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In the Midst of Sundance

In the Midst of Sundance

Every January there is a big film festival in a little town. The Sundance Film Festival invades Park City, Utah, for 10 days of films, famous people and those looking to make it big. The films shown at Sundance are independent films that are known for controversy, creativity and just flat out telling it like it is.

The Old Testament uses the word ruach to refer to the spirit of God, and also means wind. If you think about it, that means the spirit of God and the wind are the exact same thing. The wind, as we all know, is everywhere. This would mean the spirit of God is everywhere. As Christians we like to think that the spirit of God is only in certain places. The Spirit is at church. The Spirit is with us. The Spirit is with our family. We often forget the spirit of God is everywhere.
There has been a forum taking place at Sundance for the past four years with its headquarters at the Mountain Vineyard Church. The Windrider Forum brings film students from Biola and Taylor Universities and graduate students from Fuller Theological Seminary together in an effort to “ride the wind” and see what God is up to in the midst of Sundance.

We would begin every morning with prayer and a two-hour class session with Dr. Craig Detweiler. Craig has a film degree from USC, as well as a Masters of Divinity from Fuller. After class we were on our own to be totally immersed in the Sundance experience. We waited in lines, rode shuttles, crammed in food stops, and watched a lot of films. It isn’t uncommon to have students at Sundance, but it is very uncommon to have Christians from a seminary there. People were often caught off-guard when their question as to what I was studying was answered with, “theology.” “What do films have anything to do with theology and God?” was a common question. The answer is simple: they have everything to do with each other.

Normally we take the Bible and use it to critique pop-culture and films. We’ll take a Bible story and make a film. If the ruach of God is everywhere then we can reverse this flow. We can look at pop-culture, watch films, and then ask the question, “where do we see God in this?”

We saw films that ask God some hard questions. Films about suicide, sex, war, racism, drugs, and immigration. Filmmakers asking the question, “Why is the world the way it is?” The characters and stories in the films want to know: Is life meaningless? Do we have a purpose? The Last Word is a comedy that deals with a dark subject: Suicide. It asks the question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” There is redemption when the lead character discovers the need for community. The documentary Traces of the Trade deals with a family in New England whose family was instrumental in the slave trade. It asks the question, “Am I responsible for the sins of my forefathers?” The Visitor (In Theatres April 11, 2008), a film dealing with immigration in the United States, paints a beautiful picture of the potential of the Kingdom of God. The characters come alive as they create space within themselves to have interactions beyond common racial boundaries. The film forces us to go beyond our simple answers for racism and freedom. No film has ever captured my attention so quickly as Young @ Heart (In theatres April 2008). This documentary follows a choir of senior citizens who sing songs by Coldplay, The Clash, and The Ramones. The film places value on those we have often neglected. The people in this film are claiming the “abundant life” that Jesus talks about.

Perhaps one of the most odd places I found God was in the question and answer section of a documentary called CSNY: Déjà vu. The film followed Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young on a recent tour they took to play music and protest the current war in Iraq. The Déjà vu part referenced the bands protest of the Vietnam War that began in the late ‘50’s and went to the mid ‘70’s. The film was obviously meant to provoke some sort of emotional response from each viewer. During the Q & A, someone from the audience announced out loud to Neil Young that he had lost someone in the war and that Young had no idea what he was talking about. At this the crowd ranted and jeered at the gentlemen, who had left the auditorium. Neil Young put a stop to the crowds’ negative response to the comment. He thanked him for his honesty and stated that we need to start conversations about what is going on in Iraq. I was amazed at the grace Neil Young showed to this gentleman. I was reminded that our God is big enough to take our complaints, justifies our feelings, and then thanks us with his grace.

Whenever I tell people I took a graduate school class at a film festival they often assume it must have been fun or easy. The truth is that this class was one of the most difficult, gut-wrenching classes I have ever taken. I am still processing my experience at Sundance and trying to figure out what my role is in each of thirteen films I crammed into five days. Every film draws you in and makes you ask where the ruach is leading. These films deal with big issues and big questions rather than relying on big entertainment and big budgets. These filmmakers are modern-day prophets. They have something to say about the world, and their films are their mouthpieces. They call attention to brokenness.

The next time you watch a film, ask yourself what the spirit of God is doing. When you cringe, when you cry, when you turn away, when you laugh, when you are speechless – could you be having an experience with divine? Could you be riding on the wind of God?

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