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Epic Theology

Finding God through the lens of an artist

Faith and Film: Star Wars – The Last Jedi

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Being a dad with young kids, my wife and I rarely get out to the theatre to see movies anymore. The planning needed and cost of babysitters has just made it easier to wait for the movies we want to see to come out on DVD or Blu-ray. But, for the last couple years, we have made a point of seeing the new Star Wars films in theatre because we believe that is how those films are meant to be enjoyed.

Last night, we were invited to Star Wars Episode VIII – The Last Jedi. I have been excited about this film since the first trailers showed up, and my excitement has only grown. This film franchise played a big part of my childhood (like many nerdy folks who have grown up since the 70’s). I was young enough when Episode I came out that Jar Jar Binks didn’t bother me. I played with the toys, watched the movies, played through the video games. I built LEGO starships and rocked a lightsaber like no one else. So, when the first brass blast played and the yellow STAR WARS started to scroll up the screen, I was instantly a child again. It was magnificent.

Now, as an adult, I think my appreciation for the movies has deepened. While they are, at their heart, stories of good vs evil, I can now see the deeper wrestling that goes on in many of the main characters. While the Light/Dark side battle plays out on a grand scale in the battle between the Rebels/Resistance and the Empire/First Order, we also see that same battle happen in the hearts of Luke, Anakin, Ben, and Rey. And it’s THIS battle, the internal, that I find so fascinating.

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I understand that there are a lot of people who are upset about the new direction that Rian Johnson took the Star Wars saga in, but I, for one, loved it. The Last Jedi, in contrast to many of its predecessors (especially the prequel trilogy), is very light on plot. The Resistance spends most of the movie running away in a straight line from the bafflingly large First Order Mega-Class Star Dreadnaught. The entire story takes only a few days. Instead, we get to dig deep into our characters and find out what they are really made of.

And this, my friends, is compelling. I’m sorry to break this to you, but we are all flawed. Though made in the image of God, we are fallen people with a disposition towards selfishness. And when others challenge that self-obsession, we can turn quite nasty. Inside, we have both the Light and the Dark. Each of us is capable of turning to good or evil.

But what The Last Jedi asks is this: can we really turn from our current situation? If we are stuck deep in things we shouldn’t be (addictions, harmful habits, crime, etc), can we actually turn to a different life and find redemption? If we are dedicated to helping others and serving God, are we able to fall into temptation and allow our “goodness” to become self-righteousness?

The answer to both is a resounding YES. 

No one is beyond redemption. Just as Darth Vader turns against the Emperor in Return of the Jedi, so too can we turn from our old ways of life to follow God’s intended plan for our lives. I’ve seen this in my own life. I was not in a good place when God found me again. But through His grace, I’ve been able to change who I am and become closer to the man I would like to be.

In the same vein, I also know that I am not totally free from the siren call of the Dark Side. Selfishness rears its head. Apathy sets in. I begin to care more about my own wants and desires than those of others. Compassion and altruism become just too hard. I fall.

But I get up again. 

It’s not an easy life. We are training for eternity. We have to run around with a metaphorical little green Jedi master on our backs through the swamps of life if we are going to grow. We need discipline and compassion. We need to know what God wants of us and how to rebel against the evils that threaten to take hold of our world.

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There are Christians who don’t like the idea of the rebels being the good guys because Adam and Eve were the first rebels and they rebelled against God. But I look at things differently. I see a world that is increasingly sympathetic to evil. A world that ignores horrific working conditions or class divides. A world that closes its eyes to sexual exploitation and dirty business practices. A world that encourages us to shut ourselves off from the mess that is other people and instead turn inward to our own happiness, propagating the idea that we can find happiness on our own.

This is what I rebel against. I rebel against hate, against injustice, and against apathy. It’s hard. It sometimes feels like I’m part of a tiny group who actually care. It feels like there is a giant dreadnought of consumerism that threatens everything I hold dear.

But I hold on to one idea, one theme that Star Wars hits over and over: Hope. 

Ultimately, God is bigger than the Empire or the First Order. He is bigger than hyper-individualism or rampant consumerism. And in the end, He wins. 

The Light wins.

This is one place where my beliefs contrast with that of the Star Wars universe. Balance between Light and Dark is not ideal. At the end of the day, Darkness will be defeated, not balanced. There will be a time where death and suffering and purposeless and conflict will be no more.

Until then, we keep up the fight.

Blessings

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Robots For the Win!

For those following the story, back in March I let you all know about a literary prize for those who write about faith in Canada. Then, in September, I was overjoyed to tell you that my story had made the shortlist for the Ross and Davis Mitchell Prize.

Guess what?!

The story won!

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My short story, “Saint 148,” was chosen as the first winner of the Ross and Davis Mitchell Prize at a gala in Toronto on October 30th!

I’m not going to lie to you, I was more than a little shocked.

You see, “Saint 148,” while ultimately an exploration of my own faith-fuelled wrestlings, sits firmly in the realm of science fiction. Science fiction is considered by those in the biz to be “genre fiction” (along with action, mystery, romance, fantasy, etc), and not literary fiction (those things that don’t fit nicely into those other categories). So, a story about a robot taking first place in a literary competition was highly unlikely. I was more excited to be shortlisted at all. I was hoping for a fun trip to Toronto, a nice evening, and maybe a solid second place at best.

Then they called by name.

I’ve only had a few moments in my life that have been completely stunning. The birth of my first-born was one. Seeing my wife come down the aisle at our wedding was another. Getting this announcement was up there.

It’s still surreal.

I’ve had interviews with the media, been approached by complete strangers offering congratulations, and had more people ask when the book will be published than I can shake a stick at.

But it still doesn’t seem real. I’m still the same. My writing is the same (although I do get some guff from my actors about being too protective of my words now…). My mission is the same. I’m still making art for God’s glory and the betterment of humanity.

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Photo taken on the night of the gala!

The award on my wall is nice, but I have to say, it doesn’t feel like I deserve any of it.

You see, God has been mind-blowingly generous to my family this year. To the point of Bri and I just throwing up our hands and saying “Thank You!” because we can’t make any sense of it. Other than our belief that we have a loving, generous God who has chosen this season to remind of of the fact.

But really, everything we’ve done, or “earned,” or won has been God’s doing. From the impetus to write, or the words he gives, to ensuring my story was rejected ten or twelve times in the past two years, to guiding the judges to their decision, God has done the heavy lifting. All I have done is follow His lead.

And I believe that is the artist’s job: to follow God’s lead in creation. We are co-creators, to be sure, but God is the Master, and we are the disciples.

So, thank you for celebrating this wonderful blessing with me. Here’s to another year of awesome creation and the knowledge of God’s unfailing faithfulness to us.

Blessings,

Blessing Artists

Hello there,

For those who haven’t been keeping up with our recent developments, I am now licensed as a chaplain (and as Director of Art and Story) with the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada.  My first official event happened last night, and boy did God show up in cool ways.

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Look what just showed up in my inbox!

Val Lieske, with Fire Exit Theatre, has had a dream for Calgary’s arts community for quite some time: A night of blessing for our artists, where we share a vision of God’s love and pray for the upcoming theatre and artistic season. I caught this dream and had the honour and pleasure of joining Fire Exit at last night’s The Blessing of the Artists.

We had no idea what was going to happen. Val planned a short program of music, poetry, and drama. I was going to share about my new position as chaplain. We were going to offer blessings, and then eat some pie. It sounded great on paper, but as with any new venture, we had no idea if anyone would even show up. To make matters worse, God had the sense of humour to blanket Calgary in a snowstorm yesterday morning and afternoon, diminishing the incentive for artists to leave their nice, warm homes to ask God for His blessing.

But, people showed up! We had somewhere between 40 and 50 artists make their way to the Lantern Community Church in Inglewood. More than half of these people came to the front for an anointing at the end of the program! 20 artists (plus 6 who were involved in the event) came forward for an individual blessing!

This was an incredibly moving experience for me. I got to look into people’s eyes and tell them that God not only loved them, but made them for a purpose. A purpose that can be hard and draining and lovely and thrilling. Best of all, He gave them personalized gifts of creativity and now walks alongside them as they try to figure out the best way to use those gifts.

Tears abounded. Hugs were handed out. Seven pies were eaten.

To be a part of this interaction between our artists and our God humbled and excited me. I was full of God’s love for a people who can often feel their brokenness so much easier and deeper than others do. And now, I have an even stronger desire to serve my fellow artists in whatever way I can.

So, to Val and Fire Exit Theatre, thank you for letting me be part of this awe-inspiring event. To Tim, a brother and mentor of mine, it was an honour to serve alongside you. To Calgary’s artists, God loves you beyond anything we’ve ever known.

Let’s journey together.

Blessings,

Shortlisted for a Literary Prize!

Even MORE exciting news!

Some of you might remember, a few months ago I wrote about a great opportunity for writers of faith. Cardus, a Canadian think-tank, organized the Ross and Davis Mitchell Prize for Faith and Writing, a contest for Canadian writers who write about the subject of faith. With $25000 and publication on the line, it seemed like a chance too big to let pass. So, in addition to encouraging our readers to apply, I sent in a short story myself.

And now, I’m happy to announce that I’ve been shortlisted for the prize! I am one of five short story authors who will be published (along with five poets) in an anthology next year. We will also be meeting in Toronto for a gala on October 30th where we will find out who walks away with the $10000 first prize or $2500 second prize (per category). We will also get to hear from Canada’s Parliamentary Poet Laureate, George Elliott Clarke, and the former president of PEN Canada and President and Vice-Principal of St. Michael’s College, Randy Boyagoda. It should be quite the night!

This is an incredible honour and I’m overwhelmed that my story about a plucky little robot was chosen by the judges. God has brought such a deluge of new and exciting blessings that I am constantly in awe of the breadth of his imagination. Though we were still incredibly blessed before we got Rome and the new job and this prize shortlist, this season has just been exceptional.

If anyone is interested in more information on the award, the other shortlist nominees, please check out this site. You can also read all of our stories/poems there, which I’m currently in the middle of doing.

Thanks for all the support I’ve received from my friends, family, coworkers, and loved ones. I will update you all with the results as soon as I get back from Toronto on October 31st. Wish me luck!

Blessings

Thoughts from Rome

Hello everyone,

For those unaware, my wife and I just returned from a trip to Italy and England. We started with a couple days in Florence, followed by 5 days in Rome, and 2 days in London on the way home. It was meant to be part relaxing retreat, part whirlwind adventure. Yet, God invaded in so many ways that I just had to share some of them with you.

unnamed.jpgOur hotel in Florence was less than a block away from the Florentine cathedral, Il Duomo. We just don’t have buildings like this in Calgary. The dome is visible from across the city, and when you first enter the piazza it’s in, there is a moment of complete awe. Tourists everywhere are stopped mid-stride, fumbling with cameras to capture its majesty. It dominated our entire stay in Florence. We ate breakfast while gazing up at its marvellous architecture. We climbed to the top of its bell tower and descended to the depths of its crypts. Such a piece of beauty, built for the glory of God, nearly drove me to my knees many times.

unnamed-1.jpgAcross the street from the Duomo is the equally green/pink Baptistry. This was our second “wow” moment. The entire ceiling is a mosaic of biblical history. We spent so long piecing together each of the stories captured in the artwork that our necks started to hurt. The fact that art was considered so important, for its beauty and its teaching ability, is encouraging for those of us who live in a culture where art is considered a secondary or tertiary concern at best. If God could convince the Florentine people that art was important, I’m sure He can do it again in Canada.

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Rome itself is a masterpiece of majesty. Thousands of years of history, pre-Christian, Renaissance, and modern, come together to create a city that seems entirely timeless. We ate dinner at a cafe across the street from unmarked ruins. We touched the arch commemorating the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. We rowed boats across a pond around an 18th century “temple” to the god of medicine. I was forced to contemplate the smallness of my own life. How billions of people have lived and died before I was even born. As we are reminded at Ash Wednesday, I am dust, and to dust I shall return. Yet, while I am here, it is possible for me to leave such a relic of legacy that may be remembered for thousands of years to come. If so, may that legacy be one that points to the glory of God, not the glory of Brandon.

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Also, we found Cogsworth and Lumiere at a theatre in Rome

We spend most of one of our days in the Vatican City, which, as someone raised Catholic, was a profoundly moving experience for me. St. Peter’s Cathedral is a monument to God’s glory and the witness of His saints. The Sistine Chapel is a masterpiece that tells the story of Michelangelo as clearly as it tells the story of the Bible. The depiction of Christ at the Last Judgement struck deeply into my heart and forces me to wrestle with the common view of Christ as our buddy and companion. He is also our Coming King who will judge all the earth. That is the power of good art.

Finally, London reminded me of the power of my own art form: theatre. We saw two shows on the West End, and both proved incredibly powerful. The first, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Queen Anne, took us on a journey of devotion and betrayal, of love and loss and the futility of selfish ambition. While we knew little of the political environs of the play (and it was rather political), the RSC was able to take us on an emotional ride that captured my heart for several hours.

Our second show, Mischief Theatre’s  The Comedy About a Bank Robbery brilliantly showed what is possible when one takes the time to work a script until it shines like gold. Not a moment of this show was anything less than smart, funny, or impressive. My wife and I spent the rest of the evening (and much of the next few days) discussing how well done the play was, how sharp the script and committed the actors. It has inspired me to step up my writing moving forward.

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I have so many more thoughts (about Christian appropriation of ancient sites of worship, about the importance of majestic churches, about the need for adventure to shake up our ordinary), but after more than a week of art galleries, churches, ruins, and theatre, I am most struck by how great was the God of the masters of the Renaissance. His buildings dominated the cities they sat in. His story inspired the best artists to create their best work. The art and architecture still stands, centuries later, inspiring devotion and worship. Though my art is not as impressive, I am inspired to put just as much of myself into what I create. Whether for myself or the church, I want to send a message to those who encounter something I’ve created: This is my God; there is no other, and He reigns over all.

Blessings

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