Oscars 2022 Spotlight: Nightmare Alley

Oscars 2022 Spotlight: Nightmare Alley

Del Toro, a self professed favorite Director of all time for me personally, is no stranger to awards season. It wasn’t that long ago that Shape of Water defied the odds, perhaps acknowledging the Director more than the film itself, winning Best Picture. Oddly enough Nightmare Alley is the more accessible film, especially given it is a remake of a familiar title. However, no one, or at least very few predicted Nightmare Alley to earn a spot in this years nominations, save for maybe Production. So when it managed to crack the Best Picture line up it left many in a state of shock and surprise. I for one was elated. Not because I think it has a chance at winning Best Picture, rather because of my love for both the film and the Director.

The original version is a 1947 film Directed by Edmund Goulding. In comparison Gouldings version is far more didactic in nature trading visuals for a straightforward, practically minded, conversationally driven character lead film noir. It is a very good film to be sure, despite it originally debutng as a flop with the box office and critics, with the unfolding mystery and the twists and turns and the black and white lending it a classic feel. What Del Toro does, and what makes a strong argument for it having a reason to exist, is trade on the didactic nature and practical film noir approach for a more decidedly visual and neo-noirish approach that really immerses the story in an imagined world. This world builidng exercise is a big part of what sets Del Toro apart in general, and here he uses it to tease not only the darker edges of the story to the surface, but also the story’s spiritual focus and its existential concern. The film is big on imagery and metaphor and uses this to really explore the essential tensions that the original merely tabled, especially where it comes to themes of forgiveness, restitution, and retribution. I genuinely rank this among his best, and its a film that I think rewards multiple viewings, especially in order to appreciate the second of two phenomenal performances by Bradley Cooper this year (the second being Licorice Pizza).

The Oscar Story:

In total Nightmare Alley gained four nominations- Best Picture, Cinematography, Costume Design, Production Design. The below the line categories are actually a pretty strong representation and its hard not to think that the Best Picture nom will give it the boost it needs to walk away with something. It won’t win Best Picture, and early signs point to Cruella being the popular choice in Costume Design (Cruella is also contending for Makeup and Hairstyling against the arguable front runner The Eyes of Tammy Faye). Out of cinematography and Production Design I would say the category it has the best chance at upsetting is Production Design. I said elswhere that this is most likely where I see West Side Story earning a win to anchor its likely Best Supporting Actress award (for Ariana DeBose), but don’t be suprised if Nightmare Alley throws Oscar pools, predictions and bets for a loop here. I just think, espescially now that Dune took the trophy home in the cinematographers voting branch this past Tuesday, that this is Dune’s to lose, and if it did lose it would be to The Power of the Dog, another likely place for the acadamy to support the expected win for Jane Campion in the Directors spot. One caveat to both of these categories as well- Del Toro’s decision to re-release the film in black and white, which I haven’t had the chance to see yet, could also pay dividends here, especially since response to the black and white version has been overwhelmingly positive.

Oscars 2022 Spotlight: Being the Ricardos and The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Oscars 2022 Sporlight: Being the Ricardos

Late in the season Amazon quietly released Being the Ricardos, a film detailing an especially harrowing time for Hollywood stars Lucille Ball and Desi Amaz. Most of the discussion around this faithful, biographical depiction of the famed couple, centered on the year 1952, surrounded Nicole Kidman’s take on Ball. A few had faith she could successfully pull off the transformation, many remained skeptics. When the film did arrive it failed to make a real mark earning favorable to middling response despite, in my opinion, boasting a strong script, an understated period piece aesthetic, and strong performances. It’s a patient film but one that demonstrates a good deal of control and intentional restraint uderneath the surface of its suspected, and in some eyes failed, drive for popular appeal.

The Oscar Story:

I have been making the argument that the film has been vastly overlooked and underrated for a good while, so when it had a stronger than expected showing with the Oscar nominations I was excited. This includes nominations in Best Acor (Javier Bardem), Best Supporting Actor (J.K. Simmons) and Best Actress (Nicole Kidman). Bardem has zero chance at winning being largely in the shadows of Will Smith who is predicted to finally get his due. Simmons is equally out of the contest given Troy Kotsur laying a strong claim to that front runner status for his turn in Coda and Kodi Smit-McPhee holding strong in that second spot for his turn in The Power of the Dog. I believe Kotsur will take this as McPhee’s supporting performance I think represents the films popularity in other categories more than it does an exceptional or even visibly memorable performance.

That leaves Kidman. Kidmans story gets more interesting when you consider The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Oscars 2022 Spotlight: The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Even if you haven’t seen the flm it’s likely you’ve heard of it because of Jessica Chastain who has been out there like crazy talking up this film leading up to and since its release. She of course plays Faye herself, and this film is largely a result of her persistant desire to get this film made. This was her passion project and she played a very hands on role in the Producers chair. She wanted to make it because she felt it was a difficult story that had something to say about the struggles women have faced and continue to face in society and in the industry. In researching Faye she found both a person and a story that has been largely misunderstood and misrepresented by the media and she wanted to bring the true story to light. And I personally think it is a wonderful biographical story that features not just a great pairing in Chastain and Garfield (the role he should be getting attention for rather than Tick Tick Boom) but some really excellent use of story structure which helps dive underneath the caricatures and bring some important thematic and spiritual tensions to the surface.

The Oscar Story

Unlike Being the Ricardos triple feat, The Eyes of Tammy Faye only has the single nom in the above the line categories- Lead Actress for Jessica Chastain. However, what makes this an interesting race is the inclusion of Tammy Faye in Makeup and Hairstyling. Don’t underestimate what this below the line nomination says about Chastains “visible” transformation, an added aspect of her performance that could, and some think should carry her over the finish line and earn her the Oscar. I do think Kidman’s performance offers her some decent competition and certainly in its own way checks a lot of those Oscar boxes, but Chastain’s boots on the ground appraoch paired with that readily recognizable makeup I think will pay the necessary dividends come Oscar night.

Oscars 2022 Spotlight: Dune

Even a small awareness of film releases in 2021 likely means you have heard of Denis Villeneuve’s ambitious take on a classic work deemed to be unadaptable (save for those who actually deem Lynch’s original a success). As the story goes, the acclaimed Director kept waiting around for someone to take it on and when no one did he finally decided to take it on himself.

The result is a film that is celebrated for its visuals and somewhat mixed on the adaptation front. One could argue this is mostly thanks to his decision to follow the source material a bit too faithffully- the problem is the source material not him. What is most certainly true is that Dune did what Nolan’s Tenet could not, which was welcome people back to theaters in light of the pandemic woes. This is no small feat for a film that boasts real art house sensibilities and that, given the adaptation was split in two halves, functions without a true conclusion. For my money, while he does misstep at points by following the source material a bit too faithfully, the intention one can see behind the decision to leave out and streamline some story points, the character arcs he chooses to bring to the surface and accentuate, and his very deliberate choice to tell this story without a lot of dialogue, without all of the technical lingo allowing the visuals to do the heavy expositionary work in its place, pays real dividends. This along with Villeneuve’s incredible visual imagination make this blockbuster one of the best of the year, fusing entertainment with thoughtful commentary and substanstive ideas.

The Oscar Story:

If not for the egregious miss in the best Director category, arguably one of the most non-sensicle and controversial outcomes of the nominations, Dune would be sharing the nomination haul with the current leader (the Power of the Dog) and, in my opinion, would be seriousy in the conversation right now for not only best Director but best Film as well. As it stands, the Best Picture nom is very likely inconsequential, and in a cruel twist of fate the miss in the best Diretor category could leave its noinations in below the line categories entirely vulnerable. For as much as supporters of The Power of the Dog are beginning to fear it might walk away with one or two wins on the night, Director being the only sure one, the irony is the years biggest film is facing a similar fate.

One category that will prove interesting to watch is cinematography as much hinges here on whether its even possible for The Power of the Dog to walk away with two or less wins on the night given it is the nomination leader. If it loses Best Picture, which at this point appears it would be to Coda, shoring up wins in subsequent categories might be its consolation prize. Neither Nightmare Alley nor Tragedy of Macbeth are really competing in this category which leaves West Side Story, arguably a distant third, and the two nomination leaders fighting it out for first and second spot.

While Cruella has been cleaning up in the costume category leaving Dune largely in its shadow, this leaves makeup and hairstyling, a category most believe will go to The Eyes of Tammy Faye, original score, film editing, adapted screenplay, production design, sound, and visual effects. Of these categories original score feels most in the bag, Hans Zimmer has been very much in the spotlight over the course of the awards season. Production Design I think will be one of two categories, along with an expected win for actress in a supporting role (Ariana DeBose), where the acadamy will recognize West Side Story.

I do feel fairly confident in its chances at winning Visual Effects however. Marvel doesn’t typcally fare well in this category and the only real question then is where, or if, the acadamy wants to acknowledge No Time to Die. This could be a place to do it along with Sound, making this an interesting race between those two films. Adapted Screenplay I believe is a two horse race between Coda and The Power of the Dog. It’s entirely possible, according to some pundits, that whichever film wins there wins Best Picture, so that is definitely a category to watch closely on awards night.

Film Editing seems to be a natural place to honor Dune, but the biggest question there is King Richard’s expected win in the Best Actor category (Will Smith). If acadamy voters don’t want to leave King Richard with just a single win, and it does seem voters do like the film, it would most likely vote for it here.

Dune is an intresting film to consider given all these possible scenarios. Fascinating to considrer it within the shared narrative of the Power of the Dog as well, given they are the two nomination leaders. The miss in Directing, for as mindboggling as that is (especially given the Best Picture nod), could prove to be a motivating factor as well. One reason a film misses can be the assumption that the film was not in danger of losimg that nominated spot, thus some giving their vote to another film that needs it. If this was the case with Dune then giving it the win in subsequent categories could be seen as a way to make up for this error in judgement. Usually this many nominations means the acadamy is favorable towards the film and have seen the film, so this, along with the possibility that voters assumed they would get their chance next year with Part 2 (this doesn’t explain the Best Picture nom though), seems to me to make the most sense. In any case I do hope it walks away with a few wins on the night and anticipate Part 2 hopefully leading to a bonafide win for Villeneuve next year. He deserves it.

Oscars 2022 Spotlight: Flee

Continuing this week with some Oscar reflections, today I wanted to shed light on the documetary Flee, which is up for Animated Feature Film, Documentary Feature, and International Feature Film.

Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, the official entry from Denmark is a documentary that mixes animated and live action sequences as it tells the story of Amin, an unaccompanied minor who lives in Denmark but immigated from Afghanistan. At 36 years the film tells his story by way of a conversation between Amin and a close friend where we find him confiding in him by telling his story out loud for the first time. Embedded into this are secrets from his past which bear real weight on his present, making it important for him to finally find a way to articulate this past in a way that allows him to deal with the present and find a way forward. It very much uses the physical journey to shed light on the internal one, highlighting issues of identity, acceptance and belonging. It is a simple story but it is also a powerful and important one that really celebrates Amin’s courageous willingness to tell his story and to finally make it real.

The Oscar Story:
The big story here is of course the film’s presence in all three of these categories. While this is historic in and of itself, the very notion that it could possibly walk away with awards in all three categories would be truly historical should it happen.

How likely is it that this would happen? I would say highly unlikely. But the sheer idea does make this one exciting to watch. The greater interest is pondering which category it stands the best shot at winning. This is where things get difficult.

Animated Feature
Dethroning Encanto from the top spot in animated feature would be a challenge (and despite advocates of Mitchells and the Machines believing it has a shot, I think this is more a dream than reality. But hey, the Osars always need to throw in a couple surprises). Luca and Raya and the Last Dragon fill out the other two spots in this category (yes, although Luca is Pixar technically this means Disney is dominating here with three nominations), and of those two Raya has been cited by pundits to hold the number two spot.

With that said, there are some quietly picking Flee in that number 2 spot, and while Encanto appears to be so far ahead here and represents the familiar and popular pick (I personally have no qualms here as i think it is the best animated film to release in 2021), there is a chance Flee could pull the upset simply based on its clear representation in the other two categories. If nothing else this proves it has its fans and that people have indeed seen it, and that bodes well in its favor.

Documentary Feature
The fiercest competition here is Summer of Soul, generally accepted as the clear front runner and most likely winner. And deservedly so, it’s a phenomenal film and the Acadamy does like music films in this category. What makes this category intriguing is that when you look at the other nominations there is no clear number 2. All three of the other noms- Ascension, Attica, Writing with Fire, occupy similar space in that they are generally respected but not necessarily widely seen nor universally embraced as potential competitors in the race. This leaves Flee wide open to make a legitimate run at dethroning Summer of Soul

International Feature Film
Similar to documentary, international film sports a clear front runner (Japan’s Drive My Car) with three other nominations vying for that second spot- Italy’s The Hand of God, Bhutan’s Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, and Norway’s The Worst Person in the World). One central dfference here is The Worst Person in the World did manage to snag a nomination in the original screenplay category, which might seem inconsequential but does carry some weight in regards to its possible contending here. It also has passionate support (although i personally find it overrated). When you consider that Drive My Car also occupies a slot in the Best Picture line up, one that I don’t think it has a chance of winning, its hard to think that the well regarded film wouldn’t be given international film in its place.

So what to do with this film then? Is it possible that these historic noms could actually walk away with nothing? That seems equally hard to fathom. If I had to make a best guess I am probably leaning towards its best chance being Documentary. However, my own “go for broke” prediction in the animated feature category (just to offset the Mitchells and the Machines enthusiasts) is willing to at least suggest the scenario of Flee quietly sneaking in and upseting the Disney juggernaut. There is an irony here though given that I think the film is most deserving as an international feature and documentary and least deserving as an animated feature. The animation is fine but it’s nothing exceptional, and even arguably a bit blandly drawn. It works really well as a compliment to the live action bits, and it doesn’t need to be flashy given the strength of the story and its focus on the material and the structure, but that just accentuates its strengh as an inventive documentary and strong international feature.

The Oscars: Thoughts, Best Picture Rankings, and Best Picture Predictions

It’s Oscar week. Which means ramping up the pontificating and predictions for anyone who still cares.

I’ve been on record plenty of times in the past defending the relevance of the ceremony and its importance for the industry (and yes, I know I am Canadian, but it’s near impossible to escape the shadow of the American film industry, and the canadian film industry operates a bit differently none the less, so that’s a discussion for another day). Historically, the Oscars have played a significant role in shining a spotlight on smaller films and smaller studios that often otherwise would not be seen by a wider audience, even as this same history sees a long standing and existing tension between the equal need to showcase films that people have seen for the sake of viewership numberes and the related ad revenue. When it comes to this tension this year has been no different, seeing the Acadamy (or the Network that currently owns the rights to the Oscars- ABC) attempting to stave off the continued ratings decline with some questionable, and at times bizarre decisions (see the the popular film category for example, or the decision to bump below the line categories to a pre oscar ceremony) when it comes to the live broadcast this Sunday night. Of course the ceremony will tell the fuller story in terms of potential dividends and/or further losses, but at present it feels like they are successfully earning the scorn of those who don’t care about the show while further isolating those who do.

Now, I am far from an authority on the Oscars. I do however spend time over the year listening to awards show podcasts, perusing articles and think pieces, and generally following the season as it unfolds. And of course I have a deep interest in seeing the nominated films while also engaging in vibrant dialogue (which sadly is nothing like it used to be) regarding “would have, could have, should have” preferences. So at the very least I can speak something to that. Which is what I thought i would do this week, spotlighting some films, Directors, performances, technicals, that have earned a nomination along with some that didn’t who could be said to have been in the discussion along the way.

Beginning with a personal ranking of the Best Picture nominees, from least to best with one caveat- I have not yet been able to see Drive My Car so that won’t be represented here, and followed by my prediction for what will win and what I think has the best shot at an upset. This year there are 10 Nominees in the Best Picture category:

My Personal Ranking of the 2022 Oscar Best Picture Nominees

9. Don’t Look Up

8. The Power of the Dog

7. King Richard

6. West Side Story

5 Coda

4. Nightmare Alley

3. Dune

2. Licorice Pizza

1. Belfast

Licorice Pizza actually ranks higher on my best of 2021 list, but for me personally, when I think of a Best Picture winner I am thinking about a film that successfully represents the year thematically or through the storyline of its production and release and cultural footprint. I think Belfast seems to fit really well as a film that speaks to some of the challenges of the past year (from its emphasis on struggle, division, political turmoil, family, togetherness and isolation, its sense of home and its sense of place, culture, diaspora and war). It is also a film that speaks to hope and to this notion of returning to that which we cherish and which affords us our identity. Or at least to an understanding that home is where we are together. The story of Ireland (and this is a true love letter to Ireland) is one which I think can have much to say to the present struggles in Ukraine of course, but it also feels apt for the experience of the pandemic. Sure, the film didn’t do great at the box office (very few films did in 2021, including streaming films like The Power of the Dog), but it did have the benefit of positive early buzz and it is the kind of film that is able to translate across boundaries and age brackets with a sense of optimism and imagination. It’s the kind of crowd pleasing drama that I think can bring people together, and a Best Picture nod could be the perfect opportunity to celebrate this.

If there is a knock on the film it is that too many critics have been comparing this to Roma, of which a byproduct has been the tendency to then measure this against those qualities, something it can’t live up to because it it in fact a very different kind of film despite sharing the black and white aesthetic. Very few hate the film, but a growing number at this stage in the game seem to be questioning whether it is truly deserving of a best picture win. It did hold the spot of frontrunner for quite a while, but most pundits believe it no longer has a genuine shot at the big award, especially given some of the below the line nominations it was shut out from. But if it somehow does win I would be quite happy with the result.

What will win: The Power of the Dog

When Belfast was dethroned a film that early predictors didn’t think would threaten found a way to do just that. It has been sweeping its way through awards season thus far in multiple categories, and while its not unusual for a dominating film to lose out at the Acadamy, especially when its not that accessible to a wider audience (the Oscars work on a preferential ballot and thus the DGA and PGA winners are often key indicators of what a preferential ballad might bring), its still difficult to vote against at this point in the game. It has a lot of money behind it (Netflix) and while it has many a detractor its supporters are a passionate bunch. It also has the strength of Nomadlands win from 2021 to play off of in its favor, a less accessible indie that steamrolled the season along with taking the major prize. I personally would love to see an upset here for a few reasons- I am not a fan of the film, I think thematically it would be a dire and quite confusing representation of the year in film given its emphasis on the depravity of its story and characters, and while it does seem inevitable that if it doesn’t happen this year it will soon (given Netflix’s mad obsession with winning Best Picture and the sheer amount of money they are putting towards that) I do fear a Netflix win creating a snowball effect where they will dominate the nominations even more than they do now. Unlike other big money representations such as Disney, they have the ability to take over multiple categories including animated, international, and drama). This means that the smaller entities that the Oscars typically helps support will be pushed even further to the margins and have an even harder time competing. But I still do think this is the year Netflix wins.

A Possible Upset: Coda

Much has been written regarding this late stage surge by the unsuspecting Coda. Apple has been pushing their campaign pretty hard and many pundits have been suggesting that its gradually increasing representation in the more recent awards might signal that it will legitimately push for that Best Picture win. All eyes were on the PGA winner, and with Coda taking this spot there is a fairly strong argument one could make for this translating to Oscar night. It’s generally beloved, even more so I think than Belfast despite Belfast being a better representation of the kind of film that wins at the Oscars (or at least one type- this fits I think in the Green Book category). It’s arguably more beloved than The Power of the Dog, something that benefits that preferrential ballot. If Coda does win it would be, I think, a bit of a shock and a bit of an anomaly, but one that I think plenty would more than gladly embrace and praise. It’s a crowd pleaser, and it breaks barriers in terms of representation by shining a spot light on the deaf community. Even if it doesn’t win I’m glad to see it getting the push it deserves.

Emotions As Construct and the the Discipling of our Emotions: Reflections on Kingdom Roots with Becky Castle Miller

I was listening to an episode of Kingdom Roots podcast this morning titled Discipling Our Emotions speaking with scholar and theologian Becky Castle Miller, and they were unpacking the recent and revolutionary research on science of “emotions” that surfaced back around 2016 and has since been growing to become the dominant view.

The shift represents a move away from seeing emotions as a list of common feelings shared by the whole of humanity towards an understanding of emotions as cultural constructs which express themselves in diverse ways within different peoples and cultures as part of their distinct context. In other words, while we all feel emotions we don’t all feel emotions the same way. Existing emotions are a window into the cultural constructs that shape us while feelings are a way of giving these emotions meaning.

As I’ve been doing a deeper dive into this idea, perusing the research and reading articles it’s becoming clear to me that this has massive implications not only for how we understand and relate to one another but to how we approach and understand God, the scriptural text and how we apply the cultural context of the text to our own. It can, for example, help us understand how it is that we arrive at gender constructs by way of emotions. It can shed light on how emotions divide us in all manner of ways, and how it is that travelling across cultures requires learning the language of emotion, and how making sense of our own culture, and even oursleves, requires an understanding of our own language of emotion as well. Why and how it is that we feel things differently from within our constructed vantage point. We do not feel emotions in a bubble. Emotional constructs arise from a shared environment and play a massive role in binding people togther based on what we are taught to attach meaning (feeling) to. This should do a couple things- push back on the belief that our “feelings” are normative and should be and/or are common across the whole of humanity, remind us that feelings can be sources of good and bad, and challenge us to see how seeing feeling from emotion as mutual but seperate parts of the equation (as opposed to setting one over the other) can be a way of helping to assess the good and bad within cultural constructions while also freeing us to see emotions as something that can be shaped and reshaped developed and grown with intention.

Apparently she’s deep into work on the relationship between this new science of emotion and our theologies of Christ. Exited to see where that leads 🙂

Happy St. Patricks Day: A Reflection on Irish Film History and My Favorite Irish Films

The best that can be said of Irish cinema today is that it certainly exists. Even with its strata of ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ films, its commercial entertainments and its dark dramas, Irish film at least now produces enough films for there to be such divisions in the first place.

The identity of an Irish cinema by Dr. Harvey O’Brien

Brooklyn, John Crowley’s internationally celebrated Irish film from 2015, features a recognizable and common distinctive among Irish film- the relationship between a longing for a distinctive Irish culture and presence and the reality of it’s prolonged Diaspora. The tension between these two sometimes complimentary and often opposing cultural forces still exists today even as Ireland’s modern cinematic landscape has managed to grow a stronger sense of identity, with some animosity existing between the Irish and Irish-Americans/Canadians (for example) who often lay claim to the idea of Irish heritage. As one writer put it, as this conflict grew, more and more it became an obvious struggle between empire on one side and capitalism on the other.

From famine to war, to civil war to division, from the never ending diaspora and political unrest, we can follow Irelands cinematic story from the arrival of the first Lumiere images, which captured in their way a rare and brief glimpse of optimism and peace, to the present day struggles for national identity, preservation of history and culture and the undying spirit of romanticism and song, Irelands cinematic history holds in its hands the story of a unique people, an influential and important history, and a universal spiritual longing. These early picturesque depictions of the early emergence of the moving image would become an important symbol for Irish cinema, the product of a small island and a modest population. Given how the Potato Famine had displaced its people to foreign territory, the struggle of early Irish cinema would set the tone for years to come, forcing Irish film to depict Ireland from a distance. As these stories evolved, they came to depict the immigrants story somewhere between a love and longing for the homeland and the promise of more prosperous conditions elsewhere. And while the Country continued to struggle on a socio-political level, what is clear today is how important Irish cinema would become to protecting and developing a true Irish heritage. As the Country went so did its cinematic presence, and it becomes clear looking back, and even looking at Ireland today, that where Ireland was able to establish a localized industry and film community, Country and people were also at their strongest.

As John Ford would release one of Ireland’s most defining films (The Quiet Man) in 1952, the rise of television would, as one writer put it, have “a disastrous affect on Irish Identity, combining with the decline of cinema.” And yet, the inspiration of the Irish cinematic story is one that leaves my own Irish-Canadian heritage jealous. As we enter the 1970’s we see a reinvigorated and hard nosed commitment to not let cinema die, and a desire to breathe into it a fresh light on the Irish people and identity. And while Irish Cinema today is a shadow of what, say, American Cinema represents in content and numbers, their conviction to the art form in the face of consistent outside pressures, streaming, and international imports actually stands taller in its relevance. With the pride of cinema comes a pride of Irish heritage and a stronger and more unified Country, something doubly important in a land still divided. The Film Act of 1970 allowed Irish Film to expand and to grow, while the Irish government was one of the first and early adapters of a film tax initiative. The films that emerged from this became what is known as the Irish First Wave, demonstrating a fresh vision for art and Country.

“What all of these New Wave films have in common is their desire to challenge what had gone before them in cinematic terms. These films aggressively debunked stereotypical images of Ireland and Irish people on film and sought to challenge audiences to see Ireland in a different light.”

The future continued (and continues) to have its challenges of course, particularly in the eventual demise of The Irish Film Board in 1987 and the loss of that unifying voice. But the persistence of the Irish people resulted in films like My Left Foot (Jim Sheridan), The Crying Game (Neil Jordan), The Commitments (Alan Parker), all independent Irish products, paving the way for the rebirth of The Irish Film Board in 1993. Fast forward to today and you have an industry that, not unlike the earlier days of Italian cinema, has found a way to grow in genres, proving to leave quite a footprint in animation (Cartoon Saloon) and even in the likes of horror. But the most important undercurrent appears to be this-

“While big-budget international productions keep crews working and are enormously valuable to the country, it is the indigenous industry that is at the heart of creating opportunity and giving skills and experience to Irish producers, directors, writers and crew, telling the stories that emerge from Irish-based talent.”

Cinema plays the role it does precisely because it has the ability to bring people together around these collective stories of identity and form in the way other artforms cannot. Films can hold national identity in one hand and establish that on international soil with the other. As cinema goes, so does Irish identity. And like modern Ukraine, the stronger their identity the stronger Irish Cinema is becoming. It is proving that it doesn’t need to be America in order to succeed, boasting the highest rate of cinema admissions in Europe. It can, simply, be Ireland.

My top 10 Favorite Irish films:

Honorable Mentions: The Secret Scripture (the story of a woman caught in a world dominated by the men and held hostage by both power and institution. It is a period piece and part mystery, and something of a slow burn with beautiful cinematography and memorable characters); Here Before (another slow burn mystery about the mother-daughter bond, this time with notes of horror); Sing Street (an addictive and entertaining coming of age musical and love story from the writers of Once and Begin Again); The Commitments (soul music, the slums of Dublin, this gets into the nitty gritty of what makes the place, once upon a time, tick)

(Ranked in decending order)

The Secret of Roan Irish
The films folktale nature captures the spirit of Irish storytelling with its mix of history, myth and the relationship between humanity and creation. It’s rare to encounter family films such as this, which is told in the old ways of lore and esteemed in mystery meant to illuminate the hopeful light. This is where the unexpected can break into our reality.

The Breadwinner
Honest, raw and deeply revealing, this is the kind of animated film that can draw together young and old with its mix of memorable characters, its emphasis on real world history and conflict, and its willingness to find beauty in the dark places without glossing over the tough stuff of life, particularly a story like this that sheds light on particular cultural hardship.

Song of the Sea
A powerful exploration of the spaces in which grief and sorrow form necessary parts of our lives and how we often work to cover up these necessary emotions. Even more so about how these things play into the life of a child and a childlike perspective. Here Irish Tradition meets experience as a modern reflection on timeless Irish symbolism and culture given a universal application.

Wild Mountain Thyme
One of a handful of films here that immerse you not just in the folklore but in the countryside itself. Culture and spirit shine here in this charming and emotional Irish love tale, bringing together a rich art of storytelling, romanticism, metaphor, song, and poetry.

The Secret of Kells
As the film suggests, “everything in this life is mist.” The mist is a metaphor for what clouds the truth of ourselves and this world, and it is this darkness that allows the light to illuminate the necessary knowledge. I have often considered this first and foremost a Christmas film with its reigning image of the coming light that brings hope to the world and the promise of God with us, and it fleshes this out in such an amazing way through the relationship between adult and child.

Hunger
There is a pivotal scene in this film where a simple conversation affords us a break in the brutality of it all. It is a scene that offers us a chance to ponder all that has happened up to this point, and to be sure it is one of the greatest cinematic moments in history. Dealing with questions of freedom, faith, oppression it ponders where the line between dying and living, suicide or willful survival, gets drawn and how these things create opposition within ourselves. It uses this to draw out, in the larger context of the film, the two polarizing sides within Irish history. It’s a tough watch but oh so rewarding.

Calvary
“Forgiveness is underrated”. Whether one chooses to qualify this as a faith based film, it is simply undeniable that it is one of the most powerful “films” ever made. As the film suggests, the only darkness greater than our refusal or inability to forgive one another is our inability to receive forgiveness and to forgive ourselves.

Belfast
Up for an Academy Award this year Belfast is one of the most vibrant and expressive (and lovely and humorous) explorations of Irish history, culture and people put to film. It is not only visually creative with its mix of black and white and color, panning shots, and intimate captures, it is deeply personal. This is, much like Brooklyn, a film that faces the conflict of the Diaspora head on, and in doing so becomes a genuine love letter to Ireland itself.

Wolfwalkers
One of my all time favorite animated films Wolfwalkers walks us through the history of colonization while recovering an ancient, Irish spirituality that still exists and persists underneath the christianization. It’s easy to see how the two can come together as a uniquely Irish identity and language, and the film attempts to imagine this ancient character coming alive in the present day in a revitalized Irish landscape. Stunning, rich, and beautiful.

Brooklyn
This film continues to hold a special place for me. It’s a coming of age drama that explores the nature of change and transition. As it follows a young woman moving from Ireland to Brooklyn it also becomes about how it is that we are shaped by the idea of home. Home is something she both leaves behind and also remakes, which becomes an allegory for both her life and the love story that frames the journey of longing for that which we have romanticized either in our imagining of the new or the cherishing of the old. No matter where we find ourselves within this push and pull though the truth remains that home is the places and people that we invest in and build together.

Month in Review: Favorite Watches, Listens: February 2022

Movies

Help (2022) Directed by Marc Munden

Who would have thought I would be ready for and fully emabracing a pandemic movie in the early goings of 2022. And yet here I am not only embracing it but fully feeling the emotional weight of its tightly woven and intimately drawn human drama. It really is that dang good, not least of which is a stellar performance by the wonderful Jodie Comer. The Director clearly knows the strength of the films lead and utilizes the camera to capture the smallest nuances of her emotional journey.

Lotawana (2022) (Directed by Trevor Hawkins)

The stripped back nature might betray the strength of this films thematic and structural presence. The way the Director draws out the underlying tension of this relationship between two indivduals looking to escape from the pressures of the world, ultimately finding motivation to do so in eachother, and the way the Director does this using specific visual and design techniques is really impressive. These tensions have a way of invading the idealistic space they are trying to establish and protect out on a Missouri lake, often hitting by way of unexpected revelations, unwanted news, relational disagreements, uncertainty, or family tensions. Their intentions are good and even admirable, but it is their inate responsibilty to life itself and the what ihs says about the worlds they occupy separately and together that prove vital to working out the films tension in a tangible way.

All The Moons (2020) Directed by Igor Legarreta

Reminiscent of something like Only Lovers Left Alive with its unique approach to the idea of the vampire motif, one that is less focused on them being evil and more so in formulating it into an exercise of empathy for the vampire characters. Or perhaps this is even more readily comparable to the vastly underseen Transfiguration, a YA film that uses the vampire motif as a way to explore their relationship to the world and to one another. Features beautiful visuals and really strong technicals in terms of the cinematography, visual design, story structure, score and performances, all of which help to examine deeper themes about making sense of struggle and loss.

The Sky is Everywhere (2022) Directed by Josephine Decker

Definitely an aquired taste. This is either going to turn some people off in the first 10 minutes (or cause them to turn it off) or there’s a good chance you might be primed to fall under its spell. I really like Shirley and this film employs some of those same idiosyncratic traits. It has a lovely aesthetic that employs a level of magical realism, a way of getting into the mind and heart of a grieving young woman. The way it challenges us to see beneath to surface and to imagine feelings as expressive and emotive sequences, images, sounds and colors lends this film its decisive creative edge. I found it all quite enchanting even if the structure poses some challenges to telling it’s story in a clean and sufficient manner. It left me intrigued to take these side roads and content to let it find its way back to the central thread.

Patterns (1956) Directed by Fielder Cook

Riveting, unsettling, effortlessly engaging and hard hitting. This boardroom drama, staged as it is within the ruthless and competitive confines of the workplace where the high powered execs reside, hits with such force it genuinely left me breathless in moments. It probes the ehtical quandry of choices bound to the truth of what it takes to survive, both personally and as a company, and how decisions at the top inevitably demand the compromising of morals in order to get ahead. This is as much about the successors as it is the causalities leaving me to wonder how it is precisely that we justify such a system as normative and necessary. Complicating this even more is the assertion that occupying these high positions demands the sacrifice of some in the moment in order to find gain for the many in the future. This is, one character insists, how successful business works. This frames a demonstrable lack of moral concern around a greater ethical responsibility towards what they deem to be the greater good. Progress and success is how humanity gets ahead. One wonders where the truth and the lie meet in this equation and whether the ends, muddled as that eventually becomes in and of itself, ever justifies the means.

Knowing that this is a snapshot of reality and true to form of capitalisms function gives this film an added element of horror and drama. However we justify such systems existing in our own time and place sets us right in the middle of the heated dialogue and human plight, and it aims to leave us in a place of honest and true reflection. Powerful film all around.

Honorable Mentions: Cyrano might be a bit falsely advertised given that this is both based on a play and very much a modern musical (two things I had no idea about before seeing it), but as the musical the love story shines, if in a bittersweet and slightly less than conventional fashion. This is a film for the romantics, not the cynics, but in being so it doesn’t undercut the intelligence of is shakesperean type dance. Marry Me is the more conventional romantic comedy, but on its end it also shines as a love story in its purest form, sporting a strong premise and even stronger chemistry.

Books

Wholehearted Faith by Rachel Held Evans

Published posthumously, this final book by the beloved author is based off the bits and pieces that form the rough draft of her then anticipated next work. A friend of hers did the work of bringing these pieces together and forming it into a cohesive whole. The final product is both inspiring and extremely helpful, navigating that space between faith and doubt that informs much of our wrestling. It’s hopeful, and at times haeartbreaking reading these works with the knowledge of her untimely passing.  Ultimatley it becomes a way of imagining faith aknew in a world where there is so much darkness and struggle. A way of capturing the beauty of life and new creation promise.

Maeve Binchy: The Biography by Piers Dudgeon

This was my introduction to Binchy. Being of Irish heritage I was looking for good Irish voices. I found Binchy’s personal story to be really interseting, especially where we see her faith journey move from narrow belief to loss of belief to a longing for something more. I can’t help but feel like had she encountered other voices within the faith she might have found in it something rich and something that could have shed great light on pre-Christian Ireland and its roots in spiritual mysticism and ancient stories. In any case I love the way she works to uncover that Irish history and spiritual past. So many modern writers, in their rush to rightly condmen the damaging nature of colonialism ultimately end up doing the same thing in their simitaneous condemnation of religion. You can’t embrace Irish history without attending for its spiritualism and its awareness of a greater reality than that which we can merely observe with our rational eyes. Binchy stands in foosteps of a rich tradition and legacy that is keeping these roots alive.

Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern by Jing Tsu

While the book isn’t specifically about this (it is about the really interesting story of the Chinese language and the impact of the rise of the English language on both it’s development and it’s preservation), it’s compelling to see so many of our worlds problems as rooted in the English languages overtaking of the global world and economy. This often gets neglected in favor of this picture of a “common language”, but the story in this book covers dominant part of our human and cultural history and reveals just how English became synonymous with things like conquest, empire, power, west over east, and progress, which in itself leads to some of the underpinnings of western narratives, racism, and colonialism. The book then explores this tension between traditional Chinese characters and their simplifying lies at the heart of understanding the Chinese identity.

A key point is the relationship between change and our attachment to history and tradition, key parts of what make up our identity. That the English language was (and is) at the root of supposed progress erasing entire stories, people’s, cultures and traditions, and that it has the power to do this, is eye opening. Brings new light to my experience in Ukraine where, at least in Ismail there were almost no English speakers. We were told that the thing they looked down upon was not just what English symbolizes in the erasing of cultures but English speakers penchant for only knowing a single language. This makes sense of some of what our presence would have symbolized.

Moments of Perception: Experimental Film in Canada by Michael Zyrd

How much mileage one gets from this book will likely dependon how much interest they have in the history of Canadian film. The second half of the book is solely devote to this history in a practical sense, looking through in detail the different experimental artists that have shaped the artfom as Canadians. The first half of the book however is far more accessible, looking at film in a global sense and showing how, and where, Canadian film history fits into that. It offers some profound and insightful observations about why film and film industry matters and also looks at different defintiions (such as the difference between independant film, experimental film, studio film) which can help us understand how the industry works. Really happy i stumbled across it.

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell

In his book Talking to Strangers, Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell delves into the psychology of our togetherness, a key part of which makes us human. His particular focus is on how it is that we relate to one another in a world filled with competing information. Understanding that we come together with “different assumptions, perspectives and backgrounds” and different ways of regarding which of this information is true and which is not, we also can exhibit identifiable behaviors that have more to say about our need to uphold such binaries (between truth and lies, good and evil) than the importance of truth itself. As he points out, we are wired towards a need to “trust”. To be wired to distrust means society and our species would collapse, unable to function. Thus when truth becomes necessary to uncover (primarily because the deceptions cross a line between benign to destructive) it is less a matter of presenting evidence and more a question of how much evidence we need along with the timing and placement of this infomation that moves us over the line from trust to distrust. Gladwell suggests that knowing this can be helpful to understanding how we as humans operate when it comes to living in this world together. This feels timely.

Honorable Mention: The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song by Henry Louis Gates Jr. Less an apologetic for the Christian faith and far more a historical examination of the role of the Black Church in Black history. It’s really well researched and written with an eye for showing how the Black Church has shaped how it is that Persons of Color see and understand the world in an increasingly secularized culture here in the West. Definitely left me curious about how this might connect and relate to the growing relevance of Christianity in Africa in erms of Black culure here and Black culture there. That would make an interesting follow up book.

Podcasts/Youtube/Ect

Beer Christianity: Episode 63 Ukraine Crisis: Love During Wartime (the propaganda episode)

An important and timely reflection on how to see the present crisis in Ukraine from the perspective of a Country caught between the equally corrupt powers of East and West. Helps uncover how it is that we in the West have missed much of our own complictness in the problem, and suggests that perhaps we don’t understand the world as well as we like to think we do. Nor is western democracy the harmonious ideal we like to think it is.

Faculty of Horror: Episode 104 Dark Ages: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? And Relic

The hosts of this podcast, intimately interested in feminist perspective, often hold no punches. Here they tackle the problem of ageism, and ageism from both male and female perspectives. And they do it while discussing one of my favorite horror films of 2020 in Relic.

Mere Fidelity: Episode 265- The Psalms with Dr. James Hamilton

Breaks the Psalms wide open discussing Hamitons new two volume commentary. Can’t wait to get my hands on it, but for now this will suffice.

Biblical World: Sodom and Gomorrah and the Cities on the Plain (Part 1): Chris McKinny and Kyle Keimer

Fascinating discussion about the archeology relating to study of Sodom and Gomorrah. Really walks through the detail of the traditions, the land, and the relevance of archeology in shedding light on our understanding of the story..

History Unplugged: Episode 625 How Clocks Created Earths First Global Supply Chain in the 1700’s- And Keep GPS Alive Today

I love geekish books that use a point of history, in this case clocks, to tell the human story. Learned a ton about how time works and how it develops in line with global societies.

Honorable Mention: The Bible For Normal People Episode 198 Lisa Sharon Harper- The Meaning of the Image of God I am super excited to pick up Harpers book. I found what she had to say about the nature of image, identity, and its relationship to what it means to be human really helpful.

Music

Penny and Sparrow- Olly Olly

Reflects a genuine mix match of tones, sensibilities and musical styles. In many ways this feels like fresh territory for the band, but make no mistake it also feels deeply authentic. In a way that places this latest album into intimate relationship with the songwriters themselves, befitting a move towards something more independent.

Tegan and Sara- Still Jealous

A reworking of an older album that proves a fascinating experiment in reimagination. Definitely for fans, but it just proves how timeless this duo is.

Eddie Vedder- Earthling

Love having Vedder back, and dang if this latest album hasn’t been on repeat. This shares much with the old fashioned alt rock of Pearl Jam featuring big melodies, anthems and plenty of riffs. The guy feels at his prime.

Dashboard Confessionals All the Truth that I can tell

Feels like a return to their roots. It’s also some of their best work to date. Full of great rhythms and riffs and melodies befitting their well honed style.

Bastille- Give Me The Future

Musically expressive in the best ways, Bastille crafts an album that feels remarkably hopeful for an album that digs deep into present anxities and struggles that are present in this world.

Half Alive- Give me your shouders

Compelling, intelligent and crafted with intention, a band known for its creative melodies and song structures feels as alive here as they have ever been, and even a bit more spiritually aware and vulnerable. Its impressive that they have resisted categories and genres as much as potential pull into the realm of the “faith based” industry. They are far better traversing the mystery of this space between.

Shout out Louds- House

Swedish, guitar driven pop at its finest. For the good days in the sun shine.

Underoath- Voyeurist

If you need an outlet for you angst, this hard hitting new album from the hardcore masters will be just the ticket.

Jann Arden- Decendants

An album of the year candidate for sure. Brilliant return to the music wor;with a brand new album.

Reflections on John 16: In this world you will have trouble. But take heart I have overcome the world

*this is the transcipt for a sermon I gave on John 16 on Sunday, March 6th, 2022.

Back in the summer of 2021 Jen and I took advantage of the recently opened provincial borders to travel to Eastern Canada. We were definitely feeling the isolation of the last year with the ongoing pandemic. We were packed and overly excited even just to cross a provincial border. We actually ended up crossing two, deciding to do a loop through Ottawa up to Quebec City and then back down to Toronto to visit my family, stopping at a few fromageries along the way. One of the reasons we chose Quebec was for the culture shock. After over a year of being cooped up at home we needed something to shake us out of our slumber. And if you have never been, travelling to Quebec is like stepping off the plane in Europe, only in our own backyard. Not speaking a word of French meant needing to rise to the challenge of communicating across a cultural divide channeling something other than my middle grade french class where I have forgotten more than I learned. Although thank goodness for the universal language of coffee and poutine. Although we were good to go on the food front with Jen having trained under a french chef. It didn’t take long to find ourselves pushed out of our comfort zone.

I tell this story simply to underscore the challenge of entering into a context foreign to us This is also true for coming to the text. The text for this morning is John 16, and more specifically I wanted to focus in on verse 33, arguably its most familiar verse, where it reads- “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart I have overcome the world”.

It should not be surprising that this reads as a comforting word for many in the face of whatever it is that is giving them trouble. Where I started to struggle with this verse though is when it came to filling in the blank of this ambiguously labeled thing called the world. It’s one thing to internalize it and to speak of my own troubles as one who exists in this world- this is good and necessary. Many use the verse in this way. Where it gets tricky is when we use it to then make sense of the stuff that troubles us out there in the world. The world then becomes the enemy and the word overcome begins to take on the flavor of necessary opposition, something we must oppose and/or escape. Where this gets more difficult is when I found myself using this to justify my own opinions about what I find troublesome in this world. And yes, I have opinions. I make sense of the world by filling in that blank with the stuff that I think is wrong and that I don’t like based on those beliefs and ideas. This of course can become the source for all manner of division and us and them categories, including between us and God, when focused on my opinions of what is wrong rather than Christ as the one who overcomes. This feels especially cautionary given the state of things in our world today, divided by a global pandemic and now trying to find unity as we are watching a literal possible world war unfold in Ukraine.

When I chatted with my pastor about my struggles leading up to preaching on this subject- as in given this word and these times, how do I preach on this- he had a helpful word- don’t stand above the text with our own context. Far better to let the text read you, to allow it mean what it means and say what it says and then ask what it has to say to us today. When I did this it became immediately clear that this view I was assuming, or at worst imposing, didn’t quite fit with what I had been reading in the Gospel of John thus far, a Gospel that sets itself up in the opening chapters as a new Genesis, of a God who created this world and called it good, a God who entered into this world that He so loves, the God who did not come to judge the world but to save it. As N.T. Wright puts it in his book Broken Signposts, reflecting on John 16:

“This is one of the reasons John begins his gospel with such a clear echo of Genesis : “In the beginning…” (What would have) leaped off the page to anyone in ancient Israel, or for that matter in ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt, or Babylon, where all kinds of different theories about the origin of the world were rife (is that) according to the Genesis story… the point is that the world was made very good, by a very good God.”

N.T. Wright (Broken Signposts)

As well, the more I dug into this passage the more it appeared to me that such a comforting and hopeful word was actually pushing me out into the world where the troubles supposedly are, not away from it, as that is precisely where we find Christ. Much easier to locate trouble in the world than to embrace a troubled world. Especially when I have opinions. Did I mention I have opinions?

This is my prayer for a passage that, I think, is very much about the spirit’s revealing work, which I know I need. This chapter is a call to humility, and then to service. To demonstrate this I figured what I would do this morning is simply attempt to work backwards from this familiar passage with a concern for locating what John means by the “world” and subsequently what it means for Jesus to say he has “overcome” the world, with an interest in shifting our vantage point to standing in the text rather than above it, hopefully learning how to see the world as Jesus does. Let me read from the words of Jesus in chapter 17 as a prayer to this end “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.”

In chapter 15 the set up for seeing the world that Jesus overcomes is a world that it says will hate us for following Jesus. This seems to tell us that the world, however we define it from our vantage point, often bringing in our own context, will be our opposition. What I would like to propose though is beginning with a broader and more cosmological view of the “world” which at its root speaks of order or arrangement. This is in keeping with the notion of John as a new Genesis invoking the creation of the world described in Genesis 1. The broader narrative that John’s Gospel begins to invite us into is then one of order given to disorder, compelling us to turn our attention to what it means to trust, or believe, that this disordered world is being put back to proper order.
It is within this broader cosmological view that John frames our attention not on the world- Jesus did not come to judge the world but to save it- but on the prince of this world, a figure, an entity, a reality, an idea that emerges in chapter 12:31-32 “now is the time for judgment of this world, now the prince of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all humanity to myself.” Note where the attention shifts here in terms of the opposition- away from the world and its occupants and towards the prince of this world and towards Christ. Again the prince emerges in 14:30, in line with the thief of John 10, and in 16:11 when it talks about one of this passages central themes- the work of the coming spirit, which it describes in 16:9-12 as convicting the world on three accounts- sin (disorder) and righteousness (order), and the judgment of the prince of this world (that which sows disorder). Notice too the emphasis here on division and Jesus drawing us back together. In John 16: 32 its says a result of Prince’s presence is that they will scatter, divided, leaving Christ alone in His time. Christ draws us together, unifying us in this simpe truth that He has driven out the Prince of this world.

The question then becomes, what are we being drawn together for. John Stott frames the larger context of this passage in a way that I found helpful by using the following literary structure- the crucial call to discipleship (15:1-17), the cost of mission (15:18-16:4), and the resources available to us in the work of mission (16:5-33). We are being drawn together in order to then go out into the world, the same world it says will hate us.

So the framing passages here are 14:15 and 15:17 which presents the conflict between love and hate as two ways of being in the world. In 14:15- “If you love me you will obey what I command”, followed by 14:24- “they who do not love me will not obey my teaching”- culminating in “this is my command. Love each other.” (15:17) Love becomes the clear word that informs this move then from disorder- what is not right- to order- what is wrong being made right, reflecting this transition from the command to love to the expectation of the worlds resistance to this love. Here it is important to reapply that cosmological view seeing the root of hate in the prince of this world and the root of love in Christ. This protects us from slipping into us and them categories in a world that we all occupy and share together.
This becomes the basis for chapter 16’s focus on the disciples grief. This comes in response to Jesus saying “in a little while you won’t see me” 16:16 (which connects to Jesus’ prediction that “they will leave him all alone” in 16:32, a reference to the cross, the trouble he is about to face. Keep that in mind). To which the disciples say, What does he mean?” We don’t understand. Speak plainly please. For the record, my wife Jen say this to me all the time. How can this possibly be good news that you are leaving us precisely when we need you the most? In any case, I felt a little less alone in wrestling with this passage.

This is where Jesus moves them towards something more hopeful by adding “and then after a little while you will see me.” (16:16). This carries a present and future sense- invoking the coming death and resurrection, but also speaking of ascension and awaited return and describing what it is to face any manner of trouble in a world where Christ, or in Christs case the Father, might appear absent. In all of these cases Jesus locates the hopeful word in these two truths- Christ is going ahead of us facing the trouble alone 16:32- they left Christ as they scattered. And second Christ is bringing the scattered together through a promise that the thing that divides us has been dealt with. The question then becomes not how do we live opposed to the world but how do we live opposed to that which tears our world apart, be that internally or externally. This is where Jesus goes ahead of us to show us the way forward, how to live according to this new reality when it seems like the Prince still has a grip.

Now hear the hopeful word of 16:32 again in its full form: “You will leave me all alone, Jesus says, yet I am not alone.” This is where Father, Son and Spirit read as one. Read this back into the whole of chapter 16 and what rings true is the promise that “I will leave you alone, Jesus says, yet you are not alone.” The spirit is with us and this holds the power to draw the world together in love. This is not Jesus existing in contest with the created world but rather love existing in tension with hate, order in tension with disorder, light in tension with the darkness, with the intent to “reveal” the truth about this story, the truth of who Christ is. This is what it means to be chosen out of the world and why D.A.Carson argues that hate and love in these chapters is not primarily sociological but theological. As Stott adds, “we have been chosen “out” of this world, not as opposition to the world but as bearing witness to the work of Christ in redeeming it.” 17:18, where Jesus, speaking of the disciples, says “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” And 20:21 “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” As Stott goes on to say,

“The gracious indwelling of God with his people is not an invitation to settle down and forget the rest of the world: It is a summons to mission, for the Lord who dwells with his people is the one who goes before them in the pillar of fire and cloud.”

John Stott (The Gospel of John)


This is why, then, the coming Spirt matters so much in this chapter. This is why, Jesus says, he is leaving them alone in their division, is so the spirit can come and unify them through the call to love. And the spirits work, John says, is to convict, which can also be understood as to reveal truth in regards to:

  • Sin (what is wrong). Why? Because men do not believe in me
  • Righteousness (what is wrong being made right) Why? Because I am going where you can no longer see me- to the Father, so that you might believe
  • Judgement of the Prince of this World (This is how what is wrong is being made right)

Finally, coming back to verse 33: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (16:33) Here is something really cool. This should take us back to John 1:5: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” What is really interesting here is how one common translation of the word overcome might be more readily applied as comprehend, to know, to make sense of.”, which some of your translations will use. The “light is testified about, believed, and serves to enlighten.” This contrasts with the fact that they did not believe because they did not know. Jesus’ has comprehended the troubled world and has declared it good and loved. Jesus has comprehended our troubled selves and declared us good and loved. In the spirit Jesus has allowed us to comprehend the world from Jesus’ vantage point, as one who has decended from above, as one who then liberates the world from that which holds it divided in the way of self giving love.

This is the light that shines in the darkness, revealing to a world deeply divided and mired in this existing tension between what is wrong and what is being made right the different between love and hate, Christ and the Prince. Love will always stand in tension with hate, light with dark, unity with disunity. This is a battle that wages inside of us between these two natures- love and hate. It’s also a battle that wages in the world. True peace comes from entering into a troubled world with the hope that this tension can then reveal Christ, the one who has made sense of things so that we might believe and thus bring love to the world. I have overcome the world. Better yet, I have made sense of the world, so have peace, Christ is making all things new.

A couple practical notes given our present divided times:

  1. Yes, we can pray. This is the whole of Chapter 17 for a reason
  2. We can use this season of Lent to follow the way of Christ and descend into the tension and wrestle with it. Ask questions of it. Invite this to cause us to rail not against one another but against what is wrong in us and out there.
  3. We can follow Jesus into the world with this single measure as our guide- love. As the final chapter, at the cusp of Jesus’ ascencsion where he once again is leaving in the wake of the coming spirit, it says- “feed my lambs”, “take care of my sheep”. It doesn’t get more simple than that, but this requires us to enter into and embrace the world where the sheep reside.

“Even as I still believe that God calls us to help change the world, to make it more just, to make it more equitable, to make it more loving, I also believe that God empowers the world to help change us, to make us more just, to make us more equitable, to make us more loving. The stubbornness of my cynicism, it turns out, is no match for the resilience of God’s love or for the steady work of living water.”

Rachel Held Evans (Whole Hearted Faith)

“The biblical drama is the heaven-and-earth story, the story of God and the world, of creation and covenant, of creation spoiled and covenant broken and then of covnant renewed and creation restored. The New Testament is the book where all this comes into land, and it lands in the form of an invitation: this can be and should be your story, my story, the story which makes sense of us, which restores to sense the nonsense of our lives, the story which breathes hope into a world of chaos, and love into cold hearts and lives.

N.T. Wright (The New Testament in Its World)

Malcolm Gladwell and Talking to Strangers: Finding Order in the Disorder of our Living in this World Together

In his book Talking to Strangers, Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell delves into the psychology of our togetherness which makes us human. His particular focus is on how it is that we relate to on another in a world filled with competing information. Understanding that we come together with “different assumptions, perspectives and backgrounds” and different ways of regarding which of this information is true and which is not, we also can exhibit identifiable behaviors that have more to say about our need to uphold such binaries (between truth and lies, good and evil) than truth itself. As he suggests in an interview for the Guardian, “any element which disrupts the equilibrium between two strangers… becomes problematic.” Thus our inherent and built in need to protect against such disruptions is greater than any need to disrupt the order in search for the truth. This is simpy how human interactions function. It is, in fact, what allowed us to develop the way we have. Human interaction, key to our development, could not function otherwise. As he suggests, we are naturally driven towards “trust”, and thus when it comes to our awareness of the potentially disruptive realities in our world and in our lives its not so much about the evidence for something being true or not, it is about how much evidence, and furher which particular evidence at which particular time pushes our interactions over the line of trust into the chaos of distrust, thus requiring us to then face the truth of our reality and to respond.

Gladwell uses examples of cases of abuse and wrongdoing throughout the book to underscore how it is that this predication to trust works and how it is that certain information can push us to recognize something as a lie They are fascinating examples precisely because they can easily translate across our different experiences, be it our personal interactions with others, existing within a polarizing pandemic where allegiances to truth and accusations of lies has left us in a position of persistant chaos and division, or even war breaking out in Ukraine where we see a people caught between competing powers to the east and the west in contest over matters of truth and lies. Here is what Gladwell helps underscore- allegiances to truth (trust) and the resulting chaos of distrust in the truth is far more complex than simple right and wrong. The way out of chaos is not so much to uncover the truth- although truth is important- but to be able to once again trust. And more than this- to re-assume our unconscious trust in one another and our governing systems.

Perhaps one key part of his observation is how this necessary binary seems to lead us towards the creation of villains. Trust, as he says, “enables us” to exist together, and without it we could not exist together. Everything would deteriorate into perpetuated cycnicism of everything and all. We could not send our kids to school, we could not take our cars to mechanics, we could not drive cars made by companies, abide by instituted laws, etc without an assumed and prior trust in one another and in how the world works. “I can’t converse with you, for instance, if I subject every statement that comes out of your mouth to critical scrutiny before I accept it as true. Conversation cannot proceed without default to the truth.” The problem is that this also leaves us open to deception, and thus to protect against deception we establish these villains so as to allow our exclusive circles to feel safe enough to trust. This tendency makes it difficult to then note when the true villain needs to be addressed from within.

Here is where the complexity comes into focus. Assumed trust is neither blind nor universally applied when it comes to scientifically observable human behavior. We exist, necessarily, within exclusively formed societal bonds and assumptions that allow us to trust one another within the specific societal frameworks that we occupy. Displace us and trust gets disrupted. Insert a stranger that doesn’t appear to belong in our circle and trust gets disrupted.

Break this down even further and we find exclusively formed societal bonds in political divisions, religious divisisions, neighborhood divisions, and so on. What this reveals is how dependent our social function is on having recognizable, if not always directly defined, villains which often surface in the form of an other, something we see as disrupting the necessary order. This brings us to two central issues, or two-fold issues, when it comes to locating our predication to trust within a larger picture of patterned order and disorder. First is the human tendency to protect order and defend against disorder by way of establishing villains based on us and them paradigms. This reveals how our interactions work not according to truth but according to necessary trust, the latter being most important to uphold when it comes to functioning civilization. The problem is this necessary trust can convince us of the need to villainize the other whether this is true or not, and in doing so it can distract us from the real issues we need to attend to within our own circles.

The second part of this two-fold problem is the more serious, which is the truth that in this world sometimes distrust is necessary and upsetting the order is required in order for trust to operate. This is true when it comes to issues of oppression, power, abuse, harm. This is where it is important to locate that tipping point, the piece of information or the magic number in the amount of information needed to allow the lies (or the truth) to emerge and to challenge our trust in persons, institutions, events, ect. In these cases Gladwell points out that it is almost never the majority that achieves this tipping point, rather it is almost always a minute selection of individuals or even, in a lot of cases, an individual, that causes this tipping point to be reached.

The problem here then becomes exasperbated by our tendency towards needing villains to define our exclusive societal structures as reliable and to allow us to feel safe enough to function together within them in unconscious ways. This plays a key role in allowing us to assume trust, which is necessary for humans to function. To be clear, globalization and the age of the internet which has understandably collapsed borders and boundaries and broadened our awareness of the world hasn’t done away with our human penchant towards exlusivity. This is fundamental to the nature of being human whether we see this as a good and necessary thing or not. It has simply made it more targeted and reapplied it to the ways we live online and the ways we move through this world in the modern age. In truth we survive together in large part by securing the villains which subsequently upholds ourselves as the victims (or potential victims) whether this is true or not. This makes it that much harder to be able to address where the true victims are and to locate the source of the problem creating the oppression, which is not people but the systems and structures that govern us based on this mutual trust in one another.

To be clear there is no great answer to the problem of disorder and chaos and division, except to say more clearly where this is rooted, why it happens, and perhaps to become more aware of the inate relationship between trust and deception. Deception matters less when it is not causing harm. Trust matters less when deception is causing harm. Being attentive to where possible oppression exists and where it is causing harm is then necessary and important, even if we can’t allow this to dominate us and turn us into cynics where everything is a lie and everything is the enemy. Gladwell suggests that here is where we can perhaps take comfort in the idea that healthy functioning societies seem to exist where the majority are able to trust and where the few are free to be cynics. There is something about this equation, even if it doesn’t quite translate equitably, that allows for that tipping point to occur even if it takes a while to surface within the many predicated towards trust. It’s in societies where the cynics are oppressed and unable to be heard or where the majority live with cynicism, or even where there are too many exclusive circles holding power over one another, that the problem is that much greater.

As I was reading the book I kept thinking about how this intersects with my Christian faith, a faith that imagines a world where the diverse multitude that makes up humanity are able to exist and flourish together. A faith which does locate in its meta-narrative a real awareness of existing binaries between truth and lies. It feels like one crucial point is where trust in “God” becomes the great unifier. This trust allows us to assume that what is wrong will be made right, that truth will be revealed. Another aspect is a meta-narrative that alows us to not to see these binaries as existing in people but rather in nature itself where, in view of the biblical narrative, good and evil do exist as tangible and real agencies governing our existence. This is something that seperates the assumptions of the faith from strictly material views of the world where good and evil are not seen as agencies and where actions are essential benign and amoral functions in and of themselves. Seeing it this way through the lens of faith allows us to trust in the inherent goodness of people and creation while understanding that the potential for evil, and our participation in evil, exists as well.

A part of being faithful followers of Christ then is learning how to disinguish between that which brings order and that which sows disorder. In the Biblical narrative this is connected to two pictures- disorder caused by sin and necessary disorder which disrupts sin. The measure of this then is Christ who is the full revelation of truth and in whom we can place our trust as we move out into the world in ways that bring order to the disorder. But we also know that Christ is being revealed in ways that remind us that we don’t always see truth clearly or fully. We find Christ by calling out in our own places of trials and struggles and trusting that God is in this word and pariticpating in our struggles. We follow Christ through trust by way of locating and attending to the oppressed, the sick, the hurting in this world and being God’s presence in this world. By trusting in Christ we can assume greater trust in one another while also calling out the evil that threatens to throw our lives together into chaos. Key to Gladwell’s psychological anaylisis of the value and the problem of trust then is that order and disorder is something that happens as much in our togetherness as it does within ourselves. This is where division and disorder theatens to distract us from the real oppression that Christ is attending to and calling us to attend to on the way to the promise of new creation, new order. Here is the important point though- disorder in our lives can come as a result of sin. It can also be a result of necessary transformation. And usually this is where Christ disrupts our inner life with the truth that we need to hear precisely so that we can be Christ in the world. This is how God makes God’s presence known in this world. This is how we relearn to trust in the truth of who Christ is, who we are, and who we are living in this world together.