The SPU Voices Podcast

Inside Voices: “Let’s all go to the movies,” with Jeffrey Overstreet

Recognized in The New Yorker, TIME, The Seattle Times, Image, and Christianity Today for his writing on cinema, Jeffrey Overstreet, an Assistant Professor of English and writing at Seattle Pacific University, teaches creative writing, English literature, academic writing, and film studies. He earned both his bachelor's degree in English literature and his master of fine arts in creative writing from SPU.

Overstreet is the author of five books. His “memoir of dangerous moviegoing,” Through a Screen Darkly (Baker Books Books 2007), has become a popular textbook in classes on film, faith, and artistic engagement. His four novels — Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast — have been translated into French, German, and Dutch.

Traveling internationally, he has presented lectures and hosted workshops on faith, art, creative writing, and film interpretation. A prolific blogger and arts critic (he has contributed more than one hundred film-focused essays and interviews with artists to Image, and served as the senior film critic at Christianity Today), he blogs at LookingCloser.org.

Jeffrey and his wife, a published poet, are active members of the Chrysostom Society. Together they served as writers-in-residence at Covenant College in 2013.

Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices Podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. Today, we sat down with Jeffrey Overstreet. He’s recognized in magazines, from Christianity Today to The New Yorker, for his writing on cinema. He’s an assistant professor for English and writing at Seattle Pacific University.

It’s not just his books that cross borders. He’s taught in Houston Baptist University’s graduate apologetics program and Covenant College’s creative writing classes. He has lectured on faith and film in Santa Fe, Calgary, New York and the Netherlands. And before you choose your next movie, check out his blogs at lookingcloser.org.

I’ve known Jeff for gulp, decades, and I can honestly tell you he has never steered me wrong. Jeff, thank you for joining us today.

Jeffrey Overstreet: It’s a privilege and a pleasure. Thank you.

Amanda: Well, let’s start at the beginning of all of this. Where do you think your overwhelming love of story comes from?

Jeffrey: Well, it comes from my parents, both of whom graduated from Seattle Pacific. They studied education here and became teachers. My father taught high school students on the subject of Bible and Bible history at Portland Christian Schools, and my mother was a preschool teacher. I grew up, let’s see, just really paying attention to whatever they gave their attention to. And my father loved books, and he would sit by the fireplace every evening and just read for hours.

And I think something clicked. I was like, “OK, if I’m going to get more of dad’s attention, I need to make books.” And my mom was teaching me to read and just delighting in anything I learned about writing. And so pretty soon, I started copying my favorite storybooks, painstakingly copying the text, and then illustrating them with pictures and binding these little books together at the ages of 5, 6, and 7. I even wrote my own little endorsements on the backs of the books, because I wanted them to look like real books. So, there’s nothing like having a self-endorsement on the back of your first-

Amanda: So you were your own best critic then, as a child?

Jeffrey: Right? So I was just sort of enamored of the whole bookmaking process, the whole storytelling process. And my mother would bring home these long-playing Disney records, sort of as rewards for me. And I had a little Mickey Mouse turntable, and I just loved how stories would come to life with the voices and the songs. And then if I remember right, they would say, “And when Tinkerbell rings her little bells, turn the page.” And that whole process, I was like, “OK, and now I have to make recordings of my own books, too.”

So I was just so caught up in the love of not just storytelling, but all of the sensory extras of the pictures and the sounds and the whole production process. And my grandparents got very interested in this. When they saw that I was interested in making puppets, my grandfather, who was a carpenter who built houses all over Portland, Oregon, built me a puppet stage that my father recently converted into a writing desk. So I still have that puppet stage. So that’s where it started.

But I also became fascinated with the sort of shared territory of the very sort of didactic lesson, heavy storytelling that I experienced in Sunday school, where there was always a moral to the story. And the just sometimes absurd sense of play in what I was reading, whether it was Dr. Seuss or A.A. Milne or whatever, and I think that constant attention to the seeming disorder that happens in a story, like say, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, where the 100-Acre Wood gets wiped out by a storm. And then the acts of attention and generosity and grace that enable the creation of something new and even better than what was there before. Like when Piglet gives his house to Owl after that storm in the 100-Acre Wood, and somehow everything is better than before.

That whole discipline of making stories, attending to stories, and then the exercise of entertaining disruption and chaos, which can inspire fear, but then soldiering on with faith in storytelling, that while disruptions happen and tragedies happen, grace can bring amazing things out of that. And so I think, I mean, while I wasn’t thinking so philosophically at that young age, that’s what was going on. Those were the muscles that I was exercising, thanks to the loving teaching and faithfulness of my parents.

Jeffrey Overstreet teaching | photo by Dan Sheehan

Amanda: And I will say that I share that same love of story that comes from very early childhood. Even though you wouldn’t have been able to talk about it as such as a child, but recognizing those stories that are so deep within our humanity, that they make sense to all ages. I think those are some of the children’s books that stand the test of time, like Winnie the Pooh. My favorite Winnie the Pooh quote of all time, something very sad had happened, and Winnie the Pooh turns to Piglet and says, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

Jeffrey: Wow.

Amanda: And I mean, I’m 47 and that touches my heart and makes me stop and think. And so it’s like, if there is truth that deep and rich embedded in a story that a child can understand and enjoy, that’s what story is all about.

Jeffrey: Oh yeah. Madeleine L’Engle, who wrote A Wrinkle in Time, said that, “If a concept is too difficult for adults, then you write it as a story for children.”

Amanda: Oh, love it.

Jeffrey: And I love that. I sometimes think adults should be spending a lot more time with L’Engle’s children’s stories; this may be especially now.

Amanda: Right. Right. I think there’s times where literature tries to be deep, and if that is your goal, I think you’ve already failed.

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Amanda: It has to come from a deep within you, and then it doesn’t need to appear deep at all to actually be that way. But anyway, all that to say, I absolutely share your love and rich history with story. And I do, I want to talk about your books and I want to talk about your teaching career, but let’s jump a little bit to the juicy stuff, to the movie reviews, to go on junkets and meeting those stars. How did you start doing movie reviews?

Jeffrey: Some kids kept diaries, I wrote little magazines as a kid where I reviewed everything I read. And that was because growing up in a very, very strictly conservative Baptist Christian community, that particular community in Portland, saw movies as evil, saw popular music as evil, saw anything that wasn’t branded Christian as evil. And yet because of those Disney records, I was just drawn to the promising and appealing and strange and fantastical stories that were represented by movie posters that appeared in the Friday Oregonian newspaper. And so I started reading those reviews because that’s how I could get close to the movies I wasn’t allowed to see.

“I wrote little magazines as a kid where I reviewed everything I read.”

And I just sort of became fascinated with the language of reviewing. And so I have drawers full of these little magazines I made when I was a kid. I think for a while, they were called Dragon Star Magazine. And they’re full of reviews of Amy Grant records and The Lord of the Rings, and even my own stories, which just kind of makes me sick to my stomach to think about that.

But I became so interested in both the storytelling process and then the interpretation process. And I remember a high school history teacher was talking to me at one of our high school basketball games one time. And he said, “Well, you seem to have this split interest in art making and in art criticism. And I should probably encourage you that you should probably choose the one you feel most strongly about, because very few people do both. And if they try, they do both badly.” And I remember having a visceral reaction to that thinking, “No, I am going to do both. C.S. Lewis did both, Tolkien did both, Madeleine L’Engle did both.” So when I got to SPU as a freshmen, one of the first things I did was find out what I’d need to do to start writing movie and music reviews for The Falcon. And so that’s where my reviewing, I don’t know if you want to call it a career, started.

Then when I graduated from SPU, I really missed the experience I had at SPU over and over again, of sitting around a table with intelligent people and great professors and taking apart a text and talking about how it worked and how was it able to have such power over our imaginations? I couldn’t find a community of thoughtful Christians who were reading ambitious novels online. This was the early days of online. I don’t think I would have trouble with that now. But I could find lonely Christians around the world who couldn’t find other Christians in their churches who wanted to take movies seriously as a form of art.

“I could find lonely Christians around the world who couldn’t find other Christians in their churches who wanted to take movies seriously as a form of art.”

So I started publishing movie reviews for them, and we found each other and that community has just flourished. So many of my closest friends now are people I met online who were lonely movie lovers in churches around the world in the late 90s. And as people were starting to build their own websites, I started posting my reviews online and somehow people found them.

A few years later, I got a call from Christianity Today, which was exciting for me because that was the only magazine that my dad ever subscribed to, the only magazine we had in our house as I was growing up, except for my mom’s Good Housekeeping. They said, “Would you do for us what you’re doing on your website, and we’ll pay you?” And my jaw hit the floor. And that was the beginning of 10 years of almost weekly writing about movies for Christianity Today in the early 2000s.

During that time, Hollywood was starting to notice that Christians were a potential market. And so they started pitching movies to Christian media and inviting Christian movie reviewers to join these big fancy junkets in Los Angeles and New York, where they would put us up in the Four Seasons Hotel, in a suite that’s better than any I have ever stayed in for any occasion. They would just put these incredible buffets in front of us. They would treat us like kings and queens, in the hopes that this would influence our reviews of the movies. And I was strict about that. I was going to be honest, and I was going to turn in a good review.

But part of that circuit, for the several years I was involved in that, was the chance to meet, sometimes one-on-one, sometimes with small round tables of journalists, with some of the biggest movie stars, the biggest movie makers. So I got to meet and spend 7 1/2 hours interviewing the cast and the crew of the Lord of the Rings movies, when The Return of the King came out. I could tell stories about that for hours. The TV show, Firefly, and Joss Whedon, I sat down with Michael Caine and Robert Duvall, a very young Shia LaBeouf.

But my favorite interviews tended to be the film makers. I remember interviewing Andrew Stanton when Finding Nemo came out. No, I’m sorry. When Wall-E came out. And he started the interview by saying that he was excited to talk to me, because he had been reading my movie going memoir, Through a Screen Darkly, in the last 6 months of post-production on Wall-E. And I just couldn’t believe it; I think I burst into tears. Interviewing the German filmmaker, Wim Wenders, who made the film, Wings of Desire, was a big deal for me.

“I got to meet and spend 7 1/2 hours interviewing the cast and the crew of the Lord of the Rings movies.”

But frankly, it’s been interviews with musicians, where I have found the deepest thinking, the most rewarding insights on faith and art making. Interviewing Linford Detweiler and Karen Bergquist of Over the Rhine, several times over the years, about their complicated relationship with faith and art. Interviewing my hero, Sam Phillips, who started as a Christian pop star named Leslie Phillips. And then in order to write and perform songs about doubt and searching and the struggles of faith, had to change her name and “go secular.” She changed my life with her brave, fearless faith and her incredible art making.

And so when Image Journal gave her the Denise Levertov Award several years ago for being a pioneering artist of faith, they asked me if I would interview her. And I can’t tell you, that that may be one of the two or three high points of my life, to get to sit on stage next to my favorite rock star and walk through her career and ask her all the questions I’d been thinking about for 20, almost 30 years. And now we’re friends and we correspond, and that’s just one of the great blessings of my life.

Amanda: Okay. I could dig back into the movie stars and whatnot, but I have to go back to your growing up and what you just explained. This battle between faith and art, which doesn’t seem like it should be a battle, it seems like it should be a marriage. And yet, for so many of us, it was this battle. And you talk about growing up with this undying love for movies in a household where you weren’t allowed to watch movies and wanting possibly more time with your father who loved reading, so you decided to write versus writing off your father.

Can you just talk a little bit about what that trying to look on the bright side all the way through that? Instead of saying, “My family won’t let me be an artist, therefore, I will leave my family,” deciding to be an artist within that family.

Jeffrey: Well, I want to be careful … Let’s talk about family in the terms of that particular church community. My parents did nothing but throw fuel on the fire of my desire to be creative. And they encouraged me to read anything. And I think it was more just a quality of the community that we didn’t go to movies. And once in a while, I mean, they did take me to see Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, they took me to see The Muppet Movie. I don’t want to pin this on them because they have been nothing but supportive and have rejoiced in the unexpected turns my career has taken, and they’re very supportive of that now.

But at the time, I think everybody around me was believing this very prevalent message and in conservative Christian circles, that art was far too dangerous and we needed a very, very controlled, careful, sanitized, safe world of art. And that just continued to clash with what I was learning in literature classes in my Christian school. We studied Shakespeare, which had all of the stuff that I was told was toxic in the worldly art. It had harsh language. It had violence. It had sexual misbehavior. It had all kinds of things that I was told never to pay attention to. And there was a verse that was frequently used that said, “Have nothing to do with the unfruitful deeds of darkness.”

And so I lived in this place of just guilt and torment because I loved beauty, and I loved imagination, and I loved hearing new sounds, and I loved amazing pop songs and movie soundtracks. Then I started noticing that certain Christian artists, their books would appear in literature or their movies would arrive for a large audience, like Chariots of Fire, for example, which a movie that my church endorsed resoundingly, because the gospel was in it.

And I started to think, “Well, what is the difference here between contemporary Christian music or Christian movies or Christian books, Christian fantasy, and these books, which are treated as first-class literature and taken seriously by people all over the world?” And that’s when I started noticing the difference between art as propaganda, art as advertising the gospel, art that that leads with a message, which I would say isn’t art at all, and art that is driven by questions and drawn to mystery, and interested in things that are bigger than our words can pin down.

“I started to think, ‘Well, what is the difference here between contemporary Christian music or Christian movies or Christian books, Christian fantasy, and these books, which are treated as first-class literature and taken seriously by people all over the world?'”

And so now, you see Marilyn Robinson as a novelist celebrated around the world and winning Pulitzer prizes. And I mean, she is as quick to profess her Christian faith as anybody, but she trusts beauty, she trusts truth, and she’s not afraid to represent the world as it is, which is incredibly messy and filled with all of those R-rated things.

I mean, I saw the irony fairly early on that Bible stories are full of those things, too. And certain Bible stories were not taught in my church or in my Sunday school because people were too uncomfortable with them. But I decided pretty early on, even if it made uncomfortable, I wanted to tell stories that were about scary things, that were about unsettling things, that were about the things that shook my faith, as a way of finding my way through those blustery days to those unexpected moments when grace brought about unlikely reconciliation and healing.

And I had great teachers in high school, one of whom is still one of my closest friends, who carefully taught me not to throw caution to the wind, but to develop discernment and to ask why are these things in a story? Is it just to be dazzling? Is it just to be lurid and sensational and exciting? Or are these things that unsettle us meaningful elements of the larger picture? And eventually, one day I happened to notice that there was more to that verse they were always using to reprimand me. “Have nothing to do with the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them.” Which sounds to me like the role of the artist or the role of the surgeon, frankly. “Have nothing to do with cancer, have nothing to do with the evils of the world. But by all means, study them, be knowledgeable about them, be wise about them, learn how to deal with them for the good of your soul and the souls of those around you.”

And so that has been sort of my journey and that’s very much at the root of what I teach at SPU, whether it’s a literature class, a film class, or an academic writing class or a creative writing class. I tell my students, “There are no bad words; there are only words used badly. And let’s be sure that every word that we use belongs.”

“I tell my students, ‘There are no bad words; there are only words used badly. And let’s be sure that every word that we use belongs.'”

Amanda: And because it is, this storytelling process should be the heart of our humanity. And bad things are going to come across our plates throughout our lives. That is going to happen, so why not prepare us through the story of how others have dealt with it? The Bible also says to stand on the power of our testimony, and we can stand on the power of others as well. And I know I have learned some of my biggest lessons, my biggest aha moments, through story when I’m open to hear it.

So I love what you’re doing and I love that you’re teaching, so that you’re helping to grow up other artists that are going to tell those stories that literally help us in our life, in our humanity and faith.

Jeffrey: This takes me back to what you were asking earlier about the interviews. I still really, really fight that deeply embedded and taught habit of the knee-jerk judgment of the world. During one of those interviews, I got the chance to interview Nicholas Cage, of all people. And I remember thinking, “Oh boy, this is the biggest and perhaps the worldliest movie star I’ve ever interviewed.” And I met him and he seemed that day, so incredibly depressed and unable to concentrate on a question, and unable to phrase any kind of eloquent answer to anything, that I became so disillusioned immediately with this guy. I was like, “Well, maybe my worst assumptions were true, that this is just an empty celebrity, for whom life is meaningless.”

And I went home, I mean, already kind of thinking about, “How do I write about this interview without sounding just harsh and judgmental?” And Entertainment Tonight came on television and the breaking news was that his marriage had fallen apart that very day. And I thought, “Oh my goodness, here I was sort of judging this person based on this one encounter, jumping to all kinds of conclusions about them, when I don’t know what he was doing at this interview on this day. This was probably one of the low points of his life, and of course, he wasn’t paying attention to the interview. He had much bigger things and much more painful things to be dealing with. And that was a lesson in itself.

Amanda: Can I just tell you a little sidebar, because this is a trick, if you will, that I learned a long time ago, that helps me. When I feel myself being frankly, judgmental, like you said, right? We see something on the outside, we have very little information, and we make a judgment based on what we see, that the best way to combat that is not to slap ourselves on the hand and say, “Don’t be judgy,” because we will be anyway. But to simply invent a story that if you knew that about them, you would forgive all. And it may not be true. It may be nowhere near the truth, but it’s not about them, it’s about me and my own heart. So it’s exactly what happened to you in real life.

In that moment, if you had said, “OK, I really need to stop judging him and be present here. You know what? Maybe his marriage broke up this morning. If that was true, I would forgive this behavior.” And I literally use that every day of my life.

Jeffrey: Wow.

Amanda: And it is very useful to me.

Jeffrey: Yeah. That’s a powerful thing.

Amanda: All right. Let’s jump back to the writing, because I think people consider writing like, “OK, I am a writer,” as one thing. And yet, like you said, there are very different aspects to that. And as that one person said to you, “Being the artist and the creator versus being the critic, can be seen as completely different things.”

You have memoirs, you have novels, you write movie reviews, continuously, you’re teaching. These all seem like very different animals. Do you work on all these things simultaneously, or do you have to do certain things at different times in your life, different days of the week? How do you work all these muscles?

Jeffrey: I have worked on multiple genres simultaneously most of my life. I mean, starting with those early childhood stories and those early childhood review diaries. In recent years, it’s become more difficult to do both, for a variety of just very practical reasons. The movie reviewing thing is like eating, sleeping, for me. It’s a way of thinking. I have a postcard on my desk that says, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” And that is so often the case.

When I look at a work of art, I’m sort of a bundle of emotions. And the first papers I get from freshmen when I ask them to write about their favorite work of art, tend to be that, little blasts of emotions. “This is what I feel about it. And don’t step on my favorite work of art, because I feel this way about it.” And that’s very human, very natural, that’s where you start. But in writing about it, it becomes a process of thinking on paper.

“I have a postcard on my desk that says, ‘I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.’ And that is so often the case.”

So when I review a movie, I often think I know what I’m going to say about this movie when I start writing it. By the end of the review, sometimes my opinion has completely changed, because the act of writing has forced me to pay attention, forced me to retrace my path through that work of art. And I often see things as I think back through it that I didn’t see or didn’t notice in the sort of enchantment of experiencing it for the first time. And so it becomes a practice of discovering what you think. And that to me is a spiritual discipline. It is a way of getting beyond your emotions, down into another faculty of what you think.

Scott Cairns, the great poet who we have the privilege of him teaching here at SPU and directing our MFA in creative writing program, he recovered for me a word that is very powerful. We’ve heard in church that we should be transformed by the renewing of our minds. And I think that’s even etched on stone somewhere here on SPU’s campus. But he said, “Actually, the word is not minds. The word is N-O-U-S, nous.” And that word, we don’t have an equivalent of the English language. It refers to a place midway between your head and your heart, midway between your intellect and your deep emotions, where you really, really think and feel together.

He says, “It’s that place at the back of your throat that you feel when you are deeply moved by something. It’s engaging both your mind and your heart. Be transformed by the renewing of that.” That keeps us from becoming just coldly intellectual, where we may be a scholar and an expert on something, but insensitive to our students, to people’s feelings. And it prevents us from going to the other extreme of being ruled by our emotions and having to develop discernment. And so it’s a spiritual discipline for me to write movie reviews, because it asks me to work through the reaction, the emotional reaction to the thoughtful response that balances those things out.

Now then, that is one way of thinking and a path of self-discovery and a path of paying attention to other artists and what they are wrestling with and experiencing and trying to share with the world. But then the creative writing, writing novels, which takes for me so much more energy, just a much deeper reservoir of resources and a much greater time commitment, which is why it’s been hard lately because I’m teaching full time. That is a process of creating, of remembering that we are made in the image of God. And thus by creating, we are imitating God and we are communing with him. We are learning more about him by creating. And when I tell stories, I live for that moment when the story takes on a life of its own. When you breathe life into these materials that God has given you, and you learn from them, you are surprised by a turn in the story or by an unexpected decision by a character. And that tells me I’m tapping into something I should really pay attention to.

“It’s a spiritual discipline for me to write movie reviews, because it asks me to work through the reaction, the emotional reaction to the thoughtful response that balances those things out.”

And so the process of storytelling, I love mostly just for the experience of writing and discovering things. The act of sharing it is sort of a late-breaking surprise in my life. I was not pursuing publication, and I was surprised when somebody got interested in my work that resulted in publication. But that has opened up a world of hearing from readers who find things in the work that I never thought about, that I never intended. And that often show me things about my own heart that worry me, or that need correction. And it also tells me that once you have made something, it does have a life of its own, and it will mean something different to every single person because of their own experiences and what they bring to that experience.

In the classroom, I talk with my students about how every work of art that we consider, or every text that we consider, is like a mountain. And no one person is going to find the right answer and explain the mountain to us. We are all going to climb the mountain, but we’re starting from different places. We’re having different experiences on different days with different conditions. We come back and we compare notes and we will all have something true to share. But our humility, our willingness to listen to one another enables us to understand the mountains so much more deeply by comparing notes and discovering other things through other people’s experiences.

And to me, that art of conversation is also a spiritual discipline. It’s a way of realizing that God is up to so much more than we know through any created thing, whether it’s these amazing autumn-colored trees outside my window here on campus, and what God is saying to me through them and to others through them, and what he is saying to the students in their own essays, to their peers, to their readers, to their professors. And those conversations can be really revelatory.

Amanda: Almost brings us full circle to what we started talking about at the beginning, with your childhood, seeing movies and seeing something within storytelling that was bigger than you could name.

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Amanda: Because I personally believe and have really been taught that if you are a person of faith, if you are digging in, looking for faith, if you are looking to God for answers, that those answers will come to you. And much like we read the same Bible story many times in our lives and hear different things, get different truth out of it, that we can also find truth within any story, because God can use anything that’s in front of us.

I have an example I almost hesitate to share, simply because of where it came from. But I was struggling a major crossroads in my life. Do I do this? Do I do that? And I was really struggling and I was watching a movie, and the character in the movie said, “But a ship isn’t just a ship. A ship is wood and sails and fabric. But what a ship really is, is freedom.” And boom, it changed my life, because I realized in that moment that what I was questioning, I was thinking it was one thing, but it was really something else. And that moment I’m telling you, it literally changed my life.

And I think you can hear that and go, “Amen.” But when I tell you that the movie that the line comes from is Pirates of the Caribbean, maybe you start to think that’s pretty silly, but I don’t care where it came from. It was good storytelling and it’s what I needed to hear.

Jeffrey: No, I still stick up for the original Star Wars and frankly, 1979’s The Muppet Movie, as some of the most profound, gospel-rooted art making I have ever seen. And I’m ready to invest hours in talking about that.

Amanda: Well, maybe that will be part two of our podcast, because I’m in there with you, I’m in it. All right, Jeff, I do believe we could talk here for hours, but I’ll back to my Winnie the Pooh quote, “We are lucky to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” So our time is up, but I have so enjoyed our conversation today.

I’ll end with our last question that we ask all of our guests. If you could have each of us do one thing differently tomorrow that would make the world a better place, what would you have us do?

“I still stick up for the original Star Wars and frankly, 1979’s The Muppet Movie, as some of the most profound, gospel-rooted art making I have ever seen. And I’m ready to invest hours in talking about that.”

Jeffrey: I think my answer might be different now than it has been. My answer might be to read or attend to the creative work of a culture altogether different than your own. One of the quotes I share most often in my classes comes from the great Presbyterian minister, Frederick Buechner, from one of his sermons where he says, “When Jesus comes along saying that the greatest command of all is to love God and to love our neighbor, he, too, is asking us to pay attention. If we are to love God, we must first stop look and listen for him in what is happening around us and inside us. If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else, we must see our neighbors with our imaginations, as well as our eyes; that is to say, like artists.”

And as I started to finally, finally reading Toni Morrison this summer, or as I teach a Spike Lee’s movie, Do the Right Thing, or as I watch Lee Isaac Chung’s film, Munyurangabo, about two boys walking across Rwanda and reconciling after after the civil war there, I am not only taken out of my comfort zone, but I am on a journey to understand just how deeply connected I am with people who seem, at first glance, to be so different than me. And that is a humbling process. It starts taking down the barriers between people, it starts making dialogue possible. I believe it’s part of healing the world from the divisions and the conflict we see all around us just burning today.

Amanda: I think it’s so telling that we can consider it dangerous to sit alone in our own house, all by ourselves, reading a book. That story itself can be not only eye-opening, but literally dangerous, to our own limited worldview and be willing to expand us. I mean, just that alone, speaks so much to the power of story.

Jeffrey: And yet, what is the exhortation that is repeated most often in our Bible? “Fear not.”

Amanda: Yes, yes, exactly. Just because it’s dangerous, doesn’t mean that’s not where you need to go. Jeff, I can’t thank you enough. I have enjoyed our conversation so much, and I hope you’ll come back again someday.

Jeffrey: I would love to.

Amanda: Thanks.

Jeffrey: Thank you.

 


Photos by Dan Sheehan

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