Netflix Pick: “What Maisie Knew”

Copyright 2012 Millenium Entertainment, Inc.

Copyright 2012 Millenium Entertainment, Inc.

One of the best things about Netflix (and similar digital streaming services) is the opportunity to see movies or shows that you may have never even heard of without it. This is the first of what I expect to be an ongoing series of sleeper picks now available on Netflix that you may want to check out (along with a few words why).

“What Maisie Knew” is a modern retelling of a 19th century Henry James novel about the effect of a divorce on the divorcing couple’s young child. Every scene of the movie is shown from Maisie’s point of view, so, like a real child in that situation, you only witness parts of the arguments and events leading to the divorce and its aftermath. The parents, international art-dealing dad Beale (Steve Coogan) and aging rock-singer mom Susanna (Julianne Moore), are either constantly fighting with each other or so absorbed with their own pursuits that Maisie becomes an afterthought. That is, unless her parents want to use her to inflict pain on the other. As the movie continues, two surrogate parents emerge: Margo (Johanna Vanderham), Maisie’s nanny-turned-stepmother who marries Beale shortly after the divorce, and Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), a bartender whom Susanna barely seems to know but marries seemingly out of spite almost immediately after Beale’s remarriage. The rest of the movie shows Maisie try to live out as normal a childhood as possible as she is shuffled around from person to person and home to home.

While “What Maisie Knew” isn’t light entertainment, it’s an immensely satisfying film. Onata Aprile, the child actress who was six-years-old when filming started, is a wonder. One expects that, as a young child and a newcomer, she is not really acting as much as just living in the moments depicted in the film. The filmmakers expertly jump her back and forth between the abnormal moments brought on by the circumstances of divorce (shuttling back and forth between homes, having her parents talk badly about their exes) and the normal parts of childhood, like being in her classroom or playing with her toys. As she is in every scene, she has to carry the movie, and certainly does. While Aprile is the unexpected star, the rest of the cast is excellent. As you are expected to, you hate Coogan’s self-absorbed Beale, except for one fleeting moment when he silently seems to realize what he’s lost and forced Maisie to lose—a fantastic moment of acting. You don’t hate Moore’s Susanna as much; Moore plays her with a manic quality suggesting some (probably drug-related) mental illness that keeps her from making a single good decision. Vanderham (who I’d never seen prior to this) conveys a sense of growth from quietly resentful that her new marriage isn’t all she hoped to openly willing to take responsibility for her stepdaughter. And Skarsgard, as Lincoln, the only completely likeable adult character in the movie, is wonderfully winsome as Lincoln starts in way over his head (for example, Maisie has to teach him that he has to hold her hand when they cross the street) but succeeds in winning our hearts because he, unlike Maisie’s parents, always tries to keeps Maisie’s interests the main thing.

While the movie does paint Beale and Susanna more as types than as fully-fleshed characters, this is not necessarily a flaw. While there are certainly divorces that result from by things like abuse, adultery, and abandonment, the biblical truth is that divorce is not the way things are supposed to be, but is the result of man’s sinful fall from grace and subsequent hardening of his heart (Matthew 19:3-9). This message, even if unintended by the filmmakers, comes through strongly in the selfish destructiveness of both parents and the heartbreaking effects it has on their child. But the movie does provide some hope—not in full restoration of this family, but in the emergence of other relationships built not on selfish ambition, but on selfless grace and love. “What Maisie Knew,” as difficult as the subject matter could be at times, was one of the best films released in 2013. I hope you’ll check it out.

Rated R for “some language.” A detailed description of potentially objectionable content is available here.

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Fatherhood and “The Way Way Back”

Nat Faxon, Sam Rockwell, Liam James, and Maya Rudolph in "The Way Way Back" (copyright 2013 Fox Searchlight Pictures, Inc.)

Nat Faxon, Sam Rockwell, Liam James, and Maya Rudolph in “The Way Way Back” (copyright 2013 Fox Searchlight Pictures, Inc.)

“The Way Way Back” was a small coming-of-age movie from last summer that many of you may have missed; I just got around to it on video. Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who won Oscars for co-writing “The Descendants”), it tells the story of a summer at the beach for 14-year-old Duncan, an incredibly awkward young teen, along with his mother, her obnoxious new boyfriend Trent, and his teen daughter. Emotionally beaten down by his mother’s distractedness, Trent’s passive-aggressive put-downs, and everyone else’s complete ignoring of him, he seems to suffer every moment of the “vacation.” That is, until he meets Owen, the permanent-adolescent manager of a nearby water park who takes Duncan under his wing. As he secretly takes a job at the water park, Duncan slowly but surely starts to emerge from his shell, taking some small but not insignificant steps towards manhood.

The movie breaks no new ground—coming-of-age stories were pretty much a staple of 80’s filmmaking, and the common(ish) experiences of growing up are a pretty easy way to relate to the audience. But just because something has been done before does not mean it can’t be done again better. And I think “The Way Way Back” does that. The story is engaging, the performances (especially from Steve Carrell playing against type as the abrasive Trent and Sam Rockwell as water park manager Owen) are excellent, and, in the end, you really care about what happens to these characters. While some might find it a touch sentimental (and I guess I’m getting more sentimental as I get older, so what’s wrong with that?), I found it charming. I can’t recommend it enough.

Throughout the movie, though, that I did sense a bigger theme than just a kid overcoming his circumstances on the journey through adolescence. At the beginning, Trent establishes himself as a jerk when he asks Duncan to rate himself from 1 to 10 and then tells Duncan that he thinks Duncan is a 3. As Duncan is dragged along on “family” outings, Trent does his best to embarrass him; for example, at one point Trent makes him wear an unbelievably overlarge life jacked on a boating trip. Finally, Duncan confronts his mother about Trent’s loutishness (towards him and his mother) and says that he wants to leave and go live with his father, who has a new home in San Diego with a new girlfriend. Trent, in his final attempt to crush Duncan, tells him that his father doesn’t want him.

Here, we see two examples of “fatherhood” gone wrong. First, in Duncan’s own father, we see complete abandonment.  The man has decided to live life solely for his own purposes and pleasures instead of taking responsibility for his child. This is surely sin. In his letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul states that the church should treat one failing to provide for his family as one who has “denied the faith” and “worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). By failing to provide for his son through his physical presence and his attention to his son’s mental, emotional, and behavioral needs, Duncan’s father has failed as a father, and Duncan clearly bears to wounds of that betrayal.

Second, in Trent, we see “fatherhood” as competition. Trent repeatedly makes reference to the group becoming a “family” someday, but shows no care or compassion towards Duncan. Instead, he uses irrational rules and cutting insults to show his superiority. Though he claims he wants to fill the role of father, his selfish pride does nothing but make Duncan’s life harder. This, too, is sin. “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” (Colossians 3:21). Trent is no father, he’s a bully; his insecurity and selfishness, like Duncan’s own father’s rejection, only serves to further injure Duncan.

Instead of these two men, it is in Owen who does for those things that a father should do. He simply expresses interest in and concern for who Duncan is. He welcomes Duncan into his life, giving him a sense of belonging. He gives Duncan responsibility and challenges, hiring him and sending him to do difficult tasks. He even steps in as protector when necessary. And, due to the love shown by this “father figure,” Duncan is able to overcome the rejection and humiliation he suffers from the other men in his life and gains the confidence necessary to becoming a man. Through his regard for and care of Duncan, it is in Owen we see the reminders that children are both a blessing from God (Psalm 127:3-5) and a great responsibility (Deuteronomy 4:9-10; Proverbs 22:6; Ephesians 6:4). May all of us who are fathers always remember that.

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Takeaways from Desiring God

Loads of swag from the Desiring God Pastor's Conference

These aren’t the “takeaways” I’m talking about…

It’s been a few days since I got back from the Desiring God Conference for Pastors (and a few days since I posted anything at all; sorry about that). The conference was very, very good. The teaching was dense and fulfilling, the worship was edifying, and the chance to meet and spend time with some other guys in ministry was wonderful. Plus, there was the above stack of free books and other resources; as free books may be one of the very best things in life, I’m quite grateful to Desiring God and all of their sponsors for their generosity.

Others have “live-blogged” events like this, producing a pretty detailed outline of each speaker’s sermon/lecture/whatever you want to call it. I thought of doing that, but quickly realized that I was incapable of doing justice to the depth of the content of the teaching. But John Piper once said that it’s not necessarily an entire work (such as a book) that captures and changes a person, but only a paragraph or sometimes a sentence.  So, to summarize the conference, I thought I’d give the one idea from each speaker that captured me:

Paul Tripp gave two talks on how the gospel interacts with our lives, especially in trial or suffering. Using the example of the apostles struggling with rough waters on the Sea of Galilee, he said that God will take us where we don’t intend or want to go in order to produce in use what we could not achieve on our own and that this was an act of God’s grace. Not the grace of relief from suffering or of release from struggle, but the grace of refinement, because refinement is what we need. I pray that this thought will often come to mind when I struggle or suffer.

Sinclair Ferguson’s two talks focused on how union with Christ (we being in Christ and Christ being in us) leads to renewal of our minds and transformation of our lives. He set the tone for the conference theme of union in Christ by saying that if you don not think of yourself as being “in Christ” you have missed the point of being a Christian. It is being made one with Christ when He saves us that allows us to have access to the “fullness of Christ” (not any additional striving, obedience, or ritual) and that makes any desire to continue a life of sin instead of a life of obedience unthinkable.

Michael Horton spoke on two different topics: John Calvin on Union with Christ and Union with Christ and the Communion of Saints. There were actually a lot of great takeaways from these sessions, but I said only one, so I’ll go with this one: “There is no union with Christ without communion with His body.” We cannot live lives willingly separated from other brothers and sisters in Christ and still actually be in Christ.

Finally, John Piper’s two sessions were also on different topics, one on bearing fruit in union with Christ and one on the ministry of missionary Hudson Taylor as an example of life in Christ. Even though the topics took different approaches, Piper reliably expounded the lifeblood of His ministry: the pursuit of joy in Christ. He defined abiding in Christ (as set out in John 15:11) as finding joy in Christ, which is what brings Christ joy. He later said that any view of the Christian life that does not include the desire for and pursuit of the experience of more joy in Christ is defective.

Obviously, these brief summaries are just a taste of all that was said at the conference; there was so much more food for the soul from these and other breakout speakers. If you’d like to know more or watch/listen to some of the messages, you can check it all out here.

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Off to Desiring God!

20140203-100815.jpgI’m in the Twin Cities for a few days attending the Desiring God Pastor’s Conference. I’m looking forward to hearing from John Piper, Michael Horton, and Paul Tripp (among others). I’m especially looking forward to the conference theme of union with Christ. I fear it’s easy it trivialize the reality of Christ being in us (Galatians 2:20) and ignore the reality of us being in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). I pray that this doctrine mean so much more to me after this week.
I hope to post some reflections from the conference at some point during the conference or, if not (the schedule is jammed pretty full), then after it’s all over.

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“Frozen” and the Gospel of Love

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Queen Elsa “letting it go…” (Copyright 2013 The Walt Disney Company)

Now I may be partial, since Disney’s “Frozen” was the first movie I got to take my daughter to, and it would have held a special place for me even if it had not been good. But this update of the fairy tale “The Snow Queen” is not only one of my favorite movies of 2013, it is Disney’s best (non-Pixar) animated film since “Beauty and the Beast.” The animation quality is outstanding; just the amount of time and manpower that went into “making” the snow must have been overwhelming. It looks and moves more like beautiful powdery snow than the snow you typically see, like some kind of dream snow that exists atop mountains untouched by man. The songs are fantastic. Composers Bobby Lopez (“The Book of Mormon,” “Avenue Q”) and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez have created biggest Broadway-style songs in any Disney musical, and, unlike Disney’s unfortunate pop-music score era (see “Tarzan” or “Hercules”), you actually come out of the theater still humming them. The performances were also uniformally great, especially Kristen Bell as exuberent-yet-resolute Princess Anna (I had no idea she could sing like that), stage vet Idina Menzel as her sister, the cursed Queen Elsa, and Josh Gad as snowman Olaf. But the truest sign of a great film is that it sticks with you well after you’ve gotten home from the theater. And “Frozen” has done that for me. While the animation, songs, and performances are all memorable and worthy of accolade, it’s the story which won’t let me go. For in the story of these two sisters, we see the story of humanity’s struggle with the captivity of sin and the freedom that can only come through sacrificial love.

Warning: from this point on are major spoilers. Seriously, I’m going to tell you how the movie ends. If you don’t want to know, you have to stop reading now (but please come back after you see the movie, which you should).

The story starts with two young princesses, one of whom, Elsa, has the gift/curse of creating snow and ice. While the two are playing with these powers one night, Elsa accidentally and seriously injures sister Anna. To prevent such a thing from happening again, Elsa is pretty much locked away from the rest of the world (including her sister), with her parents urging her to try to control her uncontrollable powers by trying to suppress it, and her emotions, through her own self-will (“Conceal, don’t feel. Don’t let it show”; ”Getting upset only makes it worse. Calm down”). She tries to follow the rules to prevent her power from dominating her, leaving her broken, scared, and isolated.

The efforts of Elsa and her parents to control her unwanted powers is an illustration of our inability to control our biggest problem–sin–through our own efforts at following rules and trying to be “good enough.” Such efforts are legalism, the attempt to become righteous through self-willed obedience to the law. Legalism cannot save us, although most of the world’s religions tell us that it can–that simply by following their behavioral mandates (through acts of devotion, mediation, self-denial, etc.) one can become righteous. But the Bible teaches us this is impossible. We, by nature, are sinful creatures (Psalm 51:5; Jeremiah 17:9, Romans 3:10-18, 5:12-14, 17-18; Ephesians 2:2-3). The self-driven works of the law cannot lead to being righteous, being justified, being free from sin, but only to bring us into deeper bondage to our sin (Romans 3:20; Galatians 3:11a). Thus, trying to overcome the curse of our sin by trying to follow rules and being “good enough” not only does not overcome our sin, it just adds  guilt, shame, and defeat on top of it.

After showing us the dangers of legalism, the movie goes the other direction. After becoming queen, Elsa fails to control her powers, which are discovered by the people, now frightened by her. She flees to the mountains, where she decides she’s had enough of trying to be good enough. Instead, she embraces and relishes her powers as she creates a new world for herself. These lyrics to the show-stopper “Let It Go,” demonstrate the nature of her “breakthrough”: “It’s time to see what I can do, to test the limits and break through. No right, no wrong, no rules for me, I’m free!” She celebrates the fact that she can finally be “herself,” noting, “That perfect girl is gone.”

In the culture of the day, Elsa’s “liberation” would seemingly be something to celebrate. We daily hear societies mantras like “be true to yourself” and “if it feels good, do it.” But this flight away from legalism leads to another equally dangerous error–lawlessness. Even after the apostle Paul talks about how the law can lead to death, he then explains that it is not the law itself that condemns us, but the self-righteous efforts to follow it; he urges us not to go back to sinning however we want (Romans 6:1-2). Sin leads to death (Romans 6:23). Embracing or approving of it is not a sign of liberation, but evidence of God’s judgment (Romans 1:28-32).

And, consistent with this truth, Elsa finds that her new-found “liberation” is a lie. When confronted by her sister, who explains that her new freedom to do what she wants has plunged the kingdom into an eternal winter, she laments, “I’m such a fool, I can’t be free, no escape from the storm inside of me. I can’t control the curse.” The same is true of us when we try to be free in trying to sin as an expression of our freedom—in the end, we are still slaves to that sin, being dragged down by our chains to death, both now and in eternity.

But there can be freedom from sin. Elsa could not find it in legalism, she could not find it in lawlessness, but she would find it in the sacrificial love of another. Elsa has accidentally injured Anna, who’s heart is now freezing and who can only be healed with an “act of true love” (trust me, it works). Several twists and turns later, Elsa is about to be struck down with the villain’s sword when Anna, giving up her last chance to save herself, throws herself in front of Elsa and, as she freezes to (apparent) death, saves Elsa’s life. This selfless act, and not the kiss of a hero, is the act of true love which brings Anna back to life. It is also this pure act of selfless love, not fear-driven legalism nor “freedom”-driven lawlessness, that frees Elsa from the slavery of being unable to control her curse. Because of love, she can now use her powers for good. She thaws the winter, retakes the throne, and they all live happily ever after.

This picture is not just a fairy tale, it is the truth of our reality. We cannot be righteous by following laws. We cannot be “free” by flouting our sinfulness. We can only be redeemed by the One who loved us so much that He gave His life to set the captives free, to save us from the sin that controls us, and to become our righteousness (Luke 4:18; John 3:16; Romans 5:8; 2 Corinthians 5:21). It is only in trusting the loving sacrifice of Jesus Christ that we can truly be free of the sin which enslaves us.

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What’s In a Name?

Because writing about God, Christianity, and the Christian life is the reason I started this blog, I wanted a name that had some reference to faith/grace/God/theology, etc. Because I also love movies and plan on blogging about them regularly, I intended on coming up with a name that also made some reference to film. But the names I came up with were too nondescript or were taken (“Faith and Film”), were nearly impossible to understand for the average reader and thus way too pretentious (“Grace at 24fps”), or sounded like the movie night at a hipster church (“Spirit & Celluloid”). Plus, I’d like to write about more than just movies and wouldn’t want a visitor who doesn’t want to read about something other than the intersection of faith and movies think that I was suckering them into checking out a blog they didn’t want to read.

But then I turned to an idea I’d been mulling over about the relationship of God and our works for Him. On their own merit, our works are nothing special (Isaiah 64:6). God does not need the works we do for Him, and they don’t “serve” Him (as in providing Him something that He is unable or unwilling to do for Himself) (Acts 17:24-25). Yet Scripture repeatedly affirms that God wants us to do works for Him and is pleased when we do so (Colossians 1:10; 1 John 3:22). So why does God value those works that do not “achieve” anything for Him?

Then I think of the artwork my three-year-old daughter makes for me. On an objective artistic level, it is not “good.” She’s just reaching the stage where her general scribbles are becoming more specific scribbles. There’s some form, but you can’t tell what it is unless you ask her. It has no earthly value. I cannot sell it or display it to have people come and marvel at its merit. But it is exceedingly precious to me—not because of its quality, but because of its source. My daughter draws me a picture because she takes great joy in making it and she wants to share that joy with me because she loves me. I cherish it because she is my child, I love her, and that art, as “incompetent” as it may be, is a sign of her love for me. And I prominently display it where all parents display those physical signs of love and pride—on the refrigerator door.

So that’s where “Fridge Door Faith” comes from. In the grand scheme of things, my works are nothing special. The best sermon I’ll ever give will still be spoken way too fast, use words someone won’t understand, and have at least two “logical” jumps that make no sense. My songs of worship will be full of flat singing and occasional wrong notes. My service to others will be tainted with feelings of self-satisfaction or the need for worldly approval. When it comes to the Christian life, my efforts seem overwhelmingly incompetent to me. But God tells me that he cherishes them because I am His child (Romans 8:14-17), He loves me (Romans 8:38; Ephesians 3:17-19), and my service is a sign of my love for Him (John 14:15, 21). So I trust that He is pleased with my works like I am with my daughter’s art for me—not because they are worthwhile in and of themselves, but because I am worthwhile to Him. And I pray that this blog pleases Him as I try, however imperfectly, to show my love for Him through it.

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Welcome to Fridge Door Faith!

Like I just said, welcome to Fridge Door Faith! If you’re here, you’re either a friend of mine (so thanks!) or you don’t know me but saw this link on Twitter and figured you’d try yet another Christian blog (so thanks a whole bunch!).

I know I have stuff to say, but I have no idea if it’s worth reading – I hope you’ll think so. Most of what I’ll post deals with the Christian life with an emphasis on theology. I spend a lot of time doing church stuff, so there will be stuff about the church. Posts about being a husband or daddy? That could happen. Current events are possible, too, although I hope to keep it pretty level-headed. I also love film and good television, so I’m going to talk about some of that. Sometimes, I hope to really dig into the deeper things of a movie or show and pull out important themes about humanity, sin, God, redemption, Jesus, etc….and sometimes I’ll just express my opinions about stuff I like just because I like it. I hope to do some book reviews, which will necessitate actually finishing some of the many books I start. You’ll likely be spared reading about the heartache of being a Kansas City sports fan – but I make no promises, because sometimes you just have to vent. And I’m nearly certain you’ll read a lot of stuff in parentheses, because I love to make parenthetical comments (I’ve already edited three others out of this post).

Again, thanks for checking in here. I hope you’ll give me a chance to get my blogging legs under me, although I understand if I only get one shot and I’ve already chased you off. If you’re interested in what I say, I hope you’ll come back regularly and even comment. And I hope that, although very imperfectly, I’ll make much of Jesus Christ in what I write here.

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