By / Jun 2

The visual arts give us a means of expressing our deepest feelings, fears, and joys, even if we don’t realize to whom we are expressing them.

When we seek to understand the messages in the movies we and our friends are watching, we are giving ourselves the tools to have a similar conversation—identifying the desires and longings of people’s hearts, and showing them how these are met in Christ.

Learning to identify these feelings and longings has been a helpful tool to use with my children. Sometimes after watching something together, I will ask them what they thought certain characters were feeling at different points in the movie. A simple conversation like this conveys to them that the emotions they feel are normal and part of the way God designed them. It opens the door for us to identify ways in which characters expressed their emotions and whether those were healthy expressions or not.

Movie night evangelism

Similarly, my husband, Erik, is great about asking our kids to identify symbolism and the messages of a movie, training them to view the story with their minds engaged. And it’s not just to our kids that he asks these questions. For several years he has hosted occasional “Manly Movie Nights,” which began with stereotypically masculine movies like Braveheart and Warrior and now include obscure Belgian films and dark Irish dramedies. At first when he began a conversation after the movie, it was awkwardly silent. Like strengthening an unused muscle, learning to look more deeply at movies takes time, and doing it collectively can feel strange. But Erik and his friends—both believers and nonbelievers—have learned so much from each other through this simple practice of asking questions about symbols, messages, themes, longing, and worldviews.

And it should come as no surprise that using stories can be an excellent entry point for gospel conversations, since this is just what Jesus did in his teaching ministry. How often did he illustrate truth with a story that his listeners could relate to? We may not be the ones telling the stories, but we can pray for discernment and wisdom to connect the stories we hear and see with the truth we know. This happens most often when we ask good questions like “Did you connect with any of the characters?” or “How did you feel while watching that?” or even something as simple as “What did you think about that movie?” Asking that question, and then listening intently to the response, can open our eyes to the views and ideals of the people around us.

A gospel framework

None of this wisdom, insight and discernment are possible, however, unless we have in place a framework within which to view movies and TV. It is when we have tasted and seen the goodness of the Lord in the truth of his word that we are able to realize that other tastes and sights can never truly satisfy. Those who don’t know this are at the mercy of the messages they hear in the culture around them.          

Engaging with movies means that we can understand a major way in which people in our culture express themselves and might reach out to God without even knowing it. We understand what they believe and what they are living for. We, who know the truth about what God is like and how to reach him, must make sure we are part of that conversation.

Beautifully Distinct brings together women who have thought through 11 different areas of life and culture and who offer ways to live in our world with biblical wisdom and confidence. Preorder your own copy here and get the first chapter FREE when you join our Women's Email List. Subscribe and stay connected to the work the ERLC is doing on issues important to women in the church.

By / Jan 14

Note: This article contains major spoilers about "Second Act."

When 43-year-old Maya Vargas (Jennifer Lopez) gets turned down for a promotion simply because she doesn’t have a college degree, she sets out on a mission to prove the doubters wrong—one that will change her life forever. After she gets a new online identity and a fake resume, Maya lands a high-profile consulting job with Franklin and Clarke, a major cosmetic corporation. With a chance to finally prove herself, she embraces her new identity and tries to find redemption for her past mistakes—both professional and personal.

Though this isn’t a typical pro-life, pro-adoption movie, "Second Act" features a surprisingly powerful pro-life message. Through a conversation between Maya and her best friend, we find out that Maya has a daughter whom she gave up for adoption when she was only 16. Maya searched for years to find her daughter, but to no avail. That is, until she meets Zoe (Vanessa Hudgens), a co-worker at her new job who just happens to be the daughter of Maya’s boss. Through a series of random events, Maya realizes that Zoe is her daughter.

As Maya and Zoey spend time getting to know each other, Zoe asks Maya if she ever thought of getting an abortion. Maya replies, “When I found out I was pregnant, it was never a choice. I knew you had to be born.” Toward the end of the movie, after Zoe and Maya become separated again, Maya writes a letter to Zoe telling her that even with all the mistakes she’s made, there are two decisions she won’t ever regret: “After bringing you into this world, the second best decision I ever made was giving you up.” Maya realizes that by giving up her daughter for adoption, she opened the door for Zoe to find a life of happiness and success.

I can’t help but think that many people in today’s society would have pressured Maya to end Zoe’s life in the womb. As a single, minority, homeless mom, Maya would have seemed like Planned Parenthood’s ideal client. But Maya made the hard decision to choose life, and a beautiful story unfolds as a result. Zoe grows up with loving parents, finds a successful career, pursues her dream of attending a prestigious art school, and eventually reunites with the woman who brought her into the world.

"Second Act" wasn’t billed as a movie about adoption, but in many ways it’s a testament to the power of choosing life. Stories are powerful, and it’s significant for a mainstream audience to see a beautiful pro-life, pro-adoption storyline in a movie like this one. As Americans watch this story play out on the big screens, I hope that hearts will be moved toward choosing life or adopting a child.

At the end of the movie, as Maya reflects on all the mistakes she’s made—and there are plenty—she realizes that what seem like mistakes can turn into something beautiful. Though the filmmakers probably didn’t intend it to be, "Second Act" becomes a poignant reminder of how God can make even the most difficult story into something beautiful. Redemption is never out of reach through God’s mercy and grace. No matter the mistakes we’ve made or the choices that have led us to where we are, it’s never too late for a second act.

Disclaimer: "Second Act"contains some profanity and an uncomfortable amount of crude sexual humor.

By / Dec 6

It’s the time of year for getting together over the holidays with friends and family; a time to reconnect and reminisce; a time for sharing the love; and a time for giving. In a day and age where we are incredibly disconnected, these instances of being together with each other might be more important than ever.

Amidst all the choices, what will you get your loved ones this year? For those book and movie lovers like myself, here are a few suggestions from this year’s releases. And if you’re looking closely, you’ll see that connection (or the lack of) is a common theme throughout these offerings.


“Leave No Trace”: Based on a true story, this movie (rated PG for thematic material throughout) follows a single father and his teenage daughter as they live completely off the grid, surviving in the cold, wet forests of the Pacific Northwest. As we learn, the veteran father, Will, has had a hard time re-adjusting to civilian life because of PTSD and depression. Connecting with people is something he now seems incapable of doing.

His idyllic existence with his daughter is brought to a halt when they are discovered by authorities, put into social services, and forced to re-integrate. For Will, escaping back to the woods seems like the only viable option, but for his daughter things get complicated when she gets a taste of normal life.

“First Reformed”: Do you like slow movies? Do you cherish ambiguous endings? If so, this movie (Rated R for some disturbing violent images) might be for you. In it, director Paul Schrader (screenwriter of “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull”) paints the portrait of a depressed minister, Reverend Toller, trying dutifully to serve his small, dying church. His ministry is essentially supported by local megachurch Abundant Life, a fact he is both grateful and annoyed by.

When a young, pregnant parishioner enters the church, Toller’s life is upended after he is introduced to the woman’s husband, a depressed radical environmentalist who doesn’t want to bring new life into a world that will be virtually uninhabitable due to climate change. Through this encounter Toller further wrestles with faith and doubt as he tries to speak truth to power as well as stave off his own growing despair and isolation. So not exactly Hallmark fare, but for the patient/thoughtful viewer, there are rewards to be had.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”: Another solid offering is this Fred Rogers documentary (rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and language). The film gives a behind-the-scenes look at the man who created the children’s television series “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Through interviews and archival footage we get to spend some time in the mind of someone who had a platform and used it to share a message of the dignity and worth of each person, particularly as it regards connecting with children.

And lest we put Rogers on too high a pedestal, I am reminded of the radical kindness shown by Christ himself, who, time and again reminded people to love God and love their neighbor. Indeed, this was a message Mr. Rogers wholly embraced.


Gay Girl, Good God: Writer, speaker, and artist Jackie Hill Perry does not mince words, and her first book is a shining testament to that fact. In it she recounts her life growing up as a girl who was same-sex attracted. Her journey into womanhood was fraught with pain as she endured fatherlessness as well as gender confusion, porn addiction, and the heartache of sinful choices. Then Jesus broke through and changed her heart. On the heels of that changed heart, she found that her desires also began to change by the power of the Holy Spirit. This candid and empathetic memoir is a great witness to the power of the gospel in a person’s life.

Virgil Wander: With his latest novel, renowned author Leif Enger has given us his newest story in a decade. And if you’re interested in the author’s work, the best place to start would be with his incredible debut novel, Peace Like a River. In his latest offering, Enger’s titular Virgil owns a modest movie theater in a small, Midwestern town and leads a quiet, uneventful life. One night while driving, his car careens off an icy road and ends up in a freezing lake. He survives, but his language and memory are not what they used to be. Upon recovery, Virgil enters a new world, starting over in some ways, as he interacts with the quirky, endearing residents of Greenstone, Minn.

No One Ever Asked: Lastly, this is a recent work of fiction by Katie Ganshert that I’ve been inspired by. I most appreciate the subtlety with which she writes as she tells an honest and redemptive tale, but never gets preachy. The story looks at the lives of three very different women trying to navigate a changing school district. A small Missouri town explodes when a low-income school loses its accreditation, and students from that school are bussed into a more affluent, suburban school. Politics, social classes, and racial tensions collide in this tough but moving story. And in the end, it’s the beautiful little moments of grace that ultimately tie these characters together, giving them tools to fight their own prejudice and experience true connection.

These are just a few suggestions from all of this year’s great offerings. Movies and books are great ways to learn about various cultures and be challenged by the themes woven throughout each plot. They also provide a way to connect, whether it’s through watching a movie together, reading a book out loud, or discussing how each one interacts with a Christian worldview. So, grab a book, turn on a movie, and enjoy your family and friends this Christmas.

By / Oct 30

In the opening pages of Russell Moore’s latest book, The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home, he discusses several reasons why Halloween is his favorite holiday:

I’m supposed to hate Halloween, but I just can’t do it. Since I was a very small child, Halloween brought to me, well, tidings of comfort and joy.

As a child, I took seriously what the old people said about the holiday as a “devil’s night,” about the veil between the spirit world and ours being especially, and dangerously, thin that night. That was what I liked about it. Halloween, it seemed, took seriously what I intuitively knew to be true: the world outside was terrifying.

The night also seemed to reinforce what I read in my Bible, that the universe around me was alive with invisible forces, some of which meant me harm. Halloween seemed to be the night when grown-ups would admit this, at least a little bit. It seemed to my younger self, too, that if there were scary realities out there, the idea of calendaring out a night to recognize them for what they were made sense.

The best part of the night for me had nothing to do with candy or costumes, but was rather when the night was over, when I was tucked away in bed, knowing that my parents were asleep on the other side of the sheetrock wall. The night outside might be howling with witches and werewolves, but all was safe at home. That seemed far from pagan to me. It seemed, as a matter of fact, right in line with my biblical ancestors in ancient Egypt. The angels of death could lurk around outside the house all they wished, but the blood was on the doorpost, and all would be well.

I read these words from Moore days before watching A Quiet Place, a film that captures this passage and much of Moore’s book on family quite powerfully.

As the parent of two young boys, I don’t see movies as frequently as I used to. So I caught up with one of 2018’s earliest surprise hits recently. This movie was John Krasinski’s directorial and writing debut, starring him and his real-life wife, Emily Blunt. If you can tolerate a PG-13 thriller in the vein of some of Hitchcock’s more tense films and M. Night Shyamalan’s earliest hits (The Sixth Sense, Signs), this could be a fun and redemptive film to watch this week once the young kids are in bed and all tuckered out from trick-or-treating and/or trunk-or-treating.

John Krasinski, best known as Jim from The Office, refers to A Quiet Place as the most personal professional project he’s ever worked on and a love letter to his kids. And while the film has some thrilling moments that will make you jump, the biggest jumps and exclamations are reserved for moments in which the two parents in the film are selflessly sacrificing for their young children, one of whom is hearing-impaired and another who has special medical needs. There aren’t many films today that show families living life together in mundane moments, from praying at dinner and doing the laundry, to playing board games and doing chores. But it’s the high-concept of the film (blind creatures have invaded earth and hunt only by sound) that makes these moments as high-stakes as they could be.

And it brought me to the brink of tears numerous times. Maybe it’s because some of the children in the film reminded me of my two young sons. Maybe it’s because culture today rarely shows how fathers and mothers, daughters and sons can love each other in simple times, overcoming grief, miscommunication, and stress to bond together and love effectively.

But perhaps the power of this 90-minute thriller is how central human dignity is to every part of the story—the dignity of our friends and neighbors with disabilities, the dignity of every single life even before she is born, the dignity of simple sacrifice by parents, the dignity of grace and forgiveness, and so much more.

I don’t want to spoil the entire film, but its tension is continually ramped up around the lengths to which this family is willing to go to protect and love one another well. In the post-apocalyptic landscape of the film, hope seems to be lost, but, to borrow from Cormac McCarthy’s somewhat similar The Road, this family is keeping the light alive by loving each other well.

It’s the husband and the wife’s tender moments together. It’s the children fighting, arguing, and reconciling. It’s the father asking for his child’s forgiveness and the mother teaching her children how to grieve. It’s a mother doing whatever it takes for her unborn child, even in the most dangerous circumstances. It’s putting everything on the line and being willing to lose it all so your children may live.

It’s the Christian story shining through in a Hollywood film. Like Moore recognizes about Halloween, perhaps fear in the darkness can best remind us of the power of love and the light.

By / Mar 2

Each year, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences offers up nominations for what it believes to be the best work in film from the previous year. This year’s upcoming ceremony looks to be particularly interesting after last year’s debacle in which the film “La La Land” was mistakenly named Best Picture only to have to bow out quickly once it was realized that “Moonlight” was actually the big winner.

On top of that, many high-profile Hollywood men have recently fallen from grace as the #MeToo movement has gained momentum, and women are more empowered than ever to speak out against abuse. It will be very interesting to see how both of these issues are addressed at the ceremony.

That said, you’ll have to judge whether watching the awards is worth your time. But the films being celebrated are worth interacting with, even if it means just knowing what they are about, simply because they are well-told stories. And good or bad, stories give us a way to understand the world around us, revealing the wrestlings of our day and age.

So, here are the nine Best Picture Oscar-nominated films and their synopses.

  1. “Call Me By Your Name” offers a coming-of-age story of a 17-year-old boy who engages in a same-sex relationship with an older man.
  2. “Darkest Hour” tells the true story of Winston Churchill at a crucial moment in world history as he is forced to choose whether to negotiate or fight.
  3. “Dunkirk” uses a fascinating story structure to tell of a massive Allied evacuation in an intense battle during World War II.
  4. “Get Out” takes a genre story and offers up insightful social commentary on racism when a young black man goes to meet his white girlfriend’s family at a secluded estate for the weekend.
  5. “Lady Bird” drops us into the coming-of-age story of a dramatic high school senior who faces off against her loving but overbearing mother.
  6. “Phantom Thread” shows a famous London dressmaker whose life is complicated by the arrival of a beautiful woman who will both irritate and inspire him.
  7. “The Post” tells the true story of a female newspaper publisher in the 1970s who risks it all to speak truth to power as a major U.S. cover-up is unearthed.
  8. “The Shape of Water” is a fable telling the story of a mute janitor and her relationship with an amphibious creature that is held captive and studied at a secret research facility.
  9. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” follows a heartbroken and angry mother who seeks justice after her daughter is raped and murdered in a small town.

And as long as sin remains we will continue to long instinctually for love, peace, justice, racial reconciliation, truth, hope, and ultimately, for a Savior.

While I don’t recommend many of the top films from 2017, the reality is that they all seem to express longing. Indeed many of the best stories we hear, read, or watch express this notion of a desire that remains unmet. Whether it is the longing for truth to have its day in “The Post,” a longing for salvation in “Dunkirk,” or the longing for justice in “Three Billboards,” these films voice something that dwells within all of humanity. This is fitting because of the broken world in which we live.

And as long as sin remains we will continue to long instinctually for love, peace, justice, racial reconciliation, truth, hope, and ultimately, for a Savior.

By / Feb 20

In 1977, I was a fourth grader at Edgewood Elementary School in Baltimore, Maryland. My best friend Harry and I collected comic books like many other kids on our block. We would spend hours reading about Spider-Man, the Hulk, Daredevil, the Avengers, and the Fantastic Four. We would also draw and sell pictures of these musclebound Marvel characters in order to buy a little something extra for lunch.

Everything changed for me and Harry once we discovered an African superhero called the Black Panther. Harry and I naturally gravitated toward this commanding character who looked like us. We took special pride and attention in how we drew him, even down to his striped gloves and boots. We both claimed this smooth, mysterious, agile, and intelligent superhero as our personal favorite.

For two black boys growing up in the hood, the Black Panther increased our sense of somebody-ness before we fully comprehended why we even needed that boost in our psychological development. There was something about seeing the Black Panther on the colorful pages of those comic books that caused me to hold up my 9-year-old head a little bit higher.

How two men challenged white normalcy

Growing up in what sociologist Dr. Michael Emerson calls a “racialized society,” no one had to point out to me how race mattered profoundly for differences in life experiences, opportunities, and social relationships. The lines in our communities were drawn, and seldom were they crossed. Racialization was as natural as the air we breathed. It showed up in racially segregated neighborhoods, churches, and schools. Racialization dictated the friends we hung with, the people we dated, and the books we read. The dominant presence and representation of white people in positions of power, textbooks, and the media painted a picture of what was considered “normal” in America.

Sadly, white normalcy still dominates in a country that has the potential of embracing the beauty of racial diversity as one of its touchstones.

In 1966, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were aware of the times, but they were also ahead of the times when they created the Black Panther. These two Jewish men from New York designed T’Challa to be the wealthiest and one of the smartest figures in the Marvel Universe. This concept of promoting a black, male character to be something other than a gang member, athlete, or a drug addict was revolutionary. Lee and Kirby took a necessary risk to challenge white normalcy, and it paid off socially for us and financially for them.

In addition to my children knowing who they are in Christ, it is imperative for them to know the dignity that comes with being blessed black people made in the image of God.

The Black Panther was a king who had more money than Tony Stark (Iron Man) and was as formidable a fighter as Captain America. He was just as intelligent as Reed Richards and as courageous as the mighty Thor. We cannot forget that in the 1960s, black people were still fighting to gain our rightful place in society. Our real-life heroes were vilified in the mainstream right before our eyes. Therefore, when Marvel first introduced this dark-skinned superhero that single-handedly took on the Fantastic Four in his own technologically advanced African country of Wakanda, the floodgates of hope blew wide open!

Not only did black kids need to see the Black Panther, white kids needed to see him, too. If we are ever going to experience legitimate racial progress in this country, proper representation is crucial to change minds for people inside and outside of any respective culture and ethnic group.

Image is everything

Since the mid–1400s when the transatlantic slave trade began, bestial images of black people were pervasive. Knowing that perception is reality, these racist depictions of blacks reinforced stereotypes that justified maintaining oppressive systems of injustice. After centuries of these godless and unchallenged beliefs, black people in America are still often stigmatized on first glance.

So, this movie came along at just the right time. America needed the Black Panther more than it realized. Carter G. Woodson, the African-American historian who created Black History Week in 1926, once said, “We become what we behold.” This is why image is everything, especially for those of us whose images have been grossly distorted or not included. My three daughters needed to behold how beautiful, black women were portrayed as scientists, royal mothers, and warriors. My son needed to see African men who were full of royalty, purpose, and courage. In addition to my children knowing who they are in Christ, it is imperative for them to know the dignity that comes with being blessed black people made in the image of God.

For many people, the Black Panther is more than a movie. It is a movement that recaptures the value of black personhood and the richness of African culture. This is why my wife and I regally walked into the theater on opening night wearing African robes. We wanted to vicariously experience the honor of being proud descendants of Africa as we watched this amazing display of cinematic artistry.

Keep your head up

As an avid Marvel comic book collector with over 7,000 comics, I made it a priority to acquire all of the original comics in which the Black Panther first appeared. These books are not only valuable on the open market; they are very sentimental to me because they take me back to a time in my childhood when I first began to appreciate my blackness.

If for some reason this is not your experience, and you cannot fully grasp the significance of this movie, I invite you to ponder, converse, and celebrate with the countless people of all ages who left theaters around the world with a renewed sense of confidence, saying, “Wakanda forever!” This 49-year-old black man happily joined along, thankful for the way Black Panther has helped me hold my head a little higher.

By / Jul 20

Today, film director Christopher Nolan’s movie Dunkirk opens in theaters across the U.S. The film tells the true story of Operation Dynamo, a heroic effort to save Allied troops who were stranded on a beach in France and surrounded by the German army during World War II.

Here are five facts about the “Miracle of Dunkirk,” the biggest evacuation in military history.

1. In September 1939, after Germany invaded Poland, the British army was sent to support their allies in France. When the Germans subsequently invaded France in May 1940, the British army, three French armies, and what remained of the Belgian army, found themselves trapped near the Belgian-French border. On May 26, the British military began to implement Operation Dynamo to evacuate these Allied forces from Dunkirk. Dunkirk, is located in the north of France, a mere 47 nautical miles from the UK across the English Channel.

2. In a national broadcast, King George VI called for a National Day of Prayer to be held on May 26, the day before Operation Dynamo was to be launched. The king called on the people of the UK to turn back to God in a spirit of repentance and plead for divine help. According to John Willans, two events immediately followed: a violent storm arose over the Dunkirk region grounding the German fighter planes that had been killing thousands on the beaches, and then a “great calm descended on the Channel, the like of which hadn’t been seen for a generation” which allowed the evacuation to take place. From that point on the British people began to refer to what happened as “the miracle of Dunkirk.” 

3. Operation Dynamo involved about 860 ships, including 693 British ships. Almost 700 were private British boats that became known as the “Little Ships of Dunkirk.” (The smallest boat to take part in the operation was the Tamzine, an open fishing boat that was just under 15 feet in length and was able to carry five people.) Most of the “Little Ships” were owned by civilians but commandeered by the British navy and manned by naval officers or experienced volunteers. They were mostly used to ferry the stranded soldiers from the beach and harbor to the larger warships, though several of the “Little Ships” carried hundreds of men directly to England.

 4. The evacuation occurred over nine days, from May 27 to June 4. On the first day, only 7,699 stranded troops were picked up. But by the end of the operation, a total of 338,226 soldiers were evacuated from the beaches and harbors of Dunkirk. Throughout the retreat, the Allies were exposed to deadly attacks from German fighter planes. During the Dunkirk battle the German aerial warfare branch (the Luftwaffe) flew 1,882 bombing and made 1,997 fighter sweeps. As well as being exposed to attack from the air, many of the men had to wait for hours in water up their shoulders. Despite the risks, the men waited patiently to be rescued. As one British solider noted, “You had the impression of people standing waiting for a bus. There was no pushing or shoving.”

5. Although most of the troops were saved, the Allies left behind 2,472 cannons, around 65,000 vehicles, 20,000 motorcycles, 377,000 tons of supplies, over 68,000 tons of munitions, and 147,000 tons of fuel. As Winston Churchill reminded his people in a speech made on the last day of the operation, “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.” Nevertheless, Hitler’s failure to press an earlier attack and capture the British army on the beaches was one of his most significant military failures during the war, and became a key turning point toward an Allied victory.

By / Feb 24

I was young when I first saw the Academy Award-winning film, “To Kill A Mockingbird” on VHS. I certainly didn’t understand every aspect of what was happening in the story, but what I picked up on had me in tears. It was my first encounter with real injustice. The book has since become my favorite novel of all time.

Stories have always connected with people. This is likely one reason why Christ so often spoke using parables. He could have told his audience how bad they were and how much God loved them, but to hear of an ungrateful son who wished his father dead and squandered his wealth leaves a much greater impact when the jilted father comes running to embrace his son and welcomes him home.

Themes at the Oscars

Whether the themes of a story are specific or universal, they are what draw an audience in, create empathy, move us, and at times, even promote personal change. This is part of what makes movies so popular and influential in our society. So what are some of the themes of this year’s Oscar nominated films?

“Arrival” expresses our desire to communicate and be understood. It also touches on grief and the difficult choices we make and must live with.

“Fences” rails against racial injustice while also giving us a protagonist who struggles deeply with his own vanity and selfishness.

“Hacksaw Ridge” shows a man persecuted for his beliefs as he tries to honor God.

“Hell or High Water” laments human poverty, unfair lending practices and the irony of the health, wealth and prosperity gospel.

“Hidden Figures” puts on display the ugliness of racial inequality and misogyny, while also promoting the dignity and worth of every image-bearer.

“La La Land” is a testament to joy and love. It reminds us to dream, hope and create, with the knowledge that the pursuit of dreams often involves difficult choices.

“Lion” shows us the beauty of different people and cultures, while also causing us to long for our true home.

“Manchester by the Sea” puts us in the middle of a man’s unrelenting grief and regret. And though forgiveness and grace are available, they are often difficult to accept.

“Moonlight” touches on what it is to be poor, gay and a minority. Life can be incredibly difficult, but when we look back we can all find glimpses of grace and moments of kindness.

Relating to themes as a Christian

We may not be able to relate to every single theme that comes up in each of these nominated films. But the ones that have played out in my life cause me to look higher. We should go to God with our pain and grief. We can lament the injustice of the world and cry out to him. We can forgive others as we are forgiven by him because of Jesus’ sacrifice. We can love those who are different than us because Jesus calls and empowers us to do so.

The nine Best Picture nominees may not be for everyone. As with all forms of art, believers are to be discerning when choosing whether to view them. There are themes and worldviews in some of these films that we won’t agree with. But part of the audience’s role is simply to listen. We can hear an argument for an opposing worldview without agreeing with it, and in doing so, perhaps we are opening more doors to conversation and empathy. We can recognize and lament the effects of beliefs contrary to scripture. Ultimately, we wrestle with these themes and worldviews. We accept what is honest and true and discard what is not.

In his forthcoming book Movies are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings, film critic Josh Larsen assumes every cinematic story is a way of communicating to God about this world. Whether the filmmaker intends it or not, they are communicating things such as lament, thanksgiving, praise, yearning, confession, reconciliation or joy, to name a few. As viewers, understanding and wrestling with these themes can better help us understand the art we take in. These themes can help us understand ourselves. They can help create an empathetic space in which to better love and care for those made in God’s image. And though we may not be able to see all of the themes playing out in our personal stories, we can certainly trust the One who leads the way into our next chapter and point others to his story.

By / Jan 24

Based on the 1966 Shusaku Endo novel of the same name, Silence is the story of two Portuguese Jesuit priests who travel to Japan in the 1600’s to find their mentor and spread Christianity. In remaining faithful to its source material, director Martin Scorsese’s film offers no easy answers but begs many great questions.

The plot

The young priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) have heard a rumor that their beloved Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has undergone torture and as a result, has committed apostasy. It’s also believed that he may still be living in Nagasaki. Unwilling to accept the report as fact, the priests make it their mission to travel to Japan in search of Ferreira.

Upon arrival to China, a man named Kichijiro helps ferry them to Japan and to a village where a small group of underground Japanese believers are hiding. Because of the immense persecution and rampant torture, the fearful villagers must worship in secret, but they are overcome with joy upon meeting the two priests. Having become believers because of the work of Jesuit priests in the past, they have longed for the return of one who can listen to their confessions and administer the sacraments.

The priests are most impressed with the quiet, beautiful faith of the villagers, but all that is interrupted when the authorities get wind of the hidden Christians. Rodrigues and Garrpe are given the chance to flee, yet they remain close enough to witness the interrogations. Inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata), a feeble yet cruel man, oversees these interactions with the Christian peasants, and his rules are simple. If a person steps on the fumie (a small, carved image of Christ) they are assumed non-Christians and can therefore go free. If they don’t trample the image of Christ, they’re subjected to torture until they either recant their faith or die. The priests weep as they witness the cruelty from afar, yet their own personal safety is short-lived.

Soon after this event, Rodrigues, as well as several other believers, are betrayed by a Judas-like character and handed over to the authorities. Rodrigues is brought before the Inquisitor. Instead of torturing Rodrigues, the Christian villagers are made to suffer unless the priest is willing to recant his faith by trampling the fumie. Denying his faith and his God would be the only way to end the suffering of the faithful few he has dedicated his life to serve.

The imprisoned Rodrigues is, for the most part, treated quite well. There is a certain civility among his captors. On several occasions, he is brought before the Inquisitor and fascinating conversations ensue between the two men. How can he possibly recant when he has lived his whole life to serve the God he loves? But at the same time, with suffering and death all around, why won’t God speak? Why won’t he intervene? The Inquisitor is adamant that Christianity is not able to take root in a place like Japan. Rodrigues argues that gospel truth can flourish in Japan just like it does in Portugal and elsewhere. What the priest sees as a loving gift to impart on the country, the Inquisitor sees as an arrogant, imperialist attempt to exert power and destroy Japanese culture and customs.

The personal challenge

I won’t spoil any of what happens next, but I will say that this is a meaningful film for thoughtful believers. Some have criticized the slow pace of the film, and indeed it is slow. There are also scenes that are difficult to watch. But for the patient viewer who doesn’t mind being challenged to wrestle with long-held beliefs, the rewards are great.

I was a high school senior when the Columbine massacre happened. I remember hearing stories of students who, when asked by the gunmen if they were Christians, boldly proclaimed their faith. I hoped I would have done the same thing. But the truth is, unless I’m faced with the prospect of death or intense suffering, I have no idea how I would react. Does faith always have to be public to be true faith? What if someone in that situation denied Christ to spare his life, or perhaps the life of another? Would his soul be lost forever? These are just a few of the questions with which we must wrestle as we watch the story unfold.

I’ve also pondered this idea: When I share the gospel with another person, how much of it is truly centered solely on Christ, and how much of it is me bringing in my ideas of Western Evangelical Christianity? This thought has troubled me recently because I don’t want to bring an ounce of myself into the situation. I want to go into all the world and make disciples, not of myself, but of Christ.

Silence is an incredibly well made film, from the directing and acting down to the set design and costumes. It’s a bold film that dares us to put voice to what we may have wondered and possibly doubted about the goodness of God. The characters cry out much like the biblical Job did in the midst of suffering. And yet, we’re reminded from scripture that when we are faithless, he is faithful.

We know that Christ understands our human suffering because he suffered as well. He also felt the sting of God’s “silence” on the cross. And yet, ”for the joy that lay before him, he endured a cross, despising its shame and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne” (Heb. 12:2). So in the midst of trials, we need not lose heart when we don’t suffer well, because the victory is not won through us; it was won long ago by a silent sufferer who stands victorious and intercedes on our behalf.

By / Nov 4

This fall movie season Hollywood offers up the stories of two little-known American heroes from two controversial filmmakers. In “The Birth of a Nation,” director and star, Nate Parker, tells the story of Nat Turner, a slave who longs for justice and leads a bloody rebellion. Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge” recounts how Desmond Doss went into the terrible Battle of Okinawa in World War II offering mercy as an army medic and saving many of the wounded without ever carrying a gun.

Both films are based on true stories and are unflinching in their depiction of violence. Both feature protagonists who are strong Christians. And yet the fundamental difference in these films lies in the way each of these characters interprets Scripture. One story depicts a man who believes he should lay down his arms; the other, a man who takes up arms.

The Birth of a Nation

Nat Turner is a Virginia slave who becomes literate at a young age and is only allowed to read the Bible. As such, he becomes a preacher, encouraging his fellow slaves to take heart and trust the Lord. However, in order to earn more money, his master begins using him on other plantations to preach a message of subordination and obedience to masters, even to those masters who are harsh. At one point, his wife is raped by white men. In anger Nat wants to avenge her, but she reminds him that those who take up the sword die by the sword (Matt. 26:52).

After seeing the suffering of his brothers and sisters on different plantations, Nat begins seeing visions and believes he is being called upon by God to free the slaves, murder their masters and exact justice. The passage he uses as his basis for this comes from 1 Samuel 15, where Samuel gives Saul God’s instruction to punish the Amalekites for their treatment of Israel, sparing no one. Nat holds meetings rallying more slaves until finally, they rebel. The insurrection is short-lived, but in its wake are scores of lives lost, both white and black.

The beginning of “The Birth of a Nation” shows white men and women twisting Scripture to justify slavery. By the end of the film, Nat has also used Scripture to justify his fight against injustice as he and his fellow slaves take up arms.

Hacksaw Ridge

“Hacksaw Ridge” tells the true story of another Virginian, this one white. Desmond Doss was a Seventh-day Adventist who joined the army during World War II. While Nat Turner believed God wanted him to fight and kill, Doss believed God wanted him to lay down his arms and save lives as a medic on the battlefield.

His ideals and convictions are put to the test upon his arrival to boot camp. He is, at least according to the film, quickly singled out as a coward and a man who cannot be trusted to have your back in the heat of battle because of his refusal to even touch a rifle. Of course this couldn’t be further from the truth, as Doss hates the pain and suffering he sees and desires to save life as opposed to taking it. Once he and his division hit Okinawa in the midst of battle, his true mettle shines through as he tends to the wounded and saves the lives of many men. Upon his return home, Doss is awarded several honors including the Medal of Honor, the first of only three conscientious objectors ever to be given the award.

Neither of these films shy away from the faith aspects of their main characters. In both, the Bible is read, quoted and revered. The faith elements never play out in a ham-fisted manner, which is truly refreshing. So how, then, do these two stories that both revere the Bible have such differing views? Nat Turner ends up believing he is an instrument of God’s wrath upon the unjust, and Desmond Doss believes in a turn-the-other cheek meekness that seeks to love the enemy that is mowing down his fellow soldiers. And what, then, does that say about his comrades who are fighting and taking life?

These are the questions I’ve been pondering after seeing these movies two weeks apart. And I don’t have the answers. Instead, I think I’ll pose a new question. How then shall we live? In one story, I see a man who hates injustice and fights for freedom and for the oppressed. In another, I see a man who values every human life, even that of his enemy.

So perhaps my best takeaway from these films is doing what I do with everything I watch, and that is simply to look at it through the lens of the gospel. The gospel offers up so many of God’s attributes, such as justice, forgiveness, love, mercy and grace, to name a few. I’m reminded of Nat’s longing for justice and his sacrifice, and I’m reminded of the mercy Doss offers to those who mistreat him and his forgiveness of the ones who hate him.

These stories are important because they inspire empathy for our fellow image-bearers and inspire us, the audience, to think deeply about complicated issues. But, of course, they are mere shadows of the greater story—the story of a simple man who knew when to turn the other cheek and when to turn over tables. This is the story of a God-man who sacrificed everything for us at the cross, where justice and mercy perfectly coalesced to save sinners.