Compassion: What it is, Why I resist it, and How I Can Embrace It More

2018 Reading Challenge: Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life co-authored by Henri J. M. Nouwen, Donal P. McNeill and Douglas A. Morrison

(The book) “Compassion” is the result of three different authors coming together to discuss the problem of suffering and work through what it means to respond to suffering in light of their Christian faith. For these three individuals this discussion essentially came down to one word, compassion, thus setting the template for this book.

For m the book came down to three central questions:
What is compassion?
What causes us to resist compassion?
How do we live compassionate lives in the face of this resistance.

What is Compassion?
Compassion is the means by which we discover a Christian responsibility towards attending to the suffering of others.

Compassion is also where we discover our resistance to this responsibility. More so, it is through compassion that a proper understanding of our human nature and the nature of God become central to our understanding of this resistance.

Compassion is rooted in this idea of “suffering with”. It is relational. It is the expectation that we are intended to do life together rather than apart.

And as we are willing to suffer with, compassion grows into the process of “emptying ourselves” so that others can be raised up.

Above all, compassion is the means by which we come to know God by allowing us to see God at work in the lives of others.
What Causes Me To Resist Compassion?
This book left me unsettled. It feels offensive to hear that I might not be a compassionate person, or at least not as compassionate as I assumed I was. To say or admit I lack compassion feels like saying “I don’t care about the suffering of others.” But there is a real difference between caring about something or someone and actually living a compassionate life.

The more I read of this book the more it became clear that compassion is most certainly not my natural response. It is something I have to fight for and protect against and work at. The book uncovered the inconsistencies in my own story, between who I believed myself to be and how I live in the day to day. If compassion is rooted in this idea of “suffering with”, the thing that directly opposes this way of understanding compassion is competition, or the competitive spirit. At which point I needed to remind myself, it is not my desire for compassion that is lacking, the real issue is my inability to overcome that spirit of competition that seems to rule more of my life than I care to admit.

The interesting thing about competition is that it tends to be seen primarily in linear or progressive terms. It is about earning our way up the ladder. It is about challenging ourselves to achieve the goals we set in order to get a step ahead. It follows an incessant upwards trajectory. What I failed to recognize is that competition can also be seen in a downward trajectory. Competition is my personal struggle with self worth. It is my inability to see my own self worth when I look at the lives of others. Competition is thinking I am not quite good enough to actually make a difference in this world because so many are doing it far better than I ever could.

In both cases there is a common trait- the focus is on me and where I stand (or sit, or lie stagnant) in relationship to the world around me. In contrast,  if compassion is the process of “emptying ourselves” so that others can be raised up, the book insists this can only happen without regard or concern for where I stand in relationship to the world around me. And for the authors this is what lies at the heart of the Christian Gospel. It is Christ who compels us to empty ourselves. It is Christ who models for us what it means to “suffer with”, and in doing so shows us the true heart of a compassionate God. Thus to live the Christian life is to follow God in the way of Christ’s compassion.

There is an interesting point in the book that suggests how we see and understand Jesus goes a long way in determining the freedom we have as Christians to live into our responsibility to attend to the suffering of others. When we see Jesus wrongly our Christian lives tend to devolve into a spirit of competition, a spirit that fights back against our ability to see others above ourselves. When we see Jesus rightly it opens up our eyes to see others before ourselves, precisely because this is what Jesus has modelled for us.

And even if you are not religious, this same idea can be applied to the ways in which we view the world, others and yes, even ourselves. Which reveals a paradox of sorts, as it is actually compassion itself that opens us up to right perspective and thus frees us up to live compassionately.

To this end the book then moves to establish compassion as an act of “obedience”. The nature of our responsibility is that each of us has an obligation towards the compassionate life. The problem is that the idea of obedience is easily corrupted. As the authors suggest, “There is always the creeping danger that even our servant hood is a subtle form of manipulation (p33).” I think one of the primary ways servant hood becomes corrupted (or co-opted) is when we see obedience as a duty rather than a necessary response to a right relationship with God, the world and others. Duty only forms when we feel we must do something in order achieve, appease or prove something to someone or something, which sets our relationship to God, the world and others in direct competition, which is our human nature. Recognizing this can awaken us to ways we can fight back against this nature by protecting against wrong ways of thinking about God, others and the world, which sees God as compassionate rather than hateful. which sees God has loving rather than angry, which sees the world as grace filled rather than evil, which sees others as our neighbours rather than our enemies.

But this is not easy to do, especially when the competitive spirit that lives in me is not so easily recognizable in its downward trajectory. And if I am completely honest this is where much of my struggle with this book really came bubbling to the surface. For every new point this book was making, I found myself loading up with more and more questions:

What is it that obligates me to live the compassionate life?
How do I know I am living a compassionate life?
How do I know I have done enough to be considered compassionate?
Where do I even begin to live a compassionate life when the world around me feels so competitive and where I am continually under the shadow of someone or something else?
How can I be compassionate when there are so many others doing it far better than I ever could?
How can I show compassion when it is so hard to find places to give to?
How do I know I am truly making a difference?

The biggest reason I have these questions is because when I strive after compassion I end up feeling defeated, rejected, isolated, useless, not good enough, and more less like giving up rather than fighting a losing battle. There are days when I honestly have the best intentions, but the world around me is far too competitive to even begin to find a place to serve in a way that proves meaningful or important.

Here’s the thing about all of these questions though. They all cater to the competitive spirit. The reason I feel so defeated when it comes to living the compassionate life, even on my best days, is because all of my questions have to do with where I fit in relationship to the world around me, which is the very definition of what competition is. And perhaps the toughest part of all of this was realizing just how much of this way of thinking has followed me for most of my life, at Church, in school, in my jobs, in my relationships.  I continue to believe that my worth comes from what I have to give, and that what I have to give is not nearly good enough when I compare it to the work I see others doing every single day.

How Do We Live Compassionate Lives in the Face of This Resistance.
And yet I have a responsibility, an obligation. And by God’s grace I also have the desire. So where does one begin with living the compassionate life, and how can compassion ultimately be measured differently?

The book suggests that it begins here.

“The movement toward compassion always starts by gaining distance from the world that wants to make us objects of interest.”

As I mentioned, all of my questions had to do with me and what I need to do to know that I am being compassionate. It was a checklist based on this false idea that I am the object of interest. It was about my need to know I am valuable in this world. And so I needed to begin by gaining distance from this way of thinking, and one way to do this was to get rid of the checklist. I threw it in the figurative garbage.

If you have ever forced yourself to do something of this nature you know how unsettling it feels. It’s disconcerting. It makes me feel out of control. It makes me feel useless. It makes you feel naked and directionless. And I have to fight with myself not to immediately go and retrieve it out of the figurative garbage.

It is no mistake then that what follows in the book is the authors call to practice patience. The art of learning what it means to wait and to listen by filling that space once occupied by my checklist with the discipline of prayer. The authors choose prayer because prayer is primarily an act of listening, and listening changes our perspective of God, others and the world. The word discipline connotes an act of revealing rather than conquering (or the competitive spirit), and thus it needs to time to reform our hearts.

And what is really interesting about this process is just how immediately aware one becomes of these wrong ways of thinking about God, the world, others and ourselves. And given that as Christians we begin with our understanding of who God is, this can be one of the more difficult thoughts to dispose of.

“We are poor listeners because we are afraid that there is something other than love in God. This is not so strange (because) often we see love surrounded by limitations and conditions.”

This is also why the Christian life is referred to as discipleship. Discipleship as “discipline” is the idea of “unveiling what has been covered.” And what has been covered in our relationship to God is the “gift” of compassion (p88). Compassion is not something we earn or accomplish, rather it is a heart that is given to us as a result of this patient waiting. A gift that comes from God’s compassionate response to us. As I pray and listen, I look for opportunities to express gratitude and joy for the ways this gift has been revealed in my own life, and as I find these places of gratitude and joy it is given the chance to break down the skeptical and cynical nature of my many questions. The power of gratitude and joy is that it pushes me to consider what others do not have and what I have to give from my own abundance regardless of where I stand in relationship to the world. When I know where I stand in relationship to God, it frees me from the needing to measure up to anything else.

Which brings me to community. Because compassion only happens when we are in relationship with others. As the writers remind us, lest we forget, “Compassion is not an individual character trait, a personal attitude, or a special talent, but a way of living together.” P47 But the truth is, community is risky. In fact, it might be the most risky part of all. This where we becomes revealed to others. This is where we become exposed for who we really are. This is where the competitive spirit has the greatest opportunity to rear its ugly head.

But this is also where we have the chance to both love and be loved. It pulls us out of our isolated way of being and thinking and pushes us out into the places in which compassion can be seen and lived and cherished. And as Christians we do this because in Jesus we have communion with God. This is what allows us to move out of our isolated lives and into communion with others.

Which brings me to the final idea in the book, this idea of voluntary displacement. Displacement speaks to the presence of God in our lives and the ways in which God’s presence is calling us to follow Jesus out into the world. It carries with it a sense of movement, but it is also cyclical in nature. We are called out of the world so that we can practice patience and prayer. We are called back into the world in order to live the compassionate life. It forms us and then reforms us over and over again, all for the same intention- the compassionate life.

One of the problems the book points out though is that far too often we tend to romanticize this idea of displacement. In our desire to want to know we are being compassionate and the need to see we are actually making a difference there is this tendency that exists to want to control or dictate exactly where and how displacement should happen. I know I have a tendency to see it in go big or go home kind of terms, because what good are my feeble attempts at compassion if I am left comparing myself to others who are travelling over seas to Africa, donating thousands and thousands of dollars to great causes or building dynamic neighbourhood outreaches or being involved in changing and forming socio-political systems on a larger government level? If I can’t do those things why bother trying, right?

The book cautions us to “guard ourselves” against romanticizing voluntary displacement, because then we miss what God is actually doing both in our life and in the world around us. The authors challenge us instead to see the displacement that is already happening in the context of our lives. The call is to “identify in our lives where displacement (God’s presence) is already occurring,” as this is where God is giving us the opportunity to be compassionate. Look and listen to those gentle nudges that seem to fit with what we are already doing,  with where we are right now. When we do this it protects us from the trap of needing to measure up to what others are doing. It provides us with an opportunity to respond to whatever is right in front of us, however small or big that might seem. And what follows then is the necessary question of where we might be both accepting and/or rejecting this call that is already present in our daily lives? And the answer might surprise you. I know it did for me.



“When we have discovered that our sense of self does not depend on our differences and that our self-esteem is based on a love much deeper than the praise that can be acquired by unusual performances, we can see our unique talents as gifts for others.” P77

To borrow an overused term, compassion deconstructs us and then gives us the tools by which to measure ourselves differently. And this is where the authors find the real value of their Christian faith speaking into their conversation about suffering and response. In seeing God more clearly we are able to do away with everything else that is lobbying for our attention. In Christ we recognize we are no longer left to measure up to anyone else but God, the same God who says we beloved sons and daughters of the one who made us and called us beautiful. And in knowing this we can then recognize that “the sharing of our gifts”, the compassion God has extended to us, “does not diminish our own values as persons but enhances it.” Further, “when we unmask the illusion that a person is the difference she or he makes, we can come together on the basis of our common human brokenness and our common need for healing.”

This is what allows us to be measured differently. This is what allows us to give of ourselves so that others can be raised up. Just as it does not diminish our own value as a person to give in the midst of our inadequacies, extending the compassion God has afforded us increases its value by seeing it free up others to live in the compassion God has for them. And this is something that happens not by way of a checklist, but rather a willing heart that remains open to where ever God calls us to live the compassionate heart

“We often think that service means to give something to others, to tell them how to speak, act, or behave, but now it appears that above all else, real, humble service is helping our neighbours discover that they possess great but often hidden talents that can enable them to do even more for us than we can do for them.” P79

















Ready Player One: Retelling the Story of the Oasis From The Perspective of Its Creator

Ready Player One.

To say I have been looking forward to this film would be an understatement. As a big fan of the book, hearing that Spielberg would be the one directing this big screen adaptation was a dream come true.

Looking back on my experience with the book the following things stood out for me in my review:

  • It brought me back to my childhood
  • It evoked that same sense of wonder I had as a child
  • It reminded me of what I had grown to love about story and storytelling in novel form

I found myself actually giddy with excitement the day the film finally hit theatres, and it did not disappoint. Without even thinking about my love of the book I wrote down some of my immediate reactions which essentially resonated with a similar refrain.

  • It reminded me of what I had grown to love about story and storytelling in movie form
  • It brought me back to my childhood
  • It evoked that same sense of wonder I had as a child

At the very least this experience told me that the film had successfully managed to capture the spirit of the book even if it did change a lot of the book in the process.

Moving from my experience of the film towards dialoging with others about the film, it became clear that while it has been getting a lot of well deserved praise, not everyone shared my exuberant and hard to contain sense of excitement. To be fair, the book had its fair share of critics as well, but unique to the film is/was its potential reach as a pop culture phenom- the book is about 80’s references and celebrating geek culture while the film’s pop culture references are much more diverse and inclusive- along with the fact of it being an adaptation. People were free to criticize the book based on what the book was trying to be, whereas people are free to criticize the film both based on what the film was trying to be and also for the ways it interprets or was different from the book.

Which is to say, while the film has the potential to reach a wider audience it also opens itself up to a greater potential for public criticism, some of which I have found myself grappling with on the level of my own personal conversations.

Even with the positive reaction overall, the criticism has compelled me mostly because it has been surfacing in circles that share my love for the book (and consequently don’t necessarily share my love for the film). Given my experience of the film and the fact that I have been discussing this book at length with anyone willing to listen, I found myself wanting and struggling to understand both of these contrasting views, not simply to justify my own experience, but as a means of bridging this dialogue and understanding their own experience.

I have heard some fans of the book complain that the movie changed the story to the point where it is no longer a fair representation of the book they love. Some who either didn’t read the book or were not a fan of the book found the films love affair with pop culture (which of course is fully present in the book to an even greater degree) along with the films half-hazard approach to character development and the reigning love story (also a problem I noted in the book when I read it) either weighed down the film or failed to fix the problems they had with the book.

On my journey to understanding these criticisms I happened across an interview with the main screenwriter Zak Penn where he was talking about the process of writing what he considered to be a difficult screenplay to adapt. He suggested that of all the liberties the film took in bringing Cline’s story to the big screen in a way that worked (and Cline is credited as a screenwriter as well), the most important choice was the decision to use the film to tell Holliday’s story rather than Wade’s.

So here is what I would like to suggest. Of all the changes the film makes the most noted are the pop culture references, the relationship between Wade and Artemis and the nature of the Oasis itself, and each of these changes were made to reveal something about Holliday’s personal story. And in my own experience, being able to see the film as Hollidays story helped me make more sense of the story the film was trying to tell and why they made the changes that they did, ultimately making it a more compelling viewing in my eyes and perhaps answering some of my own questions about how to approach some of the criticisms more appropriately and comprehensively.


Pop Culture References
The focus of the book was on Wade and his relationship to his crew. It tells a rags to riches story (to borrow a phrase from a friend of mine) that is marked by a governing moral question- if we were to suddenly find ourselves with money, power and control, would we use this to change the world or simply to change ourselves? And of course with the virtual-reality premise that moves the narrative forward, this notion of changing ourselves relates directly to the idea of becoming something we are not when we do not like who we are in the real world.

While a large component of this story is Wades relationship to H and his growing relationship with Artemis in the virtual world, his relationship to Halliday also plays an equally vital role in telling this rags to riches story in the book. Wade’s relationship to Halliday revolves around his fascination with 80’s culture which is put to good use when the contest comes into play. For Cline, Halliday is a technological and cultural god to Wade, but one whom he admires from a distance. Halliday does become demythologized over the course of the book but only to the degree that this demythologizing is able to shed light on Wade’s own rags to riches story. In the end the book suggests that Halliday remains immortal in Wade’s eyes, the image of a technological god whom ultimately presents Wade, the winner of his contest, with a governing question regarding his one big regret- “not being at home in the world” and creating the Oasis as a means of “escape”. The contest and all of it’s 80’s references were merely an expression of who Halliday was in the real world, and Hallidays invitation to Wade is to consider the technology that he created is now Wades to control and to consider it carries the potential, as everything does, for both good and for bad where our humanity is considered. The question then for Wade is will he leave the Oasis with the same regret as Halliday or will he grow from that mistake and learn to find his home in the real world by working to protect it against the corporate overlords that are holding it hostage using the technology Halliday created.

The movie on the other hand takes the idea of these pop culture references and relegates them more to the background rather than allowing them to be the driving force of the narrative itself. It feels slightly unsettling to consider we are looking at a futuristic world in which there appears to be little to no representation of an emerging culture or anything beyond the culture of our modern day. Have they simply stopped making new culture or art? But this unsettling feeling I think is a part of the world the film is trying to establish. Even more so, the references are integrated into the fabric of the film in a way that says something important about the people that inhabit the world of the Oasis. images-2For example, when we see the Iron Giant shooting a gun in a way that sits quite contrary to who the Iron Giant actually is, we are reminded that we aren’t seeing the Iron Giant, we are seeing one persons imagining of the Iron Giant in a virtual world of their own making. This is who they see themselves to be outside of the limitations and the labels the world places on them. And the film gives us glimpses of just how large and diverse these imaginings are, reaching into sub-groups and sub-cultures that seem to be endless and ongoing in Spielberg’s vivid and expressive imagination.

The landscape of the Oasis in the film is littered with so many faceless people that it seems to force the question, who are all these people hiding behind their avatars. We do get glimpses of the people behind the mask, moments in the real world seeing them at their jobs or in their homes, but for the most part this reality seems more of an illusion than the virtual world that surrounds them, and being exposed to this reality appears to bring more pain and hurt than freedom. And so what is clear is that people chose and prefer to stay in the virtual world, to remain faceless, and it is through the truth of this faceless universe that we come to know Hallidays own story as the creator of the Oasis, a person haunted by and defined by regret, missed opportunity and broken relationships.images-1 Halliday wants to be known, and once you figure out the key to solving the puzzle is retelling Holliday’s own tragic story, all of the pieces start to all into place.

Wade’s Relationship To Artemis
Wade’s rags to riches story in the book works as a larger social commentary. The stacks become pictures of poverty and economic divide, and winning the game considers how one can use their new found riches differently than the corporate overloads that currently rule society, not just to change ones life for the better but changing the very reality of the economic divide. And for Wade, most important to him are the faceless avatars that eventually help him to win the game.

In the book, Wade’s determination reminds us that we do not need to go through life alone, and that the relationships we build are a big part of what makes reality meaningful. It is about the ways in which our economic divide separates us from one another, and the ways in which a world like the Oasis allows us hide behind our insecurities and our problems rather than actually face them in the real world, whether that be poverty, status, sexual orientation, the colour of our skin or the way we look. And what happens when we simply ignore the problem is that the the Oasis simply begins to mirror this problem in a different and even more harmful way.

Also important to the book, and central to Wade’s story, is the relationships between Wade and his crew, primarily with his best friend H and then with Artemis. When Wade eventually meets H in the real world it’s a climatic moment in the book that helps establish the idea that we prefer to hide behind our masks rather than face our problems. It turns out that H is the opposite of what Wade expected, and yet in the world of the Oasis the two of them are best friends. The question is can they bridge their differences in the real world when everything about them and the world in which they live is out in the open. Will their relationship get stronger or will it fade away?

It is this encounter with H, and the relationship that then develops in the real world that sets the stage for Artemis and Wade to finally meet in the real world as well, which in the book literally does not happen until the final chapter and the final scene. Their entire relationship has been built on the virtual world that Halliday created, and so Hallidays one big regret is not only the thing that begins to informs Wades relationship to his home and the economic turmoil that persists around him, but it also connects to his relationship with Artemis. In the book it is Artemis who kisses Wade, which reminds us that Wade’s own story has been developing through these relationships, each with their own arc and storyline.

Turning back to the film, we find Wade’s journey from rags to riches is far less developed in Spielberg’s vision for the film, as are some of the side characters. One of the shortcomings of the film was the decision to avoid giving H and Wade any real life interaction. In fact, the entire world of the Oasis is streamlined so that it is represented more as a virtual version of a modern gaming system/social media than a governing social system. But even with these changes and shortcomings, I think these decisions do work to allow Spielberg to tell the story he wants to tell in a more effective manner, and I think he does this so that he can tell what is at its heart an adventure story that fits with some of Spielbergs older works and style, while also allowing The Wade-Artemis relationship to focus us more intently on Holliday’s own journey as a means of infusing this adventure story with a necessary human element.

In the film it is intentional that Artemis meets Wade far earlier in the story because Spielberg uses this relationship to mirror Halliday’s own journey in a symbolic fashion. We see Halliday as a god becoming more and more human over the course of the movie, and this happens in the context of the characters growing relationship to Halliday’s personal story. Where Halliday began his romance in the real world and ends up fleshing out this relationship imaginatively in the virtual world, Wade has imagined his relationship first in the virtual world before engaging it in the real world.
As a side remark, there has been some criticism of the way in which Spielberg handles the romance between Wade and Artemis. They question how he can say I love you after only knowing her for a brief moment in the real world, and they scoff at what feels like an old fashioned romance where girl needs boy to affirm she looks pretty and the female characters are little more than sidekicks to the true white male hero. I really do feel some of the most incredible scenes in RPO are the virtual moments between Z (Wade) and Artemis. In the book their relationship in the real world develops over an equally short amount of time, and I think in both cases the intention is to recognize the way in which the virtual relationship, one that we are meant to perceive is not based in reality, is actually slowly uncovering who they are together and perhaps informing reality to a greater extent than we initially thought. The moment they meet in the real world we are being asked to consider that they have actually been getting to know each other for a long while in virtual terms. It’s plays into the virtual-reality dichotomy and for me it worked really well. And the entire scene where we see Wade choosing a virtual outfit to go and meet Artemis is about the ways in which relationship helps to uncover who we really are and give us space to reveal who we really are. Now, to be fair I have little context to speak to geek and gaming culture and some of the conversation surrounding gamergate, so I can only interpret it from my own limited perspective. But if I take it simply as a developing relationship in the story of the film, I think it actually has something important to say about the films larger themes.

Back to the movie though. The image at the end, with Halliday looking at his younger self, is supposed to be a key moment in which Halliday’s legacy, the Oasis, sheds light on a life of regret, past mistakes and crippling fear. And as Wade and Artemis embark on this adventure in the beginning of the film they discover more and more about these regrets, these past mistakes and what Halliday fears most of all, being known by someone for who he really is. As they uncover this truth, Wade and Artemis’ relationship sees the both of them facing these same fears for themselves in their own way.

In the end, recognizing this narrative shift from book to film had me more in tune with this idea of RPO as an adventure story first with a deeper human story underneath, only that this human story is not Wades, it’s actually Hallidays.

The Oasis
As was already mentioned briefly, the book also spends a lot of time (which would never work in the film because most of it is exposition) creating an entire system out of the Oasis. In the Oasis of the book the world works on levels or tiers which mimic society. imagesA virtual version of the public-private sector. They attend public school in the Oasis and they can generally engage in public services, but if you wanted to explore the Oasis itself, move to bigger worlds and neighbourhoods, go to better schools or climb further up the social and economic ladder (because basically everything in the Oasis basically comes down to having money), you have to be able to afford it. The Oasis mimics the worlds real life poverty.

In the film the Oasis is a way to escape and avoid the mundanity of reality (and the demoralizing condition of the existing world), but it is not a school or an economic system. Spielberg also decides to immerse us in this world through what I felt was a pretty impressive exposition that covers a lot of ground in a short amount of time. The decision to leave the world building to the details of the unfolding narrative rather than building it up as a complex system at the front of the film gives Spielberg the freedom to hit the game running, which he does at full speed. It also allows Spielberg to really narrow in on what the Oasis means to the story he is looking to tell. In telling Halliday’s story, the virtual world in the film becomes a way of trying to rewrite or atone for his past mistakes. It is a way of imagining what his life might have been like had he learned to embrace the world that he lived in rather than trying to escape or hide in the world he created. In this sense the film goes to much greater lengths to de-mythologize Halliday and to reveal him as a technological god who turns out to be much more fallible than Wade or others first thought. Much of what is going on in the real world appears to be, at least in part, Halliday’s responsibility. And to consider the way in which Halliday might come to terms with what is essentially his legacy leads to a rather brilliant moment in the end of the film where Wade’s final question of “who are you then” is left largely unanswered. It is a question the film leaves each of us to answer for ourselves. After all, the Oasis looks far too familiar to our modern world even in its most fantastical moments. In a world that just this week has been so taken by tragedy and war and loss of life, escaping into a virtual world that can mask our reality and our pain and our struggle feels inviting even on our best days. But the question the film looks to leave us with is, what will be our legacy, and will coming to terms with our own past mistakes, regrets and fears be a part of what that legacy becomes in the world we share and inhabit?


It appears that Spielberg wanted this film to be first and foremost Halliday’s story, the story of a man who finds himself weighing his legacy against his regrets. And so he uses Wade’s journey from the book to really try and explore Halliday’s character over the course of the film in more intentional depth. The film accentuates and highlights Halliday’s motivation for the contest and the Oasis as intensely relational in nature, and it plays with this idea of a man who lived much of his life in fear, so much so that he recreates this virtual story, this role playing game out of his deeply held regrets and allows these characters to play out the decisions of his life in the context of this game. The game becomes this means of living through his mistakes vicariously, and ultimately trying to imagine what it might have been like if it had all played out differently. images-3There’s a real irony to what Spielberg does here given his own legacy in film. But the truth we come to find in the end is that coming to terms with who we really are, mistakes and regrets and fears and all, is a part of what it means to build a legacy that lasts, because who we are is what feeds the relationships that give us value.

What the film also carries over from the book is that where much of the film revolves around the heartbreak of a lost romance and the pain of divide passions (between what he loved and what he created), it is actually Halliday’s relationship with his creative partner and friend (Morrow) that is even more telling when it comes to the films concluding moments. Spielberg’s choice to write this character in as the virtual library was a brilliant move that gives him a greater and more prominent character arc than he had in the book. It is Morrow who is eventually able to embody Halliday’s journey in a more physical sense following his death, and it is through that relationship that we get a glimpse of hope in the midst of the failure, that for as far as Halliday has fallen, it is this relationship that remains his most defining legacy and this relationship that is now feeding this legacy into others in a meaningful way.


To See and To Hear The Cross in the Light of John’s Gospel

The last time I reflected on the Gospel of John I was entering what we know as the farewell discourse, a series of chapters (13-20:31) that prepare us for the passion narrative, a definite transition out of the festival cycle that defined chapters 5-10 and a movement towards a discussion of where Jesus is headed and what exactly He is doing as the light of the world.

To which John declares,

“I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in the darkness.”
 John 12:44

And yet what soon becomes apparent is that there is an existing tension between the light that Jesus promises to be and the Cross that now looms tall on the horizon. The Cross is as difficult for us to understand today as it was a source of confusion and resistance in the life of the disciples and John’s original audience.

Which is why I think actually spending time with this farewell discourse is so important, because by understanding what it is that brings us to the cross we can also understand the ways in which we have misunderstand and misappropriated its meaning in the context of our lives.

For myself, in the season of Lent I have been intentionally trying to sit in the words of chapter 12:44-50, aptly titled “Jesus Came To Save The World” in the translation I am using (ESV), as an appropriated transition towards the farewell discourse. I have been trying to give attention to where Jesus is heading and what exactly He is doing over the course of this farewell discourse, both as a way to better understand what the Cross means in my own life, and to help unmask some of my own misunderstanding and misappropriations.

To which I have found Jesus saying to me,
“… I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.”
John 12:47

Rather, it is
“The words I have spoken will judge him (or me, as someone who misses what Jesus is looking to do in my own life far too often) on the last day.”
John 12:48

And what are these words by which I will be judged?

First, this passage tells us these words come from the Father,
“Whoever sees me sees him who sent me.”
John 12:45

and that they come in the form of a commandment given to Jesus as to “what to say and what to speak” (John 12:49)

And it is in Jesus’ willingness to adhere to this commandment, to speak these words, that we find the promise of “eternal life” (John12:50), the nature of the salvation that defines the working title of this passage.

For John this life is not merely about eternity, rather this life is described as the light of humankind (1:4), and this light, as John insists, is the person and ministry of Jesus.

And what are these words that Jesus says? It is the same words he has been repeating over and over again throughout the festival cycle. “I have come” and so “believe” that the light still shines in the darkness (12:46).

Thus eternal life for John is the idea that Jesus as the light gives us hope in the midst of the darkness, a way of seeing forward, a way of knowing “how” to live no matter the circumstance the darkness brings.

These words, which are to be our judgment, words that we tend to naturally resist, arrive not so much as a commandment to do this or be this in order to have life, but rather as a declaration that the light still shines. An invitation to believe there is hope in the midst of the darkness. A call to see a different way of life and then to respond by following Jesus in the way he his heading- to the cross:

1. The cross offers us hope not judgment.
2. The cross is something we both hear and see by learning to listen to the words of Jesus every day.
3. The cross is more than a momentary event, it is a way of life.
4. The cross is a call to enter a new way of life.

A new way of life that we live in the light of the cross.

The same light that sees Jesus tying that towel around his waste and washing his disciples feet (13:1-20).

The same light that sees Jesus giving us the Spirit that does “not leave us as orphans” in the midst of our struggle (14:18).

The same light that sees Jesus prays for us and still prays for us to know the love that the cross represents (John 17).

The same light that sees Jesus given over and arrested, judged and delivered to be crucified so that we may have the promise of new life (John 18-19).

And Now To Love As We Have Been Loved
We don’t have to dig far into any of these textual references to find the primary commandment that Jesus then offers to us is to do likewise. The reason we turn our attention to the cross on Good Friday is to listen and then to respond.

“Now is the Son of Man glorifed, and God is glorified in him… so now I also say to you… a “new commandment” I give to you, that you love one another, just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”
John 13:34

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
John 15:12

The Cross is a reminder that “greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends”, and so I have come to recognize over these past few months that the call to take up my own cross is primarily about embracing this new way of living, a life not given towards judgment but towards love, a life lived not in selfishness but in selfless abandonment, a life not spent hiding in the darkness but a willingness to allow the cross to teach me how to be a light to the world in Jesus’ physical absence.

And we do this because at the Cross we can trust there is light not judgment. And in the light we find the commandment God gave to Jesus- the word of love. And in the words of Jesus we find the truth that we are loved and the call to love one another. This is a truth that arrives in a momentary expression on a Cross that intends to breathe light and life into the whole of our lives, a way of transforming the way we see, the way we hear, the way we live.




A Wrinkle In Time: A Voice of Reason in an An Age of Intolerance

“It seems people are willing to damn the book without reading it. Nonsense about witchcraft and fantasy. First I felt horror, then anger, and finally I said, ‘Ah, the hell with it.’ It’s great publicity, really.”
– Madeline L’Engle

I was around 10 years old when I first read Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time. The book played a big role in shaping my love of reading. I can still remember, rather vividly too, the joy I of entering an unexpected and uncharted world so full of wonder and imagination. I was struck by her ability to take simple constructs and characters (with names like Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which and Mrs. Whatsit) and weave it into such elegant prose and powerful symbols of light and dark.

It taught me about the joy of discovering new worlds and new ideas. It also taught me about the ways in which these new worlds and new ideas can challenge our old ways of thinking. The more we see and experience of the world the more we see of the darkness, but there is also greater opportunity for the light to shine in the darkness. As circumstance begins to steal Meg’s sense of innocence and optimism, this unassuming heroine modelled for my young mind what it looked like to embrace the challenge of discovering new worlds and ideas even as the darkness looms, a darkness that L’Engle allowed me to interpret through the lens of my own struggle and my own experience helping me to make sense of the world I happened to live in as well. It taught me to embrace the idea there is more to this world and this life than what I can see from my limited perspective and to trust in a greater purpose for my life.

So suffice to say I was genuinely surprised to read in my later years that this book which had such a great impact on my life has also managed to evoke a strong current of criticism, especially when it comes to rejecting the novel’s religious undertones.

Go on any discussion group, chat page or review site and it won’t take you long to find comments like these:

“I understand what the book is saying about conformity, and that we must all think for ourselves if we must prevent the encroachment of pure evil. A world where we all thought alike would be a world without suffering or alienation, love or hate, etc. Being different is important for us all. I’ll grant L’Engle that the message about feeling out-of-place is helpful to kids, and helpful for adults, too.

Sadly, that message gets quickly swept aside so that L’Engle can use Christianity to paint a vastly broad good-versus-evil picture that is horrendous. Too horrendous. Ironically horrendous, given how A Wrinkle In Time exemplifies a faux-Christian value system into which all of our students must be indoctrinated.”


“L’Engle kills the tone of this story by peppering the narrative with strange, out-of-place declarations of Christian belief. For a story that seems largely secular, the odd Bible quotes and religious one-sidedness felt out of place. In a world where an unseen God can murder all of humanity with a flood and wind up on the “good” list, while an egalitarian dictator who asserts its will without killing anyone is on the “evil” list, sign me up for the latter.”


“The whole *point* of the book doesn’t feel necessarily Christian in the same traditional sense in which “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” feels Christian, but I could forgive it much less for all the references.”


“The question is, after The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, what excuse does an author have for writing YET ANOTHER fantasy-land novel that corresponds to a Christian world-view? What Madeleine L’Engle brings to the table is a cursory knowledge of astronomy, the imagination of a brown paper sack, and half-assed characters designed only to demonstrate her personal beliefs.”


Or my personal favourite…

“Brain vs faith? Not only was I was rooting for the brain, I henceforth propose that sneaky Christian literature hiding amongst sci-fi be labelled with a big ole Tipper Gore style warning sticker.”

Criticism From the Other Side…
The irony of course is that a book that managed to be rejected umpteen times before finding a publisher and that went on to secure a spot on the “Most Banned Books of All Time” list was not only rejected because of its religious flavour, but subsequently rejected by the religious community as well for its liberal interpretation of the Christian faith, noting among other things its perceived embrace of witchcraft and demonic imagery.

Lucy Tang says this in her article titled “We Will Wrinkle Again”:

“To be reductive, L’Engle’s life philosophy is the kind of happy religious pluralism in which Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and even scientists can live together in peace. Needless to say, conservative Christians were not thrilled about the easy conflation.”
– Lucy Tang in article We Will Wrinkle Again

It’s no wonder L’Engle thought “to hell with this”. If readers weren’t looking to condemn her to a figurative hell, there were plenty willing to do this literally.

Reading It Again For the First Time
It has actually been over 25 years since I last picked up the book, so in light of the upcoming movie release I decided to revisit it. I was curious then to see how my growing awareness of the book’s criticism might fit with my experience as a child.

What I understood this time around, or what I discovered, is an author who decisively, and rather brilliantly if you ask me, lays claim to an unforgiving but richly fertile middle ground, refusing to give in to categorization and embracing the opportunity to really challenge readers of all shapes and sizes to truly discover what the story means for them.

Kelly Beaty in her wonderful analysis of a Wrinkle in Time on puts it this way:

“She rejected being forced to adapt her work to specific genre or expectation. The result? Well it would seem she managed to tick people on all sides. But those who came to embrace the story were genuinely affected by it.”

As with all great children’s literature, the joy of reading it again as an adult is the ability to recognize my childhood experience through a more informed perspective. As a child Meg liberated me to face my own monsters, monsters which represented a struggle with chronic nightmares, school bullies, fear of the faceless unknown, and a struggle to belong. As an adult I found the book to be a powerful commentary on on the world I have since come to know. She sheds light on the idea that the ways in which I struggle to see and accept myself and the ways in which I struggle to see and accept others plays a big part in how I am able to live in the world I have since come to know. And these interconnected themes of acceptance and belonging are explored through recognziable symbols that imagine the sort of socio-political ideologies that tend to push back against our ability to live into this given responsibility, to ourselves and to others, in adequate and helpful ways.

I also found a new and surprising depth in the ways L’Engle imagines Meg’s loss of innocence. The way the perception of her father as invincible is shattered digs deep into our own tendency to idolize and even romanticize our isolated and narrow perceptions of the world, ultimately revealing this paradigm shifting heroine (the first truly strong female figure to represent science fiction/fantasy in such an effective fashion) to be a deeply conflicted and struggling soul. And in shaping her this way it helped remind me that it is okay to struggle and to feel sorrow and grief over the ways  in which discovery and awareness can challenge the world we once understood to be true. When we give ourselves over to this kind of discovery, the truth that A Wrinkle In Time considers is that where our understanding is challenged, a new and much larger understanding awaits. And as we watch Meg slowly transform over the course of the story, the way she responds to these changing perceptions, not just of her father but of the world she encounters in its place, reveals not just a common human struggle but the kind of strength necessary to navigate this struggle. The kind of strength that sees her grow in her ability to forgive, to accept and to love, and also to wonder once again.

A New Found Appreciation 
Rereading the book I found I loved it every bit as much as I did when I was younger. The way it unmasks our tendency towards fear feels like a timely message in an age where fear seems to be prevailing. And far too often it feels like we, as a collective society, allow this fear to perpetuate a hate for that which we don’t truly understand. When the darkness looms it is easy to feel hopeless, this hopelessness feeds into our fear, and this fear leads to hate. L’Engle’s memorable tale reminds us that the light we need to overcome the darkness is in fact love, and that love is more powerful than fear.

So where criticism has come down on this book for referencing Jesus and quoting scripture, citing it as a betrayal of their trust and shameless indoctrination, I found, both as a child and as an adult, a necessary spiritual voice who was far ahead of her time. Her ability to bridge the conversation between religion in science at a time when these things seemed hopelessly opposed is impressive, and her ability to push ahead and contribute both to the fields of science and of faith is inspiring. At the same time her ability to write from a position of religious conviction while adopting such an inclusive disposition (which she reflects on quite wonderfully in And It Was Good: Reflections on Beginnings) formed what is, as Professor Jim Burkio puts it in an article for the Huffington Post, “a sophisticated yet simple mediation on mystical, progressive Christianity.”

In so many ways She was a woman far ahead of her time, imagining a world where strong woman characters would have plenty of room to grow and develop and challenge and where young female readers could have someone to look up to. Imagining a world where science and religion did not need to stand opposed, and where faith itself might even stand taller than religion itself. Imagining a world where individual worth and God’s universal grace could inform our social responsibility.

She was a woman brave enough to tell her story in a world that didn’t want to hear it and brave enough to tell it in ways that defied genres and categorization. That the book went on to earn awards and be determined a classic is a testament to this sense of strength and determination, and it is because of this that readers like myself were able to be challenged by her stories.

From Book To Film
I am incredibly interested to see how the coming film reinterprets her vision. The last time it was adapted (to animated film) the religious and spiritual symbolism was essentially edited out. If the film takes after L’Engle and manages to be brave enough to include this symbolism, I think it could help breathe her vision anew for a generation that desperately needs to hear it and feel it in our present context. As a woman far ahead of her time, time seems to have caught up with us in a very real way, which is precisely why we we need to be reminded of what it looks like to truly wonder and love again in a world full of fear and darkness.


And It Was Good: Reflections on Beginnings by Madeline L’Engle

2018 Reading Challenge: A Review of Newman on Being a Christian by Ian Ker

2018 Reading Challenge: Read 5 books in the genre of theology/philosophy
Book: Newman on Being a Christian by Ian Ker


“Newman is a preacher not of glowing words but of harsh realities- realities that arise out of the obligation imposed by baptism to lead the Christian life to the full”
– Ker

Ian Ker’s Newman on Being a Christian offers an intimate picture at John Henry Newman’s life through the lens of his most important theological ideas. Considering his overwhelming influence on the Catholic Church, his sharp focus on broadening our understanding the Christian life, Ker organizes this biographical account in a way that moves us thematically from rebirth to Resurrection.

What becomes clear in the opening chapter is the degree to which Newman was a priestly presence who embraced wholeheartedly his life in the larger world. An Oxford intellectual, Newman’s eventual embrace of the High Church of England, followed by a shift towards the Catholic Church, reflects an unusual path. The roots that connect his early life in London to a family tree consisting of Huguenot refugees leads him towards the eventual embrace (or conversion) of evengelical Calvinist teaching. Given that he held no past connection with the Angflican Church, his eventual move away from evangelical Calvinism was purely theological and philosophical in nature, infusing it with a sense of honest consideration that feels refreshing rather than forced.


His ideas of the ways in which God seems to exist in the world just didn’t fit with what he describes as a strong, “individuallistic” approach to faith that seemed to bind the Reformed doctrine he had inherited. For Newman it was his relaitonship to the world around him, and ultimately his relationship with community and with the Church, something that pushes back against the individualistic constructs, that opened him up to the possiblity of a life of faith lived that could exist within and outside the walls of the Church itself. This was a conviction that utlimately led to an existing (and preexisting) tension both within His ministry to the Church and in his life in the wider world, but it is a tension that he seemed to thirve on.

Which brings me to consider, if Newman was anything he was unconventional in his approach, unbound by dogma, and fiercely committed to a faith that could make sense in both the secular and religious arenas that would go on to define him.

His life in the Anglican Church was marked by his involvement in what was called the Oxford movement, a movement that was positioned to reintegrate the Church of England with the most positive apsects of the Catholical beliefs it had left behind.

And in his subsequent move into the Catholic Church his ministry would challenge the Catholic beliefs that the Church of England had moved forward from. But in all of this he never carried an air of being a revolutionary figure, nor did he arise as a combatant. Rather, his voice flowed out of a commmittment to the sort of rigorous intellectual process that he had gaine from his time in Oxford. His ministry was the outflow of a personal journey built around honest questions and a hopeful conviction.

Considering this personal journey, his love of music and poetry and literature struck a chord with my own love of literature and film, and it was his passion for these things that really pushed him to reevaluate the nature of faith and revelation as something which moves beyond our cultural constructs (and in Christianity, our specific Judeo-Christian construct). Ker outlines some of this in the first two chapters which concern his understanding of the nature of faith and revelation. In what becomes a recognizable marker of how Newman relates to theology as a whole, he at once criticizes the limits of rationalism while also calliing Christian faith to a higher virtue or reason, describing it as the “reasoning of the religious mind” (p. 4). This is a great example of the ways in which he embraces the world in which he lives while also representing the value of the Church “in the wider world”.


For Newman, Faith rises above reason only in the sense that it “acts upon presumptions” (p. 4), and to this end, all of reason, whether religiously concerned or not, owes something to the idea of faith. Newman eventually goes on to tie faith to the notion of “intellectual judgment” (p.12), seeing our ability to make these judgments as the primary means of our “working out of these presumptions” that inevitably tend to betray the limitations of logic and reason. This is something he insists we all have a “responsibility” (p. 14) towards. In one fell swoop Newman challenges our dependence on “certainty” (in religious terms this is expressed through doctrinal belief) while unleashing our call to uphold a search and commitment to truth, something he believes is both reconcilable and necessary for seeing the results of faith in tangible ways. We can be many things I think he would insist, but we cannot simply be or remain indifferent. This, in his eyes, would likey be the greatest sin to which we can bind ourselves.

As with much of Newman’s theology, it might be easy to take for granted the ways in which he transformed the nature of theological consideration in the realm of the Catholic Church. But it should not be understated the significance of these subtle shifts away from heavy handed doctrine and preistly corruption. His body of work tends us towards the sort of honest, tranformative approach to the Christian life that can be held accountable both in the context of the Church and in its presence in the wider world. Which is why he sees faith not as a place to begin in our discussion of conversion or rebirth, but the result actually living the Christian life. His dedication to Christianity as “not a local but a universal religion” (p. 35) helps us to see the Christian life as a “developing” reality, one in which grows our faith over time. And Ker’s biographical approach to this kind of theological progression also helps to show how this same idea reaches into Newman’s understanding of a developing revelation that “cannot but vary in its relations and dealings towards the world around it.” (p.35). We also see this same line of reasoning informing his thoughts on the diversity of Christian thought, the wide reach of the Church as different cultural expressions, and most importantly into the freedom this commitment to “development” and diverstiry affords to the Church to move from Preistly depencance to an empowered congregation or community (of men and women). For Newman this is the key to the Church’s forward movement, which is both ever changing and constant. To this end we need not be afriad of change or progression or adaptation, even if the world around us insists that we should be. Rather we should look to embrace it as a reflection of God’s ongoing work in our lives and in the world.

Newman is a preistly voice who is able to bridge that anxious divide between doctrine and layman. He takes the function of the High church and brings it down to the level of the every man. In doing so his most important legacy just might be the ways in which elevates our ability to participate in the Christian life as an equally personal endeavor. There is good reason the chapter on the Christian Life is the longest chapter in the book, and it is on this topic where he seems to make his most impassioned plea. All of the theological considerations, both common (sacraments) and specific (Mary and the Papacy) only become real and active and necessary when they are actually lived and practiced, and the ways he informs and reinforms th emost important and necessary parts of the Christian liturgy ultimately lead us towards this end. It really is quite amazing to see the ways in which he wrestles with the reality of grace without losing hold of a necessary emphasis on the holiness, or the holy life. And I found myself repeatedly revelling in the freedom he affords me only to be outright convicted on the next page. Once again, if Newman pushes back against anything it would be a life of indifference. We are called to live for something, and for Newman the Gospel is the single conviction that can reach across every line and every facet of His life.

The Christian life not one of indifference, but of measured conviction to our ongoing judgment of a given presumption. For Newman this is where we find our potential for consistency. This is where we find the potential for true self awareness (self knowledge, according to Newman is where the Christian life is able to grow into an awareness of the other). And ultimately this is where we find the potential for self denial, which is “human cooperation” with the promise of a given grace. This, for Newman, when take together, is what constitutes the “gradual but steady development and growth” of conversion (p. 129). As Newman goes on to say, “to fail from a worldly point of view is to succeed spiritually…” (p. 148)


Later he also adds, “The process of learning to obey God is, in one sense, a process of sinning, from the nature of the case,” with Ker going on to add that in Newman’s eyes, “the struggle is constant, but still not hopeless.” And that is what makes it most poignantly and recognizably “christian”.
Newman went on to become a Cardinal in the Catholic Church and is recognized as a Saint. And rightly so. His is a commentary on faith that feels as timely today as it was revolutionary during the time of the First and Second Vatican Council. His ability to bridge a high level of intellectualism with a strong and admirable Christian witness, his work in giving power back to the people so that they are able to participate in the act of faith, and his understanding of revelation and the Christian life as more than the “justification” of his Calvinist roots was instrumental. Along with this, his challenging of the infallibility of the Papacy as a Cardinal was equally revolutionary, while The fact that he was also a poet and a lover of culture was what allowed his priestly presence to be so effective in the community of the church and the world at large.

Above all, and I will leave this as a final word, his work in speaking to an age where the Christian witness seemed to be growing more and more irrelevant and incompatible and inconsistant was as timely then as it is now.


The Work of God, To Believe In the One He Has Sent: Further Reflections on The Gospel of John

In my previous blog on the Gospel of John I reflected on John chapters 5 and 6. I suggested that these chapters begin what is a 5 chapter “exposition” on the theme of work, or more specifically the idea of God’s work in our lives and in the world, which structurally speaking brings to a close the first section of John (The Book of Signs) and transitions us to towards the next section (The Book of Exaltation).

At the heart of this exposition is the idea of coming to see or know this work as the person and ministry of Jesus. Jesus after all, as John has made abundantly clear, is God’s light piercing through the pervasive and all too familiar darkness, the same darkness that existed at the beginning of time and that continues to persist today. A darkness that exposes that central and pleading question of faith that the Gospel of John holds in tension:

Is God actually working in the world? And if so, How is He working the world?

As John methodically uncovers the light in the first 5 chapters, the insistence that, “the darkness has not overcome” becomes harder and harder to accept. When the darkness looms so large and suffering is so apparent, the idea that God is at work in the world feels unsettling and even unconvincing.

And the deeper we go into these stories the more offensive the idea becomes for the characters we meet in John’s Gospel. To say that God’s light still shines, that God is still working is “a hard teaching” (6:60), and indeed “offensive” (6:61).

All of this exposes an important part of John’s exposition, which is the immediacy of this Gospel message. The problem for the characters we encounter in John is a question of the present, our need to see and know God is working in the here and now. The people who meet Jesus In John’s Gospel need food to feed their hunger and healing for a persisting physical ailment. For many they need to know they belong in a world that has rejected them because of their impoverished position. And Jesus meets them where they are at. He feeds them, he heals them and He offers them acceptance.

But John doesn’t begin with the immediate. He doesn’t simply offer concrete proof or evidence of God’s work. Instead he starts “in the beginning”, and then offers us glimpses of Jesus, a taste of Jesus in the present. He gives us characters who only see and know Jesus in part. He gives us 7 signs or signposts that point us in a direction, leaving what lies on the horizon demonstrably foggy. We see Jesus “passing them by”. We are given stories where one is healed while the suffering of the many persists. In one of these stories, the healing story of chapter 5, the man doesn’t even know who Jesus is. All he knows is that he was blind and now he sees. In the determination of the religious leaders to “prove” who Jesus is in the midst of this need to see and know in the here and now (which ironically in John comes through this pattern of everyone determining to see and know Jesus through second hand witness), Jesus remains frustratingly allusive and distant.


The Immediacy of the Gospel and Reshaping Our Expectation
John begins in the pages of history. He begins “in the beginning” with the Word who was God, and He ends with a promise, the promise that there is a purpose to God’s working. But it is the middle ground, the struggle of making sense of this in our present reality, that is the most challenging.

This is just my perception, but I feel like John does this because He understands the God we encounter in Jesus is not the God we would ever expect. And a God that pushes back against the demands of our expectation will always be offensive, hard to understand, and even unacceptable in the moment.

I also think John also does this to emphasize the idea that even though we struggle with seeing God at work in our world and in our lives in the here and now, God does indeed still see us and love us in our places of need. And in emphasizing this truth John is able to subtly (and not so subtly) reshape our expectation of the ways in which God is in fact working in our lives and in the world.

The light still shines, but that doesn’t mean the darkness ceases to persist. The storm still rages but that doesn’t mean Jesus isn’t there “passing us by”. The man is healed, but that doesn’t mean that suffering and struggle is no longer prevalent and persistent. Which is precisely why spending time fleshing out the nature of God’s “work” is so important to John. To simply do away with the questions by offering easy and pat answers is not the best way to deal with the reality of the darkness. Instead John invites us to follow Jesus into the darkness so as to allow Him to show us the way forward. He invites us to become seekers of something we cannot and do not fully understand.

Seeking Jesus Demands a Response
All of the characters we meet in John’s Gospel are seekers. They get a glimpse or a taste of Jesus and they can’t turn away. They are chasing after the questions, who is Jesus and what is He doing in our midst. And the the answers, or non-answers to this question inevitably set their idea of God and the world in conflict.

Seeking Jesus demands a response in one way or another. Which is precisely what shapes the growing conflict that we see coming more and more to the surface in this collection of festival chapters in 5-10

This is the work of God, “to believe in the one He has sent” (6:26). But it feels offensive when our belief in God’s work is measured against our need to make sense of the struggle and the suffering in this world in the here and now. It is hard to accept because it strips us of our ability to control the way we believe God should be working and the way we believe things should be happening in this world. And it is in these moments that the notion of a God who is in control feels the most wrong. Because how can a God simply ignore the way things are? Why is He not simply changing things to work in the way that we believe they should? It feels better to simply go our own way and do things ourselves.

Learning to Give Up Control
For John, “believing in the one He has sent” first means giving up our need for control. It means allowing Him to take the oars out of our hands (the storm passage of chapter 6) in those moments when we can’t see where we are going. It means submitting our questions to a reality we do not fully understand. As Jesus says in 6:65, “no one can come to Jesus unless it is granted by the Father”, and this means that no matter how hard we convince ourselves that we are, we are not in control. And this is not an easy thing to accept. John tells us that when they came face to face with this reality, many of the disciples turned back from their seeking and the conflict between Jesus and the world around Him begins to grow.

This is something to which I far too easily relate. Far too often I find myself following in the way of those disciples, and the reason I turn away from Jesus and the reason I refuse to give Him the oars is because in a world where so much suffering exists, making sense of a God who is still working just doesn’t make much sense most of the time. It makes much more sense to simply take the oars into my own hands and row harder.

But as I read through John I find myself being reminded once again that I need Jesus in my life, and in oder to see God working in the person and ministry of Jesus and to know that He is there walking alongside me in the midst of my own darkness, I must be wiling to let Him challenge perception of the ways things must be in the here and now. I must let Him push back against my need to be in control.
And the truth is, it is the midst of the storm, in the midst of the darkness that we have the greatest opportunity (and potential) to do this. And when we do, the fear and determination that forms our need to try and go our own way and do it ourselves can give way to a much needed and much welcome sense of peace. For the disciples in the boat in the storm passage of chapter 6, they did not want to give Jesus the oars because they were afraid of what giving up control might mean (6:19), but when they eventually did they discovered they were “glad” to take Him into the boat. The welcomed it. They needed Jesus. And it is significant that John does not say the storm ceases when they finally recognize this need. It simply indicates that they found a much needed sense of relief that they no longer had to try and do it by themselves.

The Way of Jesus, the Way of the Cross
John tells me the light still shines and it shines in the person and ministry of Jesus.  And as he brings this 5 chapter arc to a close, this exposition, this study of God’s work in our lives transitions in chapters 10-12 towards a definitive picture of what this work looks like in the person and ministry of Jesus. The time that is not yet here, the glory that has not yet been revealed, the spirit that has been promised is all about to come to fruition. And in doing so a path is revealed, and it is the path to the cross and all that the cross looks to accomplish.


Which brings us to a real moment of truth when it comes to considering the work of God in our world and in our lives. The glimpses, the taste of Jesus that we have been getting in John’s Gospel have been pushing us in a direction. In a more accurate picture, it is the glimpse we get along the way that enable us to walk “with Jesus” in the direction He is moving (6:66). It awakens us to the direction in which are to turn or to keep moving in the midst of the darkness. It becomes a beacon of light peeking through on the horizon, giving us hope for the promise of the future.

And it is in the light that the shadow of the Cross now looms. This is how God is choosing to work in the midst of the darkness. This is how He is choosing walk with us in the here and now.

And this is what the shadow tells us. Yes, the light shines and has not been overcome, but, at least for the moment the darkness remains, and this is why the way of the Cross is necessary. It teaches us what it means to give up control.

And so we are called to believe in the one He has sent by putting one foot in front of the other and moving in the direction of Jesus, walking with Jesus down the path in the direction He is heading. Learning to trust in what we cannot always see in its fullness. Learning what it looks like to let our questions move us to give up control, to give up the oars in order to find our peace in the one who sees us and loves us in the midst of the darkness.

We learn what it looks like to believe in a world where God is still at work.

The Movies, The Oscars and Catching Up on the Year (2017) That Was:

Last year I posted a blog on Valentines Day discussing the upcoming Academy Awards. At the time it made me realize just how far behind I was when it came to seeing all the Oscar nominations. Likewise, the more I caught up with the Oscar nominations the more outdated my personal picks for Top 12 films of the previous year (that would of course be 2016), started to get. And what compounded the problem (of course) is that some Oscar picks usually don’t even see wide release until January of the New Year. This meant some of the films that might have made my list would end up lost in that middle ground during the long, dark days of January.

So this year I decided to change things up. I figured it would take me a good month and a bit into the New Year to catch up on the films I wanted to see in 2017 and for all of the 2017 films to get wide release, and so I aimed to hold off on any best of lists until February 14th, After all, what better time to write about my love of cinema than Valentines Day. And with the Oscars right around the corner and the nominations officially announced it would also be an opportunity to reflect on those as well.

What I have done here is used select categories from the Awards nominations as a stepping stone for looking back at some of my personal favourite films and cinematic moments of 2017. And to note this right off the top, for as much as 2018 has been proving to be really strong coming out of the gate, 2017 was a stellar year for movies in its own right. Narrowing down my personal favourites was not easy, but as always it was rewarding.

With all that said, here is a look back at the year that was, the upcoming Oscars, and my favourite films.

I dropped the ball on seeing documentaries this year so my thoughts will be necessarily limited. But I wanted to include this category because of 2 films I am really looking forward to seeing and one film that I did see which really resonated with me, even if it didn’t make any of my top lists.
Faces Places
The much praised and talked about “Faces Places” tells the story of a French artist and a willing Director who team up for a trek across France, during which they begin to create portraits of the different people that cross their

I have heard the doc is an incredibly intimate and touching portrayal of the ways in which we see ourselves, not only through the privacy of our own personal mirrors but also in the ways we imagine the world sees us from the outside. In this same sense I have also heard the film is an “eye opening” experience, which is keeping this film near the top of my must sees list when it finally becomes available.


Ex Libris: The New York Public Library
This one appears to be a bit polarizing given the subject matter, and your experience of the film from what I have heard could very well be determined by your level of interest in the subject matter.


Given that it is about The New York Public Library, and of course set in New York, It happens to fascinate me on a number of levels. It feels like this will be the sort of doc that raises questions I didn’t even know I had while taking me inside a world I knew existed by I am not sure I ever actively imagined.



downloadJim and Andy: The Great Beyond
As one of the documentaries I did get a chance to see, Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond is a film about Carey’s groundbreaking performance in Man on the Moon, examining what the performance represented for Carey and how his career led him to this point.

Although the title of the film does suggest a singular moment in time, the film also deals with Carey’s career and life as a whole, which for me was the most captivating part of the film. Affording Carey some context provides us with a fascinating study of the power of method acting as means of losing yourself in a given role, and an intimate look into the challenges of navigating Hollywood as someone who is also trying to find himself. The friend who recommended this to me suggested if you appreciated the man’s talent before, this film will take that appreciation to another level.



This might be the category that has me most excited as I look back at 2017. There were a few films that really managed to represent themselves as true cinematic accomplishments, reminding me of why the theatrical experience can be so powerful and so rewarding.

Blade Runner 2049
Hands down the single greatest cinematic achievement of 2017. Visual, expansive and truly immersive, Blade Runner 2049 transported me to another world while leaving plenty of room for me to really wrestle with the questions this world evoked. A truly remarkable and satisfying sequel.


Nolan’s much anticipated experiment in making a war film owes much to his deep (and also studious) appreciation of Saving Private Ryan. It is an experiment most notably in his desire to pattern this after the great thrillers as opposed to following in the footsteps of his hero by recreating Spielberg’s emotionally resonating dramatic reenactment. Alternating perspectives between water, land and sky is intended to build the tension necessary for the thriller elements to be effective, and it is these three perspectives that provide Nolan an opportunity to really entertain the full cinematic possibilities of this film by taking the Imax cameras into places they had never been before. This is a truly immersive experience that must be seen on the big screen to fully appreciate.


Mudbound occupies space on the other side of this same cinematic discussion. It is a film that never saw a theatrical release and thus must find ways to fully immerse the viewer on a smaller scale.

I do feel the film was underserved by being denied a theatrical release as it is the wonderful cinematography that truly moves this film forward. But the film still manages to loom large, commanding our attention to the detail it affords its setting. There is a definite poetic force to the way the mud and the earth are used to symbolize the human stories it protects, and the way the narrative flows out of the ground and into its human stories in intimate and visual ways was one of the more compelling cinematic moments of 2017.



Kong: Skull Island
If I was going to measure this category on pure spectacle, Jordan Vogt-Roberts deserves a mention for Kong: Skull Island. His use of lighting, setting and period piece, all components of cinematography, was rather incredible to witness on the big screen, and although I consider this one of the most entertaining blockbusters of 2017, the cinematography should not be understated as its most impressive accomplishment.


The Shape of Water
The cinematography is this passion project’s greatest strength. From one of my favourite all time directors, The Shape of Water might not be his best film but it just might be his most beloved work. As a love letter to the art of film, it is a true celebration of the capacity for visual and cinematic storytelling to move our imaginations. It has been nominated in a number of categories but this might be the category I feel it is most deserving of.






When it comes to the Oscars these are the two categories (original and adapted) that often tend to honour the films not likely to win Best Director or Best Picture but that still deserve acknowledgement in the eyes of the Academy.

Of all the categories, this is the one I also find the most fascinating to consider. The power of a good screenplay should not be understated. There are many different aspects of film, but whereas direction and performance can often elevate a film above its weaker points, subpar writing is the one thing that has the power to bring everything else down with it.


The Oscars have rightly recognized Get Out, The Big Sick and Lady Bird in the category of original screenplay, 3 films that commanded an undeniable cultural presence largely due to the strength of the writing. These are not flashy films, but each of them offered something unique to their particular genre thanks to an original screenplay. Get Out reimagines the horror genre as a commentary on race relations. The Big Sick proves that great comedy can be both subtle and timely. Lady Bird proved to the world that a small, unassuming, coming of age indie could be personally affecting in big and unexpected ways.


And yes, each of these films would be well deserving of an award, but from my own perspective there were a handful of films that did not make the Oscar list that I felt also demonstrated the power of a great original script.

download-4The Book of Henry
I am somewhat alone in my love of this film, but there was something about this small, independent passion project that evoked my love of cinema in a very real way.

In terms of screenplay, Trevorrow uses his original script as an opportunity to transcend genres. It is a risky move and likely cost him his hold on the Jurassic franchise, but it definitely deserves respect. download-3More so it deserves attention as one of those films in 2017 that took me on a truly unexpected emotional journey, moving through moments of laughter, sadness, edge of my seat thrills and finally contemplation. Yes, the film takes some incredibly sharp turns, but this is what made it so exciting to me. It might not all work, but it is trying something new, and much of this is a credit to Trevollow’s commitment to a particular idea, an idea his commitment to his original screenplay, one he had been working on for years, ultimately helped bring to life.

A polarizing film that left some people feeling a bit betrayed, and this polarization is largely thanks to the powerful script that shifts this film away from the traditional horror elements and into the realm of a modern day parable. There are great performances and the pacing of this film is extraordinary, but the true strength of Mother! is found in the sheer brevity of its story. The film’s allegorical intention keeps each scene and each interaction intimately connected to the symbolism of the films larger vision, and this is a testament to the strength of the script that it all eventually comes together. Definitely one of the more intellectually rigorous and engaging film experiences of 2017.

Another slightly polarizing film thanks to a script that helps shift this film away from preconceived assumptions and pushes it into some unexpected There are big ideas in Downsizing and the screenplay deftly manages to flesh these out using an equally big and ambitious narrative arc that centres around people getting small. The best screenplays work to leave the audience with much to think about in the days after seeing a film, and Downsizing is one I continue to think about well into 2018.



Adapted Screenplay
If you are interested, this informative article written last year just prior to Moonlight’s Best Picture win explains why some films qualify for original while others compete in adapted. There are of course obvious differences between the two, but suffice to say that this discernment can sometimes get, well, a little complicated:

Beyond the Oscars though it is certainly true, especially when adapting source material that is familiar and beloved, translating the images we have in our minds of these characters and stories into more concrete forms is delicate and incredibly subjective territory to tread. It is always worth remembering that book and film are two very different artistic mediums, and the best adapted films in my opinion are the ones that manage to tap into the unique strength of visual storytelling in order to give a particular narrative fresh perspective.

And what are these strengths?

My first love is books, but with the sheer accessibility of so much visual material along with being in a phase of life that seems to be demanding more and more time in my older age, I tend to watch far more films than I am able to read these days. Which highlights one of films greatest strengths: It’s ability to use a single visual to interpret pages and pages of written exposition in a short amount of time.

Screenplays tend to be much tighter, move much faster, and are much more intentional than a novel. Writing slows down the story and tends to be more organic, more free flowing. Novels can be sprawling by nature where films need to condense. Novel writers have the freedom to take time in building the world and the characters it desires to help us to see and imagine for ourselves. At the same time books have to be much more concerned with creating a hook that will draw people in since people are far more willing to give 2 hours of their time to a film than they are days to a book.

But even beyond all this and most pertinent when it comes to film adaptations at their best and most distinguishable is that films by nature an “interpretive” process. Writers begin with the visuals they have in their minds and then invite us in to imagine it for ourselves. Adapted screenplays in contrast are one persons “imagining” of another authors intention in realized form.

Sometimes a film does inspire me to read the book, but in general I am someone who prefers to read the book before seeing the film. This is mostly because I enjoy engaging with a visual artists interpretive process over and against my own. If I read a book after seeing a film I am already reading their interpretation into the process, and thus I miss out on being able to imagine it for myself. It becomes more of an intellectual exercise than an immersive one. I like to consider the ways a particular director or actor sees a shared story differs and compares to my own.

When I haven’t read a book upon which a movie is based, the differences between adapted and original are often indistinguishable. When I have read the book upon which the film is based I tend to view a film differently. And the question I generally ask and will be asking as I turn to consider some memorable adaptions from 2017 is this. Did the artist effectively show me their imagining of the source material?

There is no shortage of reasoning for considering Logan in any of these categories, but the most interesting part of this films inclusion in the adapted category is the fact that the Oscars rarely consider comic book films outside of technical categories. The closest example I seem to find is The Incredibles being nominated in the screenplay category, and certainly shutting out The Dark Knight remains etched in my memory as one of the Oscars greatest snubs.

What makes this even more interesting is the way Logan takes a specific series (Old Man Logan) and interprets it through the larger mythology of the X-Men comic book world. Narrowing down the actual source material that informs this film is not an easy task. That it managed to capture such a cohesive and realized emotional narrative arc using such an expansive possible slate of material is an exceptional accomplishment in this category.


Their Finest
This is a film that flew under the radar in 2017, but it is one that definitely deserves to be seen. Spoiler alert, it makes my personal top 12 list in the final category. I adored the way it uses a film within a film premise to shed light on the power of storytelling, something that adds even more layers to the whole screenplay as an interpretive process discussion. download-2It is apparent that the glue which holds the narrative together is the strong source material, and given how much the story is anchored in the idea of imagining visual storytelling on the page, it seems tailor made to be adapted for the screen.


I caught up with this one rather late in the game and I found it to be truly exceptional. Although these two films really only share the New York setting, it reminded me of Brooklyn, one of my top films of 2016 and a film that uses two distinct worlds in order to explore a single narrative arc. It is also worth mentioning both films utilize colour in very interesting ways.  download-3

The strength of Wonderstruck is its narrative force, which is why I am considering it in this category. The fact that the film uses an absence of dialogue, colour, music and visual cues to bring its competing timelines together in a single narrative arc is exceptional and makes this film a standout choice for me in the category of my personal favourite screenplays of 2017.


I have already mentioned Mudbound, but it is a great example of film using visual interpretation to capture the spirit of the novel  Director Dee Rees (it is worth mentioning here this is the first film directed by a woman to be nominated in the cinematography category) takes full advantage of helping us see the poetic prose of the novel in visual form.  



Coco certainly stole the spotlight in 2017, and probably for good reason. It might fall short of some of Pixar’s best, but the way it shines a light on an underrepresented (and misrepresented) Mexican culture, and the fact it is the culmination of a true and honest labour of love makes it worthy of all the attention it is getting.

Loving Vincent

For me it is the remarkable Loving Vincent that deserves the nod in this category. It pushed the art of animation into new realms of creativity as the first fully painted animated film. Influenced by Van Gogh’s own particular techniques and using some of his paintings as a means of telling a part of his story (namely the period of time following his death), the film is as gorgeous to look at as it is compelling to consider. As a uniquely biographical drama it works to humanizes one of the worlds great artists while using the art to explore central human questions about longing and belonging that haunted him.

downloadCars 3
I know my opinion here will likely merit much criticism, but I would consider Cars 3 over Coco as my favourite Pixar film of 2017 for a few reasons. First, I was genuinely surprised by how good it was. It departs from the spy centric plot line of Cars 2 and deftly returns to the story’s humble beginnings, bringing Lightning McQueen’s story arc to an emotional and fitting conclusion. In doing this Director Brian Fee narrows in on the originals greatest strength, its use of nostalgia to evoke a powerful sense of competing visions of the American Dream. If you get a chance it is well worth looking into the story behind the film, as for anyone with a passive interest in Americana lore, this love story to Route 66 and the way its demise sheds light on the growing affects of economic progress is captivating and infectious and full of heart.

For as much as the original really did wear its heart on its sleeve (for better or for worse depending on who you ask), Cars 3 raises this to the level of challenging and insightful. There is a deeply felt commentary that moves us from the American Dream to the art of aging and learning how to age well. The fact that this also happens to be a film for kids is impressive and somewhat daring given that it deliberately slows down the pace (ironically) and speaks mostly to an older audience. For as much as this exercise in risk taking might have isolated the film in the process, it also helped make this the best of the 3 Cars films.

download-3Lego Batman
I could not let this category go by without pointing out the travesty of failing to include Lego Batman in the Oscar Nominations conversation. This is a film that was vastly underrated and under appreciated for just how good it actually was. I think it got lost in the shadows of the original Lego Movie, which is unfortunate, because even if it is decidedly different and perhaps slightly marginalizing (given the inside jokes on everything Batman), it was equally deserving.




Jessica Chastain in Molly’s Game
What stands out for me about Chastain’s performance in Molly’s Game is the way she carries this film on her shoulders. The story itself is interesting, and the screenplay chooses to juxtapose the story of Molly Bloom’s journey from Olympic hopeful to girl on trial in some interesting ways, giving us glimpses along the way of the idea that who she is and what she is doing owes something (or much) to a untold past. And the more glimpses we get of this idea, the more layers it adds to what would otherwise be a straightforward narrative.

This requires Chastain to balance a film that is constantly shifting back and forth between these two pictures of Molly Bloom, and she manages to balance this incredibly well. The idea that she allows us to connect so readily the Molly we come to know near the end of the film with the Molly we see in the midst of this slow-building and otherwise undefined character development is what makes this performance one that deserves recognition.

download-4Denzel Washington in Roman J. Israel Esq.
Roman J. Israel Esq. gets my vote for most underrated film largely because of what Washington brings to the table.

On the surface Roman J. Israel is a man defined by a series of physical quirks and ticks which Denzel manages to recall by offering a very physical performance. Underneath these physical traits we also find a powerful story of what it means to reconcile our need to respond to the moral corruption we see around us with our inability to fix ourselves.

Here Washington is required to give a performance that is able to reach across a rather large emotional arc, with Israel’s own journey reflecting the nature of the social reality he observes. We tend to exist between two very real economic realities, one that moves us from poverty to riches, and what his performance captures so vividly is the truth that no matter how well intentioned we might be, these economic realities tend to dictate our choices sometimes (hopefully) for better and often for worse. Which is why grace is so necessary, both for ourselves and for the world in which we live as we respond to the moral corruption we see around us.

Washington is prone to choosing redemptive narratives, and in his role as Roman J. Israel he embodies the idea that we must learn, and relearn, what it means to truly forgive ourselves first before we can do the work of extending this grace outwards to others. There is a fine line between righteous and self righteous, and the minute we lose sight of where we actually stand on this line is the minute we lose the ability to extend grace where it is needed. And as Denzel’s character reminds us, especially in the powerful final 30 minutes of this film, the hardest place to extend grace is nearly always in the direction of our own need.


downloadJake Gyllenhaal in Stronger
I am generally a fan of Gyllenhaal’s work, but his performance in Stronger finds him at the height of his game. This is what I would call an invested role, as emotionally taxing as it is physically demanding while it works to recount the story of a real life Boston Marathon Bombing survivor who loses the use of his legs and must now learn how to live without them.

Gyllenhaal’s character is not exactly likeable, and one could say he doesn’t necessarily redeem himself either. He is clearly dealing with stuff, and being injured in the bombing only serves to bring this stuff to the surface. He is caught between being seen as a hero and coming to terms with the reality of his own failure and hating who he really is. The ways in which losing his legs now makes him dependent on others only heightens this sense that he is a failure. And so slowly over the course of this film we can see this realization begin to wear on him, watching as he uses his own feelings of inadequacy to mistreat those who love him and whom he needs the most.

The most remarkable thing Gyllenhaal does is commit to giving us a reason to extend compassion even when it doesn’t feel deserved. He commits himself to this idea that this man is stronger than he realizes. In doing this he invites us to consider what it is that drives this person to be so enslaved to the demons of this past, and invites us to consider further that sometimes, even for the best of us, just figuring out how to survive another day is the most remarkable and heroic feat of all.


Jennifer Lawrence in Mother
I am big Jennifer Lawrence fan. Watching her grow over her rather illustrious career from young Katniss to what we witness in Mother reveals someone who has grown tremendously in her risk taking and her willingness to truly challenge herself. I have always had the sense this is an actress who is dedicated to her craft, and what she brings to Mother! shows the fruit of this labour.
As one of the most compelling and thought provoking films of 2017, Lawrence’s performance is key to telling this story in a way that works. She embodies a role that requires her to entertain a balance of subtlety and commitment given the nature of how the narrative unfolds. It’s a role that must guard the secrets that are driving the films allegorical twist while also committing wholesale to the character we are watching unfold in the moment. It’s a daring experiment in the art of performance, and by the time we reach the climax of the film, when this mystery begins to be revealed for what it is, Lawrence simply explodes with a force that absolutely knocks you upside the head. It’s quite startling actually to be reminded of just how talented she really is, and the older she gets the more raw and uninhibited she seems to become. And in my eyes we are all the better for it.






If there is a category that is able to express just how strong 2017 actually was it would be Best Director. Just looking at the Oscar Nominations alone we find legendary names like Christopher Nolan and Del Toro, both of whom happen to be chasing their first Oscar win, to promising younger voices in Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig. And this is not to mention Spielberg could easily be considered in this mix as well.

Any of them would be equally worthy of the award, but it is no secret that 2017 is the year I get to cheer for Del Toro. He is one of my favourite directors, and even if Shape of Water isn’t his best film I am pulling for him to be recognized for his body of work.

With that said, here are some others that I would also readily consider on my personal list:

Kathryn Bigelow for Detroit
I would consider Kathryn Bigelow for her work in Detroit, a film that made my personal “most underrated films” list.

Bigelow brings an intimacy to a film I heard one critic label as a “riot epic”, bringing an incredibly complex picture to life in a very confined space over a defined (and isolated) period of time. Bigelow is great at capturing a sense of frenetic motion and tension in confined spaces over defined periods of time, something that is on full display in the incredibly taught Zero Dark Thirty and the much praised The Hurt Locker. But where Zero Dark Thirty focused on recreating the tense moments of the manhunt over and above any exposition of the larger political conversation, Detroit can’t help but speak to the politics. I think her greatest accomplishment in Detroit is acknowledging this reality while still having control over the specific story she is looking to tell. And while I am happy Greta Girwig got the nod for Lady Bird and would have loved to see Patty Jenkins nominated for Wonder Woman, I would consider Bigelow the most deserving female director in 2017.

Todd Haynes for Wonderstruck
Director Todd Haynes, who brought us the rather wonderful Far From Heaven has a really sharp sense for recreating the period piece. In Wonderstruck he manages to bring to life New York City as a living and breathing character, allowing the city to develop alongside the characters through two contrasting timelines. There is a profound sensibility that forms his ability to use the city as a means of fleshing out the characters.

Equally compelling is his ability to visually capture what it might feel like to live without one of your key senses (in the context of the film this would be hearing). In the absence of much dialogue, Haynes is free to imagine the world through its visual cues, and in a feat of creative force uses an understated soundtrack to aid us as viewers in imagining what it might feel like to find ourselves lost in an unfamiliar part of the world without the ability to hear.

Wonderstruck really did captivate me in ways that few other films did in 2017. The narrative arc that brings the two timelines together is incredibly intentional, so much so that the film invites us in on the mystery by offering visual cues along the way. But it also feels incredibly organic. And Hayne’s ability to attach us as viewers to his creative vision with such emotion is something that set this film apart.


James Mangold for Logan

James Mangold has accomplished something incredible with Logan by reimagining the comic book film without allowing the R rating to feel like a gimmick (hello Deadpool). He also gives us one of the most redemptive stories of 2017, both of which are elements of his direction that make him an easy pick for my list.

Before I get to the final category (Best Picture), here are a couple other brief categories just so I can sneak in some honourable mentions.


Goodbye Christopher Robin
An insightful look into one of my favourite childhood authors. As with most authors of children’s stories, his real life story is one full of struggle and conflict. But it is this story that gives greater weight and meaning to the stories he wrote.


download-1The Man Who Invented Christmas
I really liked the way the film explores the story of a man who gave us the most iconic Christmas story of all time. Offering us some context allows us to appreciate not only who this man was, but what drove him to write the story that he did. It is no understatement to say this book truly transformed the way we understand and celebrate Christmas in the West, for better or for worse.

download-2The live action retelling of the iconic Beauty and Beast took the world by storm, and for good reason. It rises to the level of pure spectacle. What is most impressive is the way it holds the integrity of the story together while nudging it just slightly towards a bit of creative reimagining. Modernizing the tale in this way really helped to bring it life in fresh way.

Most Underrated Films of 2017
I have already mentioned Detroit. The idea that more people didn’t see this film is disappointing to say the least.

download-5Worth adding to this list is Marshall, the perfect film to mark Black History Month. The film isn’t flashy, and the director colours the period setting in an almost charming, fictitious fashion, but the true life story of the man who who happened to change the face of civil rights in America is far from fictitious of course, and hugely important in helping turn the page on an important part of our history. As timely today as it was years ago, the film does a great job at evoking this sense of urgency.

Along the same lines is Roman J. Esq, a film I’ve already suggested boasts one of Denzel’s great performances.

Lastly, The Book of Henry is the single film I happen to stand furthest apart when it comes to obvious critical disdain. Thus it is a prime candidate for most underrated.

Two films stand out for me in this category.

downloadJumanji: Welcome To the Jungle
Wasn’t sure what to think when I heard they were remaking this one. Didn’t expect it to be nearly as good and as fun as it turned out to be. It is a modest budget film that just keeps on ticking well into the new year.

Brad’s Status
A film that flew under the radar, but what surprised me about this Ben Stiller drama was just how close to home the film hit. It speaks of a man hitting that midlife mark and his struggle to reconcile his life with the life of those he grew It’s about his struggle to really make sense of what is most important and the places in which we find our value in the midst of our tendency to measure this all against our perception of other’s success. And as it helped to remind  me, our perception of others rarely tells the whole story.

And now for Best Picture…




If there is a film I would have loved to see at the top of this list it would have been the final film in the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy (“War” if you are keeping track). As arguably one of the great trilogies of our time, the final Apes film moves us towards a truly epic conclusion, full of impressive scope, incredible affects and memorable performances. Taken together, all three films are truly exceptional works of cinema.

And yet, as a stand alone film it didn’t quite make it onto my personal best of list. There was simply too much competing for a spot in this final category, and for as much as I loved the trilogy I feel I would likely put Rise and Dawn before War.

Also worth mentioning is my own personal list deviates quite drastically from the Oscar Nominations, which doesn’t surprise me at all. Over the years I have come to recognize this as the most subjective category. There are just so many factors at play when it comes to determining which films stood out for me on a personal level.

With that said, and with much wrestling and heart ache (I do hate leaving films that I loved off the list), here are my top 12 favourite films of 2017, starting at the bottom with number 12 and moving up to my choice of favourite film of 2017 (the only category here that I ordered according to number).

12. The Shape of Water
Yes, I am pulling for this one to win out at the Oscars even though it sits at number 12 on my list. It is worth mentioning however this is the only nominated film that makes my list. I have always loved film, but Pan’s Labyrinth changed the way I see film. The potential for a film to accomplish what that film did thematically is something that I will forever be measuring every other film against, and as the only film to receive a 5 star rating from me it remains my favourite film of all time.

The Shape of Water doesn’t rise to the level of Pan’s Labyrinth, but it is certainly a well crafted passion project. And as a window into Del Toro’s mind and heart, and as a love letter to cinema, it stands out for me in 2017 for its delicate visual touch and its call back to some of the great cinema of old.

11. Brigsby Bear
An overlooked gem of a film that took me to unexpected places. Crafted with a compassionate hand, the film takes a story about innocence lost and weaves it into a powerful picture of what it means to belong in a grown up world. Brigsby Bear is one of those films that I think has the potential to mean many different things for many different people, and although I have no idea if this was intentional or not, as a father to an adopted son I happened to see it as a powerful picture of adoption, something I talk about in this space i a previous blog post (see Brigsby Bear). This was something that helped elevate this film to a truly personal level.


download-310. Spiderman
There were some genuinely decent Superhero films released in 2017. Marvel keeps finding ways to surprise us, and although Guardians of the Galaxy 2 was met with somewhat mixed reviews (some felt it toed the line a little too closely instead of branching out), Logan and Thor Ragnorak caught most a lot of us off guard with their collective tonal shifts. And then there was that small film called Wonder Woman which changed the game not just for the D.C.U. but for female directors and female heros being represented on screen moving forward.

And hey, lets not forget the genuinely underrated Captain Underpants.

But for anyone who knows me well, it would be near impossible for me to ignore how excited I was for Spiderman: Homecoming to accomplish a true return to form. I was hopeful going in, and it exceeded my expectation, mostly for the ways in which it proved a younger Peter Parker was the way to go. I made the cautionary statement afterwards that I think this film might have even transplanted Sam Raimi’s Spiderman as my all time favourite superhero film. I am not convinced that it did, there was just something about the way that original film captured a moment in time and paved the way for the M.C.U. we know today to emerge. And when push comes to shove, I prefer a more super human Spiderman swinging through the sky to the much more grounded and rationalized Spiderman we get in Homecoming.

But the fact I even considered that it could transplant that film says something significant about my experience of Homecoming as something wholly other, and I think where a more grounded version of Spiderman might not connect with me on the same emotional level, it did allow Director Jon Watts to give me the most developed on screen Peter Park I have seen to date.


download9. A Ghost Story
A truly haunting film, A Ghost Story lingers as a testament to the unfinished story, the power of a singular perspective caught in space and time where we must struggle so see how grief, sorrow and desperation all fits into the bigger picture. It is a film in which I found moments of grace in the midst of what is a great and concealed sense of sorrow, but in which these rather profound moments of sorrow are allowed to find their place in the midst of the grace.

A Ghost Story is not for everyone, and if its not, you might very well end up seeing this film as a colossal waste of your time. But if it does land for you there is potential for this film to land on an intensely personal and deep level. I think this is what it is intended to do. It’s a very particular story in which the pacing of the film is indicative of the grieving process. And it’s unsettling to say the least, but for me it was unsettling in the best kind of way. The restlessness I felt as I watched the film became a kind of meditation, seeing the movement of life and of death in perspective, a movement the film imagines through the lingering presence of a single white bedsheet with holes cut for eyes.



download-68. Downsizing
This is a film that muscled its way into my top 12 list late in the game. The more I think about this film the stronger and more compelling it seems to get, which is a big part of why I included it at number 8. Based on what I expected from the previews, the film unfolds in ways I did not expect.

The story itself builds as a rather strong (and surprising) social commentary, raising some important questions about the ways in which we choose to see life in this world and the things we deem to be the most important. And in raising these questions it looks to point out that there is a very real problem with the way many of us choose to see life in this world and with the things we deem to be most important, and a problem we need to address sooner rather than later.

What really struck me about Downsizing is the way it takes a purely humanist construct entrenched in materialism and plays it backwards through a poignant and pervasive (if undefined) spirituality, one that becomes increasingly in focus the closer we get back to where we started. In doing this, and in telling the story this way, it recognizes our dependance on our ability to solve the problem is in fact a part of the problem. How we choose to see life in this world and the things we deem to be most important is a problem that runs far deeper and is far more complicated than we often realize. We can’t simply “downsize” and have all of our problems go away, because in a spiritual sense humanity is the problem. Thus the film calls us towards rethinking the way we do life and what we deem to be most important by reshaping our view of ourselves. It’s a rather big statement to make in a film about becoming small, but it is both necessary and effective.



download-57. Wind River
Wind River brings to light important issues while also delivering a taught, edge of your seat thriller. It just might be one of the best and most important films of 2017, shedding light on the problem of missing indigenous women and providing us with an important commentary on racism, reminding us that pain, suffering and hardship is indiscriminate. That it also dares to entertain is a part of why this film makes #7 on my list.


download-26. Mother
I’ve already spoken to the polarizing nature of this film in an earlier category. But if you are able to get past that feeling of betrayal (this is not the horror film it was advertised to be), you will find a film that circumvents the tradition narrative structure. On an allegorical level, the true work of watching Mother! is figuring out who these characters are and what the story is supposed to represent. Once you are able to wrap your mind around what the film is actually doing (which is quite the mind blowing revelation) it leaves a lot of room to begin peeling back the layers. How you interpret the film should also reveal much about the ways in which you tend to interpret the world at large, which is what makes this film so profound.

To add to this, the film is also executed with some breathtaking fervour. The trajectory of the narrative and the fervour of the pacing offers us one of the most intense cinematic experiences of 2017, and the performances that bring this to life are equally astounding.


5. Their Finest

Their Finest checks one of my favourite cinematic boxes: films about making a film. The fact that it is also a gorgeously shot period piece with some great performances (Gemma Arterton is phenomenal and Bill Highy is wonderful) simply raises this to another level.

Their Finest deals with some darkness, detailing the sort of fear the tends to bind us in times of uncertainty (war) along with shedding light on the problem of inequality in Hollywood (representation of women). But it deals with all of this with a light and endearing touch that desires to evoke laughter, joy and love in the midst of the darkness.


download-44. The Big Sick
A brilliant dramatic comedy built on a sharp script, realized emotion, and well defined characters. One of the smartest and most deftly realized comedies to hit the screen in a long time.

download-23. Wonderstruck
An exceptional film in which the wonder is in the details. Wonderstruck calls us to participate in the unfolding mystery of a narrative that reaches across time, and it does something profound with a city that is both the setting for the story and a layered and complex character within the story. It demonstrates some of my favourite kinds of storytelling in film and more than any other film in 2017 managed to draw me into that sense of wonder that make sorts of films so important to me.

download-32. Logan
A beautiful and touching film that acts as a fitting bookend to Jackman’s (now) iconic interpretation of Logan/Wolverine. But the question of legacy is only scratching the surface of what makes this film great. More than just a gimmick, director James Mangold uses the R rating to explore the darker parts of Logan’s incredibly human story, and it resonates like few other films did in 2017, providing us with one of the most poignant on screen pictures of redemption I have encountered in a long while. The sheer brevity and weight of the films many lasting images will stick with me for a long, long time, and Jackman’s “give it everything he has left to give” performance is one for the ages. 



1. Blade Runner 2049
A truly remarkable cinematic achievement.





















Jim and Andy

The Big Sick

Wind River


Their Finest

Spiderman Homecoming

Blade Runner 2049

A Ghost Story


Lady Bird

Brigsby Bear


The Book of Henry

The Shape of Water

Kong: Skull Island

Loving Vincent

Beauty and the Beast


Roman J.

Molly’s Game

Cars 3

Personal Shopper



The Dark Tower

King Arthur



The Great Wall



Baby Driver

Atomic Blonde

Power Rangers

Guardians 2

The Wall

Alien Covenant


Lego Batman

Before I Fall

Happy Death Day

The Sense of An Ending

Battle of the Sexes

Planet of the Apes

American Made

Goodnight Christopher Robin

The Foreigner

The Man Who Invented Christmas




Biggest Surprise

American Made

Happy Death Day

The Foreigner



Goodnight Christopher Robin

The Man Who Invented Christmas



Most Underrated

The Dark Tower


2018 Reading Challenge- Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane

“Driving down 93, I realized once and for all, that I love the things that chafe. The things that fill me with stress so total I can’t remember when a block of it didn’t rest on top of my heart. I love what, if broken, can’t be repaired. What, if lost can’t be replaced.

I love my burdens.”
– Patrick Kenzie (Moonlight Mile)

One of the best things about the Reading Challenge I took on this year is the ways in which it is helping me to rediscover some books and series that I had long forgotten. This part of the challenge had me choosing 5 of the first 10 books I added to Goodreads when I signed up many years ago. When I logged on and came across Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane I got really excited. I can remember adding it to my list, and even heading out to the bookstore to buy it. But then it sat on my shelf for all these years. I had forgotten why I added it, and being able to finally dig into this one also led me back to other loves of my reading past, including Shutter Island and Gone Baby Gone, and even the film (and novel) Mystic River.


Mystic River and the Uncovering the Question of Motivation
It was the adaption of Mystic River for the big screen that happened to be my introduction to author Dennis Lehane’s vast body of work. As one of my favourite films of all time, director Clint Eastwood made some curious choices that left me eager to read the novel. He lets us wrestle with the films central themes of sin, guilt, and friendship through the ambiguity of the central character’s motivations. And given this is a film about the ways in which the choices of our past tend to catch up with our present, a notion that we see in the stories memorable catch phrase “We bury our sins, we wash them clean”, the lack of backstory leaves plenty of room for us as viewers to fill in the gaps ourselves.

This is a wonderful cinematic device that allowed me to really walk in these characters shoes, but it is one that also left me eager to dig into the literary source. And what I discovered in reading the book was an author who was equally adept at handling the question of motivation, only Lehane chooses to fill in the gaps using words and description. This is a literary device that also allowed me to walk in these characters shoes, just in a slightly different way. I found myself needing to interpret Eastwood’s use of space, whereas I found myself needing to imagine Lehane’s use of dialogue and descriptive.
Motivation can be a difficult thing to flesh out not matter the narrative form, and I understand what drew Eastwood to want to adapt Lehane’s novel for the big screen. It takes a special voice to be able to do this without falling into caricatures of either good or evil. And what impressed me about Lehane after having the privilege of reading some of his other works (another favourite of mine was Shutter Island) was the way he is consistently able to use the question of motivation to hold his characters, usually complicated characters who are being haunted by a particular choice or tension, in balance.
Kenzie-Gennaro and The Difficult Choice
Moonlight Mile finds Lehane returning to world of Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, whom many might also remember from the popular film Gone Baby Gone. Midnight is actually the sixth novel in the Kenzie-Gennaro series, but it also happens to be a sequel to Gone Baby Gone, one that picks up a number of years down the road.

What is immediately impressed on us as viewers in the opening pages is the recollection that Patrick was left to make a difficult choice in Gone Baby Gone, one that left him, and us as viewers/readers wrestling with how to interpret the decision along the line of right and wrong. Moonlight Mile falls in line with Mystic River in the sense that it leaves plenty of room for Patrick’s choice to haunt him, especially given that this story takes place 12 years later. Lehane uses the opening pages to give us the feeling of a life and a world that has both managed to put itself back together in some sense, but in which many of the pieces still lay scattered. Lehane leaves us with this lingering sense that however the story moves forward, Patrick is going to need to deal with his past in order to move forward, especially as it relates to his relationship with Angela. And what becomes clear the further we get into this story, is that the question of motivation remains incredibly important when it comes to really understanding who these characters are.
Maturing as an Author, Diving Deeper as a Writer
Lehane has also matured as an author, and I believe this is his best book in the series. He allows this story to dive a bit deeper and really seems to understand what it might mean to walk in Patrick’s shoes after some of this stuff has been left lingering for so many years, someone who must learn to wrestle with his demons and engage a difficult past even while he struggles to hold things together in the present. And one of the things Lehane elevates here is his ability to flesh this out within the context of relationship.


It is Patrick’s relationship with Angela, something we see challenged in the end of Gone Baby Gone, that becomes the foundation through which both Patrick and Angela, who also gets some wonderful characterization here, are able to understand and accept what it means to live as broken people. The power of this relationship was the consideration they gave to the same moral question coming from different perspectives. And what Moonlight Mile reminds us of is that, when it comes to wanting to better ourselves, often times this growth happens in the midst of the grey, not the black and white. And it in this place where the question of motivation, why we make certain choices and what these choices say about us, becomes to important. And the fact that Lehane is able to bring this out with such attentiveness, and in the guise of a crime novel is a testament to his talent as a writer. He understands that when it comes to characterization, leaving room for us as readers to really wrestle with the characters choices is the process by which we become endeared to the characters he is developing, and also the means by which we find compassion for their position. And where Eastwood did this using space and ambiguity, Lehane does this using the power of words.

2018 Reading Challenge: Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult by Bruce Handy

downloadHave you ever stopped to consider how we measure what qualifies as Children’s literature, or what makes Children’s Literature “children’s” literature?

It might sound like an obvious question, but the more I think about it the more I wonder why I have never asked this question before. It is a question I feel author Bruce Handy presupposes through the premise of his book Wild Things The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult, a book I recently finished as part of my 2018 Reading Challenge. It falls under my goal of reading 5 recent books from either 2017 or 2018. This was released last year and so it hasn’t been sitting on my TBR list for very long. But it is one I had been anticipating. And it didn’t disapoint.

For Handy, Children’s literature really isn’t all that different from adult literature. They tend to tackle similar themes, they have layers and character development. If there is a difference for Handy it would seem it relates to the perspective of the reader themselves, or perhaps more important, their disposition, which as handy puts it, for a child is looking upwards at a world that looks a whole lot bigger before it becomes small. To revisit these childhood stories as adults, as the subtitle suggests this book intends for us to do, is then to make our world bigger again.


From Birth to Death
The structure of the book narrows in on select books and organizes them in a way that reflects a journey from birth (our awareness of dependency in Goodnight Moon by Margaret Brown) to maturity (our awareness of death in Charlottes Web). In organizing it this way, which is essentially chronological, Handy is able to narrow in on the different nuances of each age category in a way that makes for a fascinating study of how literature shapes us and the ways in which our life experience, our our age, shapes the way we engage with story in different ways according to the different phases of our life.


For example, stories written for a very young age tend to begin in what Handy describes as that “sacred space” where the world is not yet messed up, and more specifically, parents have not yet messed up. It reflects a period of innocence as opposed to naivety, the sort of hopeful disposition that is able to see and embrace the world in simple terms.
The older we get the more complicated the world becomes of course, and this is where children’s literature begins to adapt to reflect the anxieties of growing up in this world, encouraging imagination (Dr. Seuss), and then expanding our capacity for imagining into the introspective (fairy tales), and then ultimately our ability to reflect outwards in meaningful ways (Chronicles of Narnia). All of this builds independence and equips us to step out into (and make sense of) the messiness of the world.


Handy also underlines the cyclical nature of Children’s literature. There is a point in which these books begin to cross the line between what is for children and what is perceived as adult literature, and the ways in which this happens reveals a lot about the world that we inhabit and how ambiguous this line can sometimes be. It is not static. Every childhood experience is different. But what is shared is the truth that, as we grow older we, all of us, gain perspective. And the further we get from our childhood, we, all of us, also lose perspective as well. We no longer are able to see the world from looking up in the way we once did. So Handy is suggesting there is worth in returning to these stories that shaped us in order to help us remember what it was to see the world from the perspective of looking up rather than down. And the strange and wonderful truth that comes out of revisiting these stories is that we are given the opportunity to reengage with themes that meant something to us growing up but that we are able to understand more fully as adults. This concept is both humbling and informing. These books teach us to use our imagination before the world is able to steal it away, and revisiting these stories is a way of reimagining once again, just from a slightly different, grown up perspective.

The Lives That Shaped the Stories
There were so many great reflections in this book that helped me along the way to see the idea of Children’s literature in a whole new light, and much of this revolved around the lives of the writers themselves. Each of them were fascinating and unique individuals who often found themselves writing their own experiences into their books in different and sometimes unexpected ways. I found it shocking to read that so many (most actually, with very little exception) children’s authors were childless and didn’t seem to care for children. A. A Milne was a great example of this, something that the recent bio-film (Goodbye Christopher Robin) captures with great clarity as well. As was Margaret Brown who penned stories for those who are really young, and, ironically she was the only author Handy deals with who actually studied “formally” to write Children’s literature. Or there was Lewis, who writes as one who was never truly able to let go of his own childhood experiences even as he held great respect for the capacity of a child like imagination.


In truth, as the author posits, they all respected children in their own way. That’s what made each of them such great and captivating authors, and perhaps it is worth considering the fact most of them did not study formally might mean the true colour of children’s literature is far less standardized and far more nuanced than we might assume it is when we first consider the question of what Children’s Literature actually is. There is a fluidity to these stories that tends to reach beyond static boundaries and which is eclectic and surprising, even more so when we come back around to reading them from an adult perspective.
Fairy Tales
One of the more interesting sections of the book for me was the chapter on fairy tales. There is something about this middle ground, that space when our ability to imagine is being tested and pushed and challenged, that is so exciting for me, and Handy has so many great things here to say about what fairy tales are and why they are so effective. As Handy suggests, “we can never know fairy tales. They remain wild things at heart”, seeing the power of Fairy Tales as a “fusion of mystery and immediacy”. It gives us a place to question while being extremely attentive to our need to still see the world through hopeful eyes.

Handy goes on to say that “fairy tale worlds mimic the real world as kids experience it- the strangeness, the newness, the unfamiliarity, the fear of hidden monsters, the arbitrariness of adults demands, the supernatural assumptions about almost everything (paraphrased).” They are, as he goes on to say,  “the last echos of “ancient myths”. They bring us face to face with the horror of the world, and admittedly as Handy points out, most fairy tales if adapted from their source material would earn a hard R rating.

But the thing is, they also tap into our need for wonder and light and good. Handy has some interesting things to say as well about the way Disney helped tap into this need for wonder and light and good in a much more definitive and forming way than the Grimms did.
Another really interesting part of this section is seeing the contrast between fairy tales and animal characters. Handy outlines the specific nature of animal characters, suggesting that animals are easy for children to engage and sympathize with in terms of understanding good and evil, but they also emerge because of the apparent lonliness of the writers themselves. The animals tend to take on “the political and social colourations of their own era” and helped the writers to examine these traits in ways they could make sense of in light of their own troubled lives. Animals, in this sense, according to Handy, incite their feeling of smallness in a big world, and there is something considerable about the way animals can take us deeper into the messiness of growing up in a way that, if it were a grown person telling the same story it would likely look something more along the lines of The Sopranos or Game of Thrones.
“Fairy tales look inwards while animal stories look outwards.” We don’t identify ourselves with animal characters, but we do identify the animal characters with the world in which we live, and thus animals can in some sense capture the brutality of this world as well as its potential for good in a similar way Game of Thrones does for adults.


A Love Letter to Children’s Literature
Beginning with what is possibly the first children’s book in 1690 with the New England Primer, Handy has written a love letter to children’s literature. He helps us see it as a sacred space, offering us the chance to navigate the forming years of our life in a way that allows us to reconcile the simplicity of the world we once accepted with such ease with the messiness of the world we come to discover and wrestle with and ultimately embrace.

There is poignancy to the suggestion, as we arrive in the end at Charlottes Web, that “as adults we weep for Charlotte (death), as kids we rejoice that Wilbur had all these new friends (life).” Handy admits he is not a religious or spiritual person, and if there is a slight downside to this book it is that this creates a visible tension between the wonder we find in the stories he deals with and his more pragmatic and binding world view (something I sensed before ultimately coming to know his position in the chapter on Lewis). But this statement for me, even with its obvious humanist undertones, was profound for me in a religious and spiritual way. Handy sees this as a reflection of the “cycle” of life. I saw this more as a call to learn to see the world again through a fresh sight of eyes, eyes that are able to challenge our sense of control and certainty.


The joy of reading children’s literature is ultimately, for me, about holding on to wonder and imagination and, above all, hope. It reminds me as an adult that cynicism does not need to overshadow joy, and that the truth about our world that these stories have to share and mirror for us is truth that we need to hear as adults as much as children, possibly even more so. And as Handy ultimately comes around to say in his closing words, the joy of reading children’s literature as an adult can really come down to this simple idea- it’s so that we “keep reading”.

My 2018 Reading Challenge: Mother Tongue: My Families Globe-Trotting Quest to Dream in Mandarin, Laugh in Arabic, and Sing in Spanish by Christine Gilbert


Christine Gilbert might not be the most distinguished writer or seasoned academic you’ll ever read, but she is a great storyteller. It is her ability to provide a platform for these stories to be told that gives the necessary weight to an impressive and diverse body of work/personal projects (see, including a recently released memoir titled Mother Tongue: My Families Globe-Trotting Quest to Dream in Mandarin, Laugh in Arabic, and Sing in Spanish, a book I chose to include as part of my personal 2018 reading challenge, filing it under the category of: Read 3 travelogues or non-fiction books related to the theme of travel.


The Power of Language
It is clear from the title that Mother Tongue is a book about language, and while she is certainly knowledgeable about the subject it is worth noting that Mother Tongue is not (primarily anyways) a book about the science of language, nor is it a scholarly work on the history of linguistics. She is not looking to redefine the field or offering anything necessarily new for serious students of the subject.


Rather, this is a book about the ways in which the power of language helped to inform an incredible personal journey of self worth and social awareness. In other words, it is intended to be read as a conversation, one in which she invites us as readers to participate with her as she attempts to make sense of what her experience, her quest, taught her about herself and about the world in which she lives.


On the surface this is a conversation about her personal quest to be fluent in 3 languages. Beneath the surface though is a conversation about why she is on this quest in the first place. And as it is with any great storyteller, she finds ways to explore and express this deeper question by weaving the details of her quest into a compelling narrative that ends up holding some surprising thematic force.
A Motivating Hope
Early on in Mother Tongue the author lets us in on an important piece of this motivation- hope. Hope that is fueled by the evidence that learning 3 languages might help combat a genetic predisposition to dementia, and hope that her decision to be bilingual, or trilingual, might help to break the cycle of dementia for her young son as well.
Already as a reader I was being offered a sense in the early pages that the author’s journey was a deeply personal one anchored by a strong emotional undercurrent born from the pain of watching a loved one suffer and die, and the desire that grew out of that to help protect her son from having to go through the same thing.

As the story moves forward, landing her in China and then eventually in Lebanon and Mexico, this same emotional undercurrent begins to uncover some added baggage from Christine’s past as well, baggage that begins to redefine her journey into the world of language, or at least her expectation of what it might be, through the reality of the neglect that coloured her past. Breaking the cycle of dementia becomes synonymous with breaking the cycle of this neglect, turning her own broken definition of family and motherhood into one that is being redeemed through the life she now has the opportunity to give to her own child, and eventually a second child.


And what is so fascinating about watching her navigate these waters is the way her own experience with this neglect has made her intuitively aware of the distance that language can create between cultures. The trials she faced in China of being exposed as the ambiguous and stereotypical “other”, the freedom she finds in Lebanon’s multi-cultured and multi-linguistic environment, and the learnings from these two places that she is able to take with them into Mexico, offer a profound statement of what it means to accept and to belong, both in the context of family and in the context of culture.


To Barcelona and Back Again
The book opens with a romanticized picture of Barcelona, the place in which her and her husband began their journey together, and offers us a promise that we will eventually return to these same streets on the other side of this journey. But first she must tell her story, one of having to leave and one of eventually choosing to return. And it is in the leaving, the stepping out, that she notes 2 central facets to learning a language that become absolutely necessary for her in order to understand the language she is learning-

1. That which we absorb through immersion
2. Information which we learn through study and the classroom.

And in understanding these two facets she begins to see a common thread running through her own experience, first of learning Mandarin, and second of learning Arabic. And this is the idea that learning the culture tends to be more important than learning the language itself. The marriage of language and culture was far more prominent than she imagined it would be when she first set out on this quest, and near the end of her journey she eventually comes to realize that it is more important for her to be bicultural than bilingual, and it is this revelation that ultimately brings them, and us, back to the streets of Barcelona.


Embracing Our Misconceptions
So much of Christine’s journey circles around the idea that we live with misconceptions, both of ourselves and of others, and often these misconceptions arrive as a result of the barriers that language tends to create. Being able to communicate, to see and hear one another, becomes far more important when we experience life without this communication. And the further she goes on her quest to conquer and tear down this barrier, the more misconceptions she finds being uncovered.


It might have began as a misconception surrounding the technicalities of becoming trilingual, such as the fact that it was far less of a step by step process and far more fluid and nuanced than she expected it would be. Or the very base level misconception that to be bilingual is to be smarter and more intellectual. She discovers that being bilingual is more about context and necessity than an increase in brain or intellectual capacity (a point in which engages with some of the serious science as well). Bilingualism doesn’t make us smarter, but it does make us more social. At birth and at a young age the brain that controls multi-languages is the same part of the brain. For those who learn another language at an older age, separate parts of the brain control the different languages. The differences are subtle but also real, with the most glaring one that learning older sets back the capacity of dialect, sounds, linguistics, accents. But what she finds is that we are all equally capable of becoming bilingual.


All of this eventually transforms into some larger misconceptions as well, such as thinking that Mandarin should be easy to learn if she simply puts in the time. There are some very clear reasons (for her) as to why she was able to fall and love with and connect to the Arabic language and not Mandarin, the biggest of which was the access she was given to the culture itself. She was not able to immerse herself in the Chinese culture, and what shocked her was just how far this set her back in being able to appreciate and learn the language.

Or misconceptions about the diversity of language, something we see in her absolutely beautiful and passionate rendering of Arabic as a threefold language of expression- written, street and verbal. Here she helps us as readers to see just how entrenched language is in the culture that gives it shape, and how big of a role it plays in defining different segments of the same society.

Or the shock of knowing the role of cultural expression in forming language as tonal shifts. We don’t hear this in our own language because we are immersed in it. It becomes automatic, allowing us navigate the language of social cues through tones and expressions. When it is not automatic though, these social cues become a massive obstacle to overcome in order to belong and not to be misunderstood.


Or one of my favourite misconceptions that emerges along her journey was the role that food plays not only in culture, but in language. Where bilingualism becomes biculturalism, food inevitably seems to be never far behind.

More Than Just a Language
In all of these misconceptions Christine has weaved together a story that reminds us as readers that language is not simply something to master or the building of a social construct. It is a means by which we either connect or distance ourselves from each other. It is learning to communicate who we are to one another so that we understand one another. In this way language is built on relationship, one that uncovers the motivations, dreams and passions and longings of the other (something that hits close to home during their time in Lebanon), but also helps us to gain a greater grasp on our own self as well. And as Christine so demonstrably shows, it is the beauty of time and space and community that shapes our marriage to language more than anything else. In giving time, in increasing her sense of space and in broadening her sense of community she came to see language as more than simply words, but also as a face and a place that holds personality and meaning, a face and place worth getting to know and investing in, a face and a place that, for as different as they are from their own, reminds them of how much we all have in common.