Philip Seymour Hoffman's Invaluable Gift: Revealing Our Humanity

Philip Seymour Hoffman at a football game in 2011, Debby Wong /

Philip Seymour Hoffman at a football game in 2011, Debby Wong /

Tom Junod of Esquire wrote an insightful piece about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman titled “ Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Final Secret: The cost of holding up a mirror to those who could barely stand to look at themselves .” The whole article is worth reading, but these words are especially important:

"There was no actor, in our time, who more ably suggested that each of us is the sum of our secrets … no actor who better let us know what he knew, which is that when each of us returns alone to our room, all bets are off. He used his approachability to play people who are unacceptable, especially to themselves; indeed, his whole career might be construed as a pre-emptive plea for forgiveness to those with the unfortunate job of cleaning up what he — and we — might leave behind."

In his roles, Hoffman played unacceptable, despicable, and broken characters. In other words, he played our cultural scapegoats. But the beauty of Hoffman’s work is that he humanized our scapegoats. Of course, his characters were unacceptable because they were guilty of being repellent jerks, underserving of love or sympathy, which is exactly why they made good scapegoats. The function of a scapegoat is to unite us in hatred against them, so the scapegoat who seems to us to be completely guilty, like a cartoon villain, the better sense of unity we can form against them. The best scapegoat is one who even agrees with us about just how terrible he is. As Junod writes, Hoffman “used his approachability to play people who are unacceptable, especially to themselves.”

What 'Frozen' Teaches us about Power, Privilege, and Community

Photo Courtesy of Disney

The queen of the kingdom of Arendelle, Elsa, was born with a special ability to manipulate ice. Photo Courtesy of Disney

Just as polar vortices sweep through America, Elsa, one of the main characters in the latest Disney princess movie, Frozen, unleashes her icy power in the fictional kingdom Arendelle, across theaters everywhere. In addition to delighting progressive audiences by satirizing Disney’s own trope of “marriage at first sight,” the story compels viewers, young and old, to find courage to be their true selves. The Oscar-nominated signature song, “Let It Go,” poignantly expresses the sentiment of letting go of fears, secret pains, and pretense. Fans of the song, from celebrities to little girls, have been belting the tune theatrically anywhere from kitchens to car rides to the Internet.

G.K. Chesterton says,

Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.

A good story is more than a pleasurable experience — it empowers us to live a changed life. Frozen is filled with beloved characters and catchy melodies, but also has much to teach us about power, privilege, and community.

The Prophets of Sundance

Dick Staub is author of “About You: Fully Human and Fully Alive.” Photo by Karen Mason-Blair. Via RNS.

In days of old, God used a burning bush to get Moses’ attention. Today’s prophets are often the truth-telling artists, singers, songwriters, and filmmakers whose modern version of “Thus sayeth the Lord” bursts forth in a stunning, sensual explosion of sight, sound, and touch.

They get our attention, and their prophetic word is visceral. It often goes beneath the rational radar and it can disturb more than it comforts. The annual Sundance Film Festival is like a tribe huddled around a campfire listening to the stories. These stories function like burning bushes, as prophetic calls to action. These films are meant not just to be watched, but to change us and, through us, to change the world.

Here are some of the messages I heard at Sundance 2014.

Walk a Mile in My Shoes

Still from 'Usoni.' Via the series' Facebook page.

Still from 'Usoni.' Via the series' Facebook page.

CNN reports on Usoni , a futuristic television drama produced in Kenya that is about reversed immigration. The show depicts Europe in 2063, where life has turned unlivable after a deadly series of natural and economic disasters.

Europeans are desperately seeking a way to get to a livable continent south of them: Africa. The hardships in making the trip are unfathomable, and once the immigrants arrive, they are unwelcome, harassed, and rejected. The story follows a young couple, Ophelia and Ulysse, who are seeking to make their way with their unborn child to the land of promise.

Yes, the comparisons today to those seeking to immigrate to Europe (with obvious parallels to America) are intentional. Marc Rigaudis, the Kenya-based French filmmaker who created the program, is making a point to help us walk in the shoes of those whom we know the Bible calls “aliens and strangers.”

The chilling trailer depicting people like me being treated as illegal immigrants is enough to make one’s hair stand on end.

Three Worlds Collide in 'Jerusalem,' the City and the Film

An IMAX camera films at the Western Wall. Photo: Nicolas Ruel, courtesy Jerusalem US LP/National Geographic Society/RNS

The old city of Jerusalem is smaller than one square mile. In 5,000 years of recorded human history there have been 180 conflicts around the city. It has been conquered 44 times, and completely destroyed twice. The story of conflict in this city is clearly not a new story.

When the producers of Jerusalem, a new movie for IMAX and other giant screen theaters, decided to approach the topic, they wanted to bring a fresh perspective to the long history.

“Jerusalem is a city in conflict,” said Taran Davies, one of the producers of Jerusalem, at a recent screening of the movie. “We wanted a new way to think about it. This [movie] is more a celebration.”

Gareth Higgins on Peace, Politics, and Our Nation's 'Cinematic States'

Courtesy of Burnside Books

'Cinematic States' explores fifty films that help define something about each state. Courtesy of Burnside Books

Lots of people like movies; Gareth Higgins loves movies. But the founding director of the Wild Goose Festival and long-time peace activist engages popular culture with a different eye than most of us. And he’s used that keen eye for deeper meaning to create his latest book.

I asked Gareth about his new book on American film, his peace work, and what it’s like considering American culture both as an insider and as a non-native. Here’s what he had to say.

Heartbreak and Hope in Miami

Flickr Photo by Tiffany L. Clark/Creative Commons

Jose Antonio Vargas Flickr Photo by Tiffany L. Clark/Creative Commons

Last week, I attended a screening of Documented, Jose Antonio Vargas’ film about his coming out as an undocumented immigrant after winning the Pulitzer Prize. His journey is honest, poignant, and humorous. A lesser subject would have cut some of the material showing the strain of the situation on his familial relations, but the film never flinches from the raw story.

I sat in on a panel discussion after the screening filled with members of an organization featured in the film, “DREAMers Moms.” I had a chance to speak with several of them, and one story stuck out in particular. One mom left her country for the good of her children so they would have hope of a positive future in the United States. She hasn’t seen her mother in 13 years and won’t until immigration reform is passed into law. If she leaves the U.S., it’s likely she wouldn’t be allowed to return and care for her children. This would leave them essentially orphans who would be placed into foster care. Her mother is now in her 80s, frail and sick. This woman is losing hope of ever again touching the woman who cared for her, but still prays daily for a miracle.

'Lost Faces of the Bible' Reconstructs Four Skeletal Remains Using Science, Forensics

Still photograph of “Lost Faces of the Bible” Title Graphic. Photo courtesy of AP Faces Ltd.

Many artistic renderings of biblical figures hang in churches and museums, but no one really knows what they and their contemporaries looked like.

Now, an international team of archeologists, forensic anthropologists, and facial reconstruction experts has tried to answer this question by recreating the faces of three adults and a newborn whose skeletal remains date back to biblical times.

A new four-part TV seriesLost Faces of the Bible (airing on the National Geographic Channel beginning Monday), follows the experts as they recreate long-gone faces utilizing the same state-of-the art technology used by police investigators.

Hollywood: Whitewashing the Bible

Russell Crowe as Noah. Courtesy © 2012 Paramount Pictures

Following the success of the History Channel's mini-series, The Bible, which appeared weekly last March, Hollywood seems to have renewed an avenue in which Biblical adaptations are allowed to enjoy a significant amount of limelight.

Two blockbuster titles are to set to be released in 2014: Paramount Picture's Noah and 21st Century Fox's Exodus. These two films both boast a star-studded cast as directors Darren Aronofsky and Ridley Scott hope to astonish audiences by combining stunning visualizations with two of the most popular accounts from the Old Testament, the Great Flood and the Exodus out of Egypt.

As a Christian and an avid movie-goer, I was thrilled to read that these two films were in production. However, once I saw the actors cast to play the leading roles in these two films, my excitement quickly turned to disdain. Not a single one of the leading roles in either movie was given to a person of Middle Eastern descent.