Toy Story 4 Review: Who(se) Am I?

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The Toy Story series has an interesting philosophical premise in which you can’t separate a toy’s purpose from its creator/owner. What gives the toy its value is not what it is made of or where it came from but by and for whom it was made. And that resonates.

The latest installment to the series is certainly the most existential of the bunch. Take for example the main character, Forky—a preschool arts-and-crafts project literally made from trash. Forky is given life by being created and named by Bonnie (the new owner of the toys from the previous iterations), and he finds himself wondering throughout the film whether he belongs to the trash or belongs to Bonnie. Is his central purpose connected to that which he was made fromor for whom he was made? He feels at ease in trashcans and dumpsters and with other garbage, but is this his purpose?

Toy Story 4 cares less about the question of “Why are we here?” and more about the question “Whose are we?” But at times,  it doesn’t know how to answer its own question.

What do you do with toys whose owners no longer care for them? What do you do with those who have never had an owner to begin with? Won’t all toys eventually be forgotten? Will not all of them inevitably end up on the Island of Misfit Toys?

These are terrifying questions, and some of the most joyful and most depressing moments in this film revolve around toys finding (or not finding) an owner.

What’s a toy’s purpose with no owner? A toy is inherently created to be loved and enjoyed, so what do you do with that missing variable? Can a toy be a toy without an owner, or does it then become an antique? You could ask the same question of us, what are we without a relationship to our creator—can we find purpose aside from it? Can we fill the void of creator-creature love with creature-creature love?

Again, this film brings up huge questions and doesn’t quite no how to answer them all, but it does try its best.

Without giving too much away, the ending attempts to persuade its audience that a toy can find meaning after its owner while still recognizing that a toy’s most noble purpose is being there for a child. It can barely make up its mind though. On one hand, it makes it clear that it is better for a toy to be with an owner, yet on the other it can’t just say that toys without an owner are “trash” (as the film describes as being “Useless. Like your purpose has been fulfilled”). In some ways it does seem to say that creature-creature love can fill the void, but I wasn’t convinced.

The ending feels hollow to me. I’d like for every toy to have an owner, and for them to have one forever. I guess I’m just glad to not be some human’s play-thing, and I’m glad I don’t have to work with the assumption that my creator might one day just leave me out to dry leaving me to try to make sense of a life without him.

 

 

Hope and Incoherence

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The resurrection reminds me that there won’t always be a tension between the man I am & used to be and the man I am & wish to be in Christ.

I’m tired of incoherence. I want my body and mind to work right and for them not to constantly feel at odds with and within themselves. I want to live a virtuous life despite my many vices. Even more, I just want to be in body & soul with Jesus.

The resurrection is at odds with both presumption and despair. What I mean is that, in Christ being risen, we neither have to succumb ourselves to the despair over our own seemingly permanent inconsistencies nor do we have to try to convince ourselves that our inconsistencies can be easily untangled or explained away.

The only other option in the face of such inconsistencies is to move forward in hope.

To press forward in hope requires honesty and confession. It requires us to boldly live knowing that this life before us is not all there is. By confessing that Jesus is risen and that one day we too will rise, we imply that we do not have to sort everything out. We do not have to have all our ducks in a row. We do not have to lie about our own inconsistencies, and yet neither do we have to resign to them.

The frustrations, the disappointments, the loneliness, the illnesses, the heartbreaks, the unfulfilled longings, the persistent sins and vices in ourselves, all the things that feel so profoundly incoherent with the ways things ought to be will not ultimately have the final word.

Because Christ is risen, we too will rise like him. Someday soon we will know the joy, intimacy, and permanence of being with Him. And because he is risen, our hope is coherent.

 

 

In Fear of Finding “Us”

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** Warning this post contains major spoilers to Jordan Peele’s “Us”. I’d really, really suggest you watch the film before proceeding. ***

What if we are not who we think we are? What if we are not who we claim to be?

I believe Jordan Peele asks several of these questions in his latest film, “Us”. Peele in a recent interview remarked that his idea for this film came about as a kid when he used to walk the subways of New York and envision a person across the tunnel, standing and staring back at him, who looked identical to himself. He claims this to be a universal human terror: seeing ourselves when we know that what we see can’t really be us.

Adelaide at one scene in the film expresses to her husband (Gabe) that as a child she encountered this very terror. She saw herself and felt within her bones that that version of herself would one day catch up to her. There’s an apocalyptic vibe to this film which stands alongside its home-invasion, horror format. The first act trembles with the sense that something is coming, and that something demands to be exposed.

If you’ve seen the film then you know the conspiracy. The government has secretly been cloning humans and keeping them hidden in underground tunnels. And the cloning has not worked out as expected. Rather than creating another soul in the process, the cloning has created two bodies that can only share the same soul. These clones have been imprisoned underground being forced to live the same experiences of the originals yet in an artificial way. Denied real experience, denied real relationship, denied freedom, these clones rebel.

In the ensuing rebellion these clones savagely attempt to murder their counterparts and call it the “untethering”. At first glance, these clones seem to be the “dark-side” of their counterparts, but as the film develops, things seem to become a little more complicated than that.

One of the truly disturbing things in this film is the ways in which the two Wilson children are forced into savagely killing these dark duplicates. It comes at a point in which you can’t help but cheer them on because the things they are fighting seem like ruthless monsters.

There’s a scene though that still leaves me feeling uneasy. Upon entering into the house of their friends, the Wilson’s discover that their friends have been murdered by their respective counterparts. The Wilson parents get separated from their kids, and the kids are forced to fight ruthlessly to stay alive. At one point, Zora knocks out one of these juvenile counterparts and proceeds to bash her head in repeatedly with a golf-club. This scene felt several seconds too long. It intentionally did not fit the comedic, righteously violent mood. It felt as though a line was crossed and forced me to have to address something within myself. What at one moment was self-defense now felt like savage brutality. The family survives the incident and proceeds to drive off but not before weighing out their kill-count to each other to see who got to drive. It earned plenty of unconscious laughs. Peele’s comedy bleeds through this whole film and adds something important to it.

Peele, I think, exposes our moral masquerades. We, like the characters in “Us”, all wear masks that allow us to be who we want to be and to hide the parts of ourselves that we’d rather not have to reckon with. We can prominently display our cheery dispositions and conveniently store the things we dislike underground. Rather than face our own evil, we would rather bury it. Rather than weep over our sins, we would rather laugh them off. Peele’s humor in a similar way helps make the horror more palatable and ironically shields us from having to make moral evaluations of the “good” characters in this film.

The twist at the end of the film is the real kicker though. After Adelaide kills her counterpart (“Red”), Adelaide tells her son that everything is going to go back to normal. However, as the family drives off for what is to be a happy ending, it is revealed that when Adelaide and Red first saw each other as kids that Red forcibly switched places with Adelaide. Adelaide is unconscious of this fact up until this moment which leads us to believe that these two have been inextricably linked to the point of no longer being able to distinguish their own origin or identity. For the entirety of the film, who we thought to be good was in fact bad, and who we thought to be bad was maybe a little less bad. And this drives into question how we are to morally evaluate these counterparts if they do share the same soul as their respective originals. Since these two people share the same soul aren’t their actions coming from the same intention?

So what makes seeing ourselves so terrifying?

There’s a character in the film that stands out to me, however. Jason, the youngest in the Wilson family, appears to have the greatest self-awareness of the bunch and deals with his counterpart in a distinctly different way than the rest of his family. Each family member effectively murders their counterpart. But Jason realizes that he controls his counterpart (I personally think Jason was more in sync with his counterpart than anybody else hence his “lack of attention” and the mask he wears up-and-down throughout the film). Jason in a way realizes that he is his counterpart and leads him(self) into a fire to protect his family. Maybe it’s just the way he holds his arms up as he walks backwards, but to me this scene felt like a surrender of self rather than an attack on another.

Jason sees himself in a way that I am afraid to. I don’t want to see what’s under the mask, and I certainly don’t want to reckon with the evil within myself. I think what makes seeing ourselves so scary is that we see our inadequacies and immorality. We see what is lacking, or we see someone who knows what we know about ourselves- the sorts of things you’d rather just stuff away. Of course Jason is somewhat morally ambiguous as well, but what makes him distinct is that he sees himself honestly. One part of himself is holding the fire and another part of himself is being burned. There’s an honest conflict within Jason that is not occurring within the other characters of this film. And while the others are either fighting with or running from their shadow sides, there’s a very brief moment in which the truth of who he is exposed by just a little bit of light.

 

 

 

 

The Dust of Grace

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“…there are two ways through life, the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.
― Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life

There are two common roads. The road of despair and the road of presumption. One of self-defeat, the other of self-exertion. Both roads have quite different terrains but both lead in the same direction.

This season of Lent is a strange gift of exposure. In a world of a great divide of pessimists and optimists, of the despairing and determined, our clutch for control remains.

Humanity’s pursuit for self-defined worth and self-determined meaning is a noble but ultimately futile attempt at preserving control. And the ways in which we live in functional despair are the shadow side of this. Met with failure or disappointment, resigning to life’s hardship is simply another way in which we attempt to manage. If we can’t have things our way, at least we can give up on our own terms.

But both paths are opposite the way of grace.

The road of humility is a road covered in the dust of grace. It’s a reminder that we are from dust and to dust we shall return, and a reminder that life is fundamentally a gift.

This path is a tremendously difficult one as it asks us to pause before we go onward. To receive requires empty-handedness and a confession that we ultimately have nothing to offer. It requires us to kneel on whatever path we are on to confess we are lost and that we don’t have it in us to get wherever there is. And in that confession we sit in the dust of grace.

In the dust, we see our humanity, our sin, and our lack of control, but in the dust we are made receptive to grace.

This path of grace is strange. It isn’t one we pave ourselves but has rather been paved down to us. And so we are invited to follow in the way of Jesus who has met us in the dust, sustains us in love, and (as Bonhoeffer once said) bids us come and die.

Human Connection and the Pattern of Life in Netflix’s “Maniac”

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Is there any reason we should expect not to be alone?

Netflix’s “Maniac” (with Emma Stone and Jonah Hill) seems all about that question.

Human’s crave connection. We’ll do anything for it or an artificial form of it. Give us online video-games, and we will talk with strangers all over the world. Give us a good book and we will get connected with fictional characters. Construct a coffee-shop and we will go to it to sit near people even when we damn well know we can make our own coffee at home. At our core is a desire to be with and among people (yes even us introverts).

But what if this connection is illogical?

If the origin of the universe is chaos, should we expect to discover a pattern that may lead us to connection? Or what if as Owen (Hill) insists “our brains are just computers that make our life stories make sense”? Should we expect to find meaning in connection?

“You were the only one who knew all my stories. You are the only one who knew about mom.”

Every significant character in this show has faced grievous relational loss. Death, severance, romantic falling outs, abuse… all have felt the weight of a disrupt or deformity of relationship. And all the main character’s in “Maniac” have felt what it is to lose someone.

“Sometimes people leave and we don’t know why.”

The better part of half the show is watching these characters face life while trying to stuff that enigma in their back-pocket. All of them cope with something, with drugs, with despair, with masturbation, with their life’s work. Some want a fix, and some have conceded hopelessly to there not being a fix able to take their pain away.

But this show is eccentric. It has a whimsical humor to it that seems okay to exist alongside its profound melancholy.

“The pattern is the pattern.”

There are plenty of explanations for certain occurrences in the show, but at the same time, explanations aren’t good enough. Just because we can explain why something has occurred does not mean that we can give that something meaning. While two wires getting soldered together may explain why two people’s consciences temporarily interacted with each other’s, it does not tell those two what they are now to do given what has occurred… or why these two so coincidentally, so fortunately, so perfectly managed to have this happen to them.

An experiment started in the hopes of curing people’s pain once and for all, but no pain was cured. Yet in the process, connection was found for several of these lost and lonely people.  Connection doesn’t cure pain, but it does make it easier to live with. In a strange sort of way, the experiment worked, but not in the way that was intended.

Loss can make everything feel random and meaningless. Loneliness can compound our despair and make life seem fundamentally incoherent. But in “Maniac,” and in reality, human connection and re-connection is a critical part of the pattern.

We need people to know our losses. We need people to fight for us. We need people to help us cultivate hope. We need friends to help us make sense of all this.

“Annie, why are you here?” “Because I’m your friend. And that’s what friends do.”

Emptiness and Eternity

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I don’t want to feel empty. I don’t think any of us do. We all operate in some capacity to fulfill a lack within us. Whether it’s a lack of food, a lack of comfort, a lack of intimacy, whatever it may be, we run from the feeling of being empty.

In this world, those that have no need are those who are typically esteemed. Whether with money or sex or control, to face emptiness is to be weak. It’s hard-wired into me to run from my own emptiness and vulnerability. I would rather live with naive control than with the honesty of facing my own empty hands.

Jesus says in the Beatitudes that the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted will be met with an abundant answer to their emptiness in light of the Kingdom of God. The Christian life is an upside-down life where the empty, the destitute, the grieving, and spiritually bankrupt are told they will be blessed unlike those that think they are filled.

Life has always felt painful to me. I struggle every single day to believe in the hope Jesus provides and not because I don’t have a lot to be thankful for.

I sat in church today next to two friends who, both within the last week, lost someone close to them. They brought with them the emptiness of a lost loved one and shared that emptiness with us so that we could mourn with them. They offered us something very special: they offered us the hope that their emptiness (and ours too) would be filled someday in the light of Jesus. As mourners we embraced each other, and as those hungry for good news, we heard the good news preached. And as those starved for eternity and unity with our beloved, we feasted upon the bread and the wine.

Now I’m home, and I still feel the emptiness profoundly. It’s an ache I’m not expecting to go away anytime soon. But what I’ve tasted has a hold of me and sustains me and keeps me longing for more.

The Fear that Fuels Us

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I don’t have the sort of nightmares that most other people have. Instead of my dreams containing the horrors of monsters and murderers, my nightmares contain the dreadful terror of running late for a plane flight and showing up to a class not realizing that it’s the day of a midterm. A lot of my life is riddled with mundane fears and the anxiety of a certain loss of control.

Fear is a strange emotion. Unlike happiness or sadness, it is an emotion we often feel over something that has yet to even happen. I once read that “terror” is the anticipation of what we fear whereas “horror” is a result of what we fear, and both can seem to work in tandem. I have found that it can be easy to live in a vicious cycle of fear, caught in the vortex of anxiously trying to avoid what I am terrified of and reacting to the horrors of what I have already seen happen.

Fear can do weird things to us. It can cause us to live in a state of perpetual avoidance and anxiety. It can cause us to be chronically suspicious of certain people or groups. It can cause us to lose sleep, to act defensively, and to shut our doors. And it can also drive us to reactively rage against anything that may seem to be a potential threat to us, our family, or our tribe.

I’m convinced a large part of why we live in a culture of outrage is because we are deeply, deeply afraid.

We take to social media with our arguments and heated opinions because sometimes we find ourselves afraid that others don’t agree with the future we see to be the best. Other times, we take to it out of a fear of our own loneliness. We want retweets to know our voice means something. We want likes to know we are being heard because the alternative is too hard to stomach. What if we really are all alone and our voice doesn’t really matter?

We see it in our homes and without. A fear that we won’t be or aren’t loved. A fear that the outside world will corrupt us or hurt us. A fear that we won’t be able to provide for ourselves or our families. A fear that we are losing power or balance. A fear that we are insignificant. A fear that we will die alone. A fear that we have no control.

So many of these chronic fears breed anxiety and paranoia. Sometimes we may find ourselves afraid when we have no reason to be, or at very least we seek out something to dread because we’ve gotten so used to it. We are drawn to sensational news headlines and hit-pieces like a moth to flame because often times it fuels us or legitimizes our anxieties.

Sometimes our fears are reasonable, and other times they are not. Sometimes our fears are helpful for our own safety, and other times they are not.

If you’ve read this blog before you may know that I like particular sorts of horror films. As I watch them, I’ve begun to realize that the best horror films in the last couple years have been the ones which force you to sit in terror rather than constantly bombard you with horror. So often these films force you to feel the weight of everything the characters are experiencing in a way that often makes you forget the anxieties you are currently experiencing in reality. There is a build-up which is often met with a horrifying climax in the final sequences of the film. In this final moment of terror (and perhaps catharsis), all of your attention is directed at one thing. All of your senses and thoughts are forced to interact with one thing which so immediately presents itself and forces you to have to address it. All the mundane fears I have going on in the back of my mind seem to lose focus on the greater fear before me during those films.

Of course this doesn’t rid horror-goers of fear. All of us leave that self-contained place of approaching fear and go back home to the mundane and existential fears that tend to breath down our necks. A life without fear seems like an impossibility even for those who try to confront it.

John’s vision of Jesus in the book of Revelation (1:9-18) and the Transfiguration account in Matthew (17:1-12) have intrigued me lately. I’ve been curious to see how those present with Jesus react to him in his glorified state. In the Revelation account John sees a vision of Jesus beaming, radiant, and powerful, and as a response John collapses “as though dead.” Peter, James and John similarly see Jesus transfigured and then hear the voice of God and subsequently “fell on their faces” in fear.

We’ve been tuned to think that only things that are evil or destructive are things that we should fear. Despite knowing Jesus, John still fell in fear of him. He knows he is wholly good, that he is not evil at all… but he still collapses. In that moment, all of his attention was on him and he was overwhelmed by his holiness and power. In a moment of horror, he collapsed before someone infinitely more powerful and good than him.

Yet in that moment we see Jesus (unlike the axe-murderer or xenomorph or demon showing its ugly head and striking down a character in a horror film), in all his glory and power, reach down and touch him in kindness. Unlike H.P. Lovecraft’s monsters which drive humans to despair and insanity simply by being in their presence, we see Jesus touch his friends in their moment of ultimate horror and proceeds to tell them told not to fear.

To be met with kindness by someone with more power than ourselves is an unusual thing to our human sensibilities.

On one hand I think many of us moderns want to not have to fear anything because we want to be in control of as much as we can. But here it seems to me that Jesus is saying, “have no fear,” because he has ultimate control and power. As he proceeds to say, “I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” 

Often we tend to fear that which is out of our control or that which has more power than us. And sometimes we attempt to acquire control and power so that we can avoid the very fears that plague us. But here Jesus is saying that he has ultimate power and ultimate control, and thus deserves to be feared, yet, unlike so many of the things and people we meet in this world with a lot of power, he meets us with a gentle and merciful touch.

We can attempt to find enough control in our lives to suppress our fears, but we will always find ourselves fearful when the cracks over our own illusions of control begin to show. We can’t make our fears disappear completely on our own. Rather, in a paradoxical sort of way, the only resolution to our fears is by surrendering control over to one who has infinitely more power than us.

Fear doesn’t cast out fear because a bigger fear will always replace a lesser fear. Thankfully for us, the greatest thing we could possibly fear shows us that he loves us and tells us not to fear.