Aronofsky’s “mother!” | the tangled webs we ought to weave

Reader be warned: here be spoilers. Please, please, PLEASE go see this film before reading this article if you have any interest at all. It’s well worth your time.

If forced to describe Darren Aronofsky‘s mother! in one word (besides the endless superlatives I could toss its way), that word would have to be “difficult.” Around seventy percent of my brain function was devoted to figuring out what on earth was going on during my first viewing of the film, and, judging by its abysmal Cinemascore report card and box office haul, general audiences seemed to struggle even more. I suppose it doesn’t help that they might have felt duped by trailers that marketed it as a horror flick when the actual picture is…well, I guess a drama about a man and his wife dealing with unwanted visitors that descends into a sometimes horrific fever dream that’s just too hard to describe with coherence and conciseness. In that sense, mother! is extremely difficult to market, as it could only really jive with audiences whose sensibilities leaned more toward the arthouse and independent scenes, and Paramount still had the guts to release it in over 2,300 cinemas in the United States (which I applaud).

It’s not that mother! is an impossible film to grapple with; I’ve seen movies that are incomprehensibly opaque, and this is far from it. In fact, once you’ve unlocked the film’s central biblical allegory, the whole thing appears almost deceptively simple, and a second viewing makes the metaphors so obvious you’ll wonder how you missed them the first time around. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the great flood, the birth (and death) of the Messiah, they all make appearances here while Jennifer Lawrence’s mother earth suffers at their hands (and Javier Bardem’s God doesn’t seem to care).

But to walk away from mother! with the most surface-level interpretation is to settle for it in its most unsatisfying state. This film demands your scrutiny, to be revisited and restudied and picked apart piece by piece, and still it will feel as though you haven’t uncovered all of its secrets. The simple interpretation ceases to be so simple when you consider Aronofsky’s previous, failed relationship with actress Rachel Weiss and current relationship with Jennifer Lawrence; the film is so strikingly personal, there has to be some exploration of this present. Perhaps, too, it examines the creative process and the haggard relationship between the artist and their work. Even further still, it could simply be a brutal, feverish nightmare depicting the suffering of the neglected, the pain of unrequited devotion and love.

Even that central, baseline story of mother earth being ravaged, raped, and ruined by mankind while God turns a cold, blind eye can be read slightly differently if you consider Aronofsky’s penchant for communicating stories through unreliable narrators. Is this meant to be an indictment of God for turning His back on the rest of creation for the sake of some reprobate apes that continuously ignore His instruction and destroy His work and His home despite professing their “love” for Him, a love that pales in comparison to that of the earth itself? But then I remember that I am one of those unsavoury beasts smashing mother earth’s chairs and stealing her pottery, and suddenly I am forced to come to grips with a new perspective on the consequence of my own sin, the profound loss that resulted of God choosing me over the rest of His creation and the pain it must feel if it were afforded personhood. Now the heady haze of mother! no longer feels like something distant and intangible to me. It’s unsettlingly close.

The truth is that there’s no singular, straightforward reading of mother! that you can point to and say, “That’s it, there’s nothing more to it.” Metaphors bear double and triple meanings, and the whole thing folds in on itself over and over again until it’s tangled to the point where it can’t be fully untied. Yet I can’t help but try. A week and a half has passed since my first viewing of mother!, and I’m still lost in it. I’ve yet to find a convincing interpretation of elements like the yellow medicine and whatever that thing in the toilet was, and I don’t know if I ever will. Still, I can’t help but feel compelled to keep wondering, keep searching, keep digging through this gorgeous, many-tentacled monstrosity in vain effort to wrangle it in.

Films like this are the epitome of what cinema should be, to me at least. Pieces of audiovisual art that are so effortlessly potent that they can suck you in for hours or days not just trying to decipher the plot but the implications thereafter, ending in an experience that is simultaneously intellectual, emotional, and rousingly spiritual. Aronofsky has succeeded in producing the most spiritually stirring film I’ve seen since The Tree of Life, and I will not hesitate already to call it a masterpiece. This should be a standard for us in what we hope to achieve in the arts – I can only hope to create something with half the depth of meaning of mother! someday.

For more of Andy’s thoughts on mother! and other films, you can check out his review at www.cinemainframe.com and follow him on Letterboxd.

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on moana, the old testament, and the power of good story

In general, I don’t enjoy watching films very much. My friends will be the first to tell you that when “movie night” is the hang-out activity of choice, I will do all I can to avoid it, stay busy, or try to get people to do something else with me. Since most films have been made for the purpose of cheap entertainment or money-grabbing, they come with plot holes, cliches, unnecessary details, and gross artisanal oversight. Even films with good artistic intentions can have enough flaws in craftsmanship to launch me out of the storytelling experience and leave me feeling like I wasted 2 hours of precious time.

Because of this, I didn’t watch “Moana” when it was out in theatres. I like watching Disney films as much as the next person, but “Tangled” and “Frozen” left me feeling “meh” enough to not want to spend a ton of extra money on the big-screen experience. I resolved to watch it when it was easily accessible on a platform I already paid for. Even when “Moana” was made available on Netflix this past June, I didn’t get around to watching it until about mid-July.

To quickly sum up my feelings, I very much regret not seeing it in theatres. “Moana” is the first Disney movie in a long time to feel like a proper Disney animated film. The writing is rife with the genuine sense of adventure and heart that marks other Disney classics, and the lush, detailed animation feels nearly lifelike at times.

However, the thing that took me most by surprise was not the high-quality writing or the detailed graphics, but how close the story, specifically the music, ended up striking my heart. At the climax of the film, as Moana realizes where the Heart of Te Fiti belongs, she sings a reprise version of the song heard when she met the ocean for the first time at the very beginning of the film. I did not understand why, but the first time I heard it, I nearly broke down in tears. It felt so powerful to me how the quiet song of the sea was now being sung again as the way to ground Te Ka and bring Te Fiti back to life.

The emotion of that moment stuck with me, and made me realize the beauty of the purposefulness in the songwriting and arranging. That song Moana sang, “Know Who You Are”, is the back half of one of three musical bookends, marking the conclusion of the film and its story by its reflection of the beginning song, “An Innocent Warrior”. The other two bookends are the opening song “Tulou Tagaloa” and its reprise “Voyager Tagaloa”, and the song “We Know The Way” and its reprise at the very close of the film.

Upon looking at the translations of the Samoan songs “An Innocent Warrier” and “Tulou Tagaloa”, we see just how much each of the three bookends establish and reaffirm each of their presented themes and the themes seen throughout all of “Moana”. “Tulou Tagaloa”, the song heard during the opening credits of the film, is sung to the highest deity of Polynesian culture, the creator Tagaloa, and says;

“Pardon us…
Pardon us…
Oh Tagaloa.

Look down
Upon our world
Look down
Upon our world.
The light
[I stand before you]
It is good and beautiful
[My desire (homesickness)]
Look down
[The journey has begun]
At how beautiful our lives are.”

“An Innocent Warrior”, the song sung when Moana first meets the ocean, is translated to;

“Your eyes so full of wonder
Your heart, an innocent warrior
My dearest one
There’s a task for you
Let it flow over you
The freedom you feel
And your deep thoughts
Our young girl
Have you come
Our young girl
Your eyes so full of wonder”

It was after looking up these translations that I realized just how much “Moana” reflected common themes found throughout the stories of the Old Testament. Whether it be Abraham, Gideon, Elijah, or Hosea, the great prophets and followers of God all have a similar tale to tell; they were all called by God to accomplish a specific task for his people for their overall benefit. This great call was the thing that pulled them through every adversity, allowing them to conquer every doubt, fear, and enemy that stood between them in order to complete their divinely ordained end goal.

In the story of “Moana”, we find a story constructed in almost exactly the same way as any of those ancient tales. A young girl, divinely chosen by the high creator, is given a task to perform in order to set her people right again. In the fullness of time, she begins to set out to accomplish that task, finding doubt in the ocean and in herself to be constant companions along the way, causing even the creator’s chosen one to question the legitimacy of her entire journey. And yet, in the face of all of this, she chooses to trust the call that was given to her, carrying out her task to its fullest and allowing her people the freedom to commune with the ocean as they once did so long ago.

This story arc, unspoken and undefined but communicated through a tight cohesion of visual and auditory storytelling, is what spoke to me on such a guttural level. As a Christian, I know in very real terms what it’s like to feel called out to by an incredible God that I am drawn to so deeply. I know what it’s like to feel that relationship so strongly and tangibly at some times, but at other times doubt everything about ever experiencing it. And to see someone, anyone be able to not only pull through that adversity, but fully accomplish everything that was set before them fills me with such passion and hope that it leaves me breathless.

That breathlessness is the power of good story. It is the same power that makes telling and retelling all of those Old Testament recordings so important to the Christian walk. You could tell a person that “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life”. You could even summarize the experiences of Christians long past and present them as clear evidences of God’s faithfulness. But through the power of artistry and craftsmanship in storytelling, these truths can spring to life in astonishing ways, allowing emotion and empathy to carry them to the most raw and primal parts of the human soul. That is why good writing matters. That is why thought-through visuals matter. That is why the arrangement of six songs in a bookend formation poetically written in both English and Samoan to tie together a story based in Polynesian mythology matters.

“Moana” may not exactly be a Christian story. But it is a well-done story, told with excruciating care and attention to detail. And I have found that when it comes to catching the sparkle of God’s truth in media, whether it be found in ancient Hebrew texts or in a big-budget Disney blockbuster, it may be all that matters.

these violent delights | consuming too much violence and not nearly enough

Violence is one of the most ubiquitous motifs across the entire history of human storytelling, and it’s no real surprise. An act of violence is the purest form of drama, conflict refined to its simplest expression. It’s easily implemented and easily understood, making it both the perfect catalyst and perfect climax for imparting some form of emotional resonance upon an audience.

While violence has been a part of our stories for millennia, the rise of cinema and television has changed our experiences with it and certainly warrants a reconsideration of our ethics of violence in arts and entertainment. That reconsideration thus far has shown itself in a couple of curiously juxtaposed ways: simply judging violence at its face value (where blood and gore are considered a “more inappropriate” expression) and an insatiable lust for violence as a form of amusement.

The aversion to violence in cinema, a phenomenon I’ve noticed amongst American evangelical Christians in particular, is curiously fickle, generally abiding by hard guidelines along the same lines as the MPAA’s rating system while sometimes affording exceptions to both war films (modern and medieval) and films depicting the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (I’m sure you can guess which one I’m thinking of in particular). This is admittedly an oversimplification to some degree, as many individuals will have convictions that err in either direction, but for the most part, outside of the aforementioned genres, if there’s blood, gore, or anything grisly involved, then a film is almost automatically classified as “inappropriate.”

The issue I have with this concept of adjudicating the “appropriateness” of violent content is it fails to consider the context of the violence or the nature of what the director is trying to communicate by including it in his or her film (while also severely underestimating the viewer’s ability to separate fantasy from reality). It’s a haphazard attempt to use an objective measuring stick to draw conclusions about a subjective matter, a symptom not of good Christian discernment but of the artistic illiteracy plaguing the evangelical church and the cult of positivity that rejects things that are unpleasant without first asking why they are unpleasant.

Maybe that sounds a bit forceful, and I certainly don’t mean to disregard people who genuinely just can’t stomach it. By all means, much as I said in my previous article regarding the horror genre, stick to your convictions and don’t engage with violent content if it’s not something you can bear. But I implore you to respect it and refuse to denounce it without first giving it the proper consideration. Explaining what that consideration entails would take up far too much space in an already overlong blog post, but for an entirely too simple illustration, just start by contemplating the difference in presentations of graphic violence between this scene from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and this scene from Thir13en Ghosts (just reiterating, both scenes contain contain graphic violence and the latter some nudity). Consider not just what but why. What is the motivation for each of these scenes? What do they hope to accomplish using violence?

As you dig deeper into film, you’ll notice the “why” of violence can get increasingly more complex, which is the beauty of it as a storytelling device. It’s malleable and able to spark virtually the entire spectrum of human emotion. The truth is that violence is an immense and unwieldy tool that has the equivalent capacity for profundity in the hands of a master storyteller and bawdiness in the hands of someone more juvenile.

However, I find that it’s that more juvenile understanding that drives our culture as a whole, resulting in a bizarre sort of bloodlust in entertainment. Sure, we’ve long since moved away from things like gladiator deathmatches where human lives were sacrificed for the enjoyment of others, but there remains this sort of vicarious engagement with that form of entertainment that exists in the cinema, on television, and especially in video games. Of the top ten highest-grossing films so far in 2017, six are action/adventure films, and another is a (brilliant) horror film with a violent climax. TV dramas are in a fairly similar position, while the bestselling video games are usually first-person shooters, with the vast majority of games involving killing/maiming of some sort or another. And that doesn’t even include other forms of entertainment like sports, of which in the US American football is the most popular thanks in part to explosive plays involving big hits and brutal tackles.

It’s not that I think any of this is wrong on the outset. There’s an innocence to our desire for action; I believe the motivation behind watching Terminator 2 or The Avengers is similar to the thrillseeking that leads to something like riding roller coasters. There’s some primal piece of us that longs for excitement, and what better way to get that than the one that provides zero risk of bodily harm to ourselves?

But then there’s the whole matter of just how dismissive of human life some films seem to be. When watching films like Transformers, 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, The Avengers, etc., it feels like the director is instructing us to take pleasure in the utter destruction of humanity and the world around us. And not to make any immediate moral judgments about that, but it’s hard for me to understand how each of those PG-13 films where millions (if not billions) of people die with minimal consequence and horribly emotionally immature thematic elements attached develop a healthier understanding of violence than notoriously grisly films like No Country for Old Men and Taxi Driver. Visceral violence of some sort seems to be an essential ingredient in a blockbuster, and it’s something that Americans not only tolerate but seem to encourage. Someone taking a bullet to the face on screen is more readily accepted than showing a woman’s nipple – admit it, you were more perturbed by the half-naked woman in the clip from Thir13en Ghosts I linked earlier than you were about the man being sliced in half by a door. Surely it must say something about us if we’re more willing to tolerate the destruction of the human body than admire its beauty.

I’m not really sure what to say beyond that, because honestly I have no answers for this puzzle, only the question. I love gritty action films like Die Hard, The Raid, John Wick, and Hard Boiled, and I love blowing enemies up in Battlefield or smashing people to bits with my giant robot in Titanfall 2. I’m just as “guilty” of this bloodlust as everybody else, and I’m not even sure whether or not it’s something I ought to feel guilty about. I’m aware of the differences between reality and the screen, and my belief in the sanctity of human life is as strong as ever. But if I believe human life is sacred, is it right for me to derive laughter and joy from murder and death of any sort, even if it’s pure fantasy?

I don’t know where that line is or how far we’ve crossed over it. I’m not even sure that there’s a “line” at all. I know there are films like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Unforgiven which handle violence with a brilliant grace and gravity, and there are other films like The Belko Experiment and Hostel that have such an abhorrent attitude toward human life that it makes me genuinely sick to watch them. And then there’s the entire spectrum of film in between. Maybe that’s the thing, though, that violence is far too complex to be discussed in such black-and-white terms as “right and wrong” or “appropriate and inappropriate.” And maybe that’s what makes it such an essential and engaging piece of human stories.

I guess what I want is for us to change our way of thinking, whichever side of the spectrum we approach entertainment from. I want us to stop considering art from a strictly moralistic viewpoint and start diving into its murky waters. I want us to stop asking the irrelevant questions we’ve asked before, and I want us to stop asking no questions at all. Then we can begin to engage this critical aspect of the human experience with a level of nuance that is sorely lacking.

summer picks

It’s been a while since we’ve last posted, and that’s because we’ve been scouting out a team of contributors who are as wonderful and interesting as you all are.  You’ll be hearing from us quite a bit this summer, but as a brief window into who we are, here’s us, along with what we’re listening to, watching, and reading.

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Hattie R. Buell

Bio: Hattie Buell has grown up immersed in church music, classical music, and that necessary pinch of 80s pop. Buell met her Raines after he came back from Africa, they now are worship arts leaders together at an Anglican church and are involved with two others. Hattie’s training in ethnomusicology is one of her greatest joys in life, as she continues to analyze the music she hears, even when her family tells her to “please stop, you’re making our heads go round like a record”.

Reading List: I no longer feel inspired to read, which is the bleakest thing I have ever said about myself. If you have suggestions, I need them.

Summer Playlist: Rued Langgard, Kíla, Beauty & the Beast soundtrack

Currently Watching: I’m in a total splurge of “Great British Bake Off” until “Stranger Things Vol. II” or “Rick & Morty 3”.

Current Artistic Project: Just finished my embroidery phase, now it’ll probably be bread baking or starting a women’s chorus.

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Andy Decker

Bio: I’m an aspiring filmmaker currently residing in Chicago. My ultimate goal is to attend film school in Ireland and get involved in the Irish film industry. While I’m saving up, I’m operating a film criticism website at cinemainframe.wordpress.com. You can also keep tabs on what I’m watching at my Letterboxd profile.

Reading List: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli, Sorry For Your Troubles by Padraig Ó Tuama, The Myth of Sysiphus and Other Essays by Albert Camus, Interaction of Color by Josef Albers, V for Vendetta by Alan Moore

Summer Playlist: “Slowdive” by Slowdive, “Sunbather” by Deafheaven, “Run the Jewels 3” by Run the Jewels, “No Shape” by Perfume Genius, “OK Computer” by Radiohead, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by The Beatles, “Ujubasajuba” by Kairon; IRSE!

Watchlist: Televison – Fargo, Rick and Morty, Game of Thrones, Mr. Robot, Silicon Valley
Film – Baby Driver, Detroit, The Shape of Water, Blade Runner 2049, The Square, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Mother!

Other Stuff I Love: Soccer (watching and playing), running, board/video games, getting lost in the woods

Current Artistic Project: Currently in the second round of the Screenwriting Challenge 2017, working on a couple of other screenplays and a short story

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Kirsten Ekstrand

Bio: Kirsten has been playing piano since the age of six, but it wasn’t until studying piano in college that she realized her music found its sweetest fulfillment in serving the local church. Now working full-time as the service delivery manager for a Chicago-area IT firm, she pours her free hours into serving as her church pianist, as well as in the women’s and college/20’s ministries.

Reading List: Currently I’m reading Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (my book club is reading a sampling of Pulitzer Prize winners) and Te Deum: The Church and Music by Paul Westermeyer. Once I finish Te Deum, I’m hoping to pick up The Whole Church Sings: Congregational Singing in Luther’s Wittenberg by Robin A. Leaver in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. I’ll probably look for a P. D. James murder mystery for my summer travels, too.

Summer Playlist: I’ve been obsessed with Psalms albums in recent months. Sandra McCracken, Shane & Shane, and Wendell Kimbrough have some wonderful ones. I expect to frequently return to the Hamilton soundtrack as well.

Currently Watching: I’m excited to watch several of last year’s Oscar nominees this summer, including Manchester by the Sea, Arrival, and Hacksaw Ridge. For TV shows, I’ve been enjoying The Newsroom, and my guilty pleasure lately has been The Great British Baking Show.

Other stuff I love: Coffee, dark chocolate, red wine, and Oreos — but not necessarily in that order. On the average weekend, you might find me taking in a performance in the city, enjoying dinner with friends, or sitting at home with a good book and that glass of wine.

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Desirée Hassler

Bio: In addition to singing in the full-time chorus at Lyric Opera of Chicago, soprano Desirée Hassler has sung and covered roles at Lyric in Tannhäuser, Oklahoma!, Manon, Macbeth, Boris Godunov, Show Boat, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier. Recent performances include Bach’s B Minor mass with Chicago Bach Project (John Nelson, conductor), Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata with the Lake Geneva Symphony Orchestra, Ellen in Oklahoma! at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Kondja in The Rose of Stambul with Chicago Folks Operetta, soprano soloist in the Brahms Requiem (Los Angeles, CA), Barber’s Knoxville, Summer of 1915 with the Prairie Ensemble, Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony, as well as Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass with the Wichita Symphony.

A California native, Desirée has successfully competed from the regional to International levels at the Bel Canto Competition, Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, International Franz Liszt Competition and is the recipient of many distinguished awards. The soprano is musically curious and stylistically flexible, and enjoys performing music from the Renaissance to the 21st century– in recital, concert, opera and performance art mediums. Her voice can be heard on everything from commercial and film soundtracks, to oratorio, opera and operetta and even progressive heavy metal albums.

Hassler graduated in 2011 with a doctorate in Vocal Performance and Literature from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she completed a master’s degree in 2003. Dr. Hassler has served on the faculties of Eastern Illinois University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and currently serves on the voice faculty of the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, IL where she teaches voice and music history courses. Her voice studio is happily comprised of students singing classical, jazz, rock, musical theatre, original compositions and everything in between!

When she’s not doing lip trills or drinking coffee, Desirée is likely gardening or riding bikes with her super-husband Dan and four perfectly quirky children in Oak Park, IL.

Reading list: Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis, Nom Nom Paleo Cookbook, Practical Vocal Acoustics and Kinesthetic Voice Pedagogy: Motivating Acoustic Efficiency, Kenneth Bozeman (yeah nerdy singing stuff), various books on Egyptian history and mummification + embalming techniques to my mummy-obsessed 5 year-old, whatever catches my fancy at the library–we can’t always plan these things.

Currently Watching: Ok. Here we go. I’m not a TV person. I’ve tried. And I’ve failed. If I was to be persuaded to sit and watch something it might be a documentary. Or an episode of Parks and Rec or Chef’s Table. But most likely it would feel stressful and I’d walk away and go straight to my hammock. And people wouldn’t understand this when I tell them. But then again, I’m 38 and my life is noisy. Sometimes I just need some shhhhhh.

Other stuff I love (in no particular order): Jesus. Using the summer to grow a huge garden and cook from scratch and can things. Walking in the forest. Bach. Hard work. Quirky eyeglasses. Growing out my hair and chopping it off and growing it out again. One on one time with those close to me. MUSIC. Honesty. Stories of redemption. Hugs. Adventurous ethnic food. A beautifully-curated art exhibit. Delicious coffee, wine and chocolate. Toddler eyelashes. Chicago! I actually love Chicago.

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Allison Keeport

Bio: I am pursuing my Master’s of Music in Vocal Performance at North Park University in Chicago. When I’m not in rehearsal, a practice room, or the library, you’ll probably find me in the kitchen trying out new recipes on friends. I blog here, where all writing flows from a simple premise: art is great. Jesus is supreme.

Reading List: The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene; None Like Him – Jen Wilkin

Summer Playlist: Mainly repertoire for the upcoming semester, I’m also a little bit obsessed with the musical Waitress. Also high on the list: Ellie Holcomb, Andrew Peterson, Jason Mraz, Sara Bareilles, and power ballads from the 80s.

Currently Watching: Trying to watch less these days because my taste is hardly high-brow. Chef’s Table if I’m feeling classy. Parenthood if it’s a lazy night with a glass of Malbec. Probably more stand-up and late-night comedy than is really good for me.

Other stuff I love: Cooking! I have a DVD cooking class that I’m slowing working my way through. Other than that, I make great stuffed shells, my boeuf bourguignon ain’t too shabby, and I’m learning to bake bread from scratch. I’m discovering a love of gardening. I love red wine and dark chocolate and cheese. If you bring me wine with either of those two other things, I will be your best friend for life. I spend lots of time volunteering at my church, Renewal Church of Chicago.

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Rae Paul

Bio: I’m a student and lover of both words and the Word who breathed them first. I currently study theology at Moody Bible Institute, drink coffee like there is no tomorrow, read compulsively from an ever-growing TBR list, and write because the words will not stay in my soul. Take a peek at this for more of my life.

Reading List: I’m currently wading through The Source, by James Michener; savoring Delighting in the Trinity, by Michael Reeves; and waiting for Surprised by Joy, by C.S. Lewis.

Summer Playlist: Twenty One Pilots’ eponymous album

Currently Watching: Sherlock Season 4

Other stuff I love: I dabble in photography, watch whatever superhero movie my Netflix can find, drive too fast, and occasionally cook an interesting meal. I crave honesty, vivid speech, careful theology, and the sunsets of my beloved Midwest; all of which are best enjoyed with a cup of strong coffee in hand.

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Chris Wheeler

Bio: I’m a Christian, husband, father, writer, and beverage lover.  I grew up in rural Indiana until I left for college, studied in Chicago at Moody Bible Institute, and work there now.  I’m always looking for conversations and I love ideas.  I write poetry, liturgies, and stories here.

Reading List: Lila (Marilynn Robinson), Contagious (Jonah Berger), The Power and the Glory (Graham Greene), The Happiness Industry (William Davies), The Death of Expertise (Tom Nichols), A Philosophy of Education (Charlotte Mason). I’m also a big fan of graphic novels during the summer, and I read a spectacular one called One Soul (Ray Fawkes) recently.  Also the New 52: Swamp Thing and the Giant Beard That Was Evil.  Not kidding.

Summer Playlist: For the past month or so it’s been Jack Garratt, Dirty Projectors, Benjamin James, Gorillaz, the National, Kishi Bashi, Panic! At the Disco, Infected Mushroom, Solange, Watsky and Vulfpeck, depending on the mood. Just discovered Tank and the Bangas and they’re definitely on my steady soundtrack for the summer.  I will never escape Bon Iver.

Currently Watching: Plowed through the new seasons of House of Cards, OITNB, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt recently, and my wife and I are enjoying the Great British Baking Show together, but the home run this season was Patriot (Amazon Original). We have this unspoken rule that we should enjoy the shows our kids are watching, so I’m really into Sarah and Duck and the Stinky and Dirty Show.  Recent movies were Moonlight, Wonder Woman, Alien: Covenant, Valhalla Rising.

Other stuff I love:  I’m loving discovering everything in a fresh way with my kids right now.  My job is office management, but it fascinates me to no end, mostly because of my colleagues.  If I could have any meal for the rest of my life minus the clogged arteries, it would a burger, cheese curds, and craft beer.  I love mixology, trying new beers, and brewing/tasting the best coffee I can find.  I like to grill and read and play with LEGOs.  And I will always, unabashedly, love experiencing new artistic stuff.

Current project:  I’ve got a couple, but the primary summer ones are Words for the Church (poetry based on the church year), a book of parenting experiences, and a collection of my dad’s childhood stories.


Anything to add?  Let us know in the comments and we’ll check it out.

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parenting amid beauty (and beasts)

Recently I’ve been seeing some responses to Disney’s choice to include their first openly gay character (itself a debatable designation) in the new “Beauty and the Beast” live action film. Most of them find it sad, or too political (“don’t put your paradigm in my popcorn flick”), but the majority seem to be in a tizzy about Disney indoctrinating children through classic stories.

I have three kids under four, and several things have never been more evident to me:
1. Sleep will never happen. Ever again. I am convinced I will wake up in the middle of the night out of force of habit until I die. I slept through the night about a month ago when the kids were gone and my body was like “what the heck are you doing?”
2. Kids see everything from a vastly different perspective than I do. Kind of like most everyone I know.
3. Kids are very easily swayed by things that affect them deeply, and nothing affects us more deeply than well-told stories and beautiful images. So we’ve decided they shouldn’t read anything at all or look at anything beautiful so that they are never affected.

You might see where I’m going with this.

As a musician and a writer, I love art of all sorts. Art communicates powerfully and viscerally, saying what cannot be said and making us know things in our inner parts. My kids will experience art. It’s not an if, it’s a when.

But I’m exquisitely worried about how and what they experience. We’re not just dealing with the poorly-written children’s books that should never have been published, let alone made their way into the clutches of my pink-obsessed daughter. We’re talking about communicating things deeply, subtly, and memorably. What my kids experience now will stick. I’m nervous about what will stick.

But I’m not so nervous that I’m going to boycott Disney.

My reasons have to do with my goals for my children. Ultimately, I want them to know and love Christ. Then I want them to love others around them the way He does. And finally, I want them to have a robust sense of how to approach anything they encounter with a believer’s backbone.

So here’s why I’m not nervous about Beauty and the Beast:

Our expectations are wack.

We need to stop being so surprised by our broader culture’s take on life and happiness and just about everything else. We can see truth here and there in your average media stream, and sometimes very brightly, but everything coming from a place of unbelief in Jesus Christ and His kingdom rules must be viewed through a grid: It’s broken. My job as a parent is to show my kids why and how, and what God is still doing by His unmerited grace. I help them build that believer’s grid in their own hearts and minds.

But if I’m expecting our entertainment streams to be free of the brokenness, the tension I encounter is my own creation.

Disney’s got way bigger issues than any LGBTQ agenda.

Practically, there are many more insidious issues than LGBTQ agenda represented in Disney movies that I don’t want my kids to buy into. This is one reason we’re going to hold off a little on princess flicks (Nadia would never come up for air at this point). But perhaps the deepest problem in Disney films is the whole “make your own destiny, the truth is within you” thing. If our biggest problem is a minor character’s sexual orientation, we’re not thinking first cause. We’re only treating symptoms.

I don’t HAVE to take my child to anything.

I’ve read responses to this movie that opine the death of childhood because now their three-year-old cannot go to it. First off, nightmares, guys. I’m not bringing a tiny human with an overactive imagination to a movie featuring a terrifying man-buffalo and a torch-wielding crowd, for the simple reason that I value what little sleep I get.

Aside from that, though: As a parent, it’s my responsibility and honor to protect my daughter and her brothers from things they aren’t ready for. Besides this, I have trouble believing 1) that the movies and books I experienced as a child were actually any better and 2) that my children are missing something vital by not seeing a particular Disney movie. Our time as a family, undoubtedly, could be better spent.

How does avoiding this actually prepare my kids for life?

It’s much more authentic to encounter these cultural things with my children, and at some point I must do that in order to prepare them to encounter things alone.

This bites down to a particular philosophy of parenting, the idea that we are authorities and friends to our children. The word “parent” contains surprising nuance, because you are a a guardian, a counselor, an authority, and a friend all at once. To me that says: yes, offspring, I will attempt to prevent harm from touching you. But I also need to give you the building blocks to grow and learn, and let you fall sometimes. When this comes to stories, movies, songs, art – I can walk alongside my children as they grow instead of hiding things from them. Shine a light on a scary thing and it loses its power. We need to be shining the light of Christ on things for our kids, revealing the true nature of them, and letting them learn how to hold the flashlight.

We cannot abdicate our roles as parents to anyone else. Our kids will learn from the larger culture and we won’t be able to avoid that, however, so what should we do? I believe we must strive for a relationship of love and authority that is deeply human (because we need Jesus too) and serious about them and the Lord. This is an anchor for them as they grow, and one that will help them weather the waves of popular culture.

Relationship is what matters.

We tend to give our kids too little or too much credit, because we don’t take the time to get to really know them or to see things from their perspective.

The only way I’m going to know what my kid can or cannot handle is by knowing them really, really, really well. And you don’t know someone that well without spending a lot of time with them, asking them questions and listening to them, and letting them ask questions. This kind of trust-building doesn’t just reveal possible triggers for kids depending on their personality and experiences, it also lets them know that when they hit on something they don’t understand, they will always have someone to talk to who won’t dismiss them or call their honest questions silly. Sounds like Someone else I know.

Taking the moral high ground doesn’t guarantee anything.

The responsibility for my children’s spiritual and moral state doesn’t rest solely on me and how I manage their movie-watching. Christ is the author and finisher of faith, and so to think that my parenting is going to be the final say on my child’s success or failure in life misses a deeply encouraging point: it’s not. It will affect it, definitely, for better or worse, so it matters. But ultimately, my kids are entrusted to me for a time but created and sustained by God.

So if your kid can manage it, go watch “Beauty and the Beast” and talk about it afterward with them. You might be surprised at what they’re thinking. But they’ll be thinking at least one thing: that their parent cares about them.

stealing christmas

img_7450-2

It’s that time of year again.

The time of year when artists of all disciplines go about sleepless and sick due to the overwhelming influx of high-production holiday stuff. They come from every corner – church, work, parties, shows, holiday EPs, radio overload, connecting with fans… This season may be lucrative but it definitely takes a toll. By the time we get home on the weekends the only thing left to do is doze in front of Netflix with some cookies and milk. You think Santa has it busy.

Besides us (because it’s not all about us), think about the production of Christmas festivities in every corner of society. Marketing and retail and bakeries and events and shopping lists. This season is nuts. And in the midst of it we’re expected (by ourselves and others) to make a ton of time for the social engagements in our lives, because nothing says Christmas like spending every single night with people you may or may not have seen all year. Then there’s finding the perfect gift and the perfect time to wrap the perfect gift and the perfect words to put in the perfect card to go on top of the perfect gift… And don’t forget to celebrate that huge stack of traditions – because it wouldn’t be Christmas without those.

One of our traditions is to watch yet again that classic tale of Mr. Grinch and his crusade to steal Christmas from a bunch of sanctimonious furries.

(Yes, the animated one. There is no other.)

This was the first year my two children watched it with us, and it brought a flurry of questions. Why was he always mean? How did he change? And mostly, as my 2 year old opined again and again for a week, “why’d da Squinch take da stuff, daddy?”

It brought home to me once again the value of a simple story to communicate truth. Let me be clear: by story I mean not telling only but showing. And by communicating truth I mean not hearing only but also understanding.

We tell our children all the time to be kind, but nothing drives home kindness like seeing a radical display of unkindness. We tell our children not to be selfish, and to share. But nothing hit them quite so much as the grasping, self-consumed story of this green grump trying to stop Christmas.

We tell them that our hearts are desperately wicked, and we can’t change them. But they see the Grinch’s heart change, and understand something bigger than themselves.

“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.”
“Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”
And what happened then?
Well…in Whoville they say,
That the Grinch’s small heart
Grew three sizes that day!

It’s a tiny window into a big truth. Dr. Seuss could have said (not like he would have):

Because the Who’s happiness wasn’t based on a consumer mentality that we see in the larger culture today, the Grinch saw the value of community and celebration and associated happiness with something more substantial.

There’s absolutely no depth of field there, because it’s an academic rendering of a pivotal event. The rendering doesn’t do much for us, because truthfully, you just had to be there.

No, instead of stuffing his Grinchy story full of trappings and psychology, the good doctor just told a story – and dude, it’s even derivative (Charles Dickens much?) He chose a couple lines that communicate something huge. Maybe this is also why Dickens’ most ubiquitous story is one of his shortest.

What I’m getting at is this: Less is way, way more. It wasn’t until old Grinchy-pants divested the Who’s of all of the trappings of the season that he saw the truth about Christmas.

During this time of year, we might do well to pilfer our analyses, systems, and semantics and take the stories we encounter for what they’re actually worth. Big ideas like hope, peace, joy, surprise, paradox – these are all impossible to cram into an academic paper, but they fit perfectly in 15-page children’s book, or a single chapter in Luke.

I have the great privilege of producing a very large annual Christmas extravaganza every year at the beginning of December. It’s a show that I’m proud of, done with incredibly talented people. When it’s all said and done, however, my favorite event of the season is the Christmas Eve service at my church, which consists of – in entirety – Scripture read by children, five or six well-worn carols, a five-minute homily, and real candles. That’s all there is, and the place is packed for it.

It comes without orchestra, choirs, or synths. It comes without spotlights, or sound techs, or visuals. It comes without cookies and punch, or finery of any sort. It comes like a baby sleeping in a feed trough. Like the first Christmas.

God made it this way. He delights in making use of the simplest things to shine light into dark hearts: A carpenter. A thirteen-year-old girl. Uneducated shepherds. A stable. A Baby. The best gifts do come in the smallest packages, it seems.

Maybe… perhaps… we should simplify our artistic endeavors this season so that the real meaning of Christmas shines through more brightly to ourselves and those around us. Maybe we need to be artistic Grinches more often, because when it’s all said and done, what all of our souls need this season might just be Luke 2 and O Come All Ye Faithful (unaccompanied).

Because Christmas isn’t esoteric, it’s a mystery.  There’s a big difference.

hideously beautiful | a defence of horror

Nosferatu

October is here again, and along with it inevitably follows the classic debate amongst the Christian public on what to do with Halloween and, by proxy, horror. The holiday is often vilified for its suspected pagan roots, often (and I would say incorrectly) viewed as a celebration of the occult, and along with it the horror genre of art in general is accused of similar things, with horror cinema being a particularly ubiquitous recipient of criticism.

There are a number of complaints I hear about horror films, some of the wider ones typically being the genre’s transfixion with blood and gore, the very fact that it instills fear in people, and the perception that it celebrates or glorifies evil, thereby empowering it. I’d argue that a lot of these criticisms stem from wider human behaviours and entertainment issues, such as the thrill-seeking adrenaline addiction that fuels the love of things like roller coasters or people finding joy in wanton destruction (which rears its head in more socially acceptable fashion in films like Transformers and 2012), nor are they things of which the filmmakers and critics working within the genre are not aware. Let’s be honest here: most of the population thinks Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and Jason Goes to Hell are trash, not cultural cornerstones or works of art that will stand for eternity.

Rather than simply refute the common reasons Christians cite to condemn it, all of which could be the basis for their own entire posts, I want to speak about horror from the positive. This is an extremely misunderstood genre for the sole reason that it is deliberately off-putting, an unadulterated examination of humanity’s demons. Horror is beautifully ugly, and it speaks to me in a way that nothing else can begin to emulate. Perhaps it’s because it appeals to my affinity toward pessimism and nihilism; my natural inclination is to see the worst in the world and fall into a downward spiral questioning whether there’s any point to any of this, and I carry any hope with me only by the grace of God. Not that all horror is an inherently hopeless affair, but it explores those darker undertones of reality in a way that often removes any of the gloss and sugar coating that make other presentations so easily digested. The macabre is often a painfully difficult pill to swallow.

Modern-day American evangelicals have been raised and nurtured in a culture that shuns the negative, the dark, the depressing, endlessly suckling at positivity’s breast. Certainly it’s problematic to overly dwell on the gloomy and bleak, but refusing to acknowledge it and let it simmer and exist is a recipe for emotional immaturity. The human experience is a broad, all-enveloping wave of chaos, and every piece is essential and will be known in some capacity by the end of one’s life. Sadness, pain, and evil need to be understood just as much as hope, joy, and goodness.

Art, then, is the voice by which we express and begin to understand our lives, giving words, images, and sounds to those feelings and circumstances that shape us and everyone around us, and I am of the opinion that no aspect of the human experience should be exempt from this process. Every piece needs to be expressed and to be understood, even the most unsavoury or dour or grotesque elements. Drama is capable of conveying feelings of sorrow and despair in a way that is potent and palpable as well as palatable, but where horror demonstrates its value is its ability to look at all that is wrong with the world with an undiluted gaze. Drama will help us grapple with our hurts, and horror will reveal them for the monsters they truly are.

When the blinds are pulled back and evil is unfiltered through the eyes of horror, there’s a uniquely powerful opportunity to engage with darkness in a way that isn’t normally afforded along a wide breadth of subjects. In fact, horror can often be particularly incisive and effective when exploring abstract concepts due to the often fantastical natures of the film and story premises, a variation of Tolkien’s philosophy of using fairy stories to reveal truths about reality. While there are certainly those that simply seek to thrill (and are quite justified in their desires to do so in the most general sense), I’ve seen horror films that are far more affecting that tackle subjects such as grief and loss (The Babadook); loneliness, bullying, and unrequited love (Let the Right One In); and the inevitability of death (It Follows).  In addition, The Exorcist is one of the most thoughtful and compelling explorations of spiritual warfare I’ve seen in any medium.

I’m not saying that we should replace our positivity bubbles with total immersion in sadness and morbidity. And I’m not saying that you should force yourself to watch horror anyway if you don’t appreciate being scared or made to feel extremely uncomfortable. What I want is for people to simply acknowledge the genre for the value it presents to human expression (and even worship) rather than writing it off entirely due to its shortcomings, often more pronounced due to its nature and often merely the result of misunderstanding. The world is wonderful but twisted by sin, and we ought to cease demonising horror for shedding its piercing light on what our true demons are.

an act of contrition

The-witch-movie-review

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I first sat down to watch The Witch, and it still managed to catch me off guard. A creepy 17th-century period-piece monster movie, I thought I could at least assume that the witch herself would be a continuous menace, and yet most of the time she was nowhere to be found.

While the titular villain certainly had a presence, the film eschewed typical tropes to instead dwell on a theological horror – damnation to hell. The family at the centre almost never fears physical attacks or ailments that come upon it, not even aware that a witch is in the woods until the third act. Rather, the source of their terror is their own sin and the eternal consequences of its filth being upon them.

It’s a far more personal fear, though intangible, and it was fascinating to observe how the family processed it. When a baby is stolen by the witch early in the film, the mother is not angered nor fearful of what may have taken it but is instead bedridden in anguish, crying out to God to forgive her sins and to not cast her away, to allow her to remain His child. Later, as a boy helps to hunt in the woods and gets lost, he frantically repeats a rhyme begging God’s forgiveness for his trespasses. Every character is seen in some way coming to terms with their own sin, and they fully believe that whatever curse has been brought upon them is the direct result of their own unholiness, agonising at the very thought that God may well have cast them from His sight.

As someone who bears less puritanical theological standards, my initial sentiment toward the characters might have been questioning whether they’ve stopped to read Romans 8. However, I instead found myself enraptured by their attitudes towards their grievances against the Lord. While I might not stand in agreement with their ultimate reactions, these people on the screen in front of me had a remarkable understanding of the gravity of their sin, of how putrid and vile of a thing it was.

I haven’t felt that way about my sin in a long time. Not that I should feel guilt beyond on all measure or that I will be cast out of God’s presence forever, as that’s not healthy either. But simply to be able to acknowledge the weightiness of the wrong I do every time I defy God – it seems like it’s something that’s lost on me unless I stop and try. Surely I notice my sin, and then I pause and ask God for mercy, but the whole thing is so commonplace, so rote. I’m so locked in to the mindset of grace, of my sin being ineffectual in removing the bountiful blessings that have been sealed for me, that the actual cost of my actions has oft been lost on me. Should I be feeling more guilty?

I had a conversation with some friends on a rooftop in Seattle recently about the culture of guilt and shame we live in. While far more understated than the Puritans, we still, perhaps unintentionally, drive ourselves toward holy living by way of guilt-tripping. Part of my desire even for writing this is that I feel guilty for not always feeling guilty. Our motivation is our sin rather than our God, and the result is feelings of shame, both public and private. We are reluctant to confess our failings to one another because of fear of judgment upon our character, even from our closest friends, while things like purity rings make our “holy” behaviour a matter of public knowledge, and likewise our potential shortcomings, creating an added pressure that stems not from a desire to honour God so much as a desire to not be openly humiliated.

Surely it’s all done with the best intentions, but guilt and shame are not things that the Christian should bear anymore. It drives us away from the truth of our status with God, united to Christ, that there is no more condemnation, no more shame. Yet we are also instructed not to treat our sin lightly and simply do what we like while grace covers us. Sin is an abomination, and it must be recognised as such. I must recognise it within me and weed it out, but every time I allow myself to I descend into a spirit of self-loathing and fear that I am hopelessly repugnant before God.

The Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin, but it does not weigh us down with the burden of condemnation. We do that to ourselves. Perhaps I’m getting caught up in semantics, but there is a difference between contrition and guiltiness, between understanding the wickedness of our actions and feeling shameful. That difference is so subtle, so precise, but the balance it delivers is something I believe to be essential to the healthy life of a Christian. I want so badly to be able to see both sin and grace as does the mind of God while they endlessly war inside me and finally be able to walk in that centre of comprehensive remorse and spiritual invincibility, but I’ll likely spend a lifetime searching for that place and still miss the mark.

content warning

made|new|blinders

So I was planning on watching Deadpool.  Seriously.  I was psyched.

But then I tried to convince my wife that it was worth it.  She applied the appropriate amount of disdain for the idea (yes, I had her watch a trailer), but that wasn’t the motivating factor in the end.

What transpired was an in-depth conversation about how much VSL content (violence-sex-language) was too much with my brother-in-law.  As I was driving back after our weekend with them, I was verbally-processing to my wife.  It went something like this:

C: “Not engaging is not an option for me, even when content is heavy.”

L: *silence*

C: “There’s a lot of truth and beauty in some content-heavy material, besides the importance of understanding situations realistically.”

L: *silence*

C: “I mean, there are things I won’t watch because of content…”

L: “Are there?”

C: *silence*

The truth of the matter is that there haven’t been for quite some time.  Walking Dead is “worth it” because of the interesting moral dilemmas.  House of Cards was politically intriguing and c’mon, it’s Spacey.  What an antihero.  Who engages in awful, horrible things.  Jessica Jones was not only excellently acted and written, it was a riveting depiction of abuse and manipulation in relationship.  Which makes the content… apropos?

I guess I’ve always had a scale in my head that weighed artistic quality and imperative dialogue against offensive content.  The problem being that while I was defining it as offensive and leaving it at that, I was gradually becoming less offended where it mattered – in my spirit.

In other words, I’ve been choosing my level of engagement by my ability to ignore offensive content rather than by obedient holiness.

Here’s the thing – engagement in the arts and cultural streams of communication is vital for us as creative people who are the salt and light in this broken world.  However, to think that mere engagement for the right reasons makes me immune to unholy pressure is ignorant.  Intaking sinful acts, usually portrayed with all of the allure that they inherently hold, is not without consequences.   But we are also called to confront darkness with the light of Christ.   How do we reconcile our own weakness with our call to courageously and lovingly proclaim Christ to a dying world?

Recall the oft-quoted: “It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret”?  With some context comes further understanding:

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.  Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.  

It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret.  But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. This is why it is said: “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.

Ephesians 5:8-16 (italics added)

In other words, our involvement in culture is an “in-the-world-not-of-it” variety, in which we choose to expose the fruitless deeds of the culture rather than ignore them while we look for truth.   Part of living in a truth-suppressing culture is shining the light of Christ into each situation (and media stream) we see.

This is holy obedience.  This is faithfulness to Christ. This is believing that our weakness is transformed into strength by His redemption.

Questions we should not ask ourselves are:

  1. How much can I handle?
  2. Is the engagement worth the content?
  3. Will knowing about this increase my street cred with unbelievers?

The prayers we should offer are:

  1. Lord, what do you want me to do in this moment?
  2. Help me to see my weakness, and rely on your strength for courage.
  3. Guide me to holiness and love that will transform my perspective, my soul, and the lives of those around me.
  4. Guide me through Your Word to know the next steps in this conversation.

This could mean engaging in cultural streams with content depending on the context and the leading.  This kind of engagement involves dogged reliance on Scripture, prayer, the Holy Spirit, and the communion of believers to guide our interactions and conversations about culture as we encounter it.  It involves the recognition that we sometimes have to sacrifice our own fleshly desires or pseudo-spiritual comfort-fear to clearly communicate the Gospel.

And it also involves humbly listening to those closest to you when they rebuke you (thanks, sweetheart).