Birdman of Alcatraz (1962, Directed by John Frankenheimer)
You might not expect a story about a man and his birds to be this powerful, this astute in its observations on life, hope and redemption, or this aware of both nature and humanity. And yet here we are, finding our way into this particular man’s story, one given up on by the world, defined and judged by a past with no expectation of possible change, by way of the presence of a lone saparrow. Here we learn about what it means to pursue justice through restoration rather than retribution. We arrive at the individual by way of relationship with the other. If the first duty of life is to live, the last duty of life is to forgive, and in this we find real life. If both bird and man are confined by a cage, it is here that we gain a glimpse of that open door that seperates the cage from the world, liberation from slavery. This is where we learn to fly.
Flag Day (2021, Directed by Sean Penn)
A keenly aware family drama that thrives on its nuanced exploration of guilt and forgiveness and is colored by its sense of time and place and circumstance. This is a film that is as embodied within its characters as it is invested in its lived in spaces. Fire and flame plays a definitive role as a reigning metaphor here. It is both destructive and renewing, shaping the trajectory of these lives attempting to live in light of both tragedy and hope. Penn, in the Directors chair as well as in the role of the dad, imbues this with a melodramatic flair, but does so in order to play with these expectations. Which is a part of the beauty of the film. It’s real and its also transcendent, which is precisely where I found myself drawn so readily into its story.
The Card Counter (2021, Directed by Paul Schrader)
A profoundly affecting follow up to the transcendent and thought provoking First Reformed, Paul Schrader gives us a more immediately accessible story and character this time around. Framing it around the symbolism and metaphor of the card counting, he follows a man’s journey towards undestanding the nature of forgiveness and redemption. What gives this journey its power is the marriage of personal, societal and familial tensions that exists within the film’s unconventional editing and style. Schrader sees this as the thing that can point us outside of ourselves to something greater. It is more accessible, yes, but no less transcendent.
Black Narcissus (1947, Directed by Emeric Pressburger)/The Night of the Hunter (1955, Directed by Charles Laughton)
Figured I would combine these two as both are older films with a strong religious subtext and with the slight nuance of a horror premise. The first is soaked in realism, following a group of Anglican Nuns as they are sent to the Himalayas. Here they start a school and a hospital while navigating these different reltaionships that begin to form in this isolated place. Through this we get thoughts about faith, love and the human/societal/social struggle. In the latter we get a film that is much more poetic and visual, steeped in imagery and metaphor. This film explores the topic of faith, and particularly how it is that we approach our faith intellectually. Especially when hope and fear are held in necessary tension. Good and evil get representation here in its enigmatic main character, playing out into what is at its heart a childrens story, a grown up fairy tale if you will. Both beauifully shot and captured films with much on their minds that is worth wrestling with.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021, Directed by Michael Showalter)
I imagine some might struggle with the attempt of this film to apply a degree of empathy to Faye’s character. Which is a shame, not only because this is precisely what this film sets out to do and does so well, but because this sheds light on an extremely problematic and contradictory nature that exists within society- the desire to judge the religious for judging others. The fervor with which people move to judge the Church with glee when scandals like this emerge results in a deep unwillingness to imagine an equal forgiveness, grace and redemption flowing to the Church at the same time. This is why this film is so important. It asks us to find the human in what are flawed characters. To imagine that whether within or outisde of a religious context people are still people. Or a flawed character, depicted with embodied and transformative precision by Jessica Chastain, which sees in Faye someone who deeply struggled under the oppressive reality of a powerful male dominated world. Hopefully this gains an audience, because it deserves it.
Honorable Mentions: When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is an introspective look at the life of a young woman looking back to 1933 where, as a nine year old Jewish girl in Berlin, her and her family were forced to flee to safety. The rabbit signfies something important that was left behind in the process, leading to a poignant reflection on what it means to have a home and belong somewhere. Never Gonna Snow Again is a powerful Canadian indie drama that, through a slow build examines the nature of the masks we wear and what happens when these masks get exposed in relationship to one another. Blue Bayou has gotten divided reactions, but for me I deeply resonated with its quiet examination of immigration through the very specific portrait of this family who stand to become a casaulty of current policies. Lastly, if you haven’t yet caught up with the twisty horror film Malignant, tis the season to do so. The third act alone is a great example of why the big screen is still relevant.
Think Again; The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam M. Grant
I had a single gripe with this book, but it was a big one. I struggled with the reality that the way the material in this book is formulated could easily undercut its intentions. The whole point of the book’s central thesis- thinking better- is to help us to embody humility and thus bridge divides. Grant’s tendency to avoid the difference between the knowledge of facts and the knowledge of beliefs could easily lead to someone reading this and saying to the next religious person, see, I told you. Science for the win. Which is not Grant’s point, and actually misses his call for humility altogether. Knowing what we don’t know means always being wrong, and in being wrong constantly growing more into or towards rightness. But we can only do this by beginning with our assumptions and our beliefs. We grow and learn and challenge ourselves within these assumptions and beliefs, and while sometimes these larger frames do get deconstructed and shift, more often they don’t. Otherwise we would’t be able to actually live as truth becomes non-existent. Despite this potential for more divide, if we can read Grant’s book through the lens that i think he wants it to be read- in humility- it is full of hard hitting practical advice on how to think, and therefore be better.
Savage Gods by Paul Kingsnorth
I got turned on to this author through a podcast, and this book is my first foray into his body of work. A semi auto-biography reflecting on his journey as an author, it provides a snapshot of someone who is lost but slowly, hopefully, finding his way. Not through certainty, but through the questions. He saves his most definite words about truthfulness for the last chapters, which is where I found the book at its weakest. Where we get his honest longings, tensions and uncertainties is where he shines, kicking my butt all over the place with his call to step into such spaces and recognize them for what they are.
Wastelands: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror
A must read for anyone intrested in the horror genre, or even for those who are not. Explores how it is that horror captures the general feelings of the times we live in, giving it a way to be articulated in words or vision in a constantly contextualizing fashion. It does so though by rooting its emergence in the Great War, helping us as readers to see how it is that our own paradigms and understandings of the world play off of this all too often forgotten and neglected moment in time. To understand our world we need to understand what gave our world its shape, and the horror genre is a means towards that end.
The Good News of the Return of the King by Michael Jahosky
Functions as a powerful, modern apologetic, not in the old evangelical sense but in the philosophical sense. In preperation for the upcoming Amazon Lord of the Rings series it also is an amazing inroad into what the story actually is and what it was born from. Jahosky’s main thesis is that LOTR is a parable, and that brings with it a certain kind of storytelling that often gets missed when people detach it from Tolkien’s larger worldview of faith. This is an intentionally drawn and deeply entrenched Christian story that finds its resonance with the masses because of that, even if many don’t realize it. Limiting it to modern genre definitions of fantasy actually strips it of this power, and misinterprets it. I think Jahosky makes a pretty ironclad argument towards this end that, should readers be willing to examine their own relationship to the story, will open this up in a whole new way.
The Mysteries of Cinema: Movies and Imagination by Peter Conrad
Conrad uses a religious and Biblical framework to outline the evolution of the cinematic imagination. And for good reason. Cinema as religious expression is an apt allegory to begin with, but Conrad also demonsrates how uniquely tied cinema is to the religious experience itself. Moving from creation to the godlike presence of the Director, it is the illusionary nature of the artform that reaches for some sense of the sacred by bringing together image and reality in ways that make us open to seeing something more, something transcendent. We find in film the anticipation of hope, apocalyptic fears, both the human and the divine, material and immaterial, fairy tale and reality. And we find this in ways that are unique to cinema as an artform. And further as a “social” artform. It’s a reminder that cinema is born from and within a sense of community, something that is gradually being undercut by its formulation into content, individual curation and isolated viewing trends. The true power of film, as it is with religion, is found in the collective where our relationship with the transcendent contines to push us from our self centered ways into relationship with the Other.
Honorable Mentions: This Hallelujah Banquet: How the End of What We Were Reveals Who We Can Be by Eugene Peterson is a book born from a series of sermons Peterson gave early in his days as a pastor. It melds together his life’s work on the book of Revelation, the end result being a beautful reflection on how it is that the Christian faith understands itself as a series of endings with new beginnings, the very heart of the new creation reality. Similarly, This Beautiful Truth: How God’s Goodness Breaks into Our Darkness by Sarah Clarkson imagines the beauty of becoming in the here and now, goodness breaking into the darkness to reveal something new.
Podcasts and Other
3 Books With Neil Pasricha, Episode 97- Bookmark: Ologies
This particular espisode features an interview with Neil Pasricha, the author of The Happiness Equation and The Book of Awesome and the blog 1000 Awesome Things. It inspired a reflection in tihs space on the nature of happiness, and while I do challenge some of his lack of definitions in the larger discussion, his ideas and his approach, while dealing with obvious practical advice, is both insightful and welcome.
The Bema Podcast, Episodes 234-238- Jewish Roots
I’m still thrilled by the larger movement bridging the ill defined Christian-Jewish divide in both academic and laypersons circles. This can be traced back to the NPP, which has grown a diverse and intricate discussion filled with many wonderful voices. This taps into some of those voices over a multiple episode series, including one with the always wonderful Jen Rosner.
The Lord of Spirits, Episode 28- According to the Order of Melchizedek
The Lord of Spirits has a wonderful way of digging into both history and scripture from an Orthodox point of perspective, and the often difficult to understand imagery of Melchizedek is given the couple hour treatment here, diving into its formation as typology, exploring references throughout the Biblical narrative, and examining its importance in understanding Christ.
The Audo Long Read, Episode 667- The Real Urban Jungle; How Ancient Societies Reimagined What Cities Could Be
I’ve always been fascinated with the marriage of city/architecture and nature. Design and policies have much to do with social concern and the question of how it is that we live and exist together, an idealism that cities hold within their basic fabric and design, and this interesting episode narrows in on one example of how this might translate.
Bridgetown Audio Podast, Episode 694- Be With Jesus, Become Like Jesus, Do What Jesus Did
I am a fairly faithful listener of this podcast, which features sermons from the popular Church in the U.S.. This one landed particularly hard for me as it tapped into some topics and ideas that had been perculating in my mind regarding the simple act of bing a Christian. The title is indeed simple, but the sermon itself weaves it into a really strong and poignant reflection on the Gospel itself.
Madi Diaz- History of a Feeling
Madi Diaz’s new album, History of a Feeling, has an obvious context- a transition and a recent break up- but it reaches beyond this in order to capture a wide spectrum of emotions that can speak to things both past, present and hopeful. It’s easy to note the sheer control of her vocal performance, evident from the first track and holding the album in its grace filled grip. It’s also worth noting the brilliance of the songwriting itself, taking a muted soundscape and turning it into something with real strength and power, each note and each movement framing a larger, orchestrated narrative.
Arkells- Blink Once
Blink Once is at once familiar to anyone who has followed the band through the years. After their stripped down campfires release, this returns them to their 2018 form without skipping a beat. At the same time you can sense some added, and even experimental aspects, be it a straight up ballad, a guest vocalist, or moments of unexpected musical deviations (the title track feels notable for its synth like anthem vibe). For the most part this stays tried and true, while offering just enough to remind us this is a band not content to simply stick with the status quo. Lyrically it deals with the unexpected and finding ways to face reality with a certain kind of unspoken and undefined resiliance.
This album is admittedly hard to categorize. Gone is the more recent foray into overt and progressive melodies and hooks- this album requires a good deal of patience and work to fully appreciate. The intracacy of their songwriting is definitely still present, but it’s buried beneath the gradual and gradient arc of the songs themselves. Lyrically the album is equally demanding, offering us songs that feel largely left to the interpreter to parse out. There’s a felt direction to it all, but one that seems to ask for a degree of time and investment, both in experiencing it and likewise in its interpretation.
Imagine Dragons- Mercury: Act 1
Imagine Dragons has always reminded me of Jars of Clay. Which might sound like a weird comparison because musically the two bands share little to nothing in common. I say that because in both cases a band typically known for the odd, catchy single, really find their true voice in the songs that don’t catch the attention of the masses. Which is why Jars of Clay remains so deeply underappreciated. The brilliance of their songwriting remains lost in translation. Thankfully Imagine Dragon’s larger stage has helped keep them from fading into obscurity, and Mercury is the true reward for those familiar with their larger body of work. This just might be their best effort yet, particularly when it comes to the vocals, which stretch boundaries here and explore foreign territory.
Derek Minor- The Trap
This is a definitive example of just how far Christian Hip Hop, or perhaps better, Hip Hop artists navigating their faith in an often hard edged and nuanced genre, has come. If Derek Minor has anything to say about the game, finding ways to exist as an artist, to be a person of faith, and not to fall into the trappings of such an ill defined industry divide, will help future artists of faith to travel this line with greater honestly, freedom and creativity. The secular-Christian divide might still exist in the shadows of that industries long and trepidated history, but thankfully this way of thinking is becoming less and less of a thing. And the reward is seeing an artist of faith transition into a period of unprecedented creativity. Here he tackles issues such as racism and police brutality head on, while laying tracks that move from simple to layered. A real accomplishment.
Honorable Mentions: I don’t listen to a lot of hardcore these days, but every once in a while I like to indulge. The Protest’s new album stands out for its emphasis on facing our fears and finding hope. The Grey Haven have been slowly releasing tracks over the recent months, and their full album lives up to its anticipation with big melodies and inspired tunes. Mike Donehey tackles spirituality with his album Flourish, a positive voice in trying times.