A Film Critic Pastor-Theologian On the 2019 Oscars

People often ask me if being a film critic doing a PhD on cinema and theology takes all the fun out of watching movies. I can understand the sentiment. Film-watching is supposed to be an enjoyable diversion, an escape from reality for 90-120 minutes into an imagined world of drama and wonder. Won’t academic research and writing film reviews drain all the pleasure out of cinema, slowly turning me into a critical curmudgeon? Now, midway through my PhD at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of St Andrews, I can confidently state that growing in the knowledge of film history and theory (as well as philosophy and theology) has only enriched the experience and expanded my love for the Seventh Art.

Yet I still have a love/hate relationship with the Academy Awards. On the one hand, art shouldn’t be a popularity contest or a game to win. Art is for invigoration, provocation, and contemplation, not TV ratings. On the other hand, I absolutely love cinema, so anything celebrating movies offers attracts me like a moth to a flame. Often the “bests” of the Oscars aren’t truly the best films of the past year. And this year in particular, the Academy has made a number of blunders which reveal a focus more on consumer ratings and less on film itself, such as their proposed “Best Popular Film” category, or presenting four awards—including Cinematography and Editing—during commercial breaks (a decision they rescinded after severe backlash).

I want to offer a few comments on twelve Oscars categories, highlighting what I predict will win, what should win out of the nominees, and what is actually the best in that particular category, regardless of the nominations. Consider this my small way of highlighting the true, the good, and the beautiful in cinema from 2018:

Best Foreign Language Film

Will Win: Roma

Should Win: Shoplifters

Actual Best: Roma

Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s epic memorial to his childhood, Roma, is a formalist exercise with impressive black-and-white cinematography and slowly meandering pans and long-takes; its mise-en-scène is so richly complex you’ll feel the need to pause the film just to take in the scenery (and you can, because it’s streaming on Netflix!). Yet Hirokazu Koreeda from Japan is an artisan in empathy, and Shoplifters—about a misfit group of vagabonds turned into a makeshift family—is an affecting portrait of the significance of community, and perhaps an apt metaphor for the church. Whichever film wins, both are worth your attention.

Best Animated Feature Film

Will Win: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Should Win: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Actual Best: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

No film surprised or delighted me more in 2018 than an animated superhero film with a talking pig and Nicolas Cage. From the animation to the performances to the comedy to the action, Spider-Verse is spectacular. Simply put, it’s a perfect film in every way. Go see it immediately.

Best Documentary

Will Win: Free Solo

Should Win: Minding the Gap

Actual Best: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

I am one of only two critics on Rotten Tomatoes who gave the intense rock-climbing documentary Free Solo a “Rotten” score. So I’d be disappointed if the heavily-marketed crowd favorite won over Hulu’s affecting Minding the Gap, an intimate and sincere look at three young men growing up in middle America, beautiful in its exploration of a gentle masculinity and overcoming generational sin and abuse. But the real tragedy is that the Fred Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? wasn’t even nominated—it’s a wonderfully Christian film in the best sense of the word.

Best Cinematography

Will Win: Roma

Should Win: Cold War

Actual Best: The Rider

While Cuarón deserves props for directing, writing, and filming Roma, it’s the other lush black-and-white foreign film, Cold War, which deserves the Cinematography prize; its framing, lighting, and images are exquisitely composed. Yet it’s Chloé Zhao’s neo-Western The Rider which impressed me most, the cinematography perfectly shifting from shaky verité-style handheld camerawork, to expansive wide shots of the Dakota badlands landscape, to dreamy slow-motion images of the bodies of horses and humans in dance-like movements.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Will Win: BlacKkKlansman

Should Win: If Beale Street Could Talk

Actual Best: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spike Lee deserves an Oscar (see below for Best Director), but Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s supposedly unfilmable novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, is wonderfully timeless and timely; Jenkins’ subtle changes to Baldwin’s poetic prose keep the spirit of the novel within the cinematic medium. Still, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse truly captures the comic book style and substance, and raises really interesting questions about canon, intertextuality, and hermeneutics—which version of a character or story is most “true”?

Best Original Screenplay

Will Win: Green Book

Should Win: First Reformed

Actual Best: Eighth Grade

Green Book is the crowd-pleasing cinematic equivalent of saying “I’m not racist–I have a black friend!” So it’s tragic that Paul Schrader’s masterfully transcendent First Reformed—his first nomination, despite writing Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ—will likely lose to such drivel. Despite my love for First Reformed, it’s comedian Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade which deserves more attention for its painfully authentic portrayal of middle school awkwardness; it honors those years of adolescence, and truly sees and loves those teens living in the social margins.

Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Amy Adams (Vice)

Should Win: Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk)

Actual Best: Haley Lu Richardson (Support the Girls)

If Amy Adams wins her first Oscar for Vice—an anger-inducing film which lives up to its name—I’ll just imagine it was for her fantastic work in Arrival, The Master, Doubt, or Junebug. From the nominees, Regina King deserves accolades for If Beale Street Could Talk, but my favorite supporting performance of 2018 is Haley Lu Richardson as a bubbly waitress in Support the Girls, one of the more authentic, honest, and insightful cinematic depictions of the food industry work environment, and a picture of pastoral patience and perseverance in the face of patriarchy.

Best Supporting Actor

Will Win: Mahershala Ali (Green Book)

Should Win: Sam Elliot (A Star Is Born)

Actual Best: Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther)

Mahershala Ali’s performance is the best part of Green Book. Still, gravelly-voiced Sam Elliot in A Star Is Born feels like the culmination of so many great performances over the years from an underrated actor; Elliot has been steadily turning out excellent work and only now received his first Oscar nomination (plus, he’s a Portland native, a graduate of David Douglas High School!). But the most overlooked in this category is Michael B. Jordan’s performance as Erik Killmonger in Black Panther. The best villains are those whose motives and schemes feel justifiable on some level, and Killmonger’s pseudo-liberation theology ethic—colonize the colonizers!—certainly sparks theological reflection.

Best Actress

Will Win: Glenn Close (The Wife)

Should Win: Olivia Colman (The Favourite)

Actual Best: Helena Howard (Madeline’s Madeline)

I haven’t seen The Wife yet, but Glenn Close seems set up to win for her culmination of great performances spanning over four decades. Olivia Colman’s role as Queen Anne in The Favourite is vividly silly and Oscar-worthy, but my favorite performance of the year is teen newcomer Helena Howard in Madeline’s Madeline, the emotionally vibrant and aesthetically innovative coming-of-age film about mental health, art, and identity.

Best Actor

Will Win: Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody)

Should Win: Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born)

Actual Best: Ethan Hawke (First Reformed)

Even after dozens of passionate performances over the years, Ethan Hawke as Reverend Ernst Toller is one of his very best. I would encourage every seminarian to watch and discuss First Reformed, a film full of ecclesial, ethical, and ecological queries, blurring the lines between faith and doubt. But it should come with a warning: May Trigger a Dark Night of the Soul. First Reformed dwells mainly in the spirit of Holy Saturday, the negative space of languishing in tragedy until the dawn of Resurrection Sunday breaks into our reality and transcends the boundary between death and life. It’s my personal favorite film of 2018, though my “Best Film” pick below is far more hopeful.

Best Director

Will Win: Alfonso Cuarón (Roma)

Should Win: Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman)

Actual Best: Debra Granik (Leave No Trace)

In a year with so many fantastic films by great women directors—Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline, Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life, Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Susan Johnson’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, to name only a few—it’s unfortunate to see the all-male lineup of nominees. Still, thirty years after his prophetic Do The Right Thing was ignored by the Academy, it’d be cathartic to see Spike Lee finally win an Oscar for Best Director. Yet the truly best directorial work is from Debra Granik for…

Best Film

Will Win: Green Book

Should Win: Roma

Actual Best: Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace, a perfect cinematic parable with rich performances, powerful cinematography, and an affectingly simple-yet-complex narrative. Set and filmed in Portland, Leave No Trace follows a father, Will (Ben Foster), and teen daughter, Tom (Thomasin Kenzie), living off the grid in Portland’s Forest Park due to Will’s PTSD. From my 5-star review: “Leave No Trace subverts our expectations in the best way. Will and Tom’s relationship is complex and there are moments of tension, but it is far from abusive or sexualized. I’m hard-pressed to think of a better father-daughter cinematic relationship—they are honest and respectful of each other, and they share moments of both sadness and levity. There are no villains to be seen here; every character is genuinely good, and Granik’s script and camera is careful to view everyone on screen with a sense of care and dignity. Every single person in Leave No Trace is seen and depicted as just that: a person, a human being, a significant Other.” While I think Roma winning Best Foreign Language Film will mean its chances of also winning Best Picture are limited, leaving Green Book to (unfortunately) take top prize, Leave No Trace has truly left its own trace on my mind and heart. Seek it out and give it your full attention.

***

Movie-watching and theological education go hand in hand for me. I’ve cherished watching and discussing films in the theater with professors Roger Nam and Dan Brunner—Dan watches every Best Picture nominee with his best friend each year, a wonderful spiritual discipline—and I also appreciate Leah Payne and Brian Doak’s “Weird Religion” podcast on popular culture. Plus, I’ll be returning to Portland Seminary to teach a 2019 summer studio course, “The Bible and Contemporary Culture,” which is all about cultural hermeneutics and the sacramentality of human experience, as well as exploring film from a biblical and theological perspective. More than anything, we’ll learn how to pay attention to what God is up to in our world. Let me illustrate what I mean from a conversation from the 2017 film Lady Bird:

Sister Sarah Joan: You clearly love Sacramento.

Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson: I do?

SSJ: You write about Sacramento so affectionately and with such care.

LB: I was just describing it.

SSJ: Well it comes across as love.

LB: Sure, I guess I pay attention.

SSJ: Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?

Love and attention—our affections and our attention are intertwined. Film critic Roger Ebert once described movies as “empathy-generating machines,” artistic works which allow us to truly see and pay attention, to enter into worlds and environments in order to be transformed. Whether it’s in theaters or on your living room couch, may your own movie-watching habits foster such empathy for others this upcoming year.

Joel Mayward (MATS, 2017) is a pastor-theologian and film critic. The author of three books, he is currently a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews. Find his film reviews at www.cinemayward.com.

Eight Days on The Camino

By Sierra Neiman Westbrook

“I’m lost.” Susan Anquist remembers admitting this on the fifth day of her journey on the Camino de Santiago. Anquist, a recent Portland Seminary student who graduated with an MA in Spiritual Formation, says pilgrimage has long been an apt metaphor for how she views her journey with God. When Anquist first heard about the Camino, an actual ancient pilgrimage route to the shrine of the apostle James in northwestern Spain, she felt stirred to trek this trail herself. For Anquist, setting out on her own, at 58 years of age, with hopes of traversing 800 kilometers despite her asthma was only the beginning of the challenges. Seeing the Camino as having profound parallels for all of life, Anquist undertook this trek as an exercise in letting herself be spontaneous, open-minded, attentive, and if need be, lost.

“In the ancient days, people started a pilgrimage right where they were,” Anquist shares. Anquist quickly clarifies that since she lives in Abbotsford, British Columbia, opening her front door and starting her journey toward northwestern Spain wasn’t possible, yet she believes the real work of her pilgrimage began the moment she first felt drawn to the Camino, years before she actually set foot in Spain.

Although her inner work in preparing for the Camino was deep, her practical preparation was minimal. “I had a longing for [my Camino pilgrimage] to be deeply serendipitous,” Anquist confesses. While she wonders if she should have done more to prepare herself physically, she sensed she could lose the full opportunity of listening to God if she focused on planning. “I wanted to hear what the birds were saying,” she shares. “I probably sound crazy! But I think birds are more of a metaphor….I wanted to touch, smell, and feel. I wanted to be really open, and not make [the pilgrimage] into something.”

Living in the moment meant she set out on the Camino early one morning hoping to find breakfast within the next hour, without having researched how remote that stretch of trail through the Pyrenees was. After four hours of passing not a single village or even another pilgrim, Anquist prayed she’d find food. Then, within minutes a man showed up with three bags of fruit. “You need food!” he said, in perfect English. Anquist shakes her head, feeling this was no coincidence.

Another day, Anquist felt compelled to enter a beautiful but abandoned ancient church along her route. Inside, she wept with an overwhelming sense of God’s presence. “If that was the only experience I had on the Camino, it would have been worth it.”  

On day five, when Anquist crossed paths with a pilgrim from Australia and admitted she was lost, Anquist asked this fellow traveler, “Would you like to be lost with me?” While Anquist felt grateful to gain a traveling companion, walking with someone changed the nature of her journey. “I had to lay down some things.”

In addition to laying down expectations, Anquist also lay down two stones she carried. Carrying stones is a customary Camino practice. While pilgrims approach differently the symbolism and significance of carrying and then laying down stones, Anquist decided she would take two stones from home—one representing what she knew she was carrying in her heart and mind (what she “wanted to talk with God about”), and the other for what she did not know she was carrying but that she expected God would reveal along the way.

By working toward a posture of open attentiveness, a practice Anquist describes as “rigorous,” she felt God uncovering in her a spirit of competition. Although Anquist’s use of guidebooks had been intentionally minimal, she read enough to determine her target was walking 24 kilometers per day. As she journeyed, however, she realized she’s simply “not a 24-kilometer person,” and that she had to give herself grace as she walked shorter distances. Another significant realization was that she was deeply tired, both from completing her seminary studies one week prior to the start of her trip, and from being unable to sleep well during nights spent in hostel rooms full of snoring pilgrims. After 8 days and 150 kilometers, she lay down her need to finish the pilgrimage, having discerned a call to listen to her body and soul.

“The Camino brought me face to face with the tensions we experience in our human experience—the gifts of holding both sorrow and joy … simultaneously, and listening for God in that space.”

– Susan Anquist, Portland Seminary alumnae, MASF

Although she did not complete the pilgrimage she thought she’d complete, Anquist followed God’s leadings in completing the pilgrimage she needed. “On the Camino I experienced the love and care of God in my brokenness and vulnerability,” she relates. And just as she started her Camino before setting foot on the actual trail, so she feels the Camino is not over for her yet. As Anquist completes her certification as a spiritual director, she finds her pilgrimage informs her work. “The Camino brought me face to face with the tensions we experience in our human experience—the gifts of holding both sorrow and joy (or whatever) simultaneously, and listening for God in that space,” she shares. This gives her a new sense of expectancy that God will “show up” in the lives of her directees, without her orchestration. If God’s presence can be unusually palpable in a forgotten church building, shouldn’t we expect God to be close to those who feel abandoned and empty? And if a person simply cannot sense God’s presence, Anquist is ready to be lost together.

Further reflections:Today, February 3, 2019…as I reflect on the impact then and now, I (Susan) offer these thoughts…

There is little space in our Western world, and even in the church to slow down our lives and actually listen…listen to our lives, our longings, our joys and sorrows…listen for the still small voice of God. This journey gave me the gift of listening. Walking is real time. I suppose in many respects I was prepared ahead. Due to a very sick spring with asthma my physical preparation was curtailed. Yet, I still heard the invitation from God to go…to rely on the serendipitous gift of the day. Although my reasons for going were not about having to do anything to attain God’s approval. I was struck by the hunger of people to hear from God…my own hunger. I suppose, it in many respects reflects my vocation of Spiritual Direction (which I prefer to call Spiritual accompaniment)…opening a space to sit with another and listen…listen for the nuances of God breathing life into our brokenness, our joys, our empty spaces…our sorrows.

It was an honour to learn to pray without words at time, to appreciate the gifts of life, the birds, the movement of grass in the wind, the tenacity of the soul. Although, part of my journey was about laying down expectations…it was more about picking up gifts. I loved journeying and meeting up with seekers. I loved the silence. It was not deafening, it actually awakened my heart to God. I do feel compelled to go back to Spain, start from where I left off and see what gifts of God, I might behold. (Maybe in 2020…Lord willing) but for now…I sit reflecting on the gifts of this day as I ponder my favourite poet Mary Oliver’s words, Instructions for living a life. 

Pay attention. 
Be astonished. 
Tell about it.

So today, there is much to behold.


DMin Alumni Put Seminary Training into Practice

 At the end of August 2018, Drs. Jody Becker (LSF, 2017) and Scott Ness (SFS, 2014) traveled to Ethiopia for a preaching and teaching tour with the director of Missions for the North American Lutheran Church, Dr. Gemechis Buba. While visiting in Sashemene, they taught and trained teachers of LeadStar International Academy, a thriving K-12 school. Utilizing her studies while at Portland Seminary, Becker emphasized the significance of a wholistic approach towards education for both the teacher and the student. Ness led a discussion with the teaching staff on ways to increase the standard of excellence for the teachers as well as the students. While visiting Hawassa, both had the opportunity to preach at a worship revival conference that has been meeting annually for over 20 years. Both Becker and Ness experienced the understanding of the glory of God expand ten-fold as they worshiped with more than 2,000 people in a language unknown to them.

(more…)

Alumnus Kevin Wade Dispenses Wisdom to the Next Generation

Kevin Wade, DMin class of 2018, has had a very busy spring. Not only did he graduate from Dr. Sweet’s “Preaching as Story” Doctor of Ministry program and took a job as senior pastor at Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Ypsilanti, Michigan, he also released his seventh book: A Daughter’s Book of Secrets: Things a Dad Should Tell His Daughter Before She Leaves Home. It seems appropriate that this book, a love letter and advice letter in one book, would be his seventh, given that Kevin is proud dad to seven girls. Kevin also writes under a pen name, Robin K. Johnson, to honor his mother and seven aunts. Clearly God has put Kevin in the midst of strong women for a reason! (more…)

The Art & Science of Growing a Ministry

When giant timber bamboo grows, it will rise out of the earth an astounding 90 feet in only 60 days, but only after three years of first patiently watering…dirt. This was a fact passed onto the students of our Summer Leadership Studio by the imitable Ben Sand, CEO of Portland Leadership Foundation and our instructor for the course. For me, and I suspect the others in attendance, this seemed an apt and motivational metaphor to frame the hard work ahead of us in the studio and beyond. While each of us arrived passionate about a vision, the studio is equipping us to dig in to the hard, unglamorous, near-invisible preparatory work required to see the vision someday spring to life and thrive.

(more…)

Christian Unity in Ashes

E. C. is a Presbyterian. I am not. I know that he’d love to make me so. He fits Presbyterianism. He loves the arc of the liturgy, the commitment to ever put God’s grace and covenantal faithfulness in the foreground, and their interpretive lens toward scripture. While I respect his convictions, I am not particularly drawn to the Presbyterian ethos. My friend Bruce is a Quaker. He loves the communal discernment of the Spirit and the diligent pursuit of acknowledging the image of God in every human. I’m not antagonistic toward either of those positions, but they aren’t enough to make me a Quaker. I’m something else. And yet, every winter we three pastors leave the comfort of our desired theological homes to share an Ash Wednesday service. (more…)

The Right Not to Bear Arms

I have owned at least one firearm for nearly fifty years, since I bought my first gun, a .22 single shot Ithaca rifle from the Sears catalog in 1968, at age 11 (yes, you could get mail-order guns in those days). We lived on a farm, so there were places I could shoot it safely. Over the next dozen or so years I accumulated a few other pieces that completed my collection—a 12 gauge pump shotgun, a Marlin 39A lever action .22 rifle that I’ve had since 1973 (quite a beautiful piece of art in wood and steel), a .300 Savage rifle with scope that I later traded for a banjo, a fully functional replica .45 caliber Hawken black powder “mountain man” rifle, and more recently when I inherited my deceased father’s vintage Colt single-action pistol, a cool cowboy gun. (more…)

The World From a Porch Swing

In the anxiety of battle between good and evil, sensible compromise and sinful submission to worldly systems confronting me at my fingertips, I often retreat to my front porch swing for solace. Our little farm is surrounded by large filbert orchards on three sides. Those filberts, also known as hazelnuts, are typical of the industrial agriculture that took over some of the most fertile soil on the continent—Oregon’s Willamette Valley. (more…)

Doctor of Ministry D School program and dissertation redesign dream session 2018

Doctor of Ministry D School program and dissertation redesign dream session 2018

A group of faculty, administrators, alumni, and current DMin students gathered to redesign the DMin dissertation process at Portland Seminary. (more…)

Portland Seminary/College of Christian Studies Christmas Party 2017

Christmas Party 2017