30 Days Of Gratitude – Day 23 – Preston Yancey

So we’re behind in this gratitude series, but we’ve had a couple of developments lately that have occupied a LOT of our attention.  And we don’t just mean Thanksgiving leftovers!

We wanted to give props to our pal, Preston Yancey.  Preston has been a friend of Paradise Recovered for a number of years now.  He’s a writer (CLICK to check out his blog at www.seeprestonblog.com), a scholar, and an all-around man of compassion.

He gets spiritual abuse.  And it makes him angry.

Preston wrote this review of Paradise Recovered back in 2011, but we felt that it deserved a larger audience.   We’re grateful to you, buddy.  Thanks for being you.

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“Are you truly committed to the needs and the vision of this church? God wants to know!”

Paradise Recovered is the most honest film I have ever had the privilege of watching or, more truthfully, experiencing.

I first became aware of the movie via Elizabeth Esther’s blog over the summer, when I was working with a church in Hartlepool, UK. The blossoming indie film follows the fictional journey of Esther Harris, who belongs to a fundamentalist Christian sect, as she starts working at local health food store when her church falls on hard times.

There, Esther meets Gabriel, who is a skeptic and a preacher’s kid, as well as Mark, who has a penchant for the entertaining side of Christian television. Esther’s relationship with the two young men help her discover her own value as well as to redefine and approach her faith in a new way.

When I viewed the trailer, my heart and my spirit seemed to run in opposite directions. I had a sense that this film had purpose and calling behind its craft. On the other hand, I felt tentativeness and worry. This would be a movie that was easy to turn into a condemnation of the Church, a heartbreaking rejection of God, and a steady slip into meaninglessness. I both wanted and dreaded the chance to see it.

Lo and behold, that hunger and fear were seemingly pointless. Paradise Recovered was far from my reach. What I was able to garner through blogs and tweets would have to satisfy me, for the film was making the rounds of film festivals and I was not within the proximity or the circles to chance to see it.

During that time, I became increasingly drawn to the project. Something resonated in my being with what I was reading about it and the tenderness with how it had been made. If I couldn’t see it, I resolved, I could contribute in the barest ways I knew: prayer and retweeting their updates and campaigns for finances.

By that point the semester had started and I was back at Baylor University taking classes, keeping the team in my daily prayers but not expecting to know the fruit of that labor for some time. That was until one morning when I received a call from one of my faculty advisors who told me that Baylor’s Honors College had decided to pay for me to attend the Austin Film Festival, as my recent success with having a publishing house express intent to produce my novel had given occasion to the possibility that I may also want to work in film. They intended to send me over the weekend so that I could attend the writing sessions and perhaps also catch a couple of the films.

I had no idea until I looked at the conference schedule that Paradise Recovered happened to be showing there. Essentially, my reaction was an immediate, “YES!” I had found this out only a week before I was to leave and admit that some nights I was like a kid on Christmas Eve, brimming with anticipation.

When I arrived at the festival, this was confirmed at registration. Pulling out my information, one of the organizers asked if I already had an idea of what films I wanted to see. I was about to answer when she broke in: “I highly recommend seeing Paradise Recovered. I saw it last night and it changed my life.” I think that’s a better review of the film than I could ever give.

Paradise Recovered seems at first a barebones kind of story. You presume a lot walking into it. As an evangelical Christian, I brought my own assumptions about what I was going to see. I imagine a skeptic or an atheist would carry a similar sense of his own expectations into the theater. What this film does, masterfully, is make us all wrong and all right all at the same time.

I grew up as a pastor’s kid in the Southern Baptist world. (For some, this will be as fundamentalist as they come. We ourselves wouldn’t be quick to think so, but the association is there from time to time.) What I grew up knowing was my parents’ devotion to loving people with grace. There were many times that my father sat in his office and counseled and consoled people coming out of extreme, fundamentalist cults. My mother, a champion of hospitality and tenderness, served hurting people by listening for however long it took, asking few questions, and being, simply, present.

I was raised to believe that grace and love were the champions of our faith. That while God did have laws and did have a desire for us to obey Him, we were obedient in so far as we responded out of a love for Him, a love that was often learned by seeing others love each other as God had loved them first.

Part of the brilliance of Paradise Recovered is that it shows a faith environment that hinges between obvious oppression and possible nuance. We want to quickly identify it as a cult and be done with it, but then we’re not as positive because the usual markers we have been trained to look for don’t seem to be there. That’s when the first line of presumptions start to crumble.

We learn to not look for what we expect to be the signs but to look instead into the faces of those who speak, to hear the voices, and to ask ourselves quietly if this seems to be the Gospel or a subtle abuse of it.

The years my parents have spent working with those leaving cultish environments have taught them to see the cries for help that are often masked in a thin layer of truth. Scripture is used and quoted, but the context and way it is used is slightly skewed. Our understanding of what it means to be in an environment where evil is done in the name of God must be shaken, or else we may not really see the cracks in the foundation of a life like Esther’s.

Enter Gabriel, the skeptic you can root for. Here’s where some of my assumptions began to fall apart. I found myself drawn to the goodness of Gabriel, who seemed to be the only voice of reason and selflessness. But he’s not, or at least doesn’t seem to think that he is, a Christian. How am I, a good Christian, supposed to respond to that?

On every level, this is a movie that is stunning. The acting is profoundly inspired. Storme Wood’s direction wrought a sumptuous feast of cinema, in which we do not watch actors but friends and family, people that you and I know and have talked to many times. Their faces tell stories, their eyes betray struggle. No one seems out of place or, better yet, stringently polished. They are real. They are incarnations of ideologies in conflict and the notable interaction of Heather del Rio (Esther) and Dane Seth Hurlburt (Gabriel) is a sonata in perfect harmony.

Some things that are so good seem to have a taste to them. Paradise Recovered is like the wine from Communion: sweet and tender on the pallet but with a burn that kisses your soul.

This is in no small part thanks to the exceptional writing of Andie Redwine. As a writer, I spend a lot of time paying attention to how others use words and construct their dialogue. What struck me, again and again, was how everything in the film was planned with such care. Specific lines were woven tenderly into the moments where they fit best. The journey from start to close littered with the most delicately crafted and luscious scenery that Redwine nurtured.

Even what could be considered an iconic, single use of the Lord’s name in vain in the film serves a unique and startlingly apt purpose. The realness of her characters and their struggle would be enough to praise the brilliance of the script, but the true joy is in the carefulness and grace that is steeped in the words. Paradise Recovered is an honest film, thanks to the honesty of its writer. Honesty to the point of tears.

In the Gospel of John, the resurrection of Jesus is framed with an emphasis on Mary Magdalene discovering the empty tomb. When she realizes that He is not there, it devastates her. Mary has only three day previous watched her Lord be raised on a cross and die in front of her eyes and, with Him, her hope. She goes to His grave to put spices on His body to avoid the stench and to honor Him, but an empty tomb is only a resounding emphasis of her loss.

Two angels greet her and assure her that He has risen, but she does not comprehend what they are saying. She can’t see Him, so He’s not there. But He is. Jesus approaches and asks why she is weeping and she fails to recognize His resurrected form. He doesn’t look how she expected Him to. He’s not the same as she had walked with Him knowing Him to be.

So she begs him to tell her where her Saviour has been taken. Perhaps he is the gardener and knows where He has been moved. Trembling she cries out, asking that if He would just tell her where, she will go get Him. But then Jesus says her name and suddenly, instantly, profoundly, Mary knows who He is. She knows the voice of her Saviour when He calls her name. He might not look how she expected, but He is nonetheless there.

Paradise Recovered is a film that watches its own Mary, through Esther, journey in the world asking where they have taken her Saviour. She cannot see Him, though she knows He is there. She roams through the wide roads of this life and stumbles, falls, and struggles to stand. At some of the most heartbreaking points in the film, she crawls and even lies motionless. But there comes a point when He speaks her name. It’s that moment that defines Paradise Recovered as the most beautiful and triumphant of films. It is a film that lets God be gigantic and His mercy be endless. It is a film that sees Him with fresh eyes and a hungry heart.

The film does not end neatly, not in the sense that we would perhaps like to expect. But it ends perfectly. In so far as Christ said to His followers, “Be ye perfect,” perfect being a sense of completeness, a completeness that requires a journey. The answer to the lingering questions of the film is found in the essential belief that God is a good God, who is ever at work in this world.

Paradise Recovered loves first those who have been hurt or abused by man masquerading as God, then it loves the people of God, loves His Church, and loves how abundantly present He is, even when He’s not how we expected Him to look.

I could not keep from sobbing by the close, as the beauty and truth was too devastating to encounter directly. This is not a film in the simple sense; it is a masterpiece of art and a triumph of hope. This is not a Christian film; this is a film a Christian would make.

“Are you truly committed to the needs and the vision of this church? God wants to know!”

That’s one of the lines the leader of the fundamentalist group that Esther belongs to speaks to his congregation via his television ministry. In the context of the film, it is a restricting and suffocating pronouncement of man’s law over God’s mercy. Yet, the film redeems the line by being the answer to it. It’s as if God asked Paradise Recovered if it was willing to be the kind of movie that stood for the values, the love, and the grace of His Church and it willingly answered back: “Here I am, send me.”

Preston Yancey – Baylor University

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