LEAD SMALL & CREATING A LEAD SMALL CULTURE – BOOK REVIEW AL

I attend a conference on youth ministry every year called NCYM, National Conference on Youth Ministries. This year I attended a session given by a youth minister friend of mine who recommended these two books. The session he taught was on transitioning your church’s traditional Sunday Bible class format to a Sunday Small Groups format. Intriguing right?

When I first heard about this model for Small Groups that they were utilizing on Sunday mornings I thought, “Aren’t small groups for Sunday nights? Don’t they happen at people’s houses? How can you make small groups work for Sunday morning?” I’ve since then come around to the notion that this format may, in fact, be way more effective than our traditional classroom format.

After attending this session, engaging in several conversations, and reading these two books, our student ministry has initiated our first Small Group Sunday format for this spring quarter. We are attempting a test drive of this format to learn more about it and see if it’s something we feel we might want to commit to on a more long-term basis. I’ll tell you all about how we did it but first, here’s the 411 on these books.

“Lead Small: Five Big Ideas Every Small Group Leader Needs to Know” is the first of these two books and is the ideal book to put in the hands of your small group leaders (or, as the book calls them, SGLs). It’s a quick and fun read but it’s also packed with extremely applicable and important stuff you’d want your SGLs to know. The 5 big ideas the book focuses on for SGLs are…

  1. Be Present
  2. Create A Safe Place
  3. Partner With Parents
  4. Make It Personal
  5. Move Them Out

“Creating A Lead Small Culture: Make Your Church A Place Where Kids Belong” is the second book and this one is intended more for the staff member(s) and/or church leader(s) that would be the champion & mastermind of your small group ministry. This book is all about how to create a culture in your church that supports it’s small group leaders and their few (their small groups). It goes from how to recruit your leaders (emphasizing strongly going after the best of the best) to how to empower them to be more than “volunteers” by being the mentoring, authentic, superhero of their few.

The book sells this idea that circles are more powerful learning environments than rows. It advocates for discussions in circles over a concert or classroom format; not demonizing classrooms & concerts but aptly pointing out how those formats alone can come up short. As a youth minister, I know that they are right. Meaningful conversations fueling mentoring relationships is our most powerful tool for discipling students. Students need to feel know and that they belong and utilizing small groups in our ministry is a great way to accomplish those two things. “Every kid needs a PERSON and they need a PLACE.” – p24.

So, how did we go about trying this Small Group Sunday format? We started with a lot of prayer. Using this format was going to be thinking outside the box for us and we knew there was potential for causing some ripples with this kind of dramatic change. We also knew that small groups had the potential to bless our students immeasurably. Plus, it started to make sense that something that could be that effective at giving our students a sense of belonging would be important for our fringe students as well as our core group. Because we have the most students in our church building on Sunday morning, using small groups for Sunday morning class time started to make more and more sense. So once we decided we’d give it the old college try, we started praying for our future small group leaders that we needed.

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To me, this was one of the biggest obstacles to overcome, getting enough volunteers. In deciding how many small group leaders we needed we first decided how to split up the groups. For our context, we had enough number on Sunday morning to give each grade, 7-12, a small group (boys and girls, together). So that’s 6 small groups with an average of 8-10 students in each group. Your own context is unique so don’t think this is the only way. Plus, after this spring quarter we may decide to change things up. So 6 small group with boys and girls means we are looking for 6 adult men and 6 adult women to lead these groups. It made sense to us to recruit couples. Furthermore, we decided that it’d help our small group leaders if they could share this responsibility with another couple so that being gone for a Sunday and help facilitate a conversation when students are sometimes not feeling like talking would be good. So we needed 12 couples who were willing to commit to 14 Sundays. We reached out to 28 couples, not just anyone but those couples who we knew would do well. To our surprise, 12 couples said yes. Prayers answered!

We got the 12 couples together to lay out the plan, do a little small group training, answer questions and eat dinner together. I made out curriculum for the whole quarter available on a shareable google drive and included a roster of the name of every student that would be a part of their small group. Then we got started!

For this spring quarter on Sunday mornings, we start with about 5 minutes worth of announcements and an opening prayer. From there I teach a “primer lesson” to tease up some of the content that their small group will be discussing that morning. I try to keep it concise, engaging, and leave them with a question. From there they split up into their small groups in different rooms (or half rooms) for about 35 minutes. They always start by going around the room and asking everyone the ups and downs of the past week (Something we call pows and wows. You might call them happys and crappys). Usually during this time one of the small group leaders will text me who all showed up to small group that day so I can keep attendance records for our students in a nonintrusive way. They then read scripture together and talk through 5 different discussion questions. In the end, I always insist the small group leaders take prayer requests and end each small group in prayer. I encourage them to write these requests down so they can ask about them the following week.

And that is pretty much it. I try to email or text our small group leaders every week to let them know when I’ve typed up the discussion questions and maybe include a video or short article from one of these two books on leading small to encourage, educate, or challenge them. We’ve only just completed our 3rd Small Group Sunday but our SGLs are starting to hit their stride and I’m very encouraged by some of the initial feedback I’ve gotten from the students, SGLs, and even parents! Not everything is perfect, we’ve had to tweak some things already. Not only that but it’s taken a ton of work. Much more than just setting up a teacher or two with a curriculum. But I’m hopeful for what Small Group Sundays could do for our student ministry.

Now I realize that this post has been more or a review on small group ministry than the two books but I wanted to give the context for why I read the two books. I highly recommend them both! If you have any questions about the books or our Small Group Sundays feel free to comment below or email me at Alanlmiddleton@gmail.com.

Next time I’ll be reviewing Lee Strobel’s “The Case for a Creator”.

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WILD AT HEART – BOOK REVIEW AL

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I attended a men’s retreat this past weekend with some 80 men from the congregation I currently serve, the Eastridge Church of Christ. The retreat was held in Scottsville, TX which is right near Marshall. The country out there in East Texas is wild with tall pine trees and the retreat we stayed at had a quiet pond. Some of the men at the retreat fished there in our free time. The pond reflected the tall trees and blue sky and had a small island near its center that featured a large wooden cross. The air smelled sweeter with our distance from any large metros and I found myself breathing deeply and filling my lungs with its freshness. This was a great place to have a men’s retreat.

It was at this retreat where we spent much of our time unpacking some of the thoughts written by John Eldredge in his book, Wild at Heart. Eldridge has written every several other books such as Walking with God, Moving Mountains, and the feminine counterpart to this masculine work that he and his wife, Stasi Eldredge, wrote together. Wild at Heart was a book I had actually read before in my early 20’s and I had enjoyed the book. I recalled thinking when I had read the book originally that it was good and it stirred me a little to want to go camping more but I didn’t get much more out of it. Now in my early 30’s, with the upcoming men’s retreat that was going to be going over much of Eldredge’s book, I thought I’d give it another pass.

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Wild at Heart starts by addressing the identity of mankind and how we were made in God’s image. He pinpoints some of the tendencies that boys have in the ways that they play and behave and talks about how many boys grow up to be men who are unfulfilled and bored. Eldredge asserts that every man has the innate desire to have “A Battle to Fight”, “A Beauty to Rescue”, and an “Adventure to Live”. He cites examples of some of our favorite “manly men” films where the hero will likely undertake all three of these tasks. I’m very much a movie guy so I enjoyed these parts of the book where he refers back to movies like Braveheart, Gladiator, or even Indiana Jones. Eldredge talks about how we as men gravitate towards these films because we long to have a battle worth fighting for, a beauty we are longing to rescue, or an adventure that we are courageous enough to live.

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This book may have something very positive to say in a climate where masculinity has often been labeled as “wholly toxic.” I think most people would agree that there are parts of masculinity that can be twisted into something very toxic, even dangerous. However, it seems to me that God created the masculine and feminine and since we are all made in his image, neither quality is inherently evil. I think Eldredge does much to redeem the goodness that masculinity can have on a man’s heart. He writes how sometimes we want to be the William Wallace or Maximus of our own stories but we often live our lives as if we are the more timid Robert the Bruce or the cowardly Commodus of the story.

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I do have some qualms with the book as far Eldredge having a firm Biblical foundation in the redemption of what’s defined as “masculine” but that definition changes so often that it would likely be very difficult to do. The stories from the Bible he does use are utilized well. He certainly doesn’t go overboard advocating that we as men should punch anyone in the face who looks at us funny. He does hold up some few examples of how Jesus handled himself as a man. The book definitely was not as scripture-based as I would’ve liked but nonetheless has many Biblical truths for the “man of God”.

There were other times in the book where he addresses “the wound” which is how all men were damaged in some way by their father which I very much doubt applies to everyone. Despite this, I think the book is good for men who are either insecure or quite secure with their masculinity. Eldredge has good things to say to both parties.

Eldredge encourages the reader to embrace their masculine heart and to utilize it to become a warrior and a champion for the Kingdom of God. I enjoyed taking in Wild at Heart a 2nd time and truthfully probably got more out of it reading again at an older age. I bet the same will be true the next time I revisit it.

Next time I review the books Lead Small by Reggie Joiner and Tom Shefchunas and Creating a Lead Small Culture by Reggie Joiner, Kristen Ivy, and Elle Campbell.

DEEP & WIDE – BOOK REVIEW AL

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The third book I decided to read this year is Deep & Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend by Andy Stanley.

This is a book I admittedly put off reading for a couple of reasons. For one, it’s kind of long. Being new to books I’ve been content with a 200-page book but Deep & Wide extends past 300. Another thing is that I had heard others talk about this book and what it discusses. There were many topics spoken of that resonated with my thoughts on the church as a minister and I bought the book with enthusiasm, about a year ago. I wanted to be endowed with the knowledge to help the church I was serving in to develop into the church I thought it should be. Before I cracked the book I started to see through my naivety and considered how little I’d actually be able to change on my own and as a youth minister. I was fearful that Andy would nail us with the obvious changes we needed to make as a church and that I’d be powerless to do anything with that knowledge. I have since recanted and decided that putting off reading this book based on those fears was foolish. So I read it and I’m glad I did.

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In case you don’t know, the title “Deep & Wide” refers to the fact that Andy believes the church is a place that contains deep truths for transforming and restoring lives (“deep”) and that they’d also be places where truly anyone feels welcome to attend (“wide”). Andy begins his book by recounting his own story. He tells of his upbringing in the church, being the son of a preacher at a large church in Atlanta, growing up to be a minister at that same church, the conflict between his father and him, and the eventual planting of the North Pointe Community Church. In fact, he dedicates his book to those 708 charter members of that church. While I think all of this storytelling eventually pays off in providing context for his perspective on the church in the rest of the book, it did seem to take up an inordinate amount of space and was tough to get through at times.

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Once he gets to the establishing of North Pointe Community Church, he speaks on how from the very beginning the goal was not to create a carbon copy of the church he was familiar with but instead wanted to ensure that their church would be one that would unapologetically be geared towards unchurched people. How can you argue with that? I will say that part of that basic premise upsets me on some level because I’ve always thought of the church as the communing, edifying, educating, worshipping, safe place for believers. It’s not that I believed that non-believers weren’t invited, I just didn’t view evangelism as one of the main focuses of what takes place on Sunday mornings. I kinda thought that’s what the members of the church were supposed to be doing on every day of the week. I don’t want to start pulling out scriptures or anything but I do think it’s worth considering what the Biblical purpose of the church (as in the assembled community of believers) is compared to the purpose given to the individual Christ-followers who make up the church. Are they the same? I think there are probably some important differences.

Andy goes on to talk about the plethora of tactics his church uses to be guest friendly. Many of them I thought were just genius. Of course our buildings should have good signage that helps those who have never been before. Of course we should look at our classrooms and meeting spaces the way a guest would. What are we communicating by the way we decorate, clean, organize, and take care of our facilities? Does each room communicate it’s purpose by how it’s arranged? It should. Of course it’s important to consider your order of worship and accomplish what is important in the best possible fashion for your church. Of course the church website should be updated more than once a leap year. There were so many things like this that Andy mentions that I think honor our members, our guests, and most importantly, honor God. Andy offers so many helpful guidelines for how we should put serious thought into how we do Sunday church that I do find myself wishing every minister, elder, ministry leader, small group leader, really any kind of church leader would pick up this book, if only to give thought to the intentionality we put into what occurs when we meet.

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All that being said, I also believe that there are some dangers going too far down the “Deep & Wide” line of thinking. It seems obvious, but I don’t want to attend a church that focuses solely on “the show” and is empty in the content on Sunday mornings. Andy covers this concern at times in his book. But I can’t help feeling that authenticity will always trump what looks shiny. Andy doesn’t downplay authenticity at all, I’m just fearful that’d be tricky to make sure authenticity doesn’t get left behind.

Deep & Wide is a good book to keep on the shelf. As a youth minister I do have some control over the environments I create for our youth group and that fact alone has made this book a great benefit to me. I highly recommend that if you lead in any capacity at your church that you read this book and digest it with others at your church.

Have you read Deep & Wide? What did you think? Next time I’ll be reviewing the fourth book I read this year, Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul by John Eldredge.

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LOVE DOES & EVERYBODY ALWAYS: BOOK REVIEW AL

Goff Books

So I finished my first two books of the year last month. As stated in my last post, I decided to start the year off with something optimistic and not too difficult to read. After I attended my youth ministry conference at the beginning of the year (NCYM) I got to hear and meet Bob Goff and decided I’d give his two popular books a try. Because I read them back to back and because of their similar content, I’ll review them as if they were one book.

These books are both the most whimsical and idealistic pieces of literature I’ve ever read.  No joke. Now, be sure to take into account that I’m trying to read 52 books this year because I’m not very well read at all. Even still, I was taken back by his unapologetically positive tone throughout both books. At times I felt something that might be referred to as optimism fatigue. But, for the most part, I felt encouraged and inspired by much of what Bob has to say in these books.

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Bob tells some incredible stories throughout these two works. In fact, most of his chapters are collections of stories and anecdotes from his own life or someone else’s who is close to him. It seemed like most of these stories are aimed at disarming what our usual responses would be in the mundane with a response that is fueled and informed by love. While some of those stories could seem trite, many of them were pleasantly surprising and inspiring. Now, there was no shortage of “Bob Goff leads a very different life than me” extreme stories that were pretty tough to relate to as well. But by and large, Bob writes in a way that is accessible, inspirational, and with a kind of whimsy, that had me grinning without my even realizing I was doing it. The tone is reminiscent of Donald Miller (who wrote the foreword to Love Does and helped Bob write both), especially for those of you who have read his book A Millian Miles in a Thousand Years.

There were several stories that would seem to come to a very normal and unsatisfying end given the typical person’s reaction. But Bob is certainly not your typical kind of guy. He’s a “be awesome” and “just say yea” kind of guy. Many of his stories felt like they could be gripping scenes in a movie. Bob was set to tell stories that would thrill or at least make you feel like anything was possible. I laughed to myself when I realized I had read about 5 separate stories between his two books that included the phrase, “So I tossed him/her the keys.” And I think that’s a good example of what these books are about. The letting go of the expected in lieu of something that has the potential to be greater, better, more loving, riskier.

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In these collections of Goff parables, Bob seems to be aiming at the typical churched person who has only been able to view the act of loving others through the lens of ordinary and comfortable. Loving others is so much more than a sentiment, it’s an indiscriminate and bold action. His subtitle for Love Does is “Discover a Secretly Incredible Life in an Ordinary World”. For Everybody Always, its subtitle read, “Becoming Love in a World Full of Setbacks and Difficult People”. While the books are different, they both seem to be aimed at the same concept. That concept is that love is capable of more than we think and that it’s for more people than we’d think.

Are these books important for youth ministers to read? Probably not. Who is this book for? If you’re currently in a dark place or in need of some encouragement to be freer with yourself, with your interactions with people, I’d definitely refer these books to you. All in all these books are fun, joyful, and have earned a place on my bookshelf. Have you read Bob’s books already? What did you think?

Next time I’ll be writing on the book I’ve most recently finished, Andy Stanley’s Deep and Wide.

 

Book Review AL ~ Resolving to Read

Hello there! Happy New Year to you!

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It’s 2019 and for me, that means it’s a time for making New Year resolutions. It seems that recently there’s been a lot of negativity surrounding the concept of making New Year’s resolutions because of our tendencies to give up on them. They really get a bad wrap. It troubles me to hear people say they aren’t going to make any resolutions because they typically don’t keep them. They don’t like being reminded of their failed attempts of keeping last year’s resolution so they sometimes despair at the thought of making new ones. NOT ME!

While my own personal success rate for sticking with these resolutions is not particularly high, there’s something so enticing about setting goals for the person I’m aiming to become at the start of each new year. I love dreaming of the person God is shaping me to be and that I’m aiming at becoming. Do I always make realistic goals? Absolutely not. But I’m very much an enthusiast, an optimist, an idealist, a number 7 on the Enneagram. So here I am again in the infancy of 2019, reviewing my past year and setting goals to push myself to get a little bit closer to the person I’m aiming to become. Hopefully, someone who looks a little more like Jesus.

I’ll spare you my hopes and dreams of being a powerlifting, six-pack sporting, model of physical fitness and skip to the goal I think I might actually be able to keep up with this year. I’m resolving to discover in myself a new discipline for reading books. By the end of this year, it is my goal to have read 52 books. For me, this goal is very ambitious. I probably only read 8 books last year. However, it’s becoming apparent to me that with the growing availability of audiobooks and the expanding libraries of companies like Audible are taking away the excuses I’ve made in the past. Excuses like, “I’m not a fast reader”, “not having the time”, or “I’ll wait to watch the movie.” I really didn’t like reading that much when I was younger. The biggest motivation I got to read was (surprise surprise) getting a free personal pan pepperoni pizza from Pizza Hut. Thank you, Book-It!

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I’ve been trying to think of other ways I can make it easier on myself to take on this task of reading 52 books. One youth minister friend of mine from Kansas gave me some sage advice when I was complaining about how I was going to accomplish this goal. “Just read shorter books!”, he said. Not a bad thought! Aside from getting my hands on some pop-up books on theology, one of the ways I’m going to try to keep myself accountable for staying on track with this goal is to write some very simplistic reviews on my blog site that no one reads. This will help me process what I’ve read, help improve my typing skills, and hopefully help keep me on schedule. If you read one of these books I’m reviewing and find yourself wanting to chime in on your thoughts, please feel free. If you have suggestions for books I need to add to my list, let me know. I only have about 20 on my list to read (or finish reading) right now. Turns out there are way more than 20 books out there.

I just finished books 1 and 2. I had never even heard of Bob Goff before this year. Okay, that’s not true. I had heard of him and his first book, “Love Does”. I just hadn’t taken time to learn anything more about him. The first full week of this year I went to the National Conference on Youth Ministry that I attend every year. This year, they had Bob Goff come and give a keynote. If you’ve ever met Bob or read his books you know what I know now. Bob is incredible! He has an energy that would wear out any kid hopped up on Mountain Dew. He has a generosity of spirit, unlike anyone I’ve ever met. What a treat to be able to listen to him and meet him in person.

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Bob speaks the same way he writes. His joy and whimsical nature are so contagious you can’t help but let our own imagination start to run wild. He tells stories of taking his children on epic adventures, recounts situations that were very dangerous but always worth the risk, and he illustrates through personal experiences all the ways he’s come to learn that the type of love Jesus teaches us to love with is the type of love that does things for everybody, always. I want to say more but I’ll save it for next time when I write my review of his two books, “Love Does” and “Everybody Always”.

Until next time, I’m curious to know, what goals have you made for yourself this year? What books are you reading? What are you doing to make sure you make time to read? Let me know!

 

Will someone please get me this t-shirt in an XL?! 😀

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Halloween Movie Review

Well, I haven’t written one of these since my review for Infinity War. Although I’m not always the most gung-ho on the Marvel bandwagon I have to say most movies I’ve seen since then paled in contrast. Nevertheless, it’s time to get out of the funk and write a pizza-themed movie review!

Before I get to it, I’m planning on writing more reviews on not just movies, but also more ministry-related books in the future. If you are a minister and particularly a youth minister stay tuned for my upcoming review of the book “Growing Young” by Powell, Mulder, and Griffin.

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HALLOWEEN

(SPOILERS AHEAD!)

I’m a newcomer to the some of the slasher classics and I’ve really come to appreciate the Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween movies. There are few truly scary moments, save the occasional cheap jump scare, but I love these movies that try to straddle the line (at least somewhat) between a killer grounded in reality and a supernatural force of evil. None of these characters seem to get it quite as well as the Michael Meyers movies in my opinion. If you want full on gritty realism I suppose Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a better way to go but I like the hint of something beyond, the unexplainably uncanny ability for Michael to keep being driven to kill and somehow not be killed himself.

I’ve only seen the original Halloween (1978) movie fully but I’ve seen bits and pieces of the cascading sequels and reboots. While I am a fan I don’t hail Halloween (1978) as some kind of classic film although I’d be quick to defend its status as a classic Halloween season film. Some will claim Halloween (1978) shaped the slasher genre but I’m content to let it be a fun popcorn scare flick of the late 70’s.

Halloween (2018) features Michael Meyers being found after 40 years from his murdering rampage in an insane asylum where he is for some reason depicted being chained to a giant chess board. I was hoping this was some kind of foreshadowing for the rest of the film but it seemingly used just for a stylistic shot. Michael is visited by 2 podcasters who are unbearably pretentious and out-of-touch and serve as little more than expendable characters for Michael to kill on his “search” for Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis’ character from the 1978 original who survived his attacks). I say “search” because the rest of the movie seems to be a random occurrence of Michael running into people, killing them, and somehow very conveniently eventually getting to Laurie Strode’s house to kill her.

The Laurie Strode character is written well as someone whose life has been stained by the killings from 40 years ago and who can’t seemingly overcome the effect it has had on her. She’s prepped and trained for the moment she meets Michael Meyers again and her family thinks her mentally ill.

There were many other characters in this film, none fleshed out quite as much as Laurie and Michael and some were laughably thin as to their relevance to the plot. Characters such as Laurie’s grandaughters boyfriend or the cop who “was there too” 40 years ago all make dumb decisions and serve the plot very poorly.

That being said, there were multiple callbacks and homages to the original Halloween movie that made me smile. The Halloween theme song was used and it sounded just like it does in the original. The character of Michael Meyers was true to the original in the way that he’s enigmatically one part serial killer and one part force of evil. The end of the third act played a nice twist on the original as Michael pushes Laurie out of a window to see her supposedly unconscious body on the ground, he gets distracted by a noise from downstairs and when he looks back she is gone. After that point, Michael experiences what being hunted feels like as he struggles to find Laurie’s character and she pops up on him from behind. Loved that 3rd act.

Overall the movie was fun, had some issues keeping a consistent tone as it was too funny at some points, but a nice homage to the original 1978 Halloween movie. Definitely nothing groundbreaking but a good time at the movies.

I give Halloween 6.5 slashed slices out of 10 with ghost peppers.

Avengers: Inifinity War SPOILER Review

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Just want to repeat that the following review will be a spoiler review for Infinity War. If you haven’t seen the movie stop reading now! We will be getting into all spoiler details of this movie. I apologize in advance to those who haven’t nerded about these movies as much as I probably have. I’ve seen the movie twice over the weekend and I have lots to process. If you don’t want to read this crazy long review head to the end where I just say what I liked and didn’t like. Alright, let’s do this!

Firstly, can we just acknowledge the amazing feat that this movie accomplished?! Not only was this movie the culmination (at least part 1 of a culmination) of 10 years within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s also one of the best superhero movies ever created. No other movie franchise has accomplished what Kevin Feige has done with the MCU, although Star Wars might catch up one day with the spin-offs they are coming out with. Either way, Disney will have all the money and have their own infinity gauntlet levels of power.

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DIRECTORS

The Russo brothers have knocked this movie out of the park. It isn’t a perfect movie by any means but I can’t even imagine how difficult it would be to juggle all these amazing characters and give them all their moment to shine. I’ve been a big fan of the Russo brothers’ work before I even knew who they were. Their work with the TV shows Arrested Development (shout out to the Tobias Funke blue man easter egg) and Community is stellar and both shows contain some of the best comedy I’ve ever watched and rewatched on TV. What’s more, they got me to like Captain America movies. I had huge problems with the first Captain America movie. It’s still one of my least favorite MCU movies to watch. However, Winter Soldier and Civil War were brilliantly made movies. Civil War (Avengers 2.5) definitely showcased their ability to balance a large cast of popular characters. I marveled (!!!) at the balance that this movie had. It didn’t feel bloated or even too confusing with the multiple plots going on. Well done Russo brothers!

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VILLAIN

Thanos!!! I had no idea why I should care about who Thanos was when he first appeared in the post-credit scene from the first Avengers movie. Man oh man do I know why he’s a force to be reckoned with. Josh Brolin’s performance as Thanos was incredible. He is by far the best villain the MCU has ever had. Loki might be considered second but I have a hard time counting him with his story arch as a villain/anti-hero. Thanos was clear and committed to his purpose to put the universe in balance. I wish we got a little more backstory of Titan and how he was cast out for suggesting the random genocide of half the population but I don’t think the movie could’ve handled too much more exposition. Right from the beginning of the movie we got an idea of his power when he easily put the hurt on Hulk (more on him later). I totally bought into his motive and even his love for Gamora. I thought that scene was set up so deftly when him holding young Gamora’s hand in the flashback was mirrored in him dragging her by the arm to throw her to her death to get the Soul stone. I do wonder how long he will be content upon accomplishing his goal in wiping out HALF OF ALL LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE but I guess we’ll see next year.

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INFINITY STONES

On top of all the people characters in the movie, I almost felt as if the stones themselves became characters in their own right in this movie. As he started collecting each infinity stone the movie was great about showing the audience what that particular stone gave him the ability to do. Power stone clearly lets him destroy almost anything (including Thor’s head almost!). Space stone let him teleport around the galaxy, which was an important plot point for the movie. Reality stone was one of the coolest in its abilities. It allowed Thanos to alter the reality of how things appeared or behaved. I legit thought that Mantis and Drax were dead when he changed them to blocks and spaghetti. When he used it on Quill when he almost shot Gamora and when he used it on Gamora when she tried to kill herself was genius. Soul stone was a little bit of a convenient plot device. Wasn’t completely on board with why the Soul stone needed a sacrifice from its user when the other stones just required you to grab them but whatever, it definitely worked in building Thanos’ character. I even felt some alluding to the Abraham and Isaac sacrifice on the mountain. I loved loved loved that they brought back the Red Skull as a cameo. I had always wondered if we’d see him again and while it didn’t make 100% sense, it was cool to see him again and I wonder if we’ll see more of him in the next movie. I heard some people complaining that the Soul stone didn’t really give him a power but I’d argue that the Soul stone is what allowed him to snap his fingers and disappear all living things with a soul. You’ll notice half of the trees and birds in the movie didn’t also fad away, just people from earth or other worlds. Time stone was used brilliantly as well in this movie. Dr. Strange using it to see 14,000,000,605 different outcomes was really cool. And the fact the only one of those that they actually win includes Thanos getting the Time stone was very interesting. I was blown away when Thanos turned back time and made Scarlet Witch not only endure killing Vision but having to watch him come back only to be killed again by Thanos. ROUGH! I’m interested to see how time traveling will be involved in the next movie. Finally, the Mind stone. This one might have the most ambiguous of powers. Vision uses it to phase in and out, shoot laser beams, and change his molecular density? Unclear on which of those powers came from Vision and which came from the stone. Loki used the mind stone to get people to do his bidding but we haven’t witnessed that parlor trick in a minute. Loved that the movie included the completion of the infinity gauntlet with all 6 infinity stones.

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THE SNAP

Sooooooo…. he did it. I was really expecting that this movie was going to end right when he got all the stones, or maybe even end right as he snapped and we were left wondering what actually happened when he did it. I was so relieved to actually get to see the completed gauntlet, the snap, and the aftermath of the snap. DARK! Way darker than Empire Strikes Back for those of you making the Star Wars comparison. There are some different opinions out as to who is actually really gone and who won’t come back. I’m of the thinking that everyone who died before the snap (Gamora, Vision, Loki) is not coming back in the next movie. Obviously, there are ways they could bring them back, I mean this is comic book stories. I did wonder for a second if all the talk about Vision is more than just the stone and all the effort into reprogramming his connection to the stone in Wakanda (or whatever Shuri was doing that apparently made no difference) was a precursor to him being able to survive without it but it seems to me that he is really gone. I’ve heard some say that because of how Gamora died in connection to the Soul stone that she could come back but I still think they are all really gone.

What about the people who faded away? At first, I was just in awe during the movie that they actually went through with the snap. I couldn’t believe Marvel was willing to let all these characters we knew and loved disappear into nothing. But then Spiderman disappeared, heart-wrenching, but doesn’t he have another movie coming out? Then Black Panther disappeared. Didn’t that movie just make Disney a billion dollars? At that point, I was actually put at ease because I knew that there was no way that these characters were actually gone for real. It’s my opinion that everyone who disappeared will be brought back. However, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a majority of our heroes that remained were part of the original Avengers group. I think this movie is setting us up for some type of major sacrifice from our OG Avengers or there may even be some type of reversal where they take the place of the disappeared. Only time will tell. Captain Marvel (Cosmic Superwoman?) will obviously play a big part in that next film (although I know next to nothing about her) and the end-credit scene just insured that her movie next year will make bank.

THE FUNNY

I go back and forth with my youngest brother about the MCU being a little too bright and jokey at times. Rewatching Thor: Ragnarok actually included a little more cringing at the humor than I anticipated. However, I will say that I enjoyed so much of the humor in this movie. Thor referring to Rocket as a rabbit, Peter Dinklage being a giant dwarf, “I am Groot” “I am Steve Rogers”, “It’ll kill you!” “Only if I die” “Yes, that’s what killing means”, Drax trying to be invisible, Rocket’s continued fascination with robot body parts. So much of this comedy landed with me. There might be just a few situations where I thought that a joke was out of place due to the tone of the scene or really the gravity of the entire movie but those were few and far between.

THE GOOD

  • The story was compelling and not too confusing despite its ambitious scope.
  • Characters were true to their own movies within this movie.
  • Thanos was an excellent villain.
  • Stakes were high and actually felt. People actually died.
  • Humor was well done.
  • Long movie but didn’t feel it at any point. Great pacing.
  • Woman Avengers fight scene. Very cool!
  • Thor’s new Axe/Hammer, “Stormbreaker”. That thing is legit!
  • Black Order. Since when is there a movie where the henchmen are actually pretty cool?

THE BAD 

  • Misuse of a couple characters
    • Drax. I’m upset that he really has served almost no purpose in the past two movies he’s been in other than just a joke maker. He’s not particularly strong apparently. In the fight scene with Thanos on Titan, I think Drax’s contribution was holding one of Thanos’ legs? Lame.
    • Hulk. The Hulk is my absolute favorite Marvel character. But it has bothered me that the only movie he’s really been able to shine in was the first Avengers. He’s constantly not being the strongest there is. He gets beat up by the hulkbuster armor, gets beat up by Thor in Ragnarok, easily gets tossed aside by Thanos. When will Hulk get a chance to actually get angry and throw down?! I actually liked that he didn’t want to come out for the rest of the movie once Thanos beat him up. It highlighted that maybe he actually feared the strength of Thanos. But it’s only worth it if they actually redeem him in the next movie and let him have his moment.
    • Vision. Love Vision as a character but I didn’t like how helpless he seemed in this entire movie.
    • Groot. Although he had a nice little story ark it seemed superfluous. Didn’t care for Stormbreaker have a wooden handle either.

RATING

This movie is well balanced and has a little bit of everyone’s favorite characters. I give it 9 out of 10 slices of supreme pizza. However, it leaves you with a hunger for another whole pizza! Too bad delivery will take a year!

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“Love First” Book Review

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I just finished this book Monday and I really love what the author, Church of Christ preacher Don McLaughlin, does in this book. In the introduction, he is quick to point out that in the history of Christianity and more specifically the church there have been grand meetings where church leaders and scholars have come together to form different creeds to clarify what the church believes. There was the First Council of Nicea in 325 AD and the Apostle’s Creed in 390 AD that both served the very specific purpose of affirming doctrinal beliefs such as the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. McLaughlin goes on to point out that all this energy and intentionality was given to the establishment of these creeds to serve as the doctrinal structure for the church, yet they left out one of the most important creeds cited within scripture. That is the creed to love.

When I first read the title of the book I considered a little cheesy and possibly even a little too similar to Rob Bell’s title of “Love Wins” or Francis Chan’s “Crazy Love.” Both decent books in their own right but ones that I definitely had issues with. I was pleasantly surprised to read that Mclaughlin’s take was neither too emotionally driven nor was it unfounded in scripture. He intentionally cites the biggest push that Jesus makes in his teaching to love above all else. He further uses Paul’s 1 Corinthians 13, or the “love chapter”, as a template for breaking down what a “love first” movement should like in the church based on these different facets of what love is.

There were parts of this book where I was a little wary of where he was going but there were even more parts were my pride was hurt because there are many practices, or maybe more accurately behaviors, that are prevalent in the church that directly infringe upon Jesus’ emphasis to love others at first contact. As a church, it is common for us to bicker, argue, or even disfellowship each other based on differences in doctrine. Sometimes these differences are quite minute. Whatever the difference, the church should always be a proponent of Jesus’ love creed, the creed to love first. There are many who point to the church’s inability to unify and love each other as the reason why the church is not a place the helps and heals but rather contributes to the problem. McLaughlin does a wonderful job of succinctly pointing out how the church needs to change to a love first mentality if it’s to accomplish the purpose it was made for in healing this world.

Is Your Faith Unbelievable?

The New Year is upon us and with it comes the inevitable New Year’s resolution. I actually look forward to this inevitability. While I’m sure many consider making these resolutions to be cliche or overly optimistic, I personally find it healthy, necessary, and even enjoyable. More on making resolutions for 2018 later.

One of my resolutions for 2017 and for 2018 has been and will be to read more books. I read pretty slow and have always been of the mindset that I’ll just watch the movie instead when it comes to books. Trouble is, not many movies hit the theaters that are concerned with how one can be a better youth minister, Christ follower, man of God, and husband. (If you know of any, let me know!) Now that I think of it, Chris Pratt portraying a youth minister who has to teach his youth to protect themselves from Satan, Thanos, or dinosaurs could be pretty cool…

 

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Something I’ve always been interested in since my days of being a teenager in a youth group is apologetics. “Apologetics” is just a word describing the reasoning through arguments and writings for a belief. I was interested in apologetics specifically about Christianity. The spiritual and emotional reasons for my faith in Christianity came pretty easily for me, even in my Christian infancy. But I tended to neglect the intellectual reasoning for Christianity as I grew into my faith. Why? Probably because I was fearful somewhere deep down that Christianity couldn’t hold up to the definitive, cold, hard facts of science. I also wasn’t even sure if my faith made complete sense on a philosophical level. My confidence for my faith to hold up against questions of science and philosophy has since grown thanks to my professors at Oklahoma Christian University and the few books I’ve visited on the subject. However, my curiosity to keep exploring these intellectual faith questions lingered and I wanted to keep exploring the arguments brought against Christianity as well as those for it.

Then I found “Unbelievable?”. A podcast put on by Premier Christian Radio in the UK hosted by Justin Brierley. I shouldn’t say I found it. My father and eldest brother had both been listening to it before me and encouraged me to give it a try. I’m not normally a podcast guy. My commute to work isn’t very long and I figured if there was a podcast really worth listening to they’d probably just make a movie out of it. Eventually I gave in on a day that I was travelling into Fort Worth and gave Justin’s show a listen. Let me briefly give you an idea of what the format of “Unbelievable?” is like.

Justin typically invites two individuals on his show who are both scholars, authors, and/or reputable professionals in their fields to argue opposing positions on topics of faith. Sometimes the topic will concern a theological issue the two individuals disagree on. However, the show is more known for its debates between believers and atheists. Their website describes it this way, “Unbelievable? engages in fundamental questions on Christianity with the intention to openly discuss different opinions between Christians and non-believers.” – www.premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Saturday/Unbelievable

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Certainly, this wasn’t a new idea. But what Unbelievable? brings to the table is a refreshing conversational dynamic that usually has a friendly tone of mutual respect (but certainly not always!). It’s this dynamic that drew me to this program. At times I lose myself to the idea that because I believe, conversations with nonbelievers is destined to be full of conflict and name-calling; unfruitful to even initiate. Unbelievable? has shown me that friendly conversations between believers and nonbelievers is possible and really should happen more!

Justin does a fantastic job as a, for the most part, neutral moderator for these conversations. He enforces fairness in giving equal time to all sides and always encourages his guests to be respectful to each other. More than this, he often takes up the cause of the listener in that he will summarize his understanding of what has been said and ask questions or ask the guests to unpack anything that might be uncommon knowledge.  The conversational dynamic, mutual respect, and impressive quality/caliber of his guests makes this apologetics debate program stand out (especially in comparison to the frustrating YouTube clips I sometimes catch of people angrily debating in an attempt to “own” the opposition). Justin’s podcast has been a delightful source for exercising my grey matter on the questions I have about my faith as it relates to science and philosophy in the face of atheistic arguments.

The reason for today’s post (I know, 5 years later) is that I recently read Justin Brierley’s book, aptly titled, “Unbelievable?”. This book comes at Justin’s 10 year mark of hosting Unbelievable? and it is great! Why is it great? Because I said so! No, but really, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Justin takes his 10 year experience of hearing some of the most educated, intelligent, and respected atheists and theists hash out the existence of God and faith itself. Not many people have that kind of resume (CV) and even fewer have written on that experience in such accessible fashion.

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Justin starts his first chapter by addressing exactly what his experience entails as host of this apologetics debate program and what Unbelievable? is. Furthermore, he addresses the need we have as Christians to create better conversations with nonbelievers beginning the chapter with a perfectly suited quote from Joseph Joubert, “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.”

While I certainly agree that more conversations need to happen between believers and nonbelievers, it is the remainder of this book that has intrigued me and benefited me the most. Justin methodically and deftly lays out the main questions posited by atheists about theism and gives his personal response to each one informed by his 10 years of conversing with and reading the works of some of the smartest believers living today.

  • Does God make sense of human existence?
  • Does God make sense of human value?
  • Does God make sense of human purpose?
  • Was Jesus an actual historical person?
  • Did the Resurrection actually occur?
  • How can an all powerful God be all good in the midst of suffering?

*He also recounts a short conversation he has with former atheist Jesus, Richard Dawkins. In that section he also gives a brief history of where atheism is today given the New Atheism, or “Atheism 2.0”, movement.*

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(Just a Joke! 🙂

Hearing these familiar arguments fleshed out from his unique perspective and following his conclusions on how God does make sense in all of these questions was educational and reassuring. Nothing has fundamentally changed about my belief in God. Faith remains a sightless assurance; something I can’t definitively prove to the nonbeliever but that still makes sense. But the questions about my faith I’ve tried in the past in vain to quell on my own are now helpful instead of harmful. Questions about faith, even the unanswered ones, are not scary. They are liberating. They create space for conversation between believers and nonbelievers. Studying these questions have even taught me some of the unhealthy arguments Christians sometimes utilize to point to God, such as the “God of the gaps” argument.

If you have found yourself, like me, sometimes in an aura of doubt and fear concerning the questions you’ve tried hard to ignore that seemingly oppose your faith, then I encourage you to address those questions head on. Search the scriptures, read a book, listen to a podcast, talk to a nonbeliever, even bring those questions to God in prayer. Yes, you need to be weary of the validity and academic integrity of some sources. Yes, some of the questions you have may not be completely satisfied. But remember… “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.” Decide to grow your faith by asking questions instead of stunting it with ignorance and fear.

In conclusion, I HIGHLY recommend the Unbelievable? podcast as well as the book.

Have you read other books or heard other podcasts that also address questions of God ad faith? I’d love to hear about them! Comment or post below to share sources that have helped you with questions you’ve had about your own faith.

“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,” – 1 Peter 3:15

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STAR WARS: The Last Jedi – Was it Awful? (spoiler-free review)

It’s finally here! Episode VIII of the Star Wars cinematic saga, The Last Jedi. If you haven’t yet seen this movie, you are in the right place. This review will not give away any critical details or plot points for The Last Jedi. Rather, this review should give you an idea of where to place your expectations going into the movie. If you have already seen the film, I can’t wait to discuss with you the spoiler details about this movie. There is certainly much to discuss. Feel free to message me and let me know your thoughts. PLEASE DO NOT comment with any spoilers for those who have not yet had the opportunity to see The Last Jedi.

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Rewind to two years ago in December, there was an enormous amount of hype for the first installment in the newest trilogy of the Star Wars saga, Episode VII, The Force Awakens. Hopes were astronomically high for this movie to help heal the wounds dealt by the prequel trilogy, recapture the magic of the original trilogy, and convince a completely new generation that Star Wars is indeed something special. A daunting task that would inevitably not leave everyone happy. While many complain that J.J. Abrams (director of The Force Awakens) was guilty of rehashing too many similar themes from episode IV, A New Hope, it’s my humble opinion that he did a stellar job and did indeed recapture the magic of Star Wars with exciting new characters and familiar old ones.

While the hype for the long awaited installment that kicked off this latest Star Wars trilogy could not be matched by this film, there was still much anticipation for TLJ, especially concerning questions posed in TFA that we craved answers to. So much so that fan theories were flying left and right as to the true identity of Snoke and the parentage of our main protagonist, Rey. Fast forward two years…

I was fortunate enough to see this film opening night with my amazing wife who dressed like a storm trooper to match my Darth Vader attire. Nerd goals right?

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So now that I’ve seen it and had a few days to digest it, take it all in, what can I say about this film? It was… different. Different in a good way? Absolutely! Different in a bad way. Without a doubt, yes. To be clear, I don’t mean different by way of a complete departure from the Star Wars universe that we know and love. It certainly feels like Star Wars. Everything from the AMAZING score with numerous call backs to the original trilogy to the cinematography made this movie feel like it definitely belongs in the Star Wars universe. However, there were elements that would make even some of the most amateur Star Wars fans scratch their heads and consider what Rian Johnson (director) was thinking. I’ll try to make a list of the pros and cons now that may be kind of vague to be sure I don’t get into spoiler territory.

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Cons: Cause I’m a bad news first kind of guy.

  1. Jokes – While there has been comedy injected to many of the Star Wars films, this one takes the cake for the most undeserved, unsettling, and unthematic attempt to solicit laughs. At times this seems because the joke seems to worldly (as in our present reality’s version of humor). For instance, think back to the previous installment, TFA, when Finn exclaims to BB-8. “Droid, please.” Other times the humor seems to be thoughtlessly thrown in amongst moments that were very serious or were pivotal points in the story. Just seemed irreverent at times. Not all of the jokes were off key, but the ones that were stuck out like a sore thumb.
  2. Irrelevant Plot Points – If you’ve seen this movie already, you know exactly what I’m talking about. There are adventures that some of our characters go off on that don’t affect the main story arc at all. They seem to be time fillers that are intended to show character arcs but instead end up feeling superfluous. At a run time of 2 hours and 33 minutes, this movie could have easily benefited from adhering to a more traditional 2 hour run time.
  3. New Characters – While I LOVED many of the new characters we were first introduced to in TFA (Rey, Kylo, Finn, Poe, even BB-8) there are more introduced in this movie that seemed completely unnecessary. Some because of the performances given. Others gave very convincing performances but didn’t seem to serve the story at all. Can’t say much more about that without getting into spoilers!
  4. Retroactive Plot Holes – Part of the curse of using different directors on these movies is that some plot points and questions that were emphasized in one installment may not be as important to the agenda of the next director. J.J. Abrams, and now Rian Johnson, have both introduced elements to Star Wars that make the sweaty nerds quote Han Solo, “That’s not how the force works!” Especially in TLJ there are some moments of force utilization that we have witnessed on screen before that make us ask, “Why wasn’t the force utilized similarly in these other scenarios in past Star Wars films?” While it’s really cool to see some of these new effects of the force, it does seem irreverence for the original trilogy and how the force is depicted in those movies is to blame.
  5. Ending – The very last scene is garbage.

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Pros: Enough negatives, on to the good stuff!

  1. Music/Sound Design – The aforementioned score is out of sight and a delight to enjoy in this film. John Williams can never die! There were so many callbacks to the original trilogy’s soundtracks that put a smile on my face every time I recognized one. At the same time, there’s new stuff that melds with the themes of original soundtracks beautifully. On top of that, the sound design for this movie was also quite astonishing. There were scenes that seemed liked all the air was sucked out of the room. So many scenes were served by such brilliant sound design. Once you see the movie I’m sure you’ll be able to pick out some of the scenes I’m referring to.
  2. Characters/Acting – Getting to catch back up some of the characters from the original trilogy and the new ones from TFA was just awesome. Mark Hamill’s performance is out of sight and Carrie Fisher is amazingly good! The dynamic between Rey and Luke, between Rey and Kylo, and between Kylo and Luke are all extremely well done and enjoyable to watch. So much more I could go on raving about in this category but I can’t without spoiling the movie!
  3. Cinematography – To the uninitiated, this is just a fancy word to talk about how a movie looks. This movie was gorgeous! Space battles in particular were just a nonstop thrill ride to watch. There were so many scenes that would make amazing posters or even better desktop wallpapers. There was one moment in particular that just left the entire audience breathless because not only of the weight of the moment story-wise but also just because of how that moment is depicted on the screen. Just incredible. Wisely, Rian Johnson did use practical effects were he could, following the example of J.J. Abrams who had learned rightly that a big problem with the prequels was the overuse of CGI. HOWEVER, there is an entire sequence that relies on CGI creatures in this movie that are distractedly unthematic and terrible looking. Aside from that sequence, the movie gets 5 stars from me in the area of cinematography.
  4. Unpredictable – There were certainly themes from Empire Strikes Back as well as other Star Wars movies. Even so, the movie is truly originally and one of the most delighting aspects of this movie was that there were moments where I thought I knew exactly what was going to happen and I was very wrong. Some of those moments made me angry but many of them were pleasant surprises and ultimately more satisfying than what I thought was going to happen.
  5. Ending –  Aside from the very last scene, the conclusion of this film actually seems genius to me. It doesn’t end on quite as much as a cliffhanger as TFA but it goes to a place that leaves me asking, “What is going to happen after all that?!” While it is definitely the 2nd movie in a trilogy it didn’t feel like a half or a third of a story. The ending seemed very fitting to the story told in The Last Jedi and I can’t wait to see Episode IX!

Hopefully that wasn’t too much to take in. I do hope you’ll now go into The Last Jedi with some tempered expectation. There were moments that felt like a straight up gut punch for hardcore Star Wars fans… but… I had an absolute blast seeing this movie and I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it when I see it again. It certainly has some problems I take issue with but is overall an exciting addition to the Star Wars saga.

Please comment below with your thoughts about The Last Jedi. Did you like it? Did you hate it? Whatever you do, don’t post any spoilers! Don’t be a nerf herder!

And for those of you who want to see The Last Jedi without having anything spoiled for you, you’ll probably want to go see it sooner rather than later!

Official SpeshAL Rating: Not Awful – 8 slices out of 10 from Pizza Planet

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