodes that inspired some further reflections from me in this space. The first one demonstrates the potential of helpful and fruitful dialogue across different perspectives, with the host of The Sacred dialoging with sociologist Chris French about some of the challenges of integrating science into the everday workings of life and belief in a meaningful way. The second is a really interesting discussion between On Being’s Krista Tippett and cosmological scientist Jill Tarter, the inspiration for the film Contact, on space exploration and the long future of humanity. My interest in this episode centered on how it is that she makes a case for our necessary interest in space exploration, something that I think represents certain challenges when pairing that with the more existential concern for the human story and human meaning.
Kingdom Roots with Scot McKnight: The Making of Biblical Womanhood (Conversations with Beth Allison Barr) Episode 183
Beth Allison Barr has been making the rounds in support of her new book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood, and this is a great place to get familiar with what she is all about (also see The Holy Post)
The Friendship Onion: Six O’Clock Twinkies (Episode 2)
Welcome to the fun hour with Merry and Pippen as they put their lasting and enduring friendship to good use.
Undeceptions with John Dickson: Guilty Conscience (Episode 65); Unbelievable: NT Wright and Douglas Murray- Identity, myth and miracles, How do we live in a post-Christian World (Episode 760)
Another two episodes that inspired further reflections in this space, this time on the subject of forgiveness and its essential place in the Christian narrative. Both episodes seem to ultimately land on forgiveness as crucial for the recovering of the Christian story in the modern, Post Christian world, with the Unbelievable waxing a bit more theological and poetic (with a historical minded attention to the larger picture), and Dickson’s podcast digging more into the more hardnosed philosophical and historical underpinnings. Taken together they provide some food for thought.
The Great Books: The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene (Episode 101); The Book Review: Louis Menand on The Free World; Theology, Philosophy, and Religious Studies: Astonished by Love- Storytelling and the Sacramental Imagination with Alice McDermott; The Symbolic World: Paul Kingsnorth- Environmentalism, the Tower of Babel and the Disintegration of Culture (Episode 158)
Four podcast episodes inspired new reading ventures in the coming months. I’m already digging into Louis Menands intriguing book The Free World, which takes a look at the cultural formation and influence of America not by way of the traditional outward influence perspective on the world, but on the ways the international communities and cultures shaped American culture between the World War and the Cold War and made it what it was. On tap is the classic The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, a book ingrained in the religious and philosphical ethos of Western history, a line up of books by storyteller and practicing Catholic Alice McDermott, and Irish poet, Christian and environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth, a vivid voice in the ongoing and important movement towards reenchantment in the Western world.
The Symbolic World: Richard Rohlin- A Universal History (Episode 159)
Speaking of the movement towards reenchantment, this is a great snapshot of what this is all about. It’s an exciting time for Christianity in the West, and I’m thankful for the work the host and many others have been giving to undercovering the language of the ancient world long lost to the enlightenment’s fascination with rationalism and progress. Also paired with this is the youtube version here- https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=_N5s4n_lwB8&feature=youtu.be
The Sheepdogs: Rock and Roll (Ain’t No Simple Thing)
Everyone’s favorite Canadian rock and rollers are finally back and proving to be every bit the grisled, workmanlike veterans we might forget they are. After all, if you are like me it might be easy to think they are still relatively fresh on the scene. Make no mistake, this album signifies that sweet spot between familiarity and growth that is the measure of the artist playing the long game, and it provides the perfect ease into those cherished summer days and nights. Actually, forget the ease, this will help you off that chair and into the necessary groove to make the most of it.
https://fireinlittleafrica.com/ Fire In Little Africa
In case you’ve missed out, the link above will introduce you to the grand project that is Tulsa’s immensely interesting exploration of a piece of its history and culture. One that is rich with hip hop and the Black voice, but also set against the tragic nature of the 1921 Massacre and Black Wall Street. It’s worth a deep dive into the podcast if you’re interested, but the album and the upcoming documentary are also worthy of your attention.
Here’s the synopsis of the albums creation from the site:
Future of Forestry- Remember
I’ve been a fan of FOF for a while, and I have to say, this new full length EP might be some of their (or his) best work yet. Rich with melody and attention to detail, much of this leans into FOF’s familiar penchant for creative imaginings and lends it an accessible and almost invitational presence. This is an album you aren’t simply meant to experience and appreciate, its one that I think you can also participate in.
Kacy and Clayton- Plastic Bouquet
I’ve had this album in my playlist for a little while now, and it has slowly been captivating my attention more and more. It’s not just the folky roots of its infectious tones, rather its the compelling story of its collobaration and composition that lends this such an interesting voice. It’s distinctly Canadian with the duo establishing their place as trail blazers, but brings in the story of New Zealand songwriter and storyteller Marlon William as a kind of cross-cultural experiment. The dedication to bringing out the lore and tradition of these largely indigenous based histories within the songs makes this an album one needs to absorb carefully and slowly. Thankfully the bluesy, folksy, country flavors make that easy to do.
Mat Kearney- January Flower
Kearney clearly invested some time in bringing his latest release January Flower to fruition. I haven’t felt this deeply connected to one of his records since City of Black and White, an album that remains close to my heart due to its release the year of my wedding. It provided the soundtrack for that journey, framing the excitement of crossing the Ontario border on our way to New York City. While his subsequent releases have all been good, I have found them more experimental than personal. This album feels personal, trading in the deviations into fresh pop constructions and instrumentation/production for a back to basics and more acoustically driven approach. Kearney appears to be telling an intimate and weathered relationship story that frames the albums lyrical journey, and this I think plays a role in the album’s welcome restraint.
Natalie Bergman- Mercy
I’m far from the only one getting on the Bergman train recently, and for good reason. Mercy represents a heartbreaking and quite profound spiritual journey through some personal life trauma. Which isn’t to say this album is dire. It’s far more reflective, using the platform of her story to foster personal reflection on God, life, faith, hope and struggle. This only proves to provide layers for the album’s artistic genius, which is bursting with carefully thought out melodies, instrumentation and structure. It might at first feel deceptively pared back and melancholic, but there is an urgency and energy to this album that is undeniable.
Honorable Mentions: Iron & Wine Archive Series Volume No. 5: Tallahassee Recordings (in case you missed it, this is the last in the archive series, albums digging into the salvaged tracks of Iron and Wine’s early years, with this one reaching the furthest into that lost repertoire); Jon Bryant- Back to Love (lyrical, Canadian, and the kind of smart pop the world needs right now); The Gray Havens- It’s Possible (check out the podcast episodes breaking down each song here- https://www.thegrayhavensmusic.com/, and then check out the album. You won’t regret it); The Black Keys- Delta Kream (might ultimately feel like a bit of the step back from their earlier works, but the band seems to be more than content in simply writings the songs they want to write, with Delta Kream sitting definitively within their comfort zone); In case you missed it in 2020, The Lone Bellow- Half Moon Light’s (Deluxe version is here).