Going “Beyond the Lights” isn’t easy

“I get to stand here on behalf of people who have proven that it’s possible to start over…I’ve talked to people in the moment they make the decision to live. Now they have to make that decision every day.”

– Jamie Tworkowski founder of To Write Love on Her Arms

When “Beyond the Lights,” Gina Prince-Bythewood’s behind-the-flashbulbs look at the music industry, opens we meet a young, fresh-faced Noni. She is impossibly adorable but brings a river of sweet, simple emotion to her talent show stage. She pulls you in. How did this young Noni attach her life to Nina Simone’s haunting “Blackbird”? At this point maybe it’s a representation of the life her mother has led, a vision for the life her mother is protecting her from, but ultimately pushes her towards.

'Beyond the Lights' is a romance that asks, 'Can this celebrity be saved?'

In, perhaps, the most informative scene in the movie our eyes travel through a jump cut from sweet, emotional, young Noni quickly to a barely clothed, dark make-up wearing, Rhianna-esque version of adult Noni. The shock of the jump is arresting. Our sweet Noni is now grinding on a camera. Very quickly the film has you asking how much of this image is Noni, how much of it does Noni want?

Part of the beauty of “Beyond the Lights” is that the characters are complex. Noni is this enigma caught in a battle to let her voice be heard from under the stifling visage that has been created for her. Kaz is also fighting to find his own voice apart from the one his father thinks he should have. He’s educated, attractive, and obviously a restorer, a hero. Even Noni’s mother is a jumbled mess of striving to provide and exploiting for gain.

There are no easy answers in the film. In fact, it creates more questions. When Noni starts to turn it all around and be herself, it is still difficult to be happy for her because I’m not sure her actual voice will sell. There is the conundrum “Beyond the Lights” creates. It’s actually the conundrum most of our popular media creates. It’s a conundrum that has formed some of the biggest, most controversial acts that we have. It’s what turns Hannah into Miley.

So does it matter that Noni finds her voice if simultaneously she stops being relevant? Will continuing to feed into the hip-hop machine drive her to more and more self-destructive behavior? Then what good would her voice be? A question I’m sure many of us ask on our way to discovering any measure of positive self-esteem, but particularly important as a woman in a landscape that consistently puts her thoughts and opinions on the back burner.


Does anyone really want Noni because of who she is and not because of the fantasy her image creates? Many of her fans in the film identified her by the male rapper she was dating. Say she moves on to a more real love, but it’s with a man who is destined for politics like Kaz. Does she stop being identified by the man in her life then? Can you start to see the rock and the hard place she finds herself between? If Noni didn’t fully relate to “Blackbird” by the beginning of the film, she definitely does by the end.

“So why you wanna fly Blackbird you ain’t ever gonna fly. You ain’t got no one to hold you, you ain’t got no one to care. If you’d only understand, dear, nobody wants you anywhere. So why you wanna fly Blackbird, you ain’t ever gonna fly.”

“Beyond the Lights” may be a call to form healthy, affirmative community in your life. Do you have people that know you beyond your snapchats and tweets? Do you have people that can affirm the person God created you to be, that can build you up even if it involves brutal honesty? This film is a stunning portrayal of the state of pop culture, but also the struggle it can be to find out who you are and from what platform your voice should ring. This week at IUP several students were asking these questions of value and what power their voice holds. Four organizations got together and held a poetry event called, “Black Lives Matter.” I will share with you a performance from that night of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird.”

Don’t forget, if you’d like to rent this movie here is a gift card to do that with (6095412881883568 pin 61478411).

“Belle”: Race and Gender in 18th Century England and Everywhere Today

This week the 87th Academy Awards were celebrated, though, I am beginning a new series with this post assuming that some artists and performers left the ceremony feeling less than celebrated. So I offer to the conversation a celebration of some films from this year that you should see and probably didn’t. This is my celebration of films that were important, complex, emotional, and told the story of our current world through their unique narratives. They also, all happen to be directed by black artists (black female directors in two of the films) and starred black performers. I refuse to categorize them as “black cinema” because their perspective and talent should be seen as a part of and representative of the entire art of cinema. If you make it to the end of this article you will also find a challenge and a gesture that I pray will show even more how much I believe in these films as influential entries into the art I am so passionate about.


Up first in this series, is “Belle,” a period piece based on the true story of Dido, a mixed race daughter of an 18th century British Royal Navy captain, who is raised by her aristocratic grandparents in the tensions of race, family, status, and tradition. As Dr. Chistena Cleveland, a social psychologist, author, speaker, and professor of reconciliation studies at Bethel University in St. Paul, MN, recently said in a panel discussion on racial reconciliation, “If you have grown up in an oppressed group then the image of God in you has been dishonored. There is no group where this is more accurate than black women.” I normally watch a period piece and scoff at how ridiculous and uncomfortable the outfits and customs are. With “Belle,” what is most uncomfortable may be that, even though Dido has escaped an impoverished life lacking all privilege because of her race, she cannot escape the dishonoring of her image of God due to her gender.

I would love to watch this movie from a place where the short-sighted, ignorant social status Dido finds herself in would be laughably ridiculous. Rather, we watch this movie through the quotes and experiences of millennial, black women still fighting against the lie that their position as God’s image-bearers are somehow less than that of their male peers. There is a striking conversation in the film between Dido and her white cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, where Elizabeth is faced with the potential of a hopeless life because she has no inheritance and may not marry into money.

“Aren’t you quietly relieved that you shan’t be at the caprice of some silly sir and his fortune? The rest of us haven’t a choice. Not a chance of inheritance if we have brothers, and forbidden from any activity that allows us to support ourselves. We are but their property.”

Read that quote again. This is the heartbreaking lie. So much of “Belle” revolves around the value of a person and should raise questions for how we look at any of the people in our lives. Do you see your peers as image-bearers? Because Dido and Elizabeth and my wife and my mom and my sister and my female colleagues and the female college students I interact with every day are reflections of their own significant part of the image of God they deserve to live a life of value that is not based on the achievements of men. They deserve relationships that are based on a God-honoring love, love that is not measured by how much they offer up. Their worth is not counted in sexual favors but their position in the eyes of our generous Creator, which is an extravagant and significant sum.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw Sarah Gadon

My prayer is that this was enough to raise questions for you, to inspire a curiosity to visit this film. I want you to watch this film and the others I will be celebrating in the coming weeks.  I want you to gather friends to watch it with you, to start valuable conversations, and to see the value of yourselves and the work of these artists.

Upcoming posts: “Beyond the Lights” and “Dear White People”

Lent: An Invitation to Fearlessness

For you are dust 

And to dust you shall return

In some ways these words may seem like a somber and even punitive statement.  Perhaps a bitter pronouncement of the imminence of death and mortality.  In other ways, it is very possible to find comfort and assurance in these words.  For God to say that we are dust means He knows what we are made of, and He knows our destinies.

Ash Wednesday commences the liturgical season of Lent, a time of fasting and repentance, 40 says of living with the reality of our sinfulness and preparing to receive the resurrection.  It is a season that asks us to engage in reflection and self-assessment.  A time to ask the Spirit to reveal those parts of our hearts and minds that are trapped in darkness, mired in failure and affliction and destruction.  No one would ever call Lent a pleasant or comfortable season.  It can actually be quite frightening to confront the depths of our own hearts with unflinching honesty.  It’s much easier to stay on the surface of what we know and what we can manage.  Yet Christ asks more than that because He desires to offer more than shallow platitudes and attractive exteriors.

palms and ashes

To experience the freedom of Christ we much first come face to face with our bondage.  This is not a pursuit we engage alone, because the human heart is capable of great depravity and suffering.  Rather, we ask Christ to shine His light into the dark recesses within us, knowing that we need not fear what He will find there.  We have nothing to fear because Christ is unafraid of what will be revealed.  There is no past sin or on-going destructive impulses that can shock or surprise the Lord.  No extent of failure or inadequacy that can make Him turn away.  No depth of wound and sorrow that can confound His ability to bind up and heal.  No losing battle with depression and anxiety that He cannot win.  Nothing that can separate us from the love of God or cause Him to rescind our adoption as sons and daughters.  Nothing to fear.

Lent affords the opportunity to invite the Spirit into our inner unknown, resting in the assurance that God knows what we are made of.  Let us repent and turn before our Savior, safe in the knowledge that Christ has already confronted every darkness that lies in the human heart and nailed it to the cross.  We can bare everything within us that leads to death and decay, knowing that death will never be the final word and we will be raised to new life with Christ is His resurrection.

Created #LikeAGirl


I once asked a male friend, “Do you think you’re more in the image of God than me because you’re a male?”  He seemed unsure of himself and uneasy, but his kneejerk reaction was, “Yes. God is male and so am I.”  I spent several years wrestling with whether or not that was true, and trying desperately to see myself reflected in the Trinity and in the Church.  Did God want me to be a vibrant part of His body?  Are women meant to be equal co-laborers with men or are we really just the runners-up behind the MVP?

In an attempt to help a male loved one understand what I was struggling with, I asked him to consider a role reversal.  Imagine that God has always described herself as “God the Mother”, and Eve was created first and then Adam as her helper.  Imagine that it was Adam who ate the fruit and tempted Eve to join him in his sin.  Then God chose the matriarchs and made a covenant with Sarah to make her descendents more numerous than the stars.  The Old Testament is predominantly about women with occasional references to their husbands.  There is a period of great prosperity under the monarchy of the queens, and God speaks through the prophetesses.  The Messiah comes in the form of a woman and she has 12 female disciples.  The apostle Pauline writes the majority of the New Testament and instructs that men are to be silent in church and she permits no man to have authority over a woman, but they will be saved through procreation.  How do you as a man feel in that world?  Do you feel like you are an important and desired member of that community?

After wondering for a long time whether God really did want women to be subservient and silent, a friend said something that changed everything.  “I think Satan hates the Gospel first, and he hates women second.”  What if it isn’t God that hates me, but Satan?


According to the ESV study Bible, contemporary Ancient Near Eastern creation myths only tell of the creation of man, not woman.  The Bible is the only sacred manuscript that spends time telling the origin story of woman.  In Satan’s retelling of how the world came to be, he attempts to erase Eve from the narrative. God on the other hand, makes sure His daughters know where they came from and that He created them on purpose.

When we think about Satan deciding to tempt Eve first, historically Eve has been blamed and maligned for being weak and foolish.  He went after her because she was easily swayed and an easy target.  First of all, it’s important to note that the text makes it clear that Adam and Eve were together at the time (Gen. 3:6), both were part of the conversation and shared equal responsibility for the decision that they made.  Then if we think about a basic strategy for influencing a group, one would not start by attacking the weakest link.  If one takes out the weak link, the strong one that is left would be unaffected.  (“So what? I didn’t care what that person thought anyway.”)  I think that instead, Satan targeted Eve because he knew that she had influence with Adam.  He rightly knew that if he could get her, he could get both of them.  Eve wasn’t weak, she was important.

wisdom2-e1281804850921 Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly

I think we can find this idea reinforced in the book of Proverbs.  Solomon talks about two kinds of women, Lady Wisdom (Prov. 1:20-33) and Lady Folly (Prov. 9:13-18).  They are described metaphorically as well as literally.  They each show that women have crucial influence with men and in the world.  The kind of woman that a man aligns himself with will strongly impact the kind of life he lives.  Unfortunately we know that Eve encompassed both sides of these women.  She began as Lady Wisdom, and exerted her influence towards a path of folly.  I think the message we see is not that women are silly and empty-headed.  The message is that women need to take care to pursue wisdom from the Lord because our actions have power in God’s world.

There are several points I can make on this topic.  For now I’ll conclude with the idea that Satan is threatened by Eve in a unique way and he thrives whenever she is silent and powerless.  God endowed Eve with half of his image when He made her able to create life.  God is the creator of all things, and women reflect God’s loving creativity in our ability to bring new life into the world.  Satan is extremely uncreative and can’t generate anything original; he can only twist something that God already made.  All of his lies are distortions of the truth and are based on something that already exists.  One of several examples of this can be seen when Satan is tempting Jesus in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-14).  The best he can do is to misapply God’s words from scripture, he has no original thoughts.  Eve therefore can do the one thing that Satan cannot: bring something into the world that has never been before.  And that drives Satan nuts.

In cultures where women thrive and have a meaningful role in society, those communities enjoy innovation and prosperity.  In cultures where women are most oppressed and voiceless, the whole community is impaired and progress is minimal.  I do not wish to say that women are better than men or inherently less sinful than men.  I think we share equal depravity along with an equal measure of God’s image.  My hope is to put this forth as a corrective to centuries of blame and shame placed on women to justify mistreatment as their “punishment” for causing the Fall.  I hope that we will seize opportunities to see women reflected in God’s Word and in the Church, and together will mirror our wonderful Creator for the flourishing of all things.