2021 Retrospective: Favorite Documentaries, Animation and Horror

As I continue to give last minute considerations to my end of the year top lists in film I always enjoy giving special attention to some underserved genres. This is specifically true when it comes to documentaries as I tend to devote my top films of the year to narrative films. Thus this is an opportunity to shed some light on films that are really worth seeing that might not otherwise get mentioned. The same goes for animated and horror films. While these have the potential to break my final choices for top films of the year, seeing as they do belong in the narrative categories, they also tend to get overshadowed by nature of the genres. Thus I like to give them their own due as well..

So, as a precurser to my best of the year picks here are my 10 favorite documentaries, animated films and horror films of the year respectively:

Top 10 Documentaries of 2021

Honorable Mention: The Rescue

Bringing up the bottom rung of my top 10 this year is a pick that ironically might be making the strongest push at the 2022 Oscars. It’s positioning at number 10 is not a statement about its quality; this is a well made film that likely represents one of the true crowd pleasers of 2021. It’s simply made, sufficiently told, entertaining and checks all of the boxes for an inspiring and emotional real world drama emerging from tragedy. Its definitely worth checking out (currently available on Disney+) even if it doesn’t reach deeper than its larger than life story.

10. Painter and the Thief

This technically released in 2020, but it didn’t find wide release until 2021. Thus this captivating and intimately captured portrait of a man caught in a moment between the mistakes of the past and the redemptive possibilities of the present makes my list for its powerful ability to break through the concerns for justice and to ask better questions, both of the criminal and of onesself. The film does admittedly feel inentionally structured, ironically making this ripe for a narrative adaptation, which is actually being made. But it is this construction, as it trades the victims question of why did you do this for the simple and basic question “can I paint you”, putting victim and perpetrator across from one another in the most vulnerable of positions that leads to the most poignant, revelatory, and unexpected moment that drives this film forward, using the painting, the art, as a way to interpret deeper questions and observations about the self and the other.

9. Val

If someone had suggested a Doc would one day be made about Val Kilmer’s life I would likely have raised a couple eyebrows. And in fact I did when I heard about this release. He’s not the name I would have picked out of the hat to grace the screen with his story.

And yet here I am, completely immersed in his raw, vulnerable, quirky, and sometimes off the wall persona. I had no idea who Val really was off the screen, which is ironically a subtext and theme embedded into the doc itself. How is it that we navigate a dual existence, especially as one now with his identity stolen, forced to look backwards at a career that now defines him moving forward. I now feel better for knowing him through this film.

Credit him with documenting so many memories throughout his life, as they make the perfect complimentary narrative to this largely self reflective and very spiritual exercise. And for all its quirkiness, don’t be surprised at all if you find yourself shedding a year or two.

Couldn’t help while watching this but feel this is more than entertainment. It’s a gift, an invitation into a life and a struggling but hope filled soul that we shouldn’t take for granted. It’s a reminder that these are real people, real stories making the art that becomes and remains such important parts of our own stories and lives.

8. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

Another hold over from 2020 that didn’t see wide release unil 2021, but it is well worth your time as it blurs the lines of the traditional documentary by estbalishing certain bits of scripted drama. The way the scripted drama are submitted to the real world setting, forcing it to adapt and respond in real time, is fascinating to watch unfold as it explores a real world cheers like setting. It is intersted in locating this particular space as a place where everyone knows your name, and the longer we sit with these people in this space the more of their stories we get know, filling in the gaps with their circumstance, their fears, their stuggles and their dreams.

7. Velvet Underground/The Sparks Brothers

Ironically, of these two films documenting the story of a band who’s story has not previously been told in this fashion, its the one about the band I had never really heard of (The Sparks Brothers) that is my favorite, at least when it comes to the story. Both films bear their own unique style, with Wright’s flashy, upbeat approach working to capture the Sparks Brothers eccenitricty and external tesimonies and Todd Haynes utilizing something more avant-garde to tell the story of Velvet Undergrounds foray through the music scene of their time, telling the story from the perspective of the band itself. The Sparks Brothers has way of assuming that it is introducing you to a band you might not have heard of, narrowing in specifically on their music and their story, while The Velvet Underground takes a broad angle look by locating the band within a larger scene and era. Both are exceptiona docs from very good filmmakers that are worth seeking out (both on Appletv+)

6. Love, Oran/Notturno

A made at home Canadian documentary that takes place in Alberta as it follows a family digging through these relics of their past and gaining insight on their connective story in the process. The hidden secrets that emerge from these relics, hidden letters that they find in a family home, allow them to recontextualize their story in a fresh light using history and legacy. Meaningful and quite powerful. I caught up with this one on Hoopla.

If the question in Love, Oran is what if a portrait could erase the barriers of a family history, the question in Notturno is what if a camera could erase the boders holding a long history of conflict in its imaginary grasp. This is a fascinating question as it follows these relationships. A broader view of family and roots than Love, Oran, but nevertheless interted in something similar.

5. The Truffle Hunters

I still have never had truffles, and this film features a lot of truffles, but I was really here for the quirky, snarky old Italian men and their dogs hunting for truffles. The film uses this to bring some introspection to their inner lives, focusing on themes like class systems, life and death, It’s also worh mentioning the scenes where we get to watch an Italian man eat truffles with Italian music as his soundtrack, and likewise we get to watch a go-pro strapped to a dog hunting for said truffles. Definite scenes of the year for me.

4. Pink: All I know So Far/What Drives Us

I honestly would have never expected a documentary on Pink to be this high up on my list, but here we are. It made me a fan, or a bigger one than I was, and I found the spiritual journey of walking with Pink through life on tour to be hugely inspiring and uplifting in so many ways. What Drives Us is a different story. My wife is a massive fan of the Foo and of Dave Ghrol and thus we both anticipated enoying this one together. What i didn’t anticipate was such a raw and introspective reflection on life as a musician taking me back to my on music days and touring ambitions. This one struck a personal chord and is filled with a passion for music and a passion for life. It underscores why a Foo concert is like being taken to Church in true Gospel laden style. In this case the Gospel is the power of music to transform and to shape us in important ways as better people.

3. Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror

One of those rare docs that makes education a highly entertaining process. The film utilizes a highly stylized approach that allows it to utiilze the full length of its run time (be aware this is a long one) in order to build on its subject matter and dig deep into the exploration of folk horror. A must watch for serious fans of horror.

2. Don’t Go Tellin Your Momma

A deep dive into the Black experience that is equal parts poetry, compelling documentary and visual interpretation. From what I understood this is based on a short, which only leaves me wanting to get my hands on the source material. As a feature length version this caaptures a sense of time and space and our essential humanity like few other films that I’ve seen this year.

1. Summer of Soul

This was an easy pic for my #1 spot as it exemplifies a true one of a kind experience. That this festival that it brings to light in all of its glory was swept away into the dusty and forgotten corners of history by the much more visible Woodstock, which took place at the same time down the oad from its Brooklyn locale, is astonishing in and of itself. It frames this celebraiton of music, soul and Black culture against the tragedy of this simpe fact. Which is what makes this footage so necessary , so thrilling, and so important. That the film is also uncovering the true power of this festivals social and cultural and neighborhood presence at the same time underscores its power and relevance. Currently available on Disney+.

Top Animated Films of 2021

10. and 9. The Croods: A New Age/Ron Gone Wrong

Two similar films bringing up the back end of my top 10. I am a considerate fan of The Croods, and I woulld make the case that this sequel is even stronger and more aware than the first when it comes to its sophisticated take on the human species and our developement of societies. On the other hand Ron Gone Wrong might not be quite as strong, but with its themes on the relationship between advancement/technology and the social realities of human connection it not only connects with the Croods but also takes its emphasis on history and applies it as one of the more important messages in 2021.

8. Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs

This came as a complete surprise to me. Springing for that dollar rental from Amazon on a small, unknown animated property uncovers a unique take on the Snow White story that digs deep into its mythos whole giving it some fresh, modern nuances. This is definitely not the traditional Disney story, taking that motif and turning it on its head in some interesting ways.

The low budget certainly does reveal itself at points, and the modern music is a bit misplaced, but it more than makes up for that in inventiveness through a sweet story that challenges modern conventions regarding appearances and image and identity.

7. Summit of the Gods

Visually rich, narratively compelling, and anchored in its real world context, this is an exceptionally constructed animated film that manages to reach those figurative heights even as it climbs that literal summi in search of the truth.

6. Luca

Deceptively and even refreshingly simple when it comes to Pixar, Luca offers an extremely lovely, charming and accessible narrative that is as steeped in its exploration of identity and community as it is in its vibrant Italian culture. As someone who loves everything and anything Italian I really fell for this film big time.

5. CryptoZoo

As a story about what it means to live together and the social and ecological concerns thta flow from this, this inventive and creative mindbender is an adult animation that locates its richness in the genres freedom to visually stretch the boundaries of reality. Much of this is about two worlds colliding, and as it does it reveals important truths about what it means to be human in our diversity and our complexit.. A challenging watch but a compelling one.

4. Encanto

I have already spent plenty of space here and elsewhere talking about my love of this story, but its presence as a “Christmas story”, its Colombian culture, and its complex themes and images remain some of the most compelling of 2021. Its getting misrepresented a bit I think in popular dsicsussion in ways that tend to miss the full weight of its narratve, both cuturally and thematically, but I definitely think it is one of the stronger Disney films to release in a while and I can only see it growing in my appreciation for it over time.

3. Raya and the Last Dragon

Coming out early in the year and leading a crop of decent entries for Pixar and Disney, Raya deserves not to be neglected to the shadows. This is the kind of storytelling that I desperately miss and that we need more of, which makes it ironic that I think some dismissed this as formulaic. Not only did I find the story exciting on a visual and dramatic level, I think it taps into some of those old fashioned narrative tendencies that are often reserved for epics, something this film aspires towards. Full points for representing one of the first new original films from Disney in a good while.

2. The Legend of Hei

A Chinese 2D animated film that’s big on scale and intimate in focus. There is so much to praise about this film’s ability to take a simple style and meld it with so much carefully crafted detail. This is as rich in its cultural representation as it is in the telling of its story, which, although arguably feeling somewhat familiar and by the numbers in certain points (the emphasis on the relationship between human and nature and the role of the spirit in uniting and healing this rift is common in Eastern narratives), reaches some real emotional depth. And it is as much the vision it represents as it is the chracters and relationships that invigorate this with meaning and purpose.

The film can be seen as a tale of two halves, with the inimacy of the first half giving way to the action set pieces of the second half. This blending of styles and focus might not work for everyone, but I found it to be a great way of building the momentum and fleshing out the stakes. It had me hooked the whole through, from the first glimpse we get of that wonderful cat, to the inhabited bodies and ensuing conflicts of the humans/goblins/spirits. One of the wonderful things about the film is that it is not interested in creating good versus bad but rather reaches for complexity and nuance in terms of the moral and ethical quesitons it wants to explore.

1. The Bones

The Wolf House is a legitimate classic, even given its relatively short existence (having releasdd last year). A work of true genius and an all time animated great. The visual creation paired with the immersive social and cultural commentary are intrinsic to its design, drawing me in with little knowledge of the allegorical context. The opportunity to dig further into its messaging was part of the experience.

This follow up short is no different. The commentary on Chilean history and the dictatorship drifts along underneath the capitvating notion of a young girl using literal death (bones of the past) to create life. It’s a bizarre concept to be sure, but it never obscure. In fact, by the time it’s over it feels earily comforting.

A definite must watch.

Top Horror Films of 2021

Honorable Mention: Vicious Fun

What would happen if you got drunk and accidentally stumbled into a secret support group for serial killers (come on now, therapy doesn’t discriminate). I never knew I needed the answer to this question until I encountered this film. Lets just say this gives new meaning to getting in touch with your inner self.

10. Anything for Jackson

After it’s well constructed opening sequence that uses an innocent backdrop to throw us straight into the deep end using some excellent set design and camera work (evoking atmosphere, mystery, space and minimalism to achieve this), the film wastes no time in answering it’s most essential questions- who are these people and why are they doing what they are doing.

This happens so succinctly and efficiently in fact that it left me wondering where this film goes from here. It does face some challenges in that it both doesn’t take its sensational premise too seriously but it also takes the characters extremely seriously. This plays out in terms of the basic construct of the plot, which plays things intentionally over the top, and the unexpected character beats and moments of honest introspection that give this film a genuine sense of heart. It’s too the Directors credit that the script its allowed to mine the premise for these moments and raise things to the surface in terms of motivation, struggles, backstories and nuance. There is real concern on display here amidst the glorified evil and some legitimately disturbing images and scenes (anything featuring an unborn baby tends to get automatic points for frights).

9. Sator/Violation

An excellent horror piece to add to the 2021 slate, and something of an unexpected find.

A tie in this spot for two challenging and uncoventional horror films that use a highly visual approach as an interpretive exercise. They both have much to say about the internal process in different ways, and they lean into the tones and atmosphere in order to tell its story.

8. The Quiet Place 2/Candyman

Two of the more popular titles to release this year tied in this spot as well, with the Quiet Place 2 demonstrating how to make a sequel to a stand alone cult success, especially given the films specific play on silence as a motif. This film leans into the larger mythology, asking questions about whats going on out there as opposed to the more contained focus of the first. It really worked for me. Candyman proves a great example of how you tackle a film from the past that was so anchored in its itme and place as a commentary. Using the same story to speak to modern questions makes this one of the smarter horror films of the year. Definitely enjoyed both new entries.

7. Nightmare Alley

The more I ruminate on this the more I like it. Of course he is my favorite Director so its difficult for him to miss with me. I watched it not too long after I saw The Power of the Dog and I found Nightmare Alley to speak to my negative experience with that film:
“Given the shared focus on our depravity and the inevitable cycles that hold us enslaved to potentials for both self destruction and liberation, Nightmare Alley succeeds where I felt The Power of the Dog desperately fails. The key difference I think is in the storytelling and the strength of the script. Depravity is always a curious theme to explore as there is always a danger of allowing nihilism to creep in to the mix The lingering phrase in this film, rich as it is with the full weight of the story’s examination of sin, forgivness and redemption, themes that emerge with stark resonance in the early going, echo with the sentiment of its felt and deeply human struggle. The words “I was born for this” cut through the noise of the inner turmoil with a special irony, disprupting our sense of how this story must go and how it must end. “Must” being a word that evokes that inherent need for the depravity to attach itself equally to the forming nature of transcendent Truth, something Del Toro is very good at capturing the rich world that Del Toro creates here for his characters to exist within rises to the surface and informs our perception of how it is that such depravity exists. And more importantly forms a longing to know how it is that something more hopeful might exist within the same fabric of this existence.

As my favorite Director Nightmare Alley proves to be more accessible and straight forward than Shape of Water, a film that needs room to grow in order to be fully appreciated (or rejected). For me personally this translated into a different kind of experience. Whereas the Shape of Water immediately resonated because of its complexity, this film left me feeling like it has a lot of room to grow in its simplicity. It’s one I anticipate revisiting, as the story structure takes a slow burn approach, using the quiet nature of its first half to set the stage for the dynamism of its second half and the thrill of its finish.”

6. Malignant

Makes my list mostly for the shared experience of that crazy twist. This is what makes horror so dependable when it comes to the theatrical experience and respresnts one of the more memorabe theater going experiences of the year. The film is more than just the twist though, and really reflects some tightly woven storytelling, some wonderful visual trics, and some great practical effects.

5. Lamb

I’m not sure exactly how I would categorize this film. It’s not really horror, but at the same time it kind of us. It’s a suspenseful drama, but its also a straight ahead moral tale. And then its scenario sets this into a category all its own. I think the best word for it is parable, and as a parable I really enjoyed it quite a lot. It’s the kind of film that has real staying power.

Thematically is where the film finds its anchor though, using an absurdist premise to ask some honest to goodness questions about what our relationship to the natural world is, particularly the sentient life we humans share it with. We also get an examination of “human” nature within this larger conversation, wondering about what it is that sets us apart as moral creatures, if anything. There is an action taken in the first half that forms a big part of the film’s tension. This action blurs the line between our humanity and the pure drive of nature to protect, survive and thrive in a familial and tribal sense. The film returns to this in its final act, using it to then hold the parable together as a cohesive narrative. As I suggested earlier, what we get here are types rather than character. This is actually what makes the film’s first half initially somewh evasive in precisely what it is going for. We are simply throw into a circumstance and situation without explanation, and we follow as things that feel less than normal unfold as normal, leading the film to then use this premise as an opportunity to ask questions and provide a lesson for us as viewers to then think on and ponder. And the more i ponder them, the more the point of the parable seems to awaken with fresh application.

4. Dark Encounter

A genuine sci-fi drama in the way of the older classics and Spielberg fame. Loved the look, the pacing, the suspense, the special effects. Its got all the right dynamics for the final half hour to pack a real emotional punch as it brings the subtext together with the building sense of mystery and dread.

Seek this one out. It’s playing on Prime and it’s absolutely worth your time.

3. The Night House

This is a challenging watch. Much of that comes down to the Director’s intention in attempting to leave its working parts slightly ambiguous so as to allow for different viewers to locate a story that fits their own experience. Its also an immensely rewarding experience for being to take the experience of the individual and set it within the film’s lingering presence as a bigger picture. This is where it truly comes alive. This is where the Director’s ambitions are able to take root, formulating the story I needed to hear while awakening me to the realization that this sits in conversation with multiple other stories that this film both is and can be telling at the same time. There are numerous scenes that play with perspective in some neat and highly technical ways, especially where it fits with this underlying theme of the mirror image or reversal that distorts matters of identity and truth. The ways the film achieves its scares is very effective, and comes as the result of well thought out and deeply creative sequencing and camera placement as opposed to any glossed over effects. Portions of this reflects natural filmmaking at its finest. And shout out to Rebecca Hall who does some nice work carrying this film. Definitley one of the strontest horrot films of the year.

2. Light From Light

An unconventional ghost story that works as a powerful, honest and simple exploration of spiritual longing in the face of loss and doubt. It’s quiet and very gradual in its pacing, but in a way that lets it really get inside you and do it’s work. There are no easy or concrete answers, simply the uncertain but hope filled journey of these wanting souls. There is the mother, who finds herself unexpectedly thrust into a position of wondering whether she has a spiritual gift and connection. There is her son who is on his own journey of coming of age and trying to make sense of life. And there is the middle aged man still working through the loss of his wife and wondering whether she is still with him.

As their lives connect the ghosts in this film become as metaphorical as they are literal, with the exploration of his wife’s spirit leading to powerful reflections on the hidden and painful parts of their past and present. And it’s done with such careful and astute observation of their emotional concern. Truly beautiful.

1. Last Night in Soho

Edgar Wright’s much anticipated horror film Last Night in Soho is a true celebration of style, substance and form. Brimming with character, it bleeds a welcome sense of nostalgia, moving us through the streets of Soho like a place caught in time and with stories to tell.

The film features complimentary performances by the eclectic and seasoned actresses Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy. I especially love McKenzie, who is noted for her stately, and often muted performances. She pushes some of those boundaries here playing the confident young outsider with a special gift that allows her to see her dead mother’s spirit. When she decides to move to London to pursue a career in fashion design, this gift manifests itself in some unexpected ways.

If you have seen the trailer, you know that the film transports us back in time to a glamorized age of smoky rooms, good music and flashing lights. This movement between times mirrors the connection between the two main characters, which is where we get the mystery element of the story. Wright does a great job of tying this in thematically to the journey of McKenzie’s character. This is where her dream of her present and future collides headlong with the past in some neat ways. The past gets its own supporting character in a way, and this then functions as one of the films driving relationship.

There are some really nice horror bests too, including a couple very effective jump scares. It’s more experiential horror than terror, and Wright gives the film space it needs to really build up to where it goes, eventually the horror to seep its way into the fabric of the films design, almost unexpectedly.

2021 Retrospective: The Story of a Year In Film

I always enjoy using this time of year to look back on the year that was and take stock of where I’ve developed and grown. I love locating a narative within that in order to help formulate it into a story I can live occupy and live in to as I look towards the new year. This includes looking through what I have been reading, listening, and watching in 2021.

I’ve already been using this space to examine my top 10 most important reads of the year, which you can search here if you are interested. What I’ve been looking at the last few days is my year in film, taking stock of which stories stood out for me and how they fit together. Along with the return to theaters the emotional process that refelcts, and acheiving a record in terms of stats (I logged more than 1270 first time watches with over 250 of those being 2021 releases), I noted a real difference between the uniform nature of my top picks in 2020, which nearly all fit within a similar theme of childhood innocence lost set against the recovering of that childhood innocence in the face of our adult cynicism, and the sheer diversity of the titles contending for my favorites of 2021. This has been one of the hardest years to whittle down that I can remember in a good while. For the most part my picks tend darker, more introspective, and are largely interested in uncovering the internal process as opposed to evoking imediate wonder for the larger story that we are a part of. In truth, taken as a collective these films admit that the larger story feels a bit cloudy at the moment.

These stories have tended to veer more intimate and smaller in scale, raising more questions about the present than runimating in the possibilities of the future. The occupying of this present space, perhaps as a kind of acceptance of where we are today as opposed to the hopeful positioning and optimism that the turn of the calender year seemed to reflect closing out 2020, seems to represent the exhuastion of it all that I hear many lamenting. I can’t help but think about how fiting the most recent Netflix release Don’t Look Up actually is given how it has sparked such vigorous division between an already divided left and right, convincing the masses regardless of affiliation that they are the smartest person in the room while everyone else are the ignorant fools and the cause of all the problems. The phrase “don’t look up” has quickly become ammunition for Trumpists and Leftists alike. Its no wonder its one of my least favorite films of the year. The laborious and dire depiction of toxic masculinity and cycical depavity in the Power of the Dog is close behind in one of my least favorite viewing experiences of the year.

That’s not to say that the films that have been informing my own experience in 2021 have been hopeless and dire. It’s simply that they see the present state of the journey in process and with a more narrowed perspective that the desperate grasping for hope that was 2020. I think about the complicated persona of Diana captured in the creative and imaginative exercise of Spencer, a film that dares to wonder about who this person was and how she might have processed the weight of her own struggles over the course of what was an important 3 days in her history. Here we get a picture of someone both burdened and driven to respond to lifes expectations of who we must be and what life must be like in order to be seen as worthwhile. Similarly the portrait we get in Cmon Cmon of a storied and isolated persona who finds his perspective on life challenged by an unexpected relationship with a child emboldens us to see the world as bigger than our limited point of view and as something that is in process, beckoning us to learn in real time often in the midst of less than ideal circumstances. The French Dispatch faces the present binaries of this world; life and death, dark and light, good and evil, and dares to imagine community as the healing force that emerges from their inevitable collision. Films like Notturno, Identifying Features, and About Endlessness narrow in on the points of our journey that feel impossible and embrace the sorts of questions that emerge from this uncertainty, pushing us forward down a path with limited view of whats ahead. In a different sense, films like The Card Counter, Cage’s surprising turn in Pig, Riders of Justice, and the single setting of The Humans narrow in even further on the emotional journey each narrative imaginines as they move towards wrestling with failures, sin, personal restitution, redemption and forgiveness as necessary for making sense of the larger story of this world and the spaces we occupy in it.

At the same time we got films that looked towards those larger and forming narratives, be it the metaphorical and allegorical interest of the Green Knight, steeped as it is in the old Aurthurian legends, the deeply felt cultural and socio-political commentary of Raya and the Last Dragon and Encanto, stories of real hope in the midst of the collective struggle using traditional narratives to point us towards larger spiritual truths and a broadened view of humanity as “family”, This is similar as well to the way Spiderman: No Way Home tackles the question of how it is we live with the seeming irreconcilable dichotomies that define our lives and this world. Knowing what it means to be both Spiderman and Peter, or to be both hopeful and despairing at the same time is, the movie insists, part of the process of learning to live in the world we occupy in the present. Marvels Eternals asks the same question on a bigger scale, looking to locate an orgins story to help make sense of the moral tension of Thanos’ snap, examining the uncertainty of living in a post snap world. We also got the simple and hope filled stories of Licorice Pizza, Belfast and Coda, each of which offer real stories of hope from slightly different vantage points, be it the internal process of Locorice Pizza, the social and societal reality of Coda, or the collective experience of Belfast. Even the latest installment of Matrix: Resurrections seemed to reach for the hope filled possibilities that our questions might reveal, daring to ask about the nature of living in a post resurrection reality. If Neo as “The One” was supposed to bring liberty and make what is wrong in this world right, why are things still wrong? Does this mean that the resurrection failed to deliver what it promised, that Neo’s death is now more real than the promise of new life? Working through this question becomes a measure for how it is that we locate hope in the present, especially where we feel caught in the despairing cycles.

All of this has led me towards one, singular phrase- the reminder that we are “in process”. In process feels less hopeful a sentiment than the forced proclamation of a new year that was the end of 2020. It also feels more intentional and opportunistic, as though to say, if this is still our reality, and if things have even in fact appeared to have gotten worse and more divided, the simple statement that we are in process forms an invitation to step into that story and participate in it precisely where we find ourselves in this present moment. Calling us to trust in the promise that healing will come and that a new world will arise out of the rubble. What is interesting about looking back at last years reflection in this space from my personal resolutions challenge called Rosebud, is that the word I chose to inform the year was “story”. This word was birthed by my 3 “buds”, those three things that I hoped to form into roses. In some ways the story of this year has felt illusive, if not problematic and anti-climatic. In other ways perhaps learning what it means to find ourselves within the pages of that story, in those forming sentences that seem to promise a turn of the page and the forming of an ufolding plot, is a way to invite the unexpected rather than demanding the conclusion. Rather than assuming as many of us did that the end of 2020 reflected the necessary climax of a tumultuous year, perhaps this year can rest in the plot twist, the intracacies of those smaller scripted moments that make a story exciting and worthwhile.

My Top 10 Most Important Reads in 2021: #6 Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade The World by Tom Holland

Previous Entries:
#10: The Nolan Variations: The Movies, Mysteries, and Marvels of Christopher Nolan by Tom Shore
#9: Think Again; The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant
#8: The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War by Louis Menand
#7 In Pursuit of Disobedient Women: A Memoir of Love, Rebellion, and Family Far Away by Dionne Searcey

#6 Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World by tom Holland

There is a fair criticism that coud be made about Holland’s recent work on historical relevance of the Christian revolution that it spreads itself too thin in terms of being able to adequately represent all the scholarship availale. There simply isn’t space to give it due diligence given how much space he wants to cover without the page count running far too wide for it to reach popular appeal. This is relegated to the bibliography, which in itself is worth the price. However, this does not, or should not in my opinion, detract from the main thesis Holland is trying to establish, which is visibe and undeniable impact of the Christian revolution on human history in social, evolutionary, and societal expressions.

It’s worth noting that Holland writes as an agnostic and a historian not a Christian nor a theologian. This work is the culmination of a process of thought that has been occupying him for some time, and claims about God’s existence aside, he recognized that once he set some of his personal biases aside something happened with the evidence that he could not shake or simply ignore. This humbled his position as a historian and compelled him to dig further in order to test if this perception and account of history had any substance and truth. This book is his basic argument that it does and I think he makes an extremely compelling case.

So why is this important? For me this is important on two levels. i would not want to coopt this to fuel some kind of Christian apologetic. That would do this scholarly work a disservice. I do think his demonstrating humility in the seeking out of of knowledge and truth is an extremely worthwhile trait that scholarship can learn from. I also think this helps to dispel certain hard and fast assumptions about religon in general, which if we could employ in our online and verbal discussions could go a long ways in turning them towards more helpful and fruitful engagement.

My Top 10 Most Important Reads in 2021: #7 In Pursuit of Disobedient Women: A Memoir of Love, Rebellion, and Family, Far Away by Dionne Searcey

My 10 Most Important Reads in 2021

Previous Entries:

#10: The Nolan Variations: The Movies, Mysteries, and Marvels of Christopher Nolan by Tom Shore

#9: Think Again; The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant

#8: The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War by Louis Menand

#7: In Pursuit of Disobedient Women: A Memoir of Love, Rebellion, and Family, Far Away by Dionne Searcey

I went into this one on recommendation a bit skeptical over how much I was going to enjoy it (books centered on politics aren’t really my thing), and I found that I was absolutely hooked after the first 20 pages. Author Dionne Searcey is essentially recounting her time as a reporter for the New York Times that saw her uprooting her family to move to West Africa (Nigeria) back in 2015. I think what really helped me personally connect with this story was that she was able to bring us as readers into the politics by way of the very accessible travel and family narrative that frames the story. Her journey into the heart of Nigeria and its political strife is blanketed by these wonderful anecdotal stories that bring us along for the ride into their new found, if temporary, life in a foreign country. We get as much of the turmoil (and her reporting of it) through some white knuckle experiences as we do of the beautiful side of Nigerian culture as well, mainly by centering us within those family dynamics.

The other part that I really, really loved was the way Searcey formulates themes by paralleling the stories she is reporting on in regard to the plight of Nigerian women, and her own experience of learning how to navigate a marraige in such difficult circumstances and in a foreign land, sometimes separated by distance. Her striving to do what she is good at and to place herself in danger’s path for lengthy periods is set in tension with the responsibilities and commitments she him being both a wife and a mother. She begins to understand this part of her life through the stories of the women she meets who are struggling in their own way to find the freedom to become who they are while also balancing their need for relationship and family and responsibility for the other. It’s an intimate way to marry the particular cultural struggle as a complex and universal tension between the autonomous self and our relationship to specific social realities that define our sense of self. The way she writes about these themes allows her to bring her life and experiences from back home in America into the experiences she is learning about in Nigeria in a way that both makes sense of and allows them to be informed by the other (without losing the distinct and very real challenges of the other in the process).

Along with all of that is the writing, which demonstrates excellent flow and pace, reads is an easy read,, and that is chalk full of wonderful moments, be it funny, emotional, thrilling, shocking, or lovely. It’s the whole package

My Top 10 Most Important Reads in 2021: #8 The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War by Louis Menand

The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War by Louis Menand

The synopsis for Menands book suggest that “the Cold War was not just a contest of power. It was also about ideas, in the broadest sense – economic and political, artistic and personal.” What’s interesting about how the book arrives at this basic thesis is that it takes a look at America during the Cold War era from the outside looking in. Often when we think about the influence of American culture it is assumes, and I say this as a Canadian, a trajectory of American culture influencing the world. The most illuminating aspect of this book for me was seeing how the rise of American culture emerges fom the international voices and experiences that surround it.

The book is admittedly far reaching given its emphasis on a particular period. It is sectioned off thematically using the above categories to frame its focus, be it economics, politics, or art. And it it is peppered with a ton of interesting facts about these different themes that are interesting in and of themselves. It is the portrait of this distinct historial development that remains the books primary strength however, especially where it traverses the movement from Avante Garde to popular culture. Popular culture in the sense that we know it today is a recent idea, and it is in understanding what it is and how it came to be, especially where intersects with the unique standpoint of this historical period that we can gain a better understanding of the relationship between thought and art. Perhaps most fascinating to consider is how this gave rise for the first time in history to what we would call “youth culture”. Up until this time this did not exist, and from this also flows the creation of high school and post secondary education, a structural system built to categorize the youth as a marketable entity. From this of course comes this notion of a clash of cultures or the seperation of cultures within generations, leading ultimatley to the glorifcation of youth almost as an idol. This is information I knew, but reading it in context of the emergence of American culture, art, and thought helped to illuminate some of these realities for me in a fresh way.

Feeling, as it does, that the cultural landscape around the world has been especially burdened by Covid, not to mention recent years, it is easy to narrow in on the current state of American culture, fraught as it is with its mess of technical advancement and economic uncertainty, and assume these are the same challenges playing out worldwide. Much of this assumes the rise of streaming services as the new reality, but one distinguishing fact about American culture is how its idealization of youth culture contines to keep it detached from history in ways that international communities are not. And as is apparent in this book, art is never detached from interconnected realities such as economy and politics and social realities. To understand one we need to understand them all, and from this emerges the uniqueness of thought. Perhaps in one sense this remains the beating heart of this thing called liberty or the free world. In another sense its a reminder that America, as is apparent in their economics and politics, is not as free as is often assumed within their art. Perhaps this book, ripe with history as it is, can effectively reconnect the story with history in a way that can help illuminate the power and importance of both art and thought.

My 10 Most Important Reads of 2021: #9 Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant

My Most Important Reads of 2021: #9
Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant

Practical and hard hitting, Think again cuts straight through the noise and tries to infiltrate the never ending conflict of “sides” with a secret weapon called humility. Knowing what we don’t know is a powerful tool it turns out, especially when it comes to empathizing with ideas that challenge our own.

If I had a single critique of this book I would be that the author doesn’t spend enough time detailing how living with conviction and operating on the principle that one should always be changing ones mind can work together. The truth is that we also need to rest on convictions in order to actually live in this world, and this is as important to open discussion as a willingness to change our perspective. This is of course where conflict tends to arise, which is likely why he doesn’t tackle it head on, but by not addressing this necessary tension I think some of what he writes could be misapplied as rhetoric and weaponized (as a science versus religion war for example).

I think this book has the power to transform how it is that we process and articulate information which is a necessary tool when it comes to learning how to converse with one another. I especially appreciated how he advocates for pushing through the challenges of debate rather than shutting down conversations. Embracing the power of the spirited debate is a lost art in our online world, and it would be well to reclaim it in service of humility. We were once able to hash things out with passion and then head out for dinner or coffee as though this were a normal part of how forming friendship operates. Now debate is reduced to stating opinions, blocking/ignoring, or stating tired phrases like “I’m glad it worked for you but…”

In reality, science and rationalism is simply a way of rationalizing the knowledge we presently have, and we do that within our individual convictions and worldviews. Sometimes those convictions change, but not often. Nor should they until they must. That is why hard and challenging discourse matters. One trick of the art of discussion that comes into play here is both rationalizing from within our own point of perspective and working assumptions and then stepping out and seeing the same rational argument play out from within anothers point of perspective and working assumptions. Both hold equal value and both are necessary for two people to come together and understand the other from within these differing points of view using the same science/data. That’s how we further an argument together..

Discussion and debate is a lost art, and online conversation can be more disheartening and damaging than helpful and fruitful. A book like this could hopefully help recover some of what has been lost, helping to cut through the noise of the online world and create the kind of safe places where we are willing to commit to heated debate and allow it to unsettle, challenge and shape us on ways that make us better people, better societies, and a better world.

My Top10 Most Important Reads of 2021: #10 The Nolan Variations: The Movies, Mysteries, and Marvels of Christopher Nolan by Tom Shone

It’s that time of year again when I start to look back before looking ahead, reflecting on my favorite and most important watches/reads/listens and engaging with my ongoing new years reflections on the year as a whole (i use a practice called Rosebud).

I thought I would start with pulling out what I consider to be my most important reads of 2021. I tallied 190 reads, and of those I pulled 10 titles that I consider to be the most relevant to my personal journey for various reasons, beginning with this title at #10:

My Most Important Reads #10: The Nolan Variations: The Movies, Mysteries, and Marvels of Christopher Nolan by Tom Shone

Those who know me know that while books are my first love film is probably the art I engage with the most at this present time. I cherish the intracies of the form which brings together a broad cross section of disciplines and which represents the fading practice of the shared cultural experience. We live increasingly in a world where escape largely means escape from culture and into nature rather into it. Whereas books are singular in their expression and largely function as an exercise of the imagination mapped to the page, film operates as an interpretive exercise that puts you in relationship with the artist, the art and one another in a purely subjective sense. It requires objective critique, bred from a fascinating history rooted as it is in the development of higher art criticism in literature; this is what makes it a form, but it also requires that immersive, conversational and collective experience to function as a culturally formed expression. This is what makes film unique and distinct and what separates it even from long form series and television.

Why is Nolan Variations one of my most important reads in 2021? Because it helps to tell the story of why film matters, not simply as form but as expression, as function. What film is and how we experience it matters as much to the form as the stories they tell. One striking thing about reading Nolan’s story from the perspective of his developing career as a filmmaker is that his unique ability to shape the form requires him to be a student of the form. This is how critique of the form works. It requires an attachment to and awareness of history.

This is something Nolan intuitively understands and that Shore argues for and attempts to capture in this studious and deeply personal work. As he writes,
“The cinemas Nolan frequented as a boy have almost all disappeared”, Going on to quote Nolan.

“People are all interested in ‘will movies die? It’s a thing right now. There’s a huge drive to seperate the presentation from the content. You really can’t… No, I don’t (have a problem with people seeing Dunkirk on their phone or whatever), but the reason I don’t is because it’s put into these big theaters as it’s primary form, or its initial distribution. And that experience trickles down, to the extent where, if you have an iPad and you’re watching a movie, you carry with you your knowledge and you’re understanding of what the cinematic experience would be and you extrapolate that.”

Nolan Variations, Page 343/344

I think this gets at something crucial when it comes to understanding film as form and what the potential danger is in the current state of the industry. The larger story of his career also helps to accentuate this. No, not everyone needs to see a film in the theater and not every film needs to release to the theater. However, when we lose our sense of what the cinematic experience is, which reaches beyond the theater towards what it represents and what it upholds, the form gets lost. it’s not so much adapt or die as it it is die and become something entirely other. We still get movies but they are no longer functioning as film. We trade the form for something different, which represents a shift from visual storytelling to narrative storytelling in a way that functions more like books, including accelerating the exclusive nature of that experience. That is why the lines between long form series and film is being blurred and.erased. The the thing being critiqued these days is primarily the narrative form, and an interesting side note to me is to compare that to the function of literary critique, the difference being that book criticism understands its history and knows where the critique is pointing towards. I think film criticism at large is loosing this foresight and intuition with most of the think tanks stuck in arguments about the form itself (the tired streaming versus theater debate being bludgeoned to death and largely missing the point). And the more that critics, the last true bastion of film goers, view the glutton of content at home,, which is becoming more and more common, the more distanced we all become from what makes film film. It becomes left to old men and women (usually men unfortunately) screaming at the cloud memes. Yes, we have greater access to a glutton of content at basically no cost and investment, but when it comes to understanding and investing in what film is this is not the most important thing. These things are symptoms of a bigger problem and can often disguise the notion that there is a problem to begin with, and even contribute to it.

I am convinced having read this book that we do not get a story like Nolan’s in our modern age. A student of the craft growing into an artist of the craft and emerging as an influencer and innovated of the craft, all centred in the development and celebration of the form. These sorts of filmmakers are still around and we still have much film to celebrate, but they remain because of the slivers of historical context that survive. The more this fades the less invested these filmmakers will be in upholding the intracies of the craft and the more focused on narrative filmmaking they will become. And this of course will inform emerging generations as they see film more as content, distribution as services, and immersion as clicks, and all of this as a platform for narrative. Nolan’s book is a deep dive into what we potentially lose in this process, which is the ability to even know what we are missing and how to ask the right questions. Film matters, and we will always have content. In fact we have too much in my opinion. But it would be a mistake to think, in line with Shore and Nolan, that film can’t die and that it won’t die in the absence of our investment in the craft. It absolutely can, and there are many days when I fear it already has.

The Matrix: A Story of God With Us in the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection

This past week I watched the original Matrix in preparation for the release of Resurrection, the fourth film in the series. I was curious to see how it held up as it’s been a while, and also because I didn’t enjoy the sequels, and so the first one had gotten buried beneath my growing disinterest in the world. I was interested in exploring why I enjoyed the first one so much and what my struggles with the sequels stemmed from. I think it comes down to the story and how well the films allow the story to be told. The visuals in the first film, given their cultural placement in revolutionizing the game and redefining the action film and the limits of CGI, actually hold up decent, even if they don’t have quite the same impact they had when it first released in theaters. The story though, however buried it might get as the series goes forward, is where the first one truly shines.

Matrix: The Incarnate Word Made Flesh and the Fulfillment of the Messianic Hope

When it comes to the story I think what resonated so strongly for me all those years ago was the way it deals with its messianic themes and the way these themes dial back into some of the most essential existential questions relating to human existence. I can’t remember when I was given this book, but I can imagine it being around a similar time in my life. It was the book How to Win Friends and Influence People: How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie. That was what began this inevitable journey towards discovering how it is that our lives, as Matrix suggests, are products of our biology/chemistry and how easily these things can be manipulated and controlled and how predictive our actions truly are when pared back to contingency and cause. It challenged the ways I see and distinguish between free will and determinism. That free will does not exist is a basic tenant of the Matrix and a conclusion that I think fits with the smarest minds. That the things we call reality are illusions created by the cultural norms and expeeriences that give us purpose and definition is likewise a key facet of this discussion.

Of course key to the existential wondering of the Matrix is this basic tension between what is better; is ignorance bliss or is it better to face the truth of our existence? And can facing the truth recover the simple and unquestioned ability to embrace life in our willed or unconscious ignorance. That question is arguably up for debate, especially when we consider that positivist approaches to life hinge on these illusions giving us purpose every single day. What disrupts this is of course suffering, oppression, and struggle, which is the motivating force of the resistance movement in the film. Seeing the reality of our enslavement sparks the need for hope. And yet one of the key questions of the Matrix is how we live in hope on the other side of this unveiled reality. To see the need for liberation is one thing. The questions of how we lay claim to promised liberation when reality says otherwise, and further what it means to live as a liberated people when things like personhood and choice are simply illusions we hold to in order to reach liberation is another question altogether.

Here is where the film gets startlingly honest though. There is a common tendency in humanist approaches to conflate or even pit against natural evolution and cultural evolution. Culturally speaking the truth evident in the Matrix is that the natural progression of cultural evolution is the gradual blurring of technology and biology, the product of our creations versus the basic value of the human living in a natural world. Natural evolution plays into this, and even against it, by speaking about human distinctiveness, highlighting humanities drive to “be fruitful and multiply” as a distinct trait and, in the film, equating that with the workings of a virus, the only other life form that shares this trait. This sets the question of our existence into the natural order as a question of survival and necessary change. What the Matrix understands is that lives in tension with a tendency towards human exceptionalism, the move to see cultural evolution as a mark of humanity and as then necessarily winning the war over natural evolution in the same way as the virus. This is where the Matrix doubles down on that peculiar thing called choice, exploring how it is that choice can both be something that is not real but also have real world implications at the same time, caught up in the system that creates us and thus having the power to enslave us as products of this world. The second film explores this a bit more in relationship to that hope. Where choice comes in to play is in this relationship to hope for a healed world versus humans being bound necessarily to our human nature, which the second film posits as the problem of any movement towards necessary human salvation. At best, it offers, we have the greatest potential to thrive when we merely believe that we have choice in a world operating by a benevolent authority or creator, benevolence being something of a contingent term. It is the feeling that we don’t have choice that disrupts the natural order of human evoluiton, and that leads to great potential for destruction, making it challenging to imagine any sort of saving work that rests on human ambition alone.

This is where the film’s messianic themes come into play. The “One” raised up in line with the prophetic voice, the one predicted on the hope of liberation, and one that insists on some level of necessary sacrifice as the contrasting voice to the natural order that holds us in balance. This is how this balance is necessarily broken, with the question of whether it should be up for grabs. What the Matrix imagines though is the nature of such a messianic figure, particularly when it comes to the ancient understanding of such figures being human or divine, is a crucial part of this discussion. This is where we find that familiar Jewish/Christian expectation coming into focus, caught up in its struggle to make sense of a messianic figure that is both human and divine (disrupting the natural order of empire) that stands opposed to the way of Ceasar (as the natural order). The statement “there is a difference between knowing and acting” in the way of truth seems to echo the Jewish/Christian mystery of Divine revelation making known the truth of the relationship between the human and divine natures. This is particularly pertinant when it comes to the “One” needing to invade the space of the Matrix in order to make this truth known, this decending move of the incarnate Word, of God made man, that challenges the upward movement of Ceasar towards becoming the Divine. This is where we find the meeting of heaven and earth in the birth of this messianic figure in the Matrix. We also see this in the Gospels portrayal of Jesus as the fulfllment of Jewish expectations.

As Morphius suggests, hope requires a vision of the future to be true, even if we don’t know the present outcome of our choices. How we lay claim to this promised vision within this conundrum forms a crucial concern of the matrix. The power to enact change comes from choice, but choice itself is contingent on something greater than mere will. Choice after all isn’t actual choice in the way we often mean it. The messianic figure emerges precisely at the point where the choice, which is demonstrated more as the necessary action, is not bound to the same rules as the laws of nature even as it operates within it. This is the Divine nature, which is not defined as the ability to create but rather as the ability to embody the fullness of what intuition or the spirit suggests is goodness itself. The power to speak to a natural world where darkness and death has the last word and to lay claim to a different reality. This is what we find in Neos Resurrection. Without that the story has no hope. As the third film suggests, where good and evil, light and dark are at war, the question is not how this brings about necessary change; that is the limit of humanist ideals as they remain bound to the natural order that demands death and darkness to maintain balance and order. The question is how does change operate within a greater vision of reality. How do we actually lay claim to the promise of a different reality and call it good. Here in lies the problem of choice that is bound to the natural order, the laws of a determinitive nature. Hope then is the freedom to give oursleves to the uncertainty of momentary decisions knowing that good and the light have already layed claim to the victory and been declared as true. This is how the messianic figure lives into the way of this eartly ministry so to speak, much in the way that we see in Christ. As the Gospels repeat over and over, now is not the right time, only in the fulfillment is the fullness of time revealed. Until then we know what we need to hear for this present time, or we hear what we are able to know in this present ime, which is why such a messianic picture plays into the microcosms of the cyclical rise and fall of empires, even as the world continues to change and evolve with time. Questions and truths remain the same. But in the birth of a baby who arrives in the messianic hope we participate in these microcosms of the here and now knowing there is a future reality we can lay claim to as a promised fulfillment.

Matrix Resurrection: Navigating a Post Resurrection Reality

As my story goes, just to rearticulate it for context, I loved the first film, was let down by the second and angered at the third (after having resisted seeing it for the longest time). So I wasn’t actually anticipating much from this fourth entry, or this sequel to the trilogy as they say.

And then some of the initial think pieces started releasing, which seemed to indicate that this latest entry was landing most assuredly for those who loved the first and hated the sequels. That was good news to me as it seemed to suggest that this one might resist the trappings of the bloated action in the sequels and recover the movies strong philosophical core. In a narrative move that proves this latest entries degree of self awareness the film takes the time to actually weave this tension into the story. I’ll get to spoiler thoughts in a moment as there is much to unpack here on a thematic level, but the way it structures the story and this return to the Matrix finds a way to be able to comment on the real world narrative of the franchise even as it works to then recontextualize the narrative for a modern audience with its increased emphasis on living false lives online through screens. One of the questions that it casts onto the table is what precisely defined the story of the Matrix as a cultural phenenon, especially when you consider how widely embraced the first film was and how universally rejected the subsequent installments were. This latest entry makes the decision to not try to recapture that ability to revolutionize the action film through state of the art CGI, instead updating and smoothing out the edges of the some of its trademark CGI and practical action/set pieces for the modern age and then grounding it in an integrated fashion so as to render it a more holistic part of the larger story. The action being simply melded into the overall structure without standing out as it’s defining trait allows the film to double down on the philosophical and existential joruney that pervades this franchise at its core. This is where it shines, so much that it is actually, shockingly enough to me, contending for one of my films of the year. I genuinely think the script, with its emphasis on theme and character, is that strong.

Now for some spoiler thoughts, so I’ll throw the SPOILER WARNING up here.

To repeat, my love for the first film came down to how I saw the film fleshing out the messianic themes within its story. I found the intracy of the story to remain intact through all three, but the second and third films muddle it with the bloated action. Questions then that are as old as time struggle to find their way to breathe through the spectacle and the noise, turning what was rich mythology into some watered down science fiction fantasy.

This fourth installment does the opposite. It does the work of removing the clutter and reclaiming the central story, and what stood out for me again is how it deals with the presence of the One, this messianic figure.

As mentioned, I thought the first three films tapped into, be it unintentionally, some key portions of the Judeo-Christian narrative, especially as it tries to make sense of the messianic figure as having a distinct salvific purpose over and against illusions of empire. The way it presents the decending nature of Neo’s savior like figure over and against assumptions of the ascending figure of the allegorical Caeser, narrowing in the question of how it is that divine and human come together in the One, and how it is that this must, by its nature, break the laws of nature in order to declare liberation in an authoritative sense (which is what happens in the resurrection), was astute and profound, especially when it comes to then contextualizing this into the philosophical wrestling.

What I imagjned as I was watching the fourth, staying with the Judeo-Christian narrative, is a Jewish people facing the destruction of the temple and the next generation asking the question, where is the One who promised liberation. If it was not to remain true, how true then can his resurrection be. Is not his death then made more real than the claims of the resurrection by looking at their present reality? This sits at the heart of Trinity’s assertion that she both longed for Neo’s anticipated return and also wondered why it took him so long to show up. This captures the essence of that Jewish expectation as attempts to wrestle with the messianic presence amidst its lingering absence.

This is what the people, having moved on from Neo and established their own means of “surviving” the present struggle, are forced to contend with when encountering the resurrected Neo. The question at the heart of this film is, what did Neo actually accomplish if the truth of their reality remains the same, and what does his resurrected presence mean for reimagining a different reality moving forward.

One key element that renders their present reality different than the one they faced when Neo first invaded the Matrix is that the battle between good and evil has been decided. Like a good theological exposition of Christus Victor, the film recognizes that this is crucial to asking the follow up question, which is how then does this make sense of the already-not yet nature of our reality. If the state of our world has changed and good has won the war over evil, how do we then enter into a world where evil still exists and live differently, imagine differently. This is at the heart of the Apostle Pauls letters, who calls a people content to simply integrate into the surrounding society and avoid unnecessary conflict to live as though this is true, that Christ actually accomplished something and that this is hope and good news a world still wrestling with the state of things and the ever existing cycle of this clash of empire. This is where revolution flows from.

And here in lies the root of Neos story and the Gospel message. It is by seeing the war between good and evil as an external reality to humanity itself, and as embodied in systems and a natural order predicted on death and suffering rather than hard and fast depictions of good and evil people or a good and evil creation being created evil, that we are then free to see a world where our reality looks different. We are free to see a world where goodness wins, precisely because it has already won and it is reshaping our understanding of who we are and what this created world is. We are free to see humanity, and thus creation as good precisely because it is declared to be so. As this latest Matrix entry suggests, in this new reality the only true power evil has is operating within a Matrix that is self sustaining precisely because it is self decieving. Its power is the lie of a false identity, befitting the Jewish and Christian idea of the Powers being the great Deciever, the author of lies that betrays our true identity. As the system itself says at one point, I exist because this is what the people utlimately want. They want the self deception. They want the illusion. And who’s to say that the illusion isn’t more true than the reality if we experience it that way? The message that emerges then is that this invasion of the Matrix that declares this new reality to be the more fulfilling and true way to life is predicated on relationship, a relationship that in the victory of the first three films begins with the faithfulness of the One to stay true to the promise of self sacrificially coming to the Matrix and bringing the reality of Heaven to it. Here the question then moves to the faithfulness of those who’s lives have been changed by his story. It is in this that the new creation becomes both a reality and a potential. This is what we find in the relationship between Neo and Trintity. As the system declares they will never win over the true desires of the people, and this remains their biggest obstacle, they declare back that as Trintity takes on Christ likeness, beginning with the self sacrificial act, she works in relationship with Neo (the Christ figure) to bring about what has already been declared to be true- that a new world will be built and it begins with them. As it says at one point, the difference between Neo and Smith is that anyone can be Neo while Smith can be anyone. This demonstrates the way in which the good ultimately wins over evil. In God becomming human and humans becomming Christ the world is saved through relationship to the other. With the Matrix people are bound to the system, to the laws, that shape it.

This becomes the powerful picture present in the film. All the questions that the first Matrix tabled and that the franchise has been wrestling with are cast in the truth a new post resurrection reality. What is choice? What is real? What is fate? All of this is reframed as a question of what story we are living in to as we move to image a new creation taking root, one of peace, love and goodness. In Christ, as in Neo, we are given that story, one that must then continue to be told in each new generation. As the film suggests, it is the same story being told over and over again, it is simply a new context. This is how change moves from the embattled place of binaries, of good and evil in contest, to the creative expression that it simply is good. This is the true freedom Christ affords us in the new creation. Otherwise change is left perpetually and eternally trying to write the better ending to the story, something that, as the film suggests, leaves us bound to nature itself where hope and despair are really the same indistinguishble code. This is where we exist by nature, forming things into narratives that give us meaning even as they are based in illusions, forever depending on that which we wish to attain and that which we do not have as the necessary and upholding tension. That is what keeps ‘human” nature both purposed and enslaved, ultimately always leading to systems of power and violence based on scarcity being marketed as abundance. What Neo and Christ announce is that this cycle has been broken, imagined in this embrace of the human and the divine.

I just love this picture so much. As I said, I think it unintentionally captures this Gospel proclamation, which is what makes this so powerful to me. It’s truly rare that you find a film like this tackling serious philopshical questions without deviating into the modern trappings of strict humanist ideals. This is far more challenging than that, and far smarter. It recognizes the weight of its questions while also daring to imagine where it might lead. In truth choosing to escape the Matrix is risky business. It means the abandoment of self for the sake of true freedom. It means facing the questions of god with us head on. And yet the reward is life. And as we gain this life what we find is new meaning and purpose in the call to create, to make, and to serve. And we do so in relationship as we see and know the suffering of others and declare the good news of hope, standing in the truth that the new reality has already arrived in our midst and that because of this we can rest in the promise that our work is in fact building a better world. We and this world and this exisence become broken signposts of the beauty, joy, newness and goodness that define the liberated world over and against the lies of the great Deciever.

Good news that begins with the birth of the one who invades this earthly reality and in whom heaven and earth collide.

Encountering the Incarnation: God With Us Then, Here and Now

In a previous post I found myself in a place of pondering and wondering; asking myself not what it is that I believe but why I believe when it comes to God, humanity, creation and life. I reflected on how the older I get the less interesting the what becomes and the more crucial the why becomes. It’s in the “why” spaces that I discover the most important truths of love; relationship, empathy, compassion, understanding, patience, self giving, sacrifice.

I had mentioned that in my pondering I came away with three words as most readily capturing the why for me when it comes to questions of faith: presence, hope, and mystery. As I’m finishing the book Honest Advent: Awakening to the Wonder of God-With-Us Then, Here, and Now by Scott Erickson and reading through the birth narrative from the Gospel of Matthew, this central proclamation rings forth into the early hours of this Christmas morning;

Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name “Immanuel” (which means God with us).”

Matthew 1:23 (ESV)

The very beginning of the Gospel, which echos through the hallways of John’s grand theologial treaties of the same subject, declaring the Word become flesh, is at its heart a story concerned with locating the presence of the Divine within our earthly and material reality. The bringing together of heaven and earth in order to say something about how see and know this reality. And of course to this end there is a what; Jesus has invaded this material space and, if we read the preceding verses of this passage, this is what this meant to the ancient readers and witnesses. It is the why that quickly comes into focus though, mining through the muddiness of the messianic hopes, their understanding of the cosmos, and their basic human longing for what is wrong to be made right in this world in relationship to God.

I feel like I’m a well read person. I grew up with books as my first love, with books like the existentially charged Charlottes Web evoking similar questions in my young mind; how is it that we make sense of this idea called God in a complicated world. Even as a child I sensed this to be a question we must attend for as we attempt to occupy the spaces of this world. As I got older these questions gradually developed into more specific questions about God’s existence with this one crucial difference; whereas my childs self was concerned with the why, my adult self became more and more concerned with the what. This informed both my belief and my unbelief. And the older I got the more complicated life and the inevitable quesitons seemed to become, challenging my allegiance to certainty and facts. This is where I came to understand something crucial about my own journey; if its not about proving God’s existence, then it is about why be concerned with God’s existence at all. This is the question that I find continues to invade my wrestling today.

So why does God’s presence matter? For me this is a two fold question. On one hand I have found that the older I get the more resistant I seem to become to the idea of using “experience” of God as potential evidence to justify my own longing for God to be present in this world. It feels less than rational, and to be honest can easily be relegated to the background when obsessing with the what, and even further readily abused and manipulated. And yet, in the honest spaces of my own life I am forced to contend for this basic reality. I can talk all day about my own experiences and the experiences of others who have informed my life. These are experiences that, despite what I once assumed, can’t simpy be dismissed. They are not conjured up out of a need to believe, and even if they were still compell me towards the why. Choosing to label these experiences as illusions is something that consistently doubled back on my unbelief and my rational processes in an equally destabilitizing way. Such ways of thinking, in my unbelieving spaces, also reeked of a neglect to actually talk with those who have experienced God and take them as seriously as I took my own intellectual process. This was my arrogance. To me there seems to a common characteristic to these experiences as I have encountered them in my own life and in the life of others; they are necessarily invasive. They disrupt. And they always arrive with a singular message, to declare God or spirit with us.

The other side of this then is the more pragmatic side. The more I read the more evident it seems to me that as we parse through the pages of history this basic idea; is God here in the world with us or somewhere out there distanced from us, seems to permeate our prolonged wrestling as a species and inform our relationship with the mysteries of this existence. Even if modern questions have become prone to partnering this with the idea of God’s potential or assumed non-existence in a way the ancients would not have considered, the ebb and flow of this quandry remains the same. Bring God into the world and this world and the natural laws get disrupted, and this is precisely because it forces us to ask deeper questions we otherwise ignore. On the other hand keep God out there and we become bound to ideas about God and how God relates to this world that cannot be disrupted largely because it removes these kinds of questions. And history suggests that outwardly we prefer it this way. And yet the hidden longings of the human spirit betray this on an internal level. Thus this idea of God with us remains both a deep longing and a persistant obstacle to belief.

I eventually became convinced that Jesus’ story, bringing together all of our religious stories into a singular sense of meaning, informs a crucial point in history where our wrestling with this question of Gods presence has an embodied answer; calling us to place such wrestling in this simple proclamation that God is indeed with us however difficult it is to make sense of. That Jesus arrives in line with a universal human question and longing that supersedes this historical reality seemed abundantly clear to me from the textual and historical evidence as well. This freed me to then explore the why quesiton in my own life with a greater degree of honesty. What I discovered is that this idea of God being present in my life is as much a part of my story and my memories as any practical experience I can recall. I cared as a child because I saw this world as good and so much seemed to challenge that assumption. I cared as a child because I saw this world as a wondrous place even while so much seemed insistent on stealing that wonder. I cared as a child because I needed to make sense of these apparent binaries that captured my imagination through story and experience, of good and evil, life and death, light and dark, and this was something I could not make sense of without story. The experience and the idea of Gods presence enabled me to see the good, the light, the life as the defining and governing principle of this natural world. As a child I experienced this in the mystery of God even as I fought back furiously with my questions. It captured my imagination. As an adult I challenged God by locating the answers elsewhere. And yet, as I grew to embrace and understand, it is equally true to say that the invasive presence that captured my childhood continued to invade my adult world, forcing me to turn this same wrestling back towards my doubts and my unbelief. What I discovered is that as an adult the why never changed, it just got buried beneath my allegiance to the what. I insisted that truth was predicated on the fact that I can proclaim God is, and whatever I filled the blank with is the stuff that either proved or disproved the presence of God in this world and in my life. Learning to live with that blank space and still be ble to declare that God is has become the necessary process.

This Christmas I am reminded that I encounter these words, God with us, not as some deifnitive proof of God’s existence but as a compelling way to make sense of my own story and to locate myself in a larger one. This might evoke an eye roll from some who find this appeal to a meta narrative to be cliche, but the function of memory, whether we believe in God or not, is the same. As the latest Matrix film suggests, we all need a narrative to justify this existence. One of the most powerful parts of the Christmas story to me is digging deep into what this narrative meant for the people of its time anchored as it is in creation-exodus-tabernacle theology. Most exciting for me is to then attempt to recontextualize it continually into my own experiences in my modern context, allowing it inform the very act of declaring that somehow and in someway, even when it brings up so many questions that cause me to resist and rail against such an idea, God is still with us today. Given that I have spent this Advent season reading through Scott Ericksons book Honest Advent: Awakening to the Wonder of God-With-Us Then, Here, and Now, I am reminded that in my most honest moments, including in my unbelief, I am still compelled to see that as a hopeful, unexpected, and transformative proclamation; as good news.

Why I Believe: Finding Presence, Hope and Mystery in Advent

A culmination of reading, viewing, listening, online and in person dialogue, and self reflection has had me thinking these past couple weeks about my faith in God. Not so much how it is I know God exists; the older I get the less interesting that question becomes on both sides of the apologetic fence, and in truth must be submitted to the idea that knowledge is the not the same as proof. Rather the far more interesting question for me is the why. That is where we can uncover important things like empathy, context, motivation and humility in discussion as we recognize one another at different points along this journey either towards or away from confessions of faith.

As I’ve been reflecting on this question in my own life, particularly in relationship to this Advent season and as an identifying Christian, I am struck by the degree to which my experience plays into this question in so many different directions and in different ways at different points in time. Theologian Pete Enns often refers to the Wesleyan Qaudrilateral to explain his own journey within this complicated thing we call faith, which provides a tool for theological reflection citing the interconnected methods of Reason, Scripture, Experience and Tradition. Remove any one of these from the picture and theology becomes a dangerous game no matter our disposition and our belief. Given my own Weslyan roots this picture has often resonated with me in a powerful way, and lately I’ve been trying to be more intentional about allowing it inform my own journey with faith in God, which is far less linear and static and far more given to a necessary ebb and flow within the experiences of life itself.

Perhaps most pointedly when it comes to the why question in relationship to Advent and my own Christian confession is the question of why Jesus. Or perhaps better, what difference does it make that Jesus is God, especially if, rightly, we can locate things like goodness and joy and love in an unbelieving world. I have found this to be a difficult question to examine in conversation with others because it carries with it something of a conundrum in deciphering how it is that theological truth relates to the material world. In some sense it is far easier to simply leave God somewhere out there uninvolved with the inner workings of this world, as indeed much of history has done and continues to do. Bring God into the inner workings of our world and it tends to disrupt, throwing all manners of things into confusion at the same time. Suddenly the why becomes difficult, especially when it comes to making sense of a good God in the midst of so much bad. Add to that the corruptible witness of the institutional Church and religion itself and the challenge of the why becomes that much more difficult.

And yet, at least part of my own journey is the truth that life in a world without God for me proved no more freeing, no more joy filled, and no more enticing as an experience, if that was what my reasoning was predicated on. In fact, if the why question of my then unbelief became less complicated on one hand, justifying life in the day to day became that much harder. If belief in God is merely a construct we create, an illusion we feed to give ourselves comfort in an otherwise often meaningless and cruel world for the majority, then what this underscores for me is that the problem of belief is not a religious one, it is a human one. A problem of nature that continues to push back against our attempts to find the answer in our own humanity. We have no more reason to trust any of the illusions that we feed to give this life meaning, least of all our notions of personhood and humanity. For me, my experience seemed to confirm that in this view, which I once held as true, all of life is a game that has a way of reminding you rather consistently whether you are on the winning or losing side of it. And while something like empathy and compassion, traits that are arguably unique to humanity at least in how they get expressed in conscious ways, are true, they are still traits and functions that are ultimately concerned with our survival. They breed competition. I have yet to find a compelling argument for an empathic view of human evolution that frees me from this simple, basic truth of our existence; that the meaning and worth of my existence and therefore the existence of others is intrinsicly dependent on my living in this world successfully. It is dependent on philosophies about life that makes sense when things are what we might call good, and cater to mere platitudes and increased dependency on our illusions when speaking to a life that is not. At best it locates truths about successful living that can only ever make the bad a little bit better. For me this only enslaved me further to my failures. And the more technology progresses the more this seems to get illuminated. I can locate a plethora of articles that demonstrate clearly how longer and more comfortable lives do not result in greater happiness and greater thriving. In fact it often appears to result in the opposite, which feels intutively true to my own experience.

As I have been thinking about this it is important to note that this is, again, not an argument for the existence of God. It is an argument for why. Or at least an attempt to locate elements of the why that might be evidential as i engage with this Advent season. I came up with three basic words that seemed to resonate especially strongly as why factors for me- Presence, Hope and Mystery. I’m still working to flesh these three words out in relationship to the Christ story, but one thing that did become evident to me as I have been doing so is how prominently the ideas of grace and forgiveness seem to play within all three. If there is a root of my belief it would flow from the truth of grace and forgiveness, two things that I found struggled to coexist in any sensible way within my unbelief, and which came most alive for me in my desire to believe. These two essential truths continue to undergird the ebb and flow of my personal journey, with the notion of forgiveness of ones enemy, which is as antithetical to our survival and thriving as a species as it is nonsensical to my efforts to succeed at this thing called life, continuing to prove to be the most scandalous idea birthed by my faith in a God who enters into human history and is intimately involved in its affairs. It is true that far too much of religion has given into the models of justice that pervade so much of our modern, secular ideas and systems, which when paired with a God made in our own image and beckoned to serve our will becomes even more dangerous and problematic. That it remains equally true that the revelatory truth of grace and forgiveness, which turn humility from a vice to a virtue, seem to be persistent and spiritually laden ideas that push back against attempts to narrow my definition of morality and goodness (to the idea of the the free and liberted individual) continues to be a compelling reason for me to believe, at the very least, in something bigger than my own dueling human nature. Something that reflects more than simply the emergence of human consciousness as our ticket out of the inevitable war against these two natures that seems to be imprinted into the very fabric of the universe, with what we determine to be bad (suffering and death) leading to good (new life and new creation). This of course lies at the heart of the Christ story, giving us a way to speak of death and suffering in redemptive terms. I often hear atheists suggest that we (humanity) create religion for comfort, to satisfy the desire to personally imagine immortality and cope with evidence of our finitude. This is, I believe, a fundamental misnderstunding of religious interest in death, at least when it comes to matters of theology. What is at at stake is our ability to enter into the suffering of the other and speak in terms of this redemptive process. Even further, what is at stake is our ability to enter into the workings of nature itself with this same redemptive message in view.

Which for me begins with this story of God invading history, of light illuminating the darkness in order to declare it good, not to highlight human ambition and success and awaken the grand human project in all its glory, but to awaken us to the presence, the hope and the mystery of a Holy Other. A Holy Other that is then demonstrable in the whole of nature and in the whole of humanity, helping us to make better sense of what  truly good, truly joyful and truly loving. To awaken us to the power of the Holy Other to break the cycles of unforgiveness and the violent predication towards competition that contines to hold us subtly and often overtly captive, calling us in the way of Christ to an imagined future paved in the scandelous image of self sacrificial love. The simple fact that this has been demonsatrated concretely and historically in a way that holds us captive to it as theological “truth” is one reason why it matters to me that Jesus is God.