Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Shepherds of our Songs

It continues to disturb me that there aren't more (any?) contemporary artists out there combining a strong sense of the canon and biblical theology (esp. the psalter) in their lyrics matched thematically by music that reflects personal or collaborative artistic engagement with their subject material. Everything seems geared for CCM radio play, bubblegum-pop hymnody for the Osteen-era consistently tilting towards subjective and at times solipsistic (anything where the song is about the act of singing) theological reflection. Exceptions such as "In Christ Alone" and "Revelation Song" notwithstanding, this brand of flimsy congregational cheerleading has become so prevalent as to wear down whatever surprise at the phenomenon I might have had left--and it continues to eat at my hope for alternatives.

I'm always open to classic hymnody in settings new or old, although I have to admit the lyrical/melodic complexity of some hymns strains my ability to engage with them as worship rather than just keeping up with the syllables.

Contemplating the being, character and deeds of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is what I believe to be at the heart of worship, and so few of our contemporary works seem to have this task in mind with any kind of seriousness. The one major exception I know of is some of the music and lyrics coming out of the folks at the International House of Prayer in Kansas City, MO--they at least take this aim as their raison d'etre. Their strange theological emphases and own tendencies toward overt subjectivity, however, weaken their ability to put forth truly great examples of contemporary worship.

What I want to know is, where is the independent worship scene? Where are the artists and lyricists who compose in order to enrich the worship of the church without first being engineered for CCM radio? Where are the poets and the prophets, the singing theologians? What we sing about God has a profound affect on what we most deeply believe about him--lex orendi, lex credendi--where are the shepherds of our songs?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

God Doesn't Need Todd Bentley (or me for that matter)

Author's note: I grew up in a fundamentalist charismatic church and have been in many church meetings that at least looked like the ones depicted in this video. Although I left that tradition and culture for the Anglican church, it is not without respect for the genuine spiritual heritage of divine immediacy and biblical groundedness bequeathed to me by my charismatic upbringing. [added 8:03 PM, 9/25]

I watched this documentary of the 2008 Lakeland Revival in full today while adding comments on a friend's Facebook wall (she posted the link I followed to watch it) as I watched it. Here are some of the things I said, with additions:

"I can't get a read on this guy's (the filmmaker's) perspective after watching a half hour of this. Not sure whether that's good or bad."

"He certainly hasn't crafted a screed against it. There are moments where I feel like he's highlighting the socioeconomic and psychological instability of the people drawn into this, but his apparent refusal to editoralize makes it hard to tell what he thinks about that."

"Jesus Camp had a very clear perspective, sometimes to its detriment. The fact that he and his crew participate in 'revival' moments un-ironically locates them in particular way to the events. It's possible that they're attempting to do a positive spin in a dead-pan objective style. I at least appreciate it in that I feel free to sort through my own reactions instead of having it processed for me."

"The man talking about the 'little lambs' in the last 10 minutes or so was heart-breaking. Perhaps the most infuriating thing about the fallout has been Morningstar's 'restoration' doublespeak, which is all biblically absurd.

I was in a Todd Bentley meeting once, about nine years ago, and I didn't see any healings but I did experience God's presence in a powerful way. But 'anointed' or not, God doesn't need Todd Bentley. He might show up through the man's ministry from time to time--he's merciful and he does that. But with or without him, God will be present to his church.

That is part of why Morningstar's approach to this represents such a colossal failure of church discipline. It's as though their inflexible conception of revivalist as indispensable vessel has pressured them into a willfully ignorant application of Jesus and the apostles' teaching on marriage and divorce. It's heart-breaking because I know what it's like to be an emotionally wounded teenager in need of God and the example of virtuous leaders and just how confusing it would be to think that the backbone of God's most important ministries were somehow above the need for ethics.

I couldn't help but think of so much of what is onscreen during this documentary as a reflection of the charismatic world's rejection of reason in favor of gut-level intuition. As much as I don't want to take an entirely negative stance towards what I see going on in these revival services--I don't think it's all mass-psychosis and hysteria, because I've been there and God's been there with me--throughout the doc I was made repeatedly thankful for the Anglican seminary I ended up in, despite (because of?) the charismatic world I was reared in."


As we've been reading Francis MacNutt's Healing in class this past week, I've been thinking on and off about the healing ministry and the spiritual gifts in the church. I want that kind of ministry to be at work in the church and, no doubt from the influence of my charismatic/pentecostal upbringing, I can't help but see resistances to that ministry as both encroaching modernism and collusion with the principalities and powers. We talked in class last week about how abuses and disappointments also fuel reticence regarding healing and how to engage that both as pastors and people struggling with our own disappointments and weak faith. It's neither easy nor fun to try and engage with these dynamics, given the fact that so many go unhealed and unaffected by the gospel, but it's part of responding to God's call to ministry.

Watching this video, I couldn't help but think about some of my recent reflections on the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. What makes the Eucharist special is that Christ set it aside as a promised moment of encounter between God and his people, a symbolic remembrance that comes attached with a promise for the infusion of resurrection life. What's beautiful to me about it is the fact that God shows up to meet with his people in such a simple, no-fuss way--no strings attached. We prepare our hearts through corporate repentance and worship, yes, but Eucharist/communion is primarily a moment of receiving. It's not something the lay participant or the priest has power over, that either's worthiness or holiness makes valid. And by no means is it the only time God meets with his people or fills them with life! But it is a time and place set aside by God for that very thing, meaning that regardless of what has gone on in our week, regardless of how much energy we have left to give, God has promised to meet with us, Christ has promised to meet with us in the receiving of the bread and the wine.

God doesn't need the vessels or ambassadors he has chosen to work with and through, but he does work with and through them. God doesn't need the bread and the wine, but he does work in and through them. It is a small view of God to think that we need one particular minister or Christian leader so badly that we can overlook their personal sins in order to keep them on stage or at the altar. But it's often a big view of God that puts broken people like Todd Bentley in the limelight.

Too often I hear revivalists dismissed as flim-flammers, Machiavellian schemers who set out to dupe and destroy the church, with examples like Bentley offered up as exhibits A-Z. As much as I feel compelled to condemn the way this adulterer has been "restored" without repentance (which I'm not sure how that works in the case of divorce and remarriage, but it does seem like his second marriage would not be valid in God's eyes, given that he is not a widower), I don't see that as carte blanche for writing off spiritually efficacious ministry. It makes me long for it to be done rightly. It makes me long for people to be ministering in the power of the Spirit in ways that are submitted to church discipline, ethical standards and in ways that encourage instead of discourage rational engagement with the living God rather than the spasms and paroxysms of "revival". It's not God's design for us to look like crazy people being undone by unseen and unknowable powers, but to be humanity restored by divine life walking in love with Father-Son-Holy Spirit and our neighbors. I long to see the vital divine energy of revival being channeled in that way, for the power ministry of the apostles and prophets to coincide with the patient and reasonable application of the church's instruction.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Donald Miller's Tongue

What good is a phone call if you're unable to speak?

"At first, even though I could feel God writing something different, I'd play the scene the way I wanted. This never worked. It would always have been better to obey the Writer, the one who knows the better story. I'd talk poorly about somebody and immediately know I'd done it because I was insecure, and I'd know I was a weak character who was jealous and undisciplined.

So I started obeying a little. I'd feel God wanting me to hold my tongue, and I would.

It didn't feel natural at first; it felt fake, like I was being a character somebody else wanted me to be and not who I actually was; but if I held my tongue, the scene would play better, and I always felt better when it was done.

I started feeling like a better character, and when you are a better character, your story gets better too.

At first the feeling was only about holding my tongue. And when I learned to hold my tongue a bit, the Voice guided me from the defensive to the intentional. God wanted me to do things, to help people, to volunteer or write a letter or talk to my neighbor. Sometimes I'd do the thing God wanted, and the story always went well, of course; and sometimes I'd ignore it and watch television. But by this time I really came to believe the Voice was God, and God was trying to write a better story."

from A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller

This reminded me of a verse from the lectionary that got my attention a week or two ago:

"If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless." ~ James 1:26

Seriously, I love this guy.

As a seminarian avowedly jealous of stand-up comedians for all the things they are allowed to say and I am not, this verse has a special relevance to me. I like to talk loud and freely and am usually at my happiest when I take as many filters off as possible. But I find again and again that my friends are not nearly so enamored with my verbal kaleidoscope as I am.

Seeking more intentionality in my words is, frankly, a chore. And I feel fake for doing it. But I think I'm learning that loving my neighbor means feeling fake sometimes. I like to think of myself as a natural wit worthy of reverence and--especially so--attention, but, really, I'm not. And if I want to keep on being the kind of person who speaks their mind, who makes themselves consistently vulnerable through speech, I need to be willing to recognize that not everything that comes out of my mouth and my heart is something that people want to hear about. And I need to be willing to examine the heart and mind producing these words, and to bear all of the above in day to day repentance, reconciliation and renewal with the Father.

Was Jesus Mary-ed?

I guess it's because people get confused and tend to have misplaced trust in people in labcoats (or with PHd's), but the need for the apologetic community to loudly dismiss this text fragment suggesting Jesus might have had a wife feels a little desperate to me. Even if it is a genuinely ancient text, I struggle to see how it has any bearing on the witness of the NT. At the same time, the attempts of its finders and analyzers to make something out of it seems equally desperate, and a worst a cheap ploy for publicity. Why can't we just all be comfortable with saying, "Hey, someone found an old piece of paper with something written on it. Probably doesn't mean much historically, except in that it reflects the fact that someone wrote these words on this piece of paper a long time ago." It's a little absurd to treat every scrap recovered from antiquity as a reliable transmitter of "what really happened".

If you're not sure what I'm talking about, let me google that for you.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Romney the Candid-ate

Linked above is the playlist of MotherJones videos on YouTube. The first five or so are from Mitt Romney's May 2012 address to wealthy donors in Boca Raton, FL.

I'm not going to editorialize these leaked Romney vids from the Boca Raton fundraiser. My sympathies in this election are clear. However, these newly released videos are still fascinating for at least two non-partisan reasons:

1) This is probably the most candid you will ever hear a presidential candidate speaking. Romney is presumably addressing a roomful of wealthy supporters from whom he is soliciting campaign funds, and he is talking very bluntly about his perceptions of the shape of the race, the differences between him and Obama and what his campaign needs to address in order to win the race. I promise you he won't be bragging in a news interview any time soon about how they've hired professional campaign advisers who work in elections all over the world (and neither will Obama). I'm not surprised by anything Romney says in these videos, and I wouldn't be surprised if most of my conservative friends agree with him. This stuff is probably only really off-putting to the swing-voter--those 5-10% of Americans which Romney clearly outlines as who he has to win over to take the election.

2) Which brings me to my second point, that Romney's comments here about the targeted swing votes highlight a problem endemic to the two-party system. Our politics are unnecessarily polarized and force otherwise reasonable people into defending black-and-white reductions of the incredibly complex issues facing a country as large as the United States of America. Nobody likes it, but Romney is merely pointing out the uncomfortable truth of the contemporary American presidential election: most people have made up their minds before the candidates are even picked--all that matters is those 5-10% who might vote either way.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Chrysostom on Pastoral Care

"You cannot treat men with the same authority with which a shepherd treats a sheep... It is necessary to make a man better not by force but by persuasion. We neither have authority granted us by law to restrain sinners, nor, if it were, should we know how to use it, since God gives the crown to those who are kept from evil, not by force, but by choice."

~John Chrysostom, Six Books on the Priesthood (56; II.3)

The ecclesial implications are clear, but I think we should also heed the implications for Christian engagement with politics. "God gives the crown to those who are kept from evil, not by force, but by choice" implies that Christians should be careful when they frame their political goals in terms of legislated morality. The difference between wise public policy and Christian morality is not absolute, yet neither is it non-existent. Any given day I believe we are better off persuading the culture by example and in the Spirit rather than rallying ourselves around political causes in order to shape the culture from the top down.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Theology of Preaching

Having been to two separate services today at two different churches that I love very much, I came away better informed through the “word” portions of the services but with the feeling that maybe I hadn’t been preached to. Far and away both presentations were edifying and wise, giving me food for thought and helpful instruction. Teaching and informed sharing are fine, but where is the proclamation? Isn’t a Christian worship service about something more than getting some information? Don’t we believe in the mysterium tremendum of the Godhead, present with us and among us and through us? Isn’t that the main event?

It’s obvious (or at least I think it should be) that the ministry of the sacrament is a holy event of entering God’s presence and coming face to face with him in the body and blood of Christ. When we take communion, we’re enacting a ritual to which Jesus attached a promise. We are joining ourselves to him. Sometimes in sacramental theology the eucharist is called a “means of grace”--God is showing up in a special way as we commemorate the atoning death of Christ. We are invited together into the holy of holies, gathered all in the presence of the Lord.

I think that our theology of preaching should be something analogous to this. Preaching distinguishes itself from teaching by going beyond simple instruction to proclaim the nearness and relevance of God to the listeners. Like the ministry of the sacrament, the preacher invites the hearers to meet with God, to see God in the text and understand the invitation that is being given to engage with him through the Christian worship service. Preaching isn’t primarily about catechesis, but igniting the audience’s existential recognition that God is in the room with them and wants their attention. Like the ministry of the sacrament, preaching instigates the audience to engage their hearts and minds with the living presence of the king.

Preaching also compels the audience to the same sacramental vocation--bringing as many people as possible into communion with the living God.

Jesus & the Arab Spring

At church tonight our speaker, a missionary to North Africa, talked to us about Jesus and the Arab Spring. He began by historically and culturally contextualizing Jesus words on retaliation in the Sermon on the Mount and connecting them to the twentieth century tradition of nonviolent resistance epitomized by Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. These practices have not been what the Arab world has been known for, especially not so in the tumultuous almost-century since the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the European powers divided up North Africa and West Asia as they saw fit. However, the political revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia last year--collectively known as “The Arab Spring”--represented a high profile introduction of this concept to pan-Arab culture.

On December 17th, 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in front of the governor’s office. This tragic event, instigated as it was by economic despair and humiliation at the hands of public officials, electrified the nation of Tunisia leading to the nation-wide protests which eventually ousted the reigning dictator of multiple decades. The revolutions in Libya and Egypt followed--history in the making, as they say.

What filled me with hope while listening to this story tonight was the contrast between these events and those of many American and Christian imaginations this past decade. I recently came across a tape series that somehow ended up on the dirt cheap book rack in the seminary by a prominent and shrill televangelist. Shortsightedly titled “Iraq: The Final War” (it is dated to 2003), its flames and fury iconography succinctly captures the fear-mongering and hate-mongering I am thinking of, positing armed conflicts in Arab nations as harbingers of an apocalyptic end-time scenario in which the barbarous and demonic Muslims do their best to kill every Christian and Jew on the planet. Turns out God had something different in mind.

“He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.” ~ Acts 17:26-27

Many conservative Western Christians have imagined the Muslim world as a demonic horde, but as the first decade of the century came to a close we found that political destabilization had revealed our common humanity and even some of the politics of Jesus. Instead of tribalistic warfare or Islamic terrorism, the Arab world’s greatest political change of the last century was wrought (or at least sparked) via nonviolent resistance. This gives us hope, and it should give tired Christian workers hope, because it says that despite our debased fears and despite our conviction of humanity’s potential for brutality, we find that the words and politics of Jesus have a potent traction that can dramatically affect an entire region.

Though the tragic events in Syria this past year are a somewhat of a stinging rebuke to this line of thought, the Arab spring nonetheless testifies of Muslim nations capability for self-initiated and progressive reform. It teaches the church that we cannot get by with reductive demonizations of Arabs and Muslims, and that the wisdom of Christ penetrates and transforms hearts, cultures and countries in surprising and exciting and unpredictable moments and movements. God finds a way.

Part of the story about gospel work in North Africa is that many people needed to experience an existentially shaking event in order to be more open to the message of Jesus. Whatever sociopolitical analysis these events bear out, we should stay mindful and prayerful of their potential for being the basis of a stable and just society where the word of God can spread rapidly and Christ’s church can take root.

“I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” ~ 1 Timothy 2:1-2

Friday, September 7, 2012

Flying Blind

I hope my sermon went well this morning. My nerves were totally shot. I do all my writing in Google Docs because cloud saving is awesome and my starter edition of MS Word doesn't make footnotes. This morning, however, I woke up to discover that Google had eaten the end of my sermon and that I needed to write a new one. This process pressed me uncomfortably close to when I was supposed to be at chapel but I was done and OK--only to find the printer unwilling to print my manuscript. Freak out time.


Ok. Screaming done.

By the time I try to get it to work made me late and I had nothing concrete to show for it except frayed nerves. Service had already started, I hadn't yet sifted through the vestments to find the ones that fit and I was about to give my first ever sermon from memory. After preaching a good many times I've become more or less comfortable and confident in the pulpit, except I've always had a manuscript. I've learned how not to look at it the whole time and add flourishes and digressions that help make things seem less scripted, but I've always had that carefully crafted, typed copy to keep me concise, on point, clear and well within the time frame (which is 5-7 minutes at Trinity).

So I did it. And it went reasonably well. I was happy to find my brain could access the ideas I laid out in more or less the order I wanted to say them. But I can never tell how much of the internal trembling I feel is external. I kind of doubt it's as obvious to the room as it is to me, but it certainly doesn't feel that way. Feedback afterwards was positive, although the eager-to-please student in me is disappointed that there are no professor evaluations of sermons for the first week of class. Both because I cherish the approval and because I feel able to trust them not just to be nice and reassuring. Thank you to everyone who complimented me afterwards! Please don't take offense at my neuroses in this area.

I think, though, it means I need to do it again next time. I've thought some recently about trying to move away from manuscripts, but I'm not sure when I would have made the decision to do it myself. God found a way to do it for me.

Wax and Clay

This is the text of the sermon I delivered today in chapel. It is based on the gospel reading for today, John 9:18-41.

“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe” (Ephesians 1:15-19).

In our gospel reading for this morning, we catch the aftermath of Jesus healing a blind man on the sabbath. The previous chapter details the Pharisees’ burgeoning opposition to Jesus, capped off by the Lord’s radically offensive claim that “before Abraham was, I am.” We might therefore see the action of our chapter, chapter nine, as Christ’s active unpacking of that declaration through another offensive act. He equates himself with the creator God in one chapter and follows it up with a creative miracle in the next. But he will not do it in a way that satisfies his opponents. Even as he is giving solid evidence of his grand theological claim about himself, even as he is drawing this formerly blind man into saving faith, he is pushing away the Pharisees who ultimately reject both his claim and the saving faith that comes with it.

Of course part of what’s so troubling for the Pharisees is that this man was born blind, meaning his sight could not be restored by something that only seemed miraculous. We see them over the course of our reading attempt to systematically dismantle the proposition which has been put to them: the man flouting their religious authority and tradition is exercising power only a man blessed by God could use. In order to defend themselves they must insist against Jesus. How did this happen? they want to know. Surely this man is evil, they insist. As Jesus acts to make himself known, they put up barrier after barrier in order to refuse to acknowledge who he is. And therefore these self-professed men of God are refusing to acknowledge who God the Father is.

The healed man, however, has had his physical sight restored and is gradually being given spiritual eyesight as well. There is a blunt simplicity to how it begins for him: he simply knows that he was blind, now he sees, and he sees because of Jesus. The Pharisees’ interrogation of him has a clawing desperation by comparison. They must strive to maintain the facade while he only has to cling to the truth.

These two responses to Jesus echo Origen’s observation that it is the same sun that melts wax and hardens clay. It remains a mystery to us why it is that some people respond to Jesus in faith and others in indifference or hostility. It seems we are best, along with Article 17 of the 39 Articles, acknowledging our ignorance on this point. It does not convert souls to dispute the difference, it does nothing for our confidence in God’s grace either. In his commentary on this chapter, our professor Rod Whitacre writes that “Unless God opens our eyes we will not see, but he is offering sight to all who will receive it--such is the biblical antinomy of divine sovereignty and human responsibility.” We stand at the intersection of these contrasting biblical truths, and we must trust that our anguish for the injustice and suffering put on humans bound by and condemned for sin pales in comparison to our Father’s.

I am reminded of my own spiritual journey which, although it began in the Charismatic church, has not been a straightforward Wesleyan tale of my personal choices for Jesus. My spirituality and convictions are rooted irrevocably in the strange moments where God has been powerfully present to me. As a result, I’ve ended up with a much higher view of God’s initiative and a much lower view of my own than a lot of speech from my tradition would seem to imply. I will spare you the sordid tale, but I have not been the best Christian! I even abandoned the faith entirely as a teenager, an event which occurred only after the very profound holy encounters that shaped me relatively early in my life.

I have found that God is often ready to show up and that I am not always ready to meet him. I have found that despite my sin and rebellion, he has doggedly pursued me for at least two decades, if not even back further than I can remember. In short, I’m not at seminary because I believe in myself so much as the God who keeps bringing me back to himself; the God who can’t seems so stubbornly unwilling to let me out of his grasp. Jeff Goldblum once said, “Life finds a way.” Well, God finds a way. And he keeps on finding a way with me.

This keeps me, and I think it should keep us, from being too proud of our faith in the Lord. I think about my life and wonder sometimes, “Why me? Why is it me, Lord, and not this other person whom you reached out to in this way, whose heart you turned toward you?” When you praise him, when you love him, when you thank him, when you pray to him--are you in some sense proud of yourself? Is there a part of you that might think about “unbelievers” and “sinners” and thank God that you are not like them? This passage should give us pause, because we must all know that we at least started out no better than the Pharisees. Yes, their words and deeds are abhorrent and Jesus clearly condemns them, but we need to be able to see ourselves in them. We need to be able to understand that, without God’s intervention in our hearts, we could have been them. We could be left to the darkness of the world, to be warped and corrupted by sin into people of hate and selfishness.

It is a mystery and one that we should not take upon ourselves to solve. But as part of the humility which God desires for his people we must recognize that our redemption from sin and wickedness does not belong to us; it is not ours to take credit for. “If you were blind,” Jesus says, “you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see’, your sin remains.” Jesus is using the healing of this blind man to expose the hardened hearts of men who have claimed to be the spiritually illumined leaders of God’s people. The blind man’s simple, faithful response in and of itself becomes a rebuke to their calculated hostility and pride. It serves as a lesson to us as well.

We all are blind or began blind! We are all at the mercy of the God who takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. That’s what lead Jesus to the cross--that’s the gospel. God’s mercy has been extended to us who deserved none. We may wrestle sometimes with the question of “why me and not this person or that person”, and I think those moments are part of God’s invitation to ministry. Recognizing that God pulled us from darkness and into the light should give us hope that the same can happen for anyone else, that God desires this for every person we meet.

Let us remember today, then, the Pharisee in all of us. The hard heart in need of a gracious God to pursue us and draw us to him. It will strengthen our relationship with him to do this, to have a consistent attitude of humility before his grace. And it will remind us that the same God who called us out of darkness and into the light is ready to go on doing that, ready for us to join in his mission of finding once hostile and corrupt hearts and melting them with his grace.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Preaching to Myself

"Take delight in Yahweh, and he will give you the desires of your heart." ~ Psalm 37:4

How is it that this verse consistently shows up in the office and lectionary when my heart is restless? Rhetorical question. It's a verse that gets quoted a lot in some circles, with good reason, although sometimes it seems to be ascribed a kind of magical quality as though having more quiet times or enthusiastic worship experiences was the key to getting the things you want from God. As I've been reading in the Anglican theologian Richard Hooker this week, we've gotta recognize that God is The Thing that we want. The highest good that all other goods point us to, that all desires for good things ultimately have their meaning in.

That's not to say, of course, that God doesn't give us the lesser goods we desire. I think there is an intentional ambiguity in the phrasing: God gives those delighted in him both the objects of their desires as well as redeemed desires in place of broken ones. I've heard some people talk about about the latter reading as the primary one, a little too self-satisfied in their cleverness for reading it differently than most, but read in context the former reading has to take precedence. You can't read Psalm 37 as part of the whole canon without hearing its very clear reliance on the Deuteronomic promise of blessing and cursing (Deuteronomy 11) especially as it pertains to the land.

The psalmist is setting up an active attitude of the heart becoming of God's people, who walk in humility before God rather than worry about all the power and wealth that the wicked have. Psalm 37 recapitulates God's covenant with Israel by saying, "Live in this way and you will be bearer's of Yahweh's blessing and promise", and by downplaying the success of people who do evil, "Better is a little that the righteous person has than the abundance of many wicked" (v16). It's not our goal to have all the stuff possessed by those who live without reference to the God of Israel, but to be possessed by him and delight in what we do have, trusting the Lord to meet our needs and bring us joy.

And this heart attitude has been adopted by Jesus as part of the core of the way of life he teaches us: "The meek shall inherit the land" (v11) could not be a clearer antecedent to "The meek shall inherit the earth" (Matthew 5:5), which includes Christ's subtle indication that Yahweh's claim is on the whole earth and not just the tiny Palestinian strip between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. It's so tempting, especially as one discerning a call to the ministry, to look at what is had by "the world" and covet it and disdain the narrow path of God. God, the psalmist and Jesus, however, are reassuring me this morning that the relatively little that I have is better, given that God himself is the ultimate compensation.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Call Me, Maybe

It used to be, or I should say it has been for the past decade, the case that when my 2 year contract came up I could get a "free" or very cheap cell phone and maintain my monthly plan. Thanks to smartphones, however, this is no longer the case. Apparently smartphone demand has incentivized cell phone companies to no longer offer free/very cheap phones that do not require a $30/month data fee. The end result is that I am punished for being relatively poor. Looks like I'll be making a visit to Wal-Mart and/or Boost Mobile to check out my options.

An affordable cell phone option. "I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that."

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


"And so it is rightly proposed that they also implied that the text is 'witness' to the Word of God and that its authority derives from that witness rather than from any inherent, divinized quality."

~Hans Frei, "Conflicts in Interpretation" in Theology Today, October 1992, vol. 49 no. 3, 354.

via Don Collett

I can't help but get excited when I come across quotes along these lines. I got tired a while ago of Christians talking about the Bible like Muslims talk about the Quran.

No Money, Mo' Problems

Ack. Day one of the week before school witnessed a Hebrew headache and a mild bout of panic. House issues, money issues and a reminder of how much Hebrew stressed me out and depressed me last spring all came together in a rush.

I asked a trusted professor for prayer in the library and then just packed it up because if I had to look at another Hebrew word I think I was going to start bleeding from the eyes. For some reason it's just occurring to me that I really need to pay attention to my internal signals and not just try and ignore them like a boss. My friends Scott and Rebecca helped me afterwards by a giggly revisit to the beginning of Parks and Recreation's second season--Leslie and Ron were great spirit-lifters. By the way, TV on Netflix (TV everywhere?) is so much better taken with other people than alone. Most of my Netflix watching has only ever been alone.

Then we had the usual Monday D&D session--last night a besieged dwarf town defended itself from an orcish horde and we pitched in. I sat in for a friend who's out of town and played her lawful-good dwarf cleric, a change of pace for me but with little need for nuance. I was literally following a script, which is what lawful-good characters do anyway. :P I actually know some of the secrets the DM has planned for this part of the narrative, but I am sworn to secrecy. We are just on the cusp of them.

Today is bill-paying, more Hebrew, and I'm going to try and write a review of The Expendables 2. If you watch the trailer and still want to see it, you will have a blast. But honestly it's kind of a crappy movie that I still really enjoyed.

Monday, August 27, 2012

FTL Spooling

Last week til the semester starts. I am doing responsible things (:O!!!!) to get ready for it. I hope this habit lasts.

When I am in a healthier frame of mind--like I have been, uh, since last Thursday (emphasis on healthi-ER)--things just come a little easier. My sleep cycle tends to reverse directions, bedtimes and waketimes gradually getting earlier. I am able to think about (and somewhat implement!) things like exercise and healthy eating, bible and prayer, academic what-have-you. So, good start so far; prayers always appreciated.

I'm going to try to write a lot more. I realized that I just need to embrace my love of and skills of writing. All these pesky little thoughts waiting to jump from the electrical signals in my brain through my fingers on the keyboard and into my laptop's RAM and then the CLOUD. I've got an idea for this blog about comparing comedians and preachers, and how jealous I am of the former; I've another for Lights in the Darkness using The Incredibles and Ratatouille to talk about creativity and what constitutes "art".

Enjoy this little ditty: (PBS on YouTube rocks!)

Friday, August 24, 2012

Clear as Mud

It can be hard to know what to blog about. Shoot, it's hard to know how to relate to people in general sometimes. I'm always asking, "How much do I share?"--wait, scratch that. I'm usually gripped by a sensitive subconscious screaming "Don't share too much! Hide!" Sarcasm works. So does pouring my energy into writing about something impersonal like movies. But what about me? What about the real me? Not the digital avatar of my Facebook profile, not the film critic, not the theology student, not the prospective priest. Mike. Me.

I have a good group of friends, and I think we love each other. That's not a dis against any of them, but I wouldn't say my friend group is especially close. I think, though, that some of them would be surprised if they were to meet the me of before seminary. Especially the me of college. They would notice maybe an unfamiliar reticence, an uneasy shame of my deep-seated nerdery, a naive optimism and the nagging leftovers of fundamentalism.

One reason I am thankful for my friends right now is because they are generally a people with whom I can speak my mind--being Christians, nerds, intellectuals none interested in pursuing de facto American evangelicalism as the church's future. I really appreciate the greater freedom I have with them to speak my mind, to emote and react, but having suppressed the tensions between the expectations of church culture and my own raw impulses for so long has left me with little discernment as how to be authentic without devolving into self-indulgence.

I recently came across this piece at the Burnside Writer's Collective, a Christian website which has published some of my film reviews this summer. I laughed and drank in the encouragement as I read it, thrilled by the author's evocation of a very familiar church subculture and her humanizing rebellion from its absurdities. She writes directly, honestly, and with earnestness about faith and navigating between self and church culture.

I appreciate her strong authorial voice because, at least to myself, I have felt so much in lack of my own. There have been influential individuals in my life who have done much to shape my view of the world, my view of God, Christianity and so on; influential such that my own perspective has often been a triangulation of multiple sources rather than its own thing. I have been by turns fundamentalist, liberal, anti-intellectual, intellectual, charismatic, traditional; at once gleefully optimistic and deeply afraid; prudish and licentious; sometimes disciplined but always a raging train wreck.

As I have been through a process of stripping away my past, I have had to say, "I will no longer listen to this person or that perspective just because." And as the layers peel back I fear more and more there's nothing at the center of the onion.

Except, and my sole comfort is this, that half-forgotten somewhere in my formative years are the moments that infused me with faith. Call them mystical experiences, private religious experiences, whatever, but they're mine and no one can take them away. It's a terrifying trust I enter into to try and move forward with the God who speaks to my heart, believing he's the God of Judeo-Christian Scripture, trusting that his creational authorship implies he and he alone holds the keys to wise living in a messed up world.

It's a terrifying trust to take him at his word with the way of life implied by the Bible. The life Jesus exemplified. That I'll really be better off loving him and loving others instead of myself. At the end of the day he's what I have--"To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life." I'm trying to move forward, to grasp God and who I am and what I love doing and what he's getting up to in the midst of that and I have no idea where it'll lead me. Maybe I'll become a priest one day, maybe I'll be a Starbucks lifer who watches a lot of movies and loves role-playing games. Whatever I do, I'll be trying to do it god-ward, and I'll be doing it as myself. Whatever that means.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Top Ten Alternatives to "Christianity Isn't a Religion..."

There's was a bit of a subcultural brouhaha a month or two ago over a viral video spoken word titled "I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus." It delighted many, angered some and no doubt confused others (not least non-Christians). You may or may not be familiar with the saying used in certain Christian circles that goes, "Christianity isn't a religion, it's a relationship." It's usually meant to mean that Christianity isn't about keeping rules in order to satisfy God's demands (what Protestants would call "legalism"), but rather a personal relationship with Jesus Christ based on God's gracious forgiveness to us through Jesus's atoning death and resurrection.

So, there's nothing wrong with the idea per se, except that it basically fails to communicate with people based on what the word "religion" means in common use. One must first learn what these people mean by religion (something man-made and legalistic) in order to get their point. The problem is, most people in our culture can't hear it that way because that's not how Western English-speakers talk about religion. And if, as a Christian, you walked around saying "Christianity is not a set of beliefs about transcendent reality and how humans fit into it, it's a relationship", you could be justly accused of agnosticism or worse.

I thought it could be fun and useful to think of some alternatives. Here's what I came up with:

10) Christianity is not an arbitrary list of rules that are impossible to follow, it's an offer from God to deliver us from how messed up we are.

9) Christianity is not a set of practices meant to appease the angry gods, it's a gracious entreaty of reconciliation from the one true God.

8) Christianity is not the opiate of the masses, it's the proclamation of a sacred kingdom which humbles the privileged and privileges the humble.

7) Christianity is not a vague sentiment about universal spirituality, it's a concrete revelation of the Triune God.

6) Christianity is not a privately held devotion mostly or only relevant to personal growth and self-actualization, it's public news about the incarnate God who acted once for all to redeem the whole earth from chaos, death and evil.

5) Christianity is not a cultural leftover of hegemonic nineteenth-century Eurocentric imperialism, it's a preserved tradition of oppressed first-century Palestinian radicalism.

4) Christianity is not an irrelevant tradition defended by pedophiles, it's a rich spiritual heritage epitomized by saints.

3) Christianity is not an intolerant suppressor of scientific truth, it's a celebration of the God who made the human mind and the created world it studies.

2) Christianity is not a lame killjoy that hates everything fun, it's a testimony to the wise living which unlocks the secret of enduring joy.

1) Christianity is not about us, it's about Jesus.

"Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world." ~ James 1:27

Friday, June 8, 2012

Never Let Go, Jesus

My homily from this morning, 6/8/12.  The text is Matthew 14:22-36, where the disciples see Jesus walking on water and Peter climbs out of their boat to join him.

We all know the story of the Titanic. Its sinking just had its one hundredth anniversary. It’s the subject of a billion dollar grossing movie. And why? I think it’s because the story has a kind of primal appeal, rooted in that timeworn contest between humankind and our environment. For ancient humans the sea represented a vast, untamable expanse whose chaos they distilled into myths of dragons, of Scylla and Charybdis, of leviathan and Poseidon. Today it remains one of Earth’s last great frontiers, whose depths even intrepid billionaires like James Cameron can barely begin to plumb. The Titanic itself was an early twentieth-century marvel, praised by contemporaries as “unsinkable”--a victory of humans over nature. But the icy waters of the North Atlantic claimed the ship anyway, its tale now told over and over again as only one of many times humanity’s combined reason and effort failed to meet our twentieth century dreams of progress and autonomy.

My point is that, even for the richest, most technologically equipped of us, bodies of water remain places of danger and uncertainty. Just as there’s something reassuring about disembarking from an airline flight and placing your feet on solid ground, we instinctually prefer living on land than at sea. So we should have no problem placing ourselves in the nerve-wracked and trembling shoes of the disciples in our gospel reading this morning. No problem imagining the aggressive yaw and pitch of their wave-battered vessel. And since, despite the promises of Back to the Future, there have been no major advances in water-walking since the first century, we can easily share in their shock at seeing a man walking towards them over the waves. They imagine a ghost, but the reality is far more interesting.

“Take heart,” Jesus says, “It is I; don’t be afraid.” A man walking on water requires some rethinking; at least a ghost tends to float. Jesus, having just shown his power over resources in the multiplication of the fish and loaves, ups the ante by treating the hazard of open water as though he were strolling on a garden path. Six chapters earlier, a squall ceased at his command. Now, even the most basic elements behave on his terms rather than their own.

Our other lead actor in this story is Peter. Notice that Jesus does not first call to him, but rather Peter takes the initiative. Peter sees something being done that no one has ever done before. Nowhere in all the stories of their forefathers had such a thing been heard of. God had cleared the waters away so that his people could walk on dry ground, but here was a man walking on the water itself. For Jesus, the security of dry ground was unnecessary.

I believe Peter had the right instinct: he says, “I want to go where the impossible is happening.” Because, honestly, what’s so interesting about everyday life? About the way the world works most of the time? I’m sorry, but it’s too boring. It’s too cruel and too casual. Peter saw Jesus on the water and recognized what was going on: “The God who rules the waters is among us,” he thinks. Perhaps he recalled some stirring Psalm, some oracle of Isaiah, some theophany out of Job where Yahweh’s lordship over the waters is proclaimed. Or maybe his thoughts simply drifted back to the beginning, when the very breath of God was hovering tremulously over the waters.

Peter has not yet made his strong proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God, but it would seem here that he is well on his way. He would have known that the God who created the world is the God of Israel’s covenant. As it says in Psalm 95, “The sea is his, for he made it... we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” He has that flash of recognition that all who know Jesus can identify with, that moment when we see things go differently when he’s around. Where otherwise we would drown and die, Jesus lifts us up. Peter has the right idea: go where Jesus is. But it turns out he’s not quite ready. He sees the violence of the waves, remembers the nature of the world he lives in and begins to forget about the Savior, begins to sink in just like anyone else would.

How many of us can identify with Peter here? If you’ve ever gone out on a limb in order to follow Jesus I’d be surprised if you can’t put yourself in his shoes. We know that things go differently when Jesus is around. The dead are brought back to life--how different can it get? We might have a sense of calling to go here or there, to do this thing or that, knowing it’s risky, putting our faith in the one who calls those things that are not as though they were. Who brings light from darkness. Who makes nothing into something. That’s the God of our confession, the Savior to whom we belong, and somewhere in our hearts we know we’d be foolish to live our lives in a different way.

But then we see the powerful waters surrounding us. The bills come in. Our plans don’t come to fruition as we’d hoped. The car gets totaled. Our heart gets crushed by--fill in the blank. Disappointment. Betrayal. Loss. Not least, it’s often when we’re standing out there with nothing but Jesus that we start to learn what we’re really made of. Like Gandalf said, “It's a dangerous business... going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

Again, Peter has the right instinct. As he’s slipping down into the sea he cries, “Lord, save me!”, and Jesus pulls him up. It’s this response, this petition that must be our lifeblood. Quoting the prophet Joel to talk about Jesus, Paul wrote that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Peter’s walk onto the water shows us that it’s being with Jesus that counts, and only that. The waters didn’t stop churning when he walked out. The situation didn’t change, but the authority of Jesus changed how Peter could relate to his situation. It’s an exciting prospect to know and follow Jesus, but it’s not a safe one. Notice that being with Jesus meant being out of the boat. Going with him will look crazy and suicidal to other people, but being with him is the only way we’re ever really going to live.

So, what do we do? I’m challenged to look at the churning waters in my own life. Money. School. Ministry. Personal Growth. And so on. Honestly, sometimes I feel crushed and hopeless about the challenges I face. And yes, Jesus probably gets frustrated with me like he did with Peter. “Really?” he might say, “Where’s your faith? C’mon!” But, his hand is always held out. I can always call on his name. No matter what I did yesterday or what I might do today, I can call on the name of Jesus and expect salvation. All of us can. Amen.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Church Fathers

"The ancient Eastern churches did not have scholars or theologians, but rather 'Fathers of the church.' The assumption behind that language is: Only when we see the authenticity of your piety, and your commitment to the church, will we take your scholarship seriously."

~Ken Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes (IVP), 123.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Light in the Darkness

This is my chapel homily from yesterday morning. I am preaching from the gospel text for the day, Matthew 4:12-17.

Opening verse (for prayer):
“For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:5-6).

We are all too familiar with darkness. We don’t even need to look beyond ourselves, our families or our friends before we find troubling evidence of sin. Life hurts. We’re broken people--all of us--in need of a savior. We’re part of a world in need of someone who can fix the problems that are too numerous or too--problematic--for us to take care of ourselves. This morning I want to talk about the light amidst this darkness. The guidance, the warmth, the color and life-giving energy which can only be found in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the God who became a man in order to fix the things that can’t be fixed.

In our passage from Matthew this morning, we read about Jesus, who has just been claimed by Father God as his Son and been put to the test by Satan in the wilderness. After the devil’s departure, it says that Jesus traveled to Galilee “so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles--
the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, 

and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.’”

The text here tells us something important. The world Jesus lived in was just like ours: it was messed up. In fact, most of us here today would probably have to move to a different country--or at least a different neighborhood--in order to grasp the particular and repugnant ways in which first century Palestine was not a great place to live.

Galilee in particular was especially inessential to the “powers” of that day, sort of a backwater to the already backwater Roman colony of Israel. Think of Luke’s terse introduction of John the Baptist’s ministry--this man was in power here, and another here and another there, and the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. It was the “region and shadow of death”, far removed from so-called civilization as well as the felt board sanitized imaginations of Sunday school.

Moreover, we know that the nation of Israel herself had been suffering the darkness of pagan rule for centuries. And she had been suffering the consequences of her own rebellion even longer than that. As God’s chosen people, Israel demonstrated what it looks like for human beings to be called by God: even when we know the right thing to do, we screw it up over and over again. The history of Israel is kind of like human history, condensed and put in direct relation to God in order to make the point that even with a comprehensive list of all the right things to do humans are still terrible at getting it right. Like the psalmist says, “No one does the right thing.”

These historical particulars make a connecting point for us. If we can see the world Jesus came to as deeply troubled, we can see the deeply troubled world we live in as a theater of operations for Jesus. The fact that we find ourselves in darkness does not undermine the witness of the biblical text, but rather grabs our attention and draws us to seek out the light that can be found there. The fact that we see our unbelief in the pagans underscores the relevance of Christ to us. The fact that we see our resistance to God’s righteousness in the Jews underscores the relevance of Christ to us. Like the people of Galilee, we’re walking about in darkness, sometimes even unaware that we’re looking for the light.

Jesus, as God incarnate, could walk out into the wilderness like Israel and there remain faithful to Father God unlike Israel. He was the Word--that personage in the God of Israel prone to reveal and communicate the transcendent God to his finite creation. And he was the Word become flesh, God made human so that not only could the truth be spoken to creation, but that creation itself might be changed, might be redeemed and reflect the beauty and truth of God once more. Just as Israel demonstrated humanity’s incapacity for change, Jesus the God-man demonstrated a humanity infused with the power of salvation--a light in the darkness. Jesus, in and of himself, was the announcement that humanity would not forever be bound by sin and chaos, that all powers political and spiritual were undone and being undone by him, the true king.

Like a porchlight attracting moths, Jesus proceeded to go about Galilee proclaiming the same message as John the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” For those of us living in darkness, the introduction of light to our environment hurts our eyes at first, pushes us away, and we find that we’re actually more comfortable in the dark. We’ve become accustomed to slavery--as C.S. Lewis said, we’re like children playing in the mud who don’t understand what’s being offered when we’re invited to go on holiday at the sea. The Light in our midst shows us for who we really are, and, though it pains us, we must own our failures and dysfunctions and walk toward the light anyway.

I say then, to myself and everyone here, “Repent!” Look at the light. Look to the God-man Jesus Christ, the one who shows us that human beings can now once for all be empowered to fulfill the special calling of God. The longer we cling to our business-as-usual, crappy way of life the more we hurt ourselves and we hurt others. Let us embrace the risen Lord Jesus and walk in his light, full of the grace and love that dispel sin and bring peace and blessing. Save us, God! Deliver us from darkness and let the light of Christ shine in our hearts! Amen.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Lights in the Darkness

Hey everyone, I've started a dedicated film blog at www.lightsinthedarkness.com.  Check it out if you're interested.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Blank Comedy

Death to Smoochy or Friday?

"Tasteful Child-Killing"

I have almost no exposure to The Hunger Games, but I found some comments from this review to be insightful about the way blockbuster film-making tends to sanitize certain themes for the sake of mass appeal.  The fact that the theme in this case is child sacrifice makes the point ever more potent.

"The audience at Monday’s packed preview of The Hunger Games came out juiced and happy, ready to spread the good word, while all I could think was,They’ve just seen a movie in which twenty-plus kids are murdered. Why aren’t they devastated? If the filmmakers had done their job with any courage, the audience would have been both juiced and devastated."
"If the movie’s director, Gary Ross, has qualms about kids killing kids he doesn’t share them with the audience. The murders onscreen are quick and, apart from a mean girl stung to death by wasps, clean. The cutting is so fast that you can hardly see what’s happening, which has already won Ross praise for his restraint, his tastefulness. Tasteful child-killing!"
"By taking the sting out of death, he has a made a slaughterfest for the whole family."
"But where is the pervasive, lingering sense of loss? Where is the horror? Maybe the true horror is how easily the movie goes down."
The problem of sanitization is endemic to the economics of film-making, so this outcome should come as no surprise.  I think these words grabbed because of my sneaking suspicion that I'm about to be seeing lots of Facebook updates about how awesome The Hunger Games movie is.

On the other hand, how awesome would it be if the film's tagline in posters and movie trailers was:

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, reviewed.

The Planet of the Apes series is a vintage science fiction film and television saga detailing the decline of the human race and Earth's eventual takeover by super-intelligent simians. It began in 1968 with Charlton Heston as a astronaut crash-landed on what he believes to be an alien planet where apes hunt and enslave man until the film's big ending: it's Earth! That shouldn't be a spoiler for most people--Fox studios didn't seem to think so, as Rise (hereafter, RotPotA) presumes this ending--but here's the dramatic and iconic reveal even Madagascar assumes you'll understand:

Having only seen the first film, I have no idea how the most recent film coheres with the Apes canon, so to speak, except to say that I learned from IMDb that Battle for the Planet of the Apes does in fact feature a super-intelligent ape named Caesar leading the simian uprising against the human race.

Where RotPotA picks up, it's roughly the modern day and Dr. Will Rodman (a miscast James Franco) is researching an Alzheimer's cure by treating chimpanzees with gene therapy. Actually, if you've seen Deep Blue Sea, the premise is cut and pasted from that film but with monkeys switched out for sharks. Nevertheless, RotPotA is exhibit A for Ebert's maxim that a movie is not good because of what it's about, but because of how it's about it--i.e. it's all in, you know, they way they tell the story. Franco aside, the film does an excellent job of: (1) grounding and humanizing its premise and (2) executing its conflict and resolution with panache.

The always-excellent John Lithgow plays the doctor's Alzheimer's-afflicted father. Some of the most intriguing parts of the film juxtapose his mental decay with the ape's mental enhancement--it's not every summer action film that skillfully shows the distance between species collapsing. I was reminded of the contrasting trajectories of 2001, which shows ape being lifted up into humanity, and the rest of Stanley Kubrick's films, which generally depict some form of dehumanization. Writing about The Shining, the late great film critic Pauline Kael wrote, "The bone that was high in the air has turned into Jack's axe, held aloft, and Jack, crouched over, making wild, inarticulate sounds as he staggers in the maze, has become the ape." These ideas are central to the Apes saga, which, based on the original film, seem to have been first intended as a commentary on fundamentalism, science and evolution during a time of radical social upheaval (the 1960s).

As for the execution, it's the apes that make this movie, and rightly so. Weta Digital--Peter Jackson's kiwi answer to Lucas's ILM--brings the Avatar magic once again, this time making fully digital creations intended to blend naturalistically with everyday settings. They are fantastic specifically for not drawing attention to themselves: the effects exist to render nuanced performances and complex and dangerous sequences which animal actors could never have pulled off. Andy Serkis (of Gollum and Kong fame) serves as the mo-cap actor for the prime primate Caesar, non-verbally communicating the rise of higher consciousness in an animal and thereafter autonomy and open rebellion. It's a fascinating process to behold.

Caesar's rebellion foments and plays out in the typical manner of narratives of uprising and revolt. He first comes to detest his human captivity after encountering a leashed dog while being walked in the woods by the doctor and his girlfriend (the beautiful Freida Pinto). He is placed in an ape sanctuary by court order after violently protecting Lithgow's confused Alzheimer's patient from a belligerent neighbor. There is mistreated, establishes group dominance, and escapes in order to spread the gene therapy that could make more monkeys smarter and rise up against their, er, captors. This all leads to a so-so climax on a fog-enshrouded Golden Gate Bridge where the apes go toe-to-toe with human law enforcement and where, presumably, the first ape ever rides horseback (an iconic image from the Heston film).

In short, it's heady, exciting fun with a B-movie premise and an eye towards (quasi-)naturalism. However, the film barely exceeds ninety minutes, and the ending feels undercooked and rushed as a result. Additionally, there is a subplot about the gene-therapy virus infecting and killing humans that is meant to wrap-up some loose questions (wouldn't the national guard just go into the redwoods and shoot all the monkeys dead?). But it feels cheaply cribbed from the excellently demented 12 Monkeys as well as flagrantly at odds with the underlying nuclear implications of the original movie. But if you're just looking for a good time from Redbox, I'd say it's more than worth the $1.27.

*btw, if you haven't seen Planet of the Apes (I hadn't, before yesterday), it's streaming on Netflix right now. It's a lot better than you would guess, and is probably second only to 2001 in terms of 1960s science fiction films.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Conversion & Justice

I think our prayers are sometimes too tame. Tame, yes, through lack of faith or theological imagination; even tame for lack of zeal. I think "feeling it" is relevant to our petitions. It's not everything, but it's not nothing. And I'm preaching to myself.

But it's not even these things which have been bothering me lately. I only just put my finger on the fact that much of our prayer--especially corporate prayer--is misdirected. Or rather, not focused on the center of the church's relation to the world: "Your kingdom come." I am hard pressed to think of any truly God-centered prayer which is not somehow included in that simple petition.

I in no way want to downplay the church's identity as a gentle and healing presence in and among the world, but it seems to me that predominantly construing our identity in those terms too easily colludes with the entrenched sinful ways of the world, too easily relegates the church to the role of chaplain to the status quo.

On the other hand, there can be a kind of attempt to engage the status quo--the vast self-preserving web of socioeconomic, racial, political and personal realities we call society--that is well-meaning but misguided. Not everyone will know what I mean here, but there are times when people want to pray for our world in ways which intend "kingdom come" but are really just manifestations of their personal passions and interests.

What I want to say to everyone is that our corporate prayer life should mostly be about conversion and justice. I'm leaving aside, for the sake of this post, how our corporate prayer life intersects with our primary Christian calling to love God with all of our hearts. I assume anything and everything relevant to that must necessarily be central to our personal and public Christian lives. But right now I'm ranting about something that bugs me, so I'm not going to talk about the other stuff right now.

There is a big hurting world out there and its two biggest needs are the intimate knowledge of God leading to holy love and the loving charity of its Christian resident-alien neighbors. It's easier, I think, to engage personal and family-system oriented concerns; easier to engage broad and impersonal social concerns (i.e. the decline of public morality, abortion), than it is to hone in on where the rubber meets the road of "kingdom come." I am emphatically not saying that Christians should not be invested in broadly impersonal social concerns, or that the typical concerns of boomer "moral majority" Christians are illegitimate. I am also not saying that intensely personal pastoral work doesn't matter--just ask any one of my seminary faculty who has served me pastorally these past two and a half years whether or not I should be able to grasp the blessings of that ministry. I am simply disturbed by what I see as secondary concerns or corollary concerns displacing the "rubber meets the road" of kingdom come.

I know that many of my fellow seminarians and (post-)evangelical twenty-somethings have been hurt by the church specifically because they focused on conversion and justice and left sensitive pastoral care by the wayside (and often gave undue prominence to those moral majority social concerns). I speak as one among your ranks. But I fear throwing out the Messianic baby with the bath water. We need all of these things. And I know that many of us have a deep-seated fear of being identified with George W. Bush and everything he represented (this fear is why I think Blue Like Jazz was such a hit), but that doesn't mean that conservative, congregational evangelicals get everything, or even most things, wrong.

I am deeply thankful to the biblical and spiritual values I received from my fundamentalist-charismatic church and home life. I also had to run away from them (the communities, not the values) because they were driving me crazy. But, as my friends doing an independent study on American denominationalism have learned, it's the Baptists and Methodists who evangelized this continent. I have to ask myself whether that or the status quo looks more like the Great Commission.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Lenten Confessional

I already screwed up Lent.

I don't write about my own life a lot. It's safer to stick to the realm of ideas. Stories, theology, film, whatever. Quotes. On the one hand, there's a level of self-disclosure sometimes done in the blogosphere that is over-sharing plain and simple. But if you're trying to establish sensible boundaries, where do you draw the line? On the other hand there's a typically Christian way of relaying autobiography which collapses all your life stories into Bible lessons--I have to think there's at least a thousand bloggers out there doing that if not thousands more. And I don't want to say that God isn't actively at work in my life--even if my seminary life often feels more like the stage of the hidden God of Joseph and Esther's stories than that of the "over-sharing" (to twist a phrase) of the Jesus of John's gospel.

What I'm saying is that life can be confusing. The Christian life can be confusing, frustrating, maddening. "Is" and "ought" sometimes seem such distance relatives and at times enemies. Frankly I am jealous of those who don't seem to live as painfully in this tension as I do. I can't help but feel they are naive about what it means to be deeply troubled and, by Christ, demonstrably rescued. Except those who I personally know have been there and back again. That's at least part of what draws me to a church for the homeless, to a chaplaincy for the incarcerated. There, but for the grace of God, go I. There being addiction, crime and madness. There's some self-diclosure. Enjoy it because that one's free. I'm not saying I'm mad, Mad Hatter mad, though "We all go a little mad sometimes" (cough cough). I'm saying without the risen Lord Jesus I'd have been twisted into some tragic Lovecraftian sap some time ago.

Because this world has been twisted by evil--"more machine than man", to twist another phrase.

"We're all mad here."

I had a kind of stress-splosion on Fat Tuesday. Not from pancakes or debauchery, but just life piling on. I started out the semester behind, especially in Hebrew; catching up has been a Sisyphean labor. It's telling that I'm more comfortable describing this dilemma with a Greek myth than a Christian one.* So I slept through our Ash Wednesday service at school and didn't participate in our campus-wide Quiet Day. Before Lent had started, I was avoiding it. On Thursday I kind of came to my senses, started back to school work, prayed, decided on a seasonal discipline. And I realized what I already knew: I need a healthy and sacred way of dealing with stress because I absolutely suck at it.

I was glad to go with friends last night to my church to hear Wesley and Stacey Campbell, a couple with a prophetic ministry who I'm aware from my years in the charismatic world but really have no prior exposure to. I was encouraged by their intuitive and demonstrable grasp of Scripture applied in the moment and in the Spirit, such that prophetic words being spoken to other people were encouraging to me since they were such richly contextualized exhortations from Scripture. I especially took to heart words spoken to one woman about persevering in adversity and difficulty, allowing God to form your character and gifting, trusting him through the wilderness and the process.

I have trust issues with the charismatic world and--more irreconcilably--intellectual issues. But I realized last night that I want to try to live into that world and into that spiritual heritage even more, even if it's frustrating and annoying at times. Because as much as I love the Anglican church, "You can take the boy out of the charismatics, but you can't take the charismatic out of the boy" (to twist yet again). This goes back to a minor argument I got into with friends for posting a link to some emergent person saying we "We need more God, not more about God." I know and remember what it means to be in his presence, sense the Spirit personally and powerfully, be reassured at some level that transcends regular knowing of the reality of the one God, his love and his strength. Frankly seminary has not been filled with that kind of knowledge, although I have no doubt many of my colleagues and professors possess or have been possessed by it at one time or another such as myself.

I saw at work last night the good (the manifest presence of Christ) and the bad (an anti-intellectual dualism characterizing worship and other ways of relating to God, though not from the couple who were the guest speakers). And I want both goods. I want the good of seminary, which tells me when I hear a worship song whose lyrics are non-sensical that I shouldn't sing them, and the good of the charismatic world, which leads me into a deep place of sacred communion that engages the heart. One, the academic and Anglican world, is better at engaging the mind, the other, the charismatic world, is better at engaging the heart and the body. The kingdom of God means engaging the whole person with the reality of the risen Christ.

*A true myth, of course, as Lewis said.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Wesley: God is Love

"It is not written, 'God is justice,' or 'God is truth': (although he is just and true in all his ways) But it is written, 'God is love,' love in the abstract, without bounds; and 'there is no end of his goodness.' His love extends even to those who neither love nor fear him. He is good, even to the evil and the unthankful; yea, without exception or limitation, to all the children of men. For 'the Lord is loving' (or good) 'to every man, and his mercy is over all his works.'"

~John Wesley

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Hooker: God is good.

"That and nothing else is done by God, which to leave undone were not so good."

"No good is infinite but only God; therefore He our felicity and bliss. Moreover, desire tendeth unto union with that it desireth. If then in him we be blessed, it is by force of participation and conjunction with Him. Again, it is not the possession of any good thing can make them happy which have it, unless they enjoy the thing wherewith they are possessed. Then are we happy therefore when fully we enjoy God, as an object wherein the powers of our souls are satisfied even with everlasting delight: so that although we be men, yet by being unto God united we live as it were the life of God."

~Richard Hooker, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

My Favorite Movies of 2011

9) Puss in Boots

This Shrek spin-off is another strong showing from Dreamworks Animation who, until last year’s How to Train Your Dragon, was churning out a lot of well made but more or less stupid movies. Puss hearkens back to the playful energy of Shrek 2, the fairy tale mash-ups of Shrek (which the sequel had little of at the narrative level), and the classical swashbuckling excitement of The Mask of Zorro. It’s loads of silly fun, and funny to boot. And did I mention it has kitties? Lots and lots of cuddly, mischievous cats and cat accessories and cat jokes? I have an alternate title suggestion: I Can Haz Fairy Tail Adventurz.

8) Captain America

It's what's on the inside that counts.

Like Iron Man in 2008, Captain America exudes stylishly muscular energy. It’s part snappy 30’s period piece, a la director Joe Johnston’s The Rocketeer with a bigger budget, and it apes Raiders of the Lost Ark—successfully.  A sinister German general (Hugo Weaving) has taken the fuhrer’s supposed obsession with the occult to it’s logical conclusion: he is building an invincible army by way of an ancient mystical artifact.   Something more than the average soldier is needed to stop him.  For Steve Rogers, a scrawny idealist played by a CG-altered Chris Evans, all he can dream of is serving his country. He is spied out by a government scientist who understands that it is the values—not the strength—that makes the man, and the scrawny boy is transformed by science into a beefed-up hero. The rest of the film is exciting and great and of course good wins, but I think that this movie was noteworthy (and stands out among the Marvel canon) for taking the best of classical American ideals about self-sacrifice and personal nobility and embodying them so un-ironically in the person of Steve Rogers. I don’t consider Captain America propaganda, but it made even this skeptic feel a little patriotic.

7) The Muppets

The lovers, the dreamers...

A passion project of the lovable man-child Jason Segel, The Muppets is a warm, snarky nostagia trip through the days when children’s films weren’t dominated by pop-abusing CG rodents. Segel and his muppet brother search out Kermit once they learn Muppet Studios is to be demolished, meaning of course that everyone has to get back together to sing songs, tell jokes and be flummoxed with each other so it doesn’t get torn down. But the journey is the destination here, and the songs are wondrously joyous and winking, sparkling with the witty verve of Kiwi folk-comedy lyricist Brett Mckenzie of Flight of the Conchords. It brings heart back into the stale contemporary mix of prat falls and meta humor, affirming friendship, loyalty and family even among the most ragtag of misfits.

6) Source Code

Sisyphus much?

If you can imagine Groundhog Day and The Matrix having a love-child, that begins to get at what Source Code is like. Jake Gyllenhal plays an army veteran recruited without consent to relive the last eight minutes of another man’s life, which was ended by a train bombing that killed him and hundreds of others. Each iteration of the events is exactly the same except for how Gyllenhal’s character chooses to influence them, using his past experiences of that same eight minutes to his advantage in order to ferret out clues about the bomb and bomber. Unlike The Matrix, it wears its sci-fi conceits lightly, focusing on the brisk action of the investigation and Gyllenhal’s interest in the friend of his surrogate body played by Michelle Monaghan. It’s a smart, fun movie.

5) Attack the Block

"This is MY house.  I have to defend it!"

Attack comes from one of the minds (Joe Cornish) closely involved with the Britain-born genre mash-ups Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Here the setting isn’t suburban (Shaun) or country (Fuzz), but the block—i.e., the London projects. It’s a wickedly sly turn on E.T.—rather than strike up a friendship with a strange creature, these kids just kill the first alien when it gets aggressive, inciting the wrath of its cohorts and setting up the rest of the film. On the block, aliens don’t bear the Spielbergian hope of Close Encounters, but the Spielbergian splatter of Jaws and Jurassic Park.  It's an exciting but grim movie.  Writer/Director Cornish labors to root the proceedings in an almost anthropological sense of place and dialogue—my friend and I didn’t always understand what these poor kids from the block were saying—yet finds nobility and strength in these scrappy survivors for whom an alien invasion is just another setback in an already too cruel world.

4) Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, Pt. 2

Only a true heir of Godric Gryffindor could have received it.

Either the Harry Potter series took six films (and director Yates 2) before it found its cinematic vocabulary (Prisoner of Azkaban notwithstanding), or Rowling wrote Deathly Hallows in a more classically cinematic-epic style. I don’t think any of the Harry Potter films are Great, capital G, before Deathly Hallows, Pt. 1—a chilling, harrowing and lonely film carrying the emotional freight of its several predecessors. In Part 2, All the dark undercurrents of the series explode in a fantastic cataclysm of good and evil. The villains are primal and terrifying, the heroes desperate and noble. It’s visually fantastic and a satisfying conclusion to the series in terms of emotional closure with the beloved characters.

3) Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Animation auteur Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) has worked a marvelous kind of magic with the fourth installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise. Its pure escapist fluff, but it’s the crème brulee of fluff. While the Bourne series had a stark, verite vibe (which the Bond revivals attempted to reproduce), Bird lets none of the post-9/11 spy seriousness weigh down the flat out awesomeness of the action. The plot is, as always disposable, but the set pieces are engrossing, multilayered, kinetic, yet never confusing. This was the most fun I had at the movies this year.

2) Midnight in Paris

Le sigh.

Owen Wilson stars as yet another stand-in for writer-director Woody Allen’s trademark persona of nervous hand-wringing, vulnerability and literary intellect. He’s a hack Hollywood script-writer vacationing in Paris with his bracing fiancee (Rachel McAdams) and her in-laws.  He's also attempting to write a novel.* Needing escape from the blunt pragmatism of his co-travelers (who also include the trademark Allen foil: a pontificating pseudo-intellectual who doubles as an apparent romantic competitor) he starts taking midnight walks in the city of love where he is magically transported to the golden era of his imagination: 1920’s Paris and the Lost Generation. He rubs elbows with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, Picasso, Matisse, Dali—and falls for a sweet but wounded French girl played by the beautiful Marion Cotillard. The movie critiques Wilson’s romanticist escapism, but ultimately celebrates romantic adventure: deep feeling and authenticity empowering one to take responsibility and face life, as Hemingway would have it, with grace and courage.

1) Certified Copy

Certified Copy depicts a vulnerable woman (Juliette Binoche) eager to love a cerebral and reserved academic (William Shimell) lecturing in the small Italian town where she runs an antiques shop. He preaches post-values aesthetics like an artless Oscar Wilde, and has written a book about collapsing the distance between original art and copies. But his heady hedonism seems untenable to Binoche’s single mom, and as their conflict increases over the course of one day in Italy (as their conversation spills from Italian into French into English and back to Italian over and over again), it becomes unclear whether they’re in a tentative courtship or a struggling marriage. The film takes on a moebius strip like quality, and the viewer’s perspective determines the meaning of their relationship. It sounds like a ponderous mess, but on screen the performances are fully, wonderfully human.

Special Mention
Filmmaking legend Martin Scorsese’s first “family” film, Hugo is a dazzling picture nostalgic for the same time and place Owen Wilson pined for in Midnight in Paris. It has the all the chilling misery of a Dickensian fable, but the cathartic levity is missing. You’ll see no other film like it from the last year, and few as technically amazing. However, whereas the best family films have big-hearted uplift, Scorsese identifies overmuch with the lonely orphan of the streets. The film’s focus on the movie magic of George Melies is a pale comfort to the boy’s palpable losses.

Most visually spectacular
Spielberg and Weta Digital have outdone their motion capture forebears (moreso Zemeckis than Cameron) and created a living, breathing world that has merged human and cartoon while somehow skipping the uncanny valley altogether. Yet I didn’t love the film because, though it was spectacular and entertaining, the whole show felt thin. Perhaps in working so hard to digitally simulate the appearance of human characters, the filmmakers forgot to actually write human characters.

Best Acting
Certified Copy

Juliette Binoche steals the show with a nuanced and vulnerable character without seeming to be acting at all. Her co-star, Shimell, who shares almost all of his screen time with her, achieves the difficult task of crafting an equally enfleshed character alongside her. Without their performances the film would be a cute, Tarantino-wannabe narrative game.

Best Music
Midnight in Paris

Classical, winsome and romantic.

Most Obtuse (and overrated?)
Tree of Life

This is the film on everyone’s top ten this year (along, mostly, with Certified Copy), but I’m not of the opinion that filmwatching means I have to labor diligently to piece together what a film is about. Tree of Life has some strong performances from Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. The vignettes showing mid-century life in the Texan suburbs are fascinating and deftly realized. And I’ll concede the film’s beauty and ambition—it showed me some things I’d never quite seen in a movie before (contemplative dinosaurs, for a start). Ultimately, though, the film was lost on me. There’s something to be said for the narratival directness of a movie like War Horse, which isn’t a great film but is certainly a good one. But hey, sometimes it’s go big or go home.

Most wanted (to see)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Cave of Forgotten Dreams

*The novel he's working on is about a man running an antique shop like the one Juliette Binoche is in Certified Copy. And Hugo is wistful for early 1900s Paris just like Marion Cotillard's character in Midnight in Paris. I guess Paris was hot at the producers' pitch meetings a year or two ago.