The Part-Time Critic

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Top Ten Action Scenes of the 2010's

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Top Ten Action Scenes of the 2010's
I love movies. I particularly enjoy action films with sequences built to viscerally move, thrill, surprise, and impress. This past decade has seen some of the best action sequences ever to put to film. We saw the rise of Marvel as big-budget action kings and the absence of Bond or Bourne as the top shelf for non-fantasy action. As we approach a new decade, I thought it would be a fun exercise to share my favorite ten sequences from the past 10 years.

Five Quick Notes on My Action Philosophy (Skip Down if Not Interested):

1. Even though I've seen over 800 films this decade, I'm certain there are great films and actions sequences I've not seen or haven't remembered well enough. Starting in the 2000's, the action genre has exploded worldwide and great action sequences are being produced in all places of the world by big studios and small independent film makers. Unless it was a full-time job, it's impossible to get a full grasp of the action scene. That in mind - I feel like I've seen most of the major sequences produced this decade.

2. Sometimes what people consider to be action sequences I don't really consider to be action sequences. For me, an "action sequence" is not just a scene with kinetic action and movement (otherwise the clearing of the ghetto in Schindler's List would be an 'action scene'), but is a scene that features extended kinetic action between characters in competition and opposition that is focused primarily on the action between them. Is that definition better? I don't know, but it's one of those "you know it when you see it" kind of things.Let me give you a five great non-action action sequences from this decade to show you what I mean:
  • "Bane's Mid-Air Escape" -The Dark Knight Rises
  • "Breaking Magneto Out- Time in a Bottle" -X-Men: Days of Future Past
  • "Climbing the Tallest Building in the World" -Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
  • "Ambushed by Indians at a Fur Trading Camp" -The Revenant
  • "Shootout: Crossing the Border" -Sicario
I would disqualify these sequences for several reasons. For instance, in the awesome Quicksilver sequence from X-Men: Days of Future Past, the focus is less on competition and more on the spectacle of the slow-mo. It's fairly short, there's no back and forth, and the focus is more on the spectacle of one particular attribute. This doesn't mean it's "less than" other action scenes, just that I would qualify it differently than a straight up action scene. In the case of Cruise climbing the Burg Kalifa (which is on many top lists) - I think this is more of a thrilling scene than action. No one claims Free Solo to be an "action film" and I think this sequence is better defined as something else.

3. Great action sequences do not always make great action movies and vice versa. Die Hard is my favorite action film, but there is not a single action set piece from the movie that would rank in my top 100 or 200 of all-time. Why? Because the movie is not really about 5-10 minute individual action set pieces, but about punctuated moments of action that don't really stand up to other films' set pieces outside of the context of the story. That's fine. On the flip side, there are a lot of horrible films out there with stand out action scenes. I mention this to say that ranking action sequences doesn't speak on the quality of the whole film. While The Raid:Redemption is one of the greatest action films ever put to film, it's hard to identify individual sequences in that film because they tend to blend together, connect, and continue on.
4. Finally, it probably helps to share a little of what I find great in an action sequence. When it comes to action scenes, I prefer my action sequences to be extended set pieces - something that lasts at least 4-10 minutes and features a beginning, middle, and end within itself. I typically prefer 3-4 extended action sequences in a movie over 8-10 mini-action sequences within one film. Additionally, I have a soft-spot for hand to hand fighting, kinetic and dynamic camera's that highlight the difficulty of the combat, and sequences that look for a grand or epic scope. I love it when an action scene makes me lean forward in my chair and think, "I don't want to miss a thing because this scene keeps showing me things I've never seen before." In the end, the sequences below are ones that appeal to me personally. In general, the way the list is constructed is, "If I had only 10 sequences to keep from the 2010's, it would be these."

5. Honorable Mentions: Strong scenes, just missing my list:

  • "Hulk vs Hulk Buster" -Avengers: Age of Ultron
  • "Captain America vs. Iron Man vs. Bucky" -Captain America: Civil War
  • "Mad Dog vs. Rama vs. Andi" -The Raid: Redemption
  • "Ip Man vs Mike Tyson" -Ip Man 3
  • "Finale: Wu Jing & Tony Jaa vs Crime Boss" -Kill Zone 2
  • "Paris Mayhem: Ambush, Chase, and Escape" -Mission: Impossible - Fallout
  • "Chase Through Town in a Single Take" -Adventures of TinTin
  • "Finale: Assassins Confront Hanbei's Army" -13 Assassins
  • "The Battle of the Five Armies" -The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies
  • "The Battle of Agincourt" -The King
  • "Chicago Finale" -Transformers: Dark of the Moon


10. "Finale: Staying on Sofas & Photo Mayhem" - Chinese Zodiac (Link)

This film and this sequence is really the end of an era for Jackie Chan. It's a great throwback sequence that would fit right in with Chan's mid-90's to early 2000's output. It begins with a clever duel with the condition of staying on a sofa and ends with the inventive prop work that became Chan's iconic trademark.

9. "Night Club Shootout" - John Wick (Link)
You could take your pick of best action sequence between the three Wick films as the museum finale in film two and the knife throwing sequence in film three are also standout scenes. For my money, this sequence is the epitome of the series - great John Woo like gunplay mixed with an MMA style fighting filmed with interesting locations/lighting. I think the action scenes in later films would end up being too short (love the motorcyle samurai thing in the third film but its only 2 minutes long) or too long and over the top that it feels redundant (unlike the hospital shootout in Hard Boiled).  Check this one out to get a taste of a sequence that has nearly all the best features of the three films in one nice 6-7 minute moment.

8. "Car Chase, Foot Race, & Power Tool Fight to the Hague" -The Hitman's Bodygaurd
This film and sequence seemed to come out of nowhere. It released without much fanfare and was directed by a guy who hasn't really impressed (his biggest action work previously was Expendables 3). The final major action sequence of this film is one of my favorite types (that seems increasingly rare), the chaotic blend of car chase, shootout, and hand to hand fighting in a single sequence. 

7. "Ip Man vs Cheung Tin Shi for Wing Chun Grandmaster" -Ip Man 3 (Link)
It's nice to see that Donnie Yen was able to make the list this year with the best single fight sequence in the entire trilogy. Yen's foe, Max Zhang, is an incredible martial artist himself, and the two have a fight that is grounded enough to feel genuine and impressive, but dynamic enough, with enough camera flair, to feel epic. The fight progresses in three stages from bo staffs, to short knives, and finally in hand to hand combat that ends with the iconic one inch punch. This fight deserves to go on the short list of best fighting sequences of all-time.

6. "Stealing the Vault & Escaping Through the Streets of Rio" -Fast Five (Link)
This film lifted the Fast and Furious series to action greatness. Previous movies may have been primarily about racing with a side of mediocre action - this film places the action set pieces front and center. There were other great car chases (one coming later in the list) this decade, from Baby Driver and Raid 2 in particular, but none had the inventiveness, the scope, and the tactile nature this one did. While there might be a lot of CGI used, it certainly doesn't look it or feel it - when you watch this, it feels like they actually dragged a vault around Rio and destroyed the city. It's great.

5. "Church Mayhem" -Kingsmen: The Secret Service
This mid-film sequence will probably never be topped in the series, though they will likely try again and again. "Free Bird" playing while Colin Firth gets brutally violent on enraged religious fundamentalists in increasingly clever gun play and fighting is an odd mix that just works so well. There's no other sequence I can think of like it and no other sequence that has equaled it.

4. "One-Take: Lorraine protects Spyglass from the Russians" -Atomic Blonde (Link)
This faux one-take action sequence lacks the cinematic flair and cultural mashup of the church mayhem scene, but instead shines on gritty "realism." Charlize Theron shines here as she fights with great weight and vulnerability in a sequence that features a great mix of a dynamic and moving camera with gun play, fighting, wrestling, and prop work. It tells a bruising story and with the exception of number one on my list, is the best fight scene of the decade.

3. Marvel Avengers Finales
In what may feel like a cop-out I'm putting the Avengers finales at number three on my list. Specifically, we are talking the "Battle of New York" from the first Avengers, the "Airport Showdown" from Avengers 2.5 (a.k.a Captain America: Civil War), and the two finale showdowns with Thanos in Infinity War and End Game. I spent hours trying to rank these and realized it was pointless. They are all excellent, big-budget, epic action sequences that were the gold standard in this decade. Marvel took the mantle this decade previously held by Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. If you want intelligently produced spectacles with visual flair, you go to these movies. If you forced me to only choose one of these sequences, it would probably be the Battle of New York from the First Avengers film followed by the Titan/Wakanda finale from Infinity War.

2. "Back to the Citadel" -Mad Max: Fury Road

Who would have thought at the beginning of the decade that Charlize Theron would feature in two all-time great action sequences? Probably just as many people who thought the resurrection/reboot of Mad Max would turn out as great as it did. This instant action classic surprised everyone in 2015 and still feels as epic, creative, and zany as it did four years ago. The sequence's emphasis on practical stunt work (yes, even though CGI is well used), amazing art direction and character design, separate it from any competition. This sequence pulls off the rare combination of enough grand spectacle (the wide shots of explosions and the vehicle caravan in the desert is awe-inspiring) without losing the intimate details of give and take necessary for a fully engaging action sequence. The amount of times you feel like the characters get an upper hand only to be met with another new idea or attempt by the villains is exhausting (in a good way). This is a master-class and would be the best sequence of the decade if it wasn't for the work found in...

1. "Finale: From the Loading Bay to the Kitchen" -The Raid 2 (Link)
In 1994's The Legend of Drunken Master, Jackie Chan perfected his action finale sequence. The perfect Chan finale was not just about a great end fight, it was about crafting a 20-25 minute sequence where it would begin with 2-3 fights that were strong, featured different styles, and would culminate in an epic final boss fight that featured Jackie going to previously un-thought of levels of skill and risk. This kind of sequence had no equal, until The Raid 2. 

The finale sequence begins with a multiple man fight in a loading bay that would be the standout fight of most other action films. From there, the hero moves on to fight two well-crafted and interesting supporting villains (bat boy and hammer girl!) in a tight hallway. The fight style here is different enough, the characters unique enough, that it feels like a genuine progression of difficulty, a perfect middle to a three-tiered challenge. Finally, the hero moves on to the central physical challenge and fight. This is done in an extended and bloody sequence in a white kitchen. The fight alone is perhaps the best filmed one-on-one sequence ever. That it comes as the culmination of three back to back sequences makes it the best of the decade. It is fitting that the ending of Chan's career begins the list and the contemporary equivalent of his best work ends the list. Chan's influence is still being felt in the action world today.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Why Christians Are Not Ready for a Mainstream Gay Film - Part 4

6:09 PM 1
Why Christians Are Not Ready for a Mainstream Gay Film - Part 4
Disclaimer: This post is written from and assumes the historic Christian position on sexuality. It is not primarily interested in discussing validity of the position (for a decent overview of that position, see my summary of the book Mere Sexuality.) Rather, the focus is on how that historic position should interact with a wider culture that is increasingly challenging the historic Christian position from from outside and inside the Christian church.

Dear Christian Brothers and Sisters, 

Summary So Far:
This series of posts has been my attempt to inquire into what Christian responses would come from the inevitable gay character or story line in a major franchise blockbuster film. In the first post, I encouraged us to not underestimate the impact of this cultural moment, as I think it will represent a major cultural shift in an area, blockbuster franchises, that has been a major unifying force in secular society.  In the second post I explained that many Christians will respond with moral outrage, boycott, and a renewed emphasis on creating an alternate Christian sub-culture. I believe this retreatist reaction would be intellectually naive and an act of hypocrisy. In the third post, I contended that while the retreatist position is a genuine threat, the majority of Christians (based on recent history) would respond by just assimilating to the change through vocal approval or quiet acquiescence. So when the moment comes that Marvel announces its first major gay character, what would a faithful Christian response look like? If we shouldn't retreat or just accept it, what should we do? 

To help answer this question while also giving some practical guidance, I will write the rest of the post as a list, a list of "10 Commitments for Faithful Engagement of Secular Culture". If one wanted to make them sound even more religious, let's say they are the "10 Commandments of Engaging Secular Culture." Let's go.


1. Cause: Make Loving God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength the mission for engaging with secular culture.
The very first commitment a Christian should make in engaging with secular culture (watching blockbusters, listening to pop radio, etc.) is that it is first and foremost about worshiping God. It is not primarily about entertainment, refreshment, education, staying connected, or any myriad of reasons people provide for why they do it. The entire task of engaging with secular culture must be seen as an extension of loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.

I am convinced that we cannot fulfill the mission to bring the truth, beauty, and goodness of the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the entire world and make disciples unless we engage with secular cultures. For the Christian, Christ is the ultimate example. Humanity, writ large, has created a culture that is a mix of truth/untruth, beauty/ugliness, goodness/evil. It was into that culture (specifically Jewish, Roman, and Greek) that God himself took on flesh and lived among us, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). Christ lived and engaged in the culture he found himself in, not simply out of duty or entertainment, but as a natural outflow of God's love.

If we are to love God and bring glory to his name then we are to obey his commands and follow his example. For the Christian, our lives are now in service of Christ's mission. Does this mean that we can't get pleasure or education through secular culture? Of course not. It can be healthy to laugh at television sitcoms, be thrilled during a fight for the cosmos in a Marvel film, or enjoy the rhythm and melody of a top 40 song. This first commitment means that those should always be the byproducts and never the prime product. The faithful Christian must be vigilant, for the moment they make their entertainment or their reputation as someone who is "up to date with culture" more important than loving God is when they have begun down the path of cultural assimilation or retreat.  

2. Criterion: Make the Triune God of the Bible your source of all truth, beauty, and goodness.
A natural and logical outflow of the first commitment is the adoption of the Triune God as the standard from which to evaluate secular culture. The historical narratives, theology, poetry, epistles, and prophecy of the Bible reveal a Triune (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) God that is the true, beautiful, and good Creator of the universe. Communal and personal encounters with God also help affirm to the Christian these universal attributes of God. It is no surprise then that when the Christian turns to God's creation that they also find truth, beauty, and goodness. 

However, despite a creation initially made right, it was through humanity's rebellion (failure to follow commitment #1 essentially) that God's creation is now a place where truth and untruth, beauty and ugliness, goodness and evil now mix together. In order to discern what the world should look like - how to set it right again - the Christian must look to the Triune God as the standard. This doesn't mean that everything coming from outside Christianity is wrong - not at all. However, it does mean that everything is evaluated in light of the Triune God: what is love? what is mercy? what is community? For the Christian watching Marvel's next movie, there will undoubtedly be explicit or implicit claims about the nature of true love, the meaning of life, or any other major question life poses. The faithful Christian must be vigilant to examine the truth, beauty, and goodness of secular culture in light of the Triune God, in light of our example in Christ. 

3. Convictions: Make efforts to develop an increasingly mature worldview that is founded upon and nourished by the gospel story.
Examining secular culture in light of the truth, beauty, and goodness of the Triune God is a lot easier said then done. For example, what exactly am I supposed to think about explicit lyrics in songs? Do I just say, "What would Jesus do?" and reason that if Jesus wouldn't listen to it, then I wouldn't? However, when I read the Gospels, I see that Jesus often conversed and dined with people who probably used course language. Though we can certainly find worthwhile principles from how cultural issues are handled in the Bible, we must acknowledge that many of the hard questions (Can we watch R-rated films? Is it okay to listen to an explicit song if I just listen for the beat? Can we dance or is it too sexual?) we ask about contemporary secular culture just aren't always directly answered (often we are asking the wrong questions to begin with).

This is why Christians must commit to developing a Christian worldview that makes the gospel the center (commitment #2), but is able to wisely extend the truth, beauty, and goodness of the gospel into today and tomorrow's culture. This is no easy task and this is why Christian education, inside and outside the church, is vital. To develop mature gospel-centered views on our culture requires a life-long commitment to developing the mind. It requires a life-long commitment to allow Christian mentors, teachers, and people of expertise to help inform you. It requires a life-long commitment to develop a community of friends sharing your same mission to converse with you and challenge/encourage your views. 

In my worldview Bible class, I like to give students multiple chances to evaluate secular culture - asking what is true, beautiful, and good in it. I enjoy using Sam Smith's song "Stay With Me" as a good example of the difficulty of the task.  In our discussion, some are quick to point out that we shouldn't listen to it because it's written by a gay man while others just say, "It's a catchy song, it's good, why think any deeper?" Prying further, I ask the class what the song is primarily about, "Why is he asking people to stay with him?" Eventually they catch on that the song is primarily about how empty one-night stands are, how Smith realizes they aren't real love and won't stop his pain, but they are better than being alone. "Is that true" I ask the class and almost always get a "Yes!" "Does that mean we listen to it?" - mixed response follows. I imagine that if I was able to continue this exercise with students on a weekly basis for the next decade, they would develop much more mature responses to any TV show, film, or song they consumed. 

In short, in order to accomplish the difficult task of evaluating secular culture in the light of the truth, beauty, and goodness of the Triune good, the faithful Christian makes a life-long commitment to developing a Christian worldview that is informed by a community of friends, mentors, and teachers. 

4. Critical: Make the effort to critically engage with any secular culture you consume.
I think the biggest reason why most Christians assimilate to secular culture is because they are directly or indirectly unwilling to critically engage it. Many Christians believe that it's just too much of a hassle, will make them look like a Pharisee, or will just ruin the entertainment value. For my answer to those Christians, I think they should go back and read commitment number one. Other Christians just feel ill-equipped to critically engage  - not knowing what to say beyond, "I liked it" or "It didn't bother me." I think those Christians have mostly ignored commitment number three.

The faithful Christian engages with secular culture critically. There should be a curiosity, and in my opinion, optimism in approaching any kind of culture - "What truth, beauty, and goodness can I possibly find here!?" This curiosity and awareness sets the tone for the Christian to then contemplate what they are engaged with, sift and evaluate it appropriately, and then react accordingly.  

In my sophomore year of college I began to take a great interest in critically evaluating films, thinking I might have a future as a film reviewer. To get better at critiquing films, I used to bring a notepad into the cinema and jot my thoughts down as I watched. I then devoured reviews by critics and made note of the types of questions they asked and things they focused on. After a couple of years of this I eventually stopped bringing the notepad and reading less and less critics. Why? I didn't need them anymore - my mind now naturally took notes and asked hard questions while I was watching the movie. Although it was unnatural at first to watch movies critically, it was something I began to train myself to do. I've done it so well and so often now that I can't imagine watching movies any other way. 

The faithful Christian will spend a life-time learning and developing a Christian worldview, and to do this they must learn to think critically about art and culture: how to interpret songs, films, shows, etc. This does not mean that every Christian is required to become full-blown culture critics. It means that being faithful to the call of Christ is to be aware and critical of the cultures we are engaged with. It means that we are not simply consumers, but we are listeners. For how can one influence a culture they haven't even listened to?

5. Celebrate: Make the effort to celebrate what is true, beautiful, and good.
It is only the Christian that has committed to critically evaluating secular culture who can truly celebrate what is true, beautiful, and good in it. As stated before, a Christian that celebrates and enjoys secular culture without being rooted in the truth, beauty, and goodness of Christ is not really celebrating, they are merely being fashionable. Many Christians mistake their enjoyment of secular culture ("I love Game of Thrones too!") for celebration. For the faithful Christian, critical evaluation must always precede celebration. I would recommend that the more specific the celebration is the better. A blanket claim of "Seinfeld is a good show" is less helpful than "Seinfeld has a way of pointing out the absurdity of so many of our relationships and practices. The way the show portrays the characters as reaping what they sow is truthful as well." 

The more Christians are able to celebrate the specific truth, beauty, and goodness of secular culture, the more we are able to find common ground with non-believers. As people begin to see where Christianity and secular culture overlap in good ways, they can give Christianity a fresh look or understand why a particular show or song carried so much power or gave them so much hope. The faithful Christian is not afraid to celebrate the true, beautiful, and good wherever they may find it.

6. Condemn: Make the effort to condemn what is false, ugly, and evil.
Just as the faithful critical Christian is not afraid to celebrate, they should not be afraid to condemn. I know that word conjures up very negative connotations of angry picket sign-holders, but that's not what I am intending here. What I mean is that Christians should not be afraid to call out falseness, ugliness, and evil when they see it. If a song or movie presents a false idea (i.e. life is about money), treats something ugly as beautiful (i.e. sexual objectification of women), or calls something good that is evil (i.e. having sex with multiple partners), then Christians should say it - they should condemn it as such. 

7. Charity: Make the effort to celebrate and condemn with humility and love.
Critically evaluating culture is not easy (see commitments #3 and #4). Because we are always learning, growing, and are afflicted by many biases, we should always be humble in our celebrations and in our condemnations. I once heard it said that we should hold those views with confidence, but hold them lightly. I like that. There are many times you will evaluate culture and not be sure if it's worthy of celebration or condemnation, and that's okay. Do your best to articulate your views with charity and allowing for other possible positions or arguments you did not consider. A faithful Christian not only seeks to evaluate secular culture, but to do so in clear, loving, and humble language. I firmly believe, this is one of the best ways we can be salt and light to our world.

8. Conversation: Make the effort to have conversations with others.
Not only should we engage with secular culture, but we should engage other people with it too. Remember, the Christian's ultimate goal is the worship of God and we engage with secular culture not just for ourselves, but so that we can connect and share Christ with others. Let's say Marvel announces their first gay character. You go and see the movie and critically evaluate it in light of the Christian worldview you have developed. Depending on your circumstances, you can use this as an opportunity to talk and converse with your Christian and non-Christian friends about this cultural event. Let's say you share with your friends that there is much to celebrate but also take a moment to voice your concern that the movie portrays a sexual view that you believe is not beautiful or true. Another Christian friend disagrees with you and condemns the entire movie while another non-Christian friend celebrates the entire movie. What do you do?

First, I think it's a great first step that there is a critical discussion happening! Second, I think the best step forward is to converse as to your reasons for your views. This conversation should be done with humility and love - knowing that another person's view could help you see more clearly what is true, beautiful, and good. Third, with wisdom, humility, and love, make sure to draw your views (with the use of reason) back to your entire reason for being, your source for all that is true, good, and beautiful - the Triune God.

9. Cut: Make the hard decisions to cut out secular culture when needed.
I'm 35 years old and I'd like to think that I'm strong enough in my faith to consume anything the secular culture puts out and to be so objective and critically minded that it doesn't influence me. That's a fantasy. The faithful Christian must be aware of the quality and quantity of the secular culture they are consuming and the influence it has upon them. The easy example here is the presence of explicit sexual content in movies. I know I have to draw limits here as the images can strongly influence me in ways that override my number one commitment - loving God with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength. I don't always succeed at it, but I am getting better. For others, negative influences can come from the language and views expressed in popular songs, the views of marriage and sexuality present in television shows or novels - the point is to know yourself and your temptations/limitations.

We often consume so much secular culture through the social media, youtube, netflix, itunes, and other sources that we are like fish in water - unaware at how much we are surrounded with views contrary to our faith. In order to protect their primary commitment to God, the faithful Christian must balance their engagement with secular culture. If a Christian finds that their engagement is influencing them negatively and threatening their love and commitment to Christ, then the decision to cut out engagement should be made. This can be done for seasons and re-evaluated constantly. This would considered a "properly -ordered" and seasonal retreat.

10. Contribute: Make the effort to contribute to secular culture, not just to consume or criticize it.
Finally, rather than just being consumers and critics, the faithful Christian seeks to contribute to the secular culture. The intention here is to find common ground with the forms that secular culture take and use them as vehicles to share truth, beauty, and goodness. Christians should seek to be faithful cultural contributers wherever they are at in life: at the university, hospital, newspaper offices, business buildings, schoolhouses, movie studios,  etc.
In conclusion, I hope and pray that today and tomorrow's Christians see the folly in retreat and assimilation reactions to secular culture, and instead to choose the harder path of faithfully engaging. What would all ten of these commitments look like in relation to a major blockbuster franchise featuring a gay character or storyline? I have an idea, but I think we have to wait and see how that milestone is presented. When it does happen though, I hope we are all prepared and ready to love Christ through our loving conversations.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Why Christians Are Not Ready for a Gay Mainstream Film - Part 3

3:26 PM 0
Why Christians Are Not Ready for a Gay Mainstream Film - Part 3
Disclaimer: This post is written from and assumes the historic Christian position on sexuality. It is not primarily interested in discussing validity of the position (for a decent overview of that position, see my summary of the book Mere Sexuality.) Rather, the focus is on how that historic position should interact with a wider culture that is increasingly challenging the historic Christian position from from outside and inside the Christian church.

Dear Christian Brothers and Sisters, 

This series of posts is designed to share my thoughts on how the inevitable gay character or story line in a major franchise blockbuster film will bring challenges to evangelical Christianity and survey the possible responses that can be made. In the first post of this series I outlined why this cultural moment is not only inevitable but will be a major cultural challenge for Christianity. In the second post I explained why I believe a retreatist reaction from most Christians would be intellectually naive and an act of hypocrisy. In this post, I will examine the second major response most Christians make - assimilation - and why it is just as disastrous as retreat. 

If I am being honest, I think the retreat response to cultural change has been increasingly marginalized within evangelical Christianity. I find that less and less, Christians have a stomach for boycotting, for getting cut off from secular culture, and for accepting art from a Christian subculture that is clearly derivative or inferior. There is still a significant impulse within evangelical Christians for a disordered and hypocritical retreat from secular culture, but that's just not the biggest threat I see going forward. The biggest threat facing evangelical Christians is assimilation. Rather than choose to fight and protest the change, the biggest threat will be for Christians to just give in and accept the change. When the disadvantages of a retreatist response are increasingly obvious and the benefits to accept cultural change are obvious and great, I believe most Christians will choose to assimilate to the new cultural norm with either vocal approval or quiet acquiescence. 

This response is just as disastrous as the retreat response. Why? The assimilation response capitulates to culture change by laying down the greatest weapons a Christian can bring to secular culture: The ability to celebrate, critique, and create art that is true, beautiful, and good.

The Failure of the Assimilation Response:
To assimilate means to adapt - to absorb what is external to you and make it internal. There has always been pressure for Christians to assimilate - to make external cultural views and practices their own. The New Testament is replete with stories of people struggling to follow the call of Christ and stay faithful to his way in the midst of cultures calling them to opposing beliefs and practices. For ancient Christians, not participating in Roman temple practices, making sacrifices to the emperor cult, and other various issues were immensely difficult. Imagine your non-Christian neighbor gets news that their son was killed in a Roman battle and word spreads that the battle was lost because there are Christians in the city who refuse to please the Gods through sacrifice. Would you bow to the pressure?

In the last 100 hundred years, American culture - accelerated by the sexual revolution of the 1960's - has massively shifted their sexual views and practices. The acceptance and rise of co-habitation, divorce, pornography, and non-traditional marriages/partnerships has been relatively quick. When I was young boy, the vocal and public support of same-sex marriage becoming the law of the land would have been laughed out of the room. Heck, even President Obama saw the idea of gay marriage as not politically worthwhile in his first term (I don't believe his change of mind - I think he always supported it - just waited for the politically right time to show it). Now, the odds are that vocal and public support of opposition to same-sex marriage is likely to get shamed out of a room. The point here is not to litigate the legitimacy of either view, the point is to emphasize the massive cultural shifts in sexuality that have taken place over the last 100 years.

I'd like to think that Christianity has responded to these shifts primarily with the truth, beauty, and goodness of the historic Christian view of sexuality. Unfortunately, it seems more of the church has adopted (assimilated) the changing views of culture than the culture has adopted the views of the church. The growing affirmation of same-sex behavior and unions within American Christianity today is not a shocking turn within the history of a pure church, but part of a long line of cultural assimilation within a severely compromised church. Sometimes the assimilation is clear, as seen in churches changing their historical doctrines on marriage and sexuality. Most of the time though the assimilation is more in practice than in doctrine. 

While holding to doctrines that uphold historic Christianity, many evangelical Christians live their lives in opposition to them. I don't mean they make mistakes, I'm not talking about that. We all make mistakes and sin. I'm talking about evangelicals who say sex should not be outside of marriage, yet continue to enjoy the secular hookup culture - of dating and enjoying multiple sexual partners. I'm talking about evangelicals that claim to uphold Christian views of sexuality yet craft disingenuous justifications so that they can support politicians who outwardly flaunt Christian views. I'm talking about evangelicals who claim biblical worldviews, yet adopt the secular view that sexual attraction defines our identity, sexual fulfillment comprises our meaning, and sexual restraint comprises an attack on freedom. Christians that uncritically consume media that celebrates infidelity, peddles sexual images for pleasure, objectifies human beings, sexualizes every aspect of life, and endorses ideologies and views about sexuality that Christ would find shameful. 

This uncritical assimilation of secular culture has caused incredible damage to the church. Because the church is the primary vehicle that God uses to bring transformation to his world, uncritical assimilation is damaging to the world as well. Assimilation, just like retreatism, is cultural capitulation - both responses have given up on any true connection with the wider world; where retreatism runs, assimilation lays down. This capitulation is disastrous because is destroys the three major cultural avenues the Christian has becoming salt and light to the secular culture: celebration, critique, and creation of art that is true, good, and beautiful.

Celebration, Critique, and Creation:
The Christian believes they have discovered and experienced the bedrock of truth, beauty, and goodness in Jesus Christ. Christians, empowered and transformed by the Spirit of Christ, are sent forth to bring the truth, beauty, and goodness of Christ into all the world. This truth, where embraced, transforms this broken and hurting world. This community of Christians fulfilling this ultimate mission is what we call the Church. As Christians go throughout the world they encounter various cultures that to varying degrees reject and embrace Christian views. 

But isn't acceptance and assimilation a form of celebration? Isn't the acceptance and enjoyment of shows like Modern Family or Stranger Things or Game of Thrones or The Bachelor a form of celebrating culture? No, not if your impulse is to uncritically assimilate to every cultural change. The ultimate issue between being faithful or unfaithful isn't the viewing of the show or the listening to the song, it's in how/why you view the show. 

What makes something worthy of celebration? In general, standards are set for what it means to be loving, meaningful, worthy, honorable, etc. When something meets that standard - like a soldier laying down his life or a film encouraging us to live a better life - we celebrate it. As noted earlier, the standards of secular culture continue to shift and change like a whirlwind - such that a progressive for its time show like Friends can now be seen to be massively offensive.  If the Christian simply assimilates to whatever the secular culture changes to then they have no real standard for celebration. All celebration becomes subjective and relative to the changing views of secular masses. Not only does the changing tides of secular culture make standards for celebration completely subjective, but it does so for standards of critique as well. A Christian that celebrates and enjoys secular culture without being rooted in the truth, beauty, and goodness of Christ is not really celebrating culture, they are merely being fashionable. 

I believe that what gives the Christian the opportunity to be salt and light to the secular culture is because they refuse to be caught up in cultural fashions. Where an outside culture embodies or embraces the truth, beauty, and goodness of our world, Christians are called to celebrate it. Where an outside culture rejects the truth, beauty, and goodness of our world, Christians are called to critique it. For example, wherever art acknowledges the truth that sin is both ugly and attractive (a duality that Martin Scorsese is particularly good at) the Christian is right to celebrate it. However, where a culture veers from truth, beauty, and goodness - critique is called for. One could simultaneously celebrate a show like Seinfeld for finding the truth, beauty, and goodness in so much of life and relationships, but also critique it for its untruthful, ugly, and impoverishing views of life and relationships. Uncritical assimilation to secular culture forfeits the power to speak transformatively through celebrating and critiquing what is and isn't true, good, and beautiful.

Remaining connected to secular culture through faithful celebration and critique also allows a Christian to create their own truthful, beautiful, and good art not just as a counter (as in the retreatist response) but as a contribution to secular culture. One of the reasons The Passion of the Christ had the impact on the wider culture that it did was because it was presented not just from a subculture of Christianity, but as a contribution to the wider secular culture. If Christians are to fulfill their ultimate mission, we must remain connected to secular culture in a way that doesn't capitulate, but celebrates, critiques and contributes in transformative ways. 

When the moment comes that Disney or Star Wars features their first main gay character, retreat or assimilation is not the faithful Christian response. So what does a faithful response look like? What should you specifically do with culture like that? That is the purpose of my final post in the series. I will outline several practical principles and steps you can take to be a faithful cultural consumer. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Why Christians Are Not Ready for a Mainstream Gay Film - Part 2

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Why Christians Are Not Ready for a Mainstream Gay Film - Part 2
Disclaimer: This post is written from and assumes the historic Christian position on sexuality. It is not primarily interested in discussing validity of the position (for a decent overview of that position, see my summary of the book Mere Sexuality.) Rather, the focus is on how that historic position should interact with a wider culture that is increasingly challenging the historic Christian position from from outside and inside the Christian church.

Dear Christian Brothers and Sisters,

In the first post (of a series of on this topic) I outlined why I think a major blockbuster film franchise featuring a gay character and story line is not only inevitable but will be a major cultural challenge for Christianity. In this post I will explain why I believe the foreseeable retreatist reaction from most Christians will unfortunately be disastrous, that this will be another lost opportunity for Christians to become constructive influencers of our culture – or in biblical terms, salt and light. When the headlines about the first major gay franchise film begin to show up, what will the reaction of Christianity be? Unfortunately, in our social media saturated environment where we are inundated with waves after wave of outrage and controversy, we don’t have to imagine much. I think the reaction of Christians will fall into the same two basic camps most people fall into when presented with a challenge: retreat or assimilation.

The Two Basic Reaction:
Let’s imagine the next James Bond film is confirmed to have a Bond identified as a gay man. The retreat camp will look something like Christians refusing to watch more Bond films, destroying their previous Bond films, calling vehemently for boycotts of the parent company of the franchise while others will retreat to making their own cottage industry of Christianized “James Bond” films (which is probably more of an oxymoron than Christians realize). The assimilation camp would look something like Christians applauding the milestone, changing their social media profile pics to whatever new logo supports the film, churches renting out showings of the film for “evangelistic” opportunities to show support, the purchase and proud display of the inevitable Funko Pop “Rainbow” Bond figurine, the denunciation of boycotting groups, or perhaps the most innocuous – just indifferent acceptance and viewing as if nothing has changed.

If I’m correct in my predictions, I think these reactions would reveal a deep intellectual naivete, monumental moral hypocrisy, and crippling capitulation within the wider Evangelical church. The camps “FOR” and “AGAINST” will emerge, lines will be drawn, and everyone will be forced to pick a side. Both camps, even though one seems more loving than another, will ultimately do great damage and are unfaithful as a Christian response. They both fail to honor the image of God within us, the call of Christ upon us, and the mission of the Church before us. How so? Let’s take a look at the retreat camp. 

The Failure of the Retreat Response:
The reaction of the retreat camp is in many ways understandable and relatable. For many who were outraged that the world of music and television have primarily been given over to better LGBT representation, “family-friendly” big budget franchises feel like one of the last secular “safe spaces” for those who hold to traditional Christian values. They might have stopped watching ABC due to shows like Modern Family, but Star Wars, Marvel, and Pixar films were areas they could enjoy with their friends and family. The introduction (or injection in their view) of homosexuality into this safe space will feel like the last straw breaking the camel’s back to them – and they will feel forced to retreat from one of the last spaces of secular culture they felt connected to. This impulse usually manifests as a retreat from the shared secular culture into a safer Christian subculture. We’ve seen this happen with music and have begun to see it happen with film – though I think it will grow exponentially when this cultural domino falls.

The retreat camp, though understandable, is intellectually naive about how culture fits into the call of Christ. I have found that the impulse to retreat from the secular world typically stems from a mistaken view that following in the footsteps of Christ is primarily about remaining holy, clean, and righteous. On this view, withdrawing is done with the intent of removing oneself from people and culture that could dirty them. Holiness and righteousness become focused more on what and whom you keep yourself from and less about being an active follower of Christ bringing the kingdom news to all peoples and all cultures.

To be fair, there’s some truth in the retreatist view – Christians are called to keep ourselves holy and not to mingle light with darkness. There certainly are practices in the secular culture we should entirely abstain from. However, these injunctions must be balanced by the commands to go into the world, to the poor, to the weary, to the widowed, to the children, to the cultures, to the kings, and preach the good news of Jesus Christ. The two greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor – they are tied together because we cannot love God without loving our neighbor. It seems simple to say, but we cannot love our neighbor if we find ourselves continually cutting off connections with them – especially common cultural connections. Unrighteousness does not primarily come in mingling with people or culture that is not “Christian” – if it did then Christ would be a deeply unrighteous man.

Creating gospel centered subcultures and inviting outsiders into them is a valid strategy that Christians must employ (think creating a family unit or church community centered around the Gospel). However, it cannot be the only method we employ. Like Christ our Lord, we must ALSO (it’s not an either/or) be willing to meet and connect with people where they are at, with the culture they know. I have typically found that the creation of Christian subcultures has been less about creating true, beautiful, and good art – and more about just creating our own “Christian” versions of entertainment. Our reason for retreat is disordered. Let me be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the creation of subcultures – we all enjoy being part of our own little bubbles within the wider culture. 

However, if we are to answer the call of Christ we must also engage with the wider culture. This means we will get dirty, there will be some negative influences on us – God understands this. As the Christian speaker Sy Rogers put it, “It doesn’t matter that you get dirty, what matters most is what you do with it. Run to God who washes you clean.” We need retreat.  Christ often retreated for peace, quiet, and filling. We also need cultural connection and engagement. Christ interacted with, healed, and befriended more than just those in his subculture. There is a balanced rhythm here that must inform our responses to secular culture.

It gets worse for the retreat camp though. Worse than intellectual naivete, the retreatist response reveals a monumental moral hypocrisy within evangelical Christianity. Let me illustrate by imagining the following conversation between two Christians:

Conversation #1
Bob: You love the Bond series right?
Tim: Oh yeah. Seen every one of them.
Bob: Okay, give me your top 5 bond girls then.
Tim: Easy, you have to start with....

Conversation #2
Bob: You love the Bond series right?
Tim: Oh yeah. Seen every one of them.
Bob: Did you hear that in the next one Bond is going to be a gay man?
Tim: That's ridiculous. Why would they go and ruin the series by injecting that kind of sex in it? I don't think I could watch a gay Bond...This ruins it.

Do you see the utter hypocrisy there? The James Bond series has always been about a man who is sexually active in a way that is clearly not supportive of historic Christian values. The Bond series over the years has been replete with the abuse and objectification of women. It revels in lust and in its rejection of sexuality as meant for a permanent, exclusive, one-flesh union. Yet, there's very few Christians who would bat an eye if I told them that Bond beds 4-5 different women in the next film. There's no way around it, it has to be said bluntly, to use the injection of a gay character in a major franchise as a pretense for cultural retreat would be a monumental act of hypocrisy.

The hypocrisy runs deep as the entertainment choices of evangelical Christians has made it clear that they are more than willing to accept characters that not just embody views outside of historic Christianity, but celebrate them. Disney animated films and Marvel superheroes are reflections of secular views of sexuality much more so than Christian ones. The biblical view of sexuality is not fixated on homosexuality (though it does speak on it). It is, however, fixated on following the good designs of God. The depiction of homosexuality in a major franchise becoming such a lightning rod for evangelical Christians demonstrates how so many Christians have accepted a warped and twisted view of biblical sexuality. American culture left the biblical view of sexuality a long time ago and to retreat now reveals not that you are protecting a biblical view of sexuality, it means you are protecting YOUR view of sexuality. Your retreat is not due to any offense to Christ, it's due to offending your own precious sense of morality.

In summary, there is certainly some truth to the retreat impulse - we are called to not love the "world", not to mingle with sin, and to be holy. However, this impulse must be rightly ordered and balanced or it becomes a position of deep naivete and monumental moral hypocrisy. I believe that as Christians we must engage with our culture, but does this mean we should just accept whatever the culture does? In the next post in this series I’ll explore the second type of response - assimilation - and why it's just as much a disaster for a faithful Christian response.

Why Christians Are Not Ready for a Mainstream Gay Film - Part 1

1:32 AM 9
Why Christians Are Not Ready for a Mainstream Gay Film - Part 1
Disclaimer: This post is written from and assumes the historic Christian position on sexuality. It is not primarily interested in discussing validity of the position (for a decent overview of that position, see my summary of the book Mere Sexuality.) Rather, the focus is on how that historic position should interact with a wider culture that is increasingly challenging the historic Christian position from from outside and inside the Christian church.

Dear Christian Brothers and Sisters,

Imagine that you log into your social media account tomorrow and see the following headline, “Confirmed: James Bond to be gay in the next film entry.” How would you react? What would you think? What if the headline was about the next animated Disney princess, Marvel superhero, or lead Star Wars character instead of James Bond? Would you be shocked? Upset? Happy? Would you immediately retweet it with an angry comment? Would you share it with a rainbow emoji and #lovehasnolabels hashtag? This cultural development is going to happen. I think it’s going to happen sooner than you think, and I’m certain we’re not ready for it.

This will be the first post in a series that will seek to share with my fellow Christian brothers and sisters why I’m worried about our inability to be cultural consumers that are faithfully Christian will be devastating for the coming cultural challenge of a mainstream franchise featuring a gay character and story. In this first post I will outline why I think a major blockbuster film franchise featuring a gay character and story line is not only inevitable, but will be a major cultural challenge for Christianity. In following posts I will explain why I believe the reaction from most Christians will unfortunately be disastrous. The reaction will be tragically stuck playing out the same two responses to every major cultural challenge: 

         1. A stance of moral outrage coupled with a withdrawal from secular culture
         2. A stance of accommodation that inevitably leads to assimilation with secular culture.

Neither of these reactions are helpful, neither live up to the calling Christ puts on us. In fact, I believe these reactions will do great damage to our churches, our communities, and ultimately, the name of Christ. In the final post I will give my own suggestions on how I think Christians can react well to this inevitable cultural development and become consumers of culture that are Christ-like.

Why write these posts now? I realize these cultural wars are not new – they are just the most current in a long line of dominoes that began way before the artistic medium of film was even created. However, I think this particular milestone, more so than others, will be a domino of great importance. Why? Because in our culture, the big budget blockbuster franchise acts as one of our great unifying cultural forces. More so than novels, songs, and even television shows (though they all play a large role too), it’s the major franchise films that provide our contemporary culture with shared stories and values we identify and define ourselves by. They give us the heroes we put on our wall, the figures on our cereal boxes, the costumes our sons and daughters dress up as, and the common experiences we pass down to future generations. Imagine our culture without franchises like the Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Marvel, Harry Potter, Fast and the Furious, Disney/Pixar animated films, etc. That’s not just a few movies come and gone, that’s an enormous cultural black hole.

Dressing up as Goose and Maverick from Top Gun at a costume party
The 18th century Scottish writer and politician Andrew Fletcher is often quoted as saying, “Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.” I think Fletcher is hitting on something really insightful here – it will be the arts, more so than legislative rulings, that will have the greater influence on the hearts and minds of a people. Why? Because people do not just long for truth stated in propositions and legislation, but we seek for our hearts to be captured by truth that is beautiful and good. The arts have a unique way of delivering truth, beauty, and goodness that can be seen with the eyes, heard with the ears, touched with the hands, and felt in the soul. That shouldn’t be a surprise, Christians believe this is a part of being created as an image of God - in the likeness of our creator who himself is a grand artist. No other artistic medium brings together the arts like film: writers, photographers, animators, sculptors, builders, designers, musicians, composers, actors, etc.

In the movie business these major franchises are sometimes referred to as four quadrant films because they are made appeal to all four major demographics of our society – males under 25, females under 25, males over 25, and females over 25. One of the reasons they need to appeal to such a wide demographic is because they cost so much money to make and market – hundreds of millions of dollars. With that much money on the line, these franchises aren’t just expected to be good, they are expected to reflect the commonly shared values of moviegoers. This is one of the major reasons why there really hasn’t been much LGBTQ+ representation in big budget franchises so far. This is why smaller budget films that are targeting smaller demographics for financial success are able to more prominently feature gay characters and story lines.

However, the secular culture has changed and continues to change. Our commonly shared values have changed. Same-sex marriage is the law of the land and all the other mediums of art now more prominently feature LGBTQ+ representation. We should not be shocked that our big budget franchises will begin reflecting those shared franchises. This means that Disney will have gay and lesbian relationships in their animated films and in their young teen programming. In the same way that the representation of women and minorities in major franchises has become an issue that has led major franchises like Star Wars and Marvel to change (even if it's been slow and incremental), we should expect LGBTQ+ characters to follow. Let me be clear, in as much as this reflects our wider culture, I am expecting this, understanding of this, and welcoming of this. This is the world we live in now. 

Brothers and sisters, the change is coming. This won’t be as easy as when Ellen came out in her 90’s sitcom, or Britney and Madonna kissed at the MTV Music Awards in the 2000’s – it’s easy to brush those off as just niche or just switch off a television station. It won’t be so easy when the change comes to our precious and unifying mythologies. What will you do then? Will you respond with Christ-likeness? In truth and love? How you respond to this will have a greater impact on you and the world than you think. Don't take this lightly.

In the next post in this series I’ll explore the two types of responses I foresee most Christians making and I'll outline how those responses reveal a deep intellectual naivete, monumental moral hypocrisy, and crippling capitulation within the wider Evangelical church.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Part-Time Recommendation: Mere Sexuality

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Part-Time Recommendation: Mere Sexuality

Wanting to grow in your understanding of what Christianity has to say about sexuality? I'd recommend giving Todd Wilson's Mere Sexuality a read this summer. It's short and accessible enough to be picked up by most any reading level. If Sam Allberry's Is God Anti-Gay? did a good job addressing of speaking primarily to the issue of same-sex attraction and the biblical response to it, this book does a good job of climbing higher and giving a broader perspective on the historic Christian view of sexuality.

Don't have the time to read it or would like a preview? Here's my summary of the books main points:
"The world needs the church to give more than a biblical response to the issue of sexuality; the church must cast a winsome, biblical, theological, logical, and tradition-rich vision of Christian sexuality.
It must explain that God created humans in his image, and they were created not as genderless individuals, but as sexually differentiated male and female. It must explain that sexual activity is ultimately intended for the glory and in the service of God. Whether married or celibate, all are united through the body of Christ, in service to Christ. There are no singles in the body of Christ.
Sexual activity is meant to unite a male and female in a comprehensive one-flesh union that is exclusive and permanent – this is marriage. This marriage not only unites male and female but has the power to create a new being. It also has the power for great pleasure and used wrongly, for great evil in our world. For those who act sexually, this is God’s design.
However, it is not necessary to act sexually in order to be fully human. A celibate life is not an inferior life but is a legitimate calling that brings glory to God and can be in the service of God. Celibate singles, same sex attracted or not, can find outlets for their love in deep, intimate, but non-sexual spiritual friendships. The church must do better at becoming a community where these friendships are treated on par with marriages.
This view of Christian sexuality is confirmed and embodied by the center of Christianity, Jesus Christ. He embraced sexual differentiation in his incarnation, confirmed the design of sexual differentiation in the new creation through his bodily resurrection, and embodied that while embracing our sexed bodies is essential to being fully human, sexual activity is not. For Christ shows us all that our bodies are given in service to God, through God's design, whether that is in celibacy or in marriage."