Love and Mercy

BrianI’m a little bit of a Brian Wilson groupie. When I was 12 or so, I was at my aunt’s house and pulled out a couple of badly scratched LPs by The Beach Boys, All Summer Long and The Beach Boys Concert, plopped them on a portable record player my cousin had, and was overwhelmed by the crackling energy and screams of adoring female fans as the band ran through a stream of #1 hits. It was an American version of The Beatles, a band that my sisters adored and for which, at my immature age, I had no use.

Later, along about 1972, at the age of 14, I awoke to popular music, abandoned the country and bluegrass of my parents (albeit temporarily), and discovered Pet Sounds, Sunflower, and even heard rumors of an unreleased masterpiece, the famous lost album, Smile. I also began following the troubled genius and hit maker of the band, Brian Wilson.

The just-released biopic, Love and Mercy, is an artful and beautiful look at the troubled years of Brian Wilson. Alternating between the Sixties, when Brian began his pioneering studio work on Pet Sounds and Smile, as well as his mental demise, and the Eighties, when having come under the control of the faux-psychiatrist Eugene Landry he was rescued by the woman he married, Melinda Ledbetter, the movie follows a story well-known to his fans. And it gets it right and hits all the truths about this man:  Abusing, controlling father that he ever sought to please, but could never please. Cousin and band member Mike Love, who to this day eschews art for the sake of the commercial, who never quite appreciated the special nature of Brian’s music. And control-freak Eugene Landry, who in fact was more abusive to Brian than his own father.

The acting is top notch.  John Cusak nails the mannerisms and boyish innocence of the Eighties Brian, and Paul Dano looks the part of the Sixties Brian.  Elizabeth Banks likely looks better than the actual Melinda Ledbetter, and Paul Giamatti is the believably sick psycho that Eugene Landry really was. Even the Bohemian lyricist Van Dyke Parks, with his nonsensical verse, is so un-Brian and yet we know that's what he looked like and the way he talked.  But what shines through it all is the music, often melancholy but achingly beautiful.

The film promo says that it portrays the “personal voyage and ultimate salvation of the icon.” Indeed, it is an amazing work of grace that Brian Wilson still lives and makes music, given the abuse he has taken and inflicted on himself.  I do not know him, but having met him several times in the last several years, his eyes still tell me that he is afraid, that salvation is still elusive.  I've written so many times about Wilson. I feel so inadequate to talk about a movie or how I feel about seeing him on screen.  I've read books, bought all his CDs (some more than once), and written about him, even published a poem about him.  See what I mean? I am a groupie.

See the movie. Listen to Pet Sounds. Then pray that Brian Wilson will finally know the love and mercy to be found in Jesus.


What If. . .

71Br5rRCICL._SL1110_"What If. . .," the 2010 direct-to-DVD Christian film starring Kevin Sorbo (and not to be confused with the 2014 mainstream theatrical release, "What If?), is an "It's a Wonderful Life"-like story of Ben Walker, a successful, self-centered CEO of a major corporation who, fifteen years ago, left his college sweetheart Wendy (Kristy Swanson), and ultimately his faith, in order to pursue a lucrative business opportunity, abandoning seminary for an MBA.

When Ben's car breaks down on the way to the airport, he is visited by an angel who tells him that he needs to see what his life would have been like had he followed God’s calling. Suddenly, Ben finds himself in an alternate reality, married to Wendy, with two daughters, and getting ready for church on a Sunday morning, where he’s scheduled to give his first sermon as the new pastor. After the usual shock, disbelief, and attempt to escape, he comes to grip with his faith, realizing that he has missed his calling.

Yes, I know. We have seen the story before, and this is not a movie that has any unpredictable twists to it. It is entertaining and heartwarming, another lesson on the value of taking stock your life and reconsidering the direction in which you are headed. But Les Miserables it's not.

But I am not here to critique the movie. We can find many Christians who render scathingly critiques of this and many other Christian cinematic offerings as sentimental, cliche, hokey, and poorly produced and acted. These critiques often have some validity, and it is true that life is generally more complex than the narratives of these movies lead us to believe. However, I found "What If. . ." valuable as an indictment of my own heart, which is more jaded and cynical than I thought.

Ben Walker's life dramatically changes, and my impulse is to disbelieve it or call it simplistic, perhaps because I don't sufficiently believe that God can change people. Wendy prays a heartfelt prayer for her doubting husband, and I feel. . . what? . . . embarrassed by her sincerity, at the childlike nature of her prayer, at the spectacle of someone praying a sincere prayer onscreen? And when Ben begins to read the Bible I question his sincerity in a time when you rarely see a Bible read in a mainstream movie by anyone who is not mentally disturbed, bigoted, or judgmental. Feeling these emotions, I realize anew that we live and breathe the air of a disaffected time, when people have lost hope for "change," when having been disappointed by ministry leaders, pastors, teachers, and (naturally) politicians, we look askance at every assertion of faith.

"What If. . ." may follow a predictable narrative, and perhaps change is often halting and fragmented and incomplete, and yet this movie and others like it remind me that faith and prayer and radical change are possible, that the same God who appeared to a rebel Saul can, virtually overnight, remold him into a faithful Paul.  And when a nagging voice in my head suggests that this kind of change doesn't happen anymore, I remember that even in my lifetime I have seen Watergate "hatchet man" Chuck Colson come to faith and found the life-changing ministry of Prison Fellowship or seen more than one man I have known give up alcohol and philandering to return to a faithful wife. Yet, this age is so suffused with the lies of fatalism and cynicism that a regular remembering prompted by the Word and the testimony of others is necessary to counter it.

"What if. . ." real change is possible? The testimony of Scripture is that it is. I need to remember that.  And this decent movie is also a welcome reminder that God still changes people.

Changing the Weather

Cover_May2013_120-04-15-2013-101005There are chilly winds blowing in the world.  And yet we have a way of selectively reading reality, filtering out or minimizing the things we don't want to think about, turning up our collar to a frigid truth if we venture out, warming ourselves by the glow of hearth and home.  But sometimes reality gushes in, and we realize that indeed a hard rain is falling.

Two recent articles in First Things changed the normally sunny weather I travel in.  In one by Wesley J. Smith, entitled "Medicinal Murder," the author documents the steady expansion of euthanasia in Europe.  As case in point, he cites Belgium, where suicides are termed by many in the medical community as a "beautiful death," not merely suicides of terminally ill persons but even of those who, because of depression or lack of will to live, are ready to end it all.  Furthermore, he documents the ungodly linkage of euthanasia with organ harvesting.  Society now benefits from mercy killings.  And when there are legal violations of euthanasia laws, enforcement is lax or nonexistent.  Thus, a cultural shift has ocurred where death is celebrated as one more benefit of human autonomy: you can choose when to die, and society and the medical profession will help you and even profit from your death.  Smith notes that once euthanasia is legalized, the categories of people eligible for it expand, but the rest of society ceases to think it matters.  He believes this trend is symptomatic of cultural nihilism.

Perhaps you know this.  Perhaps the essay only confirms what we already know.  But it is worth reading for the last paragraph, where Smith offers the antidote:

What is the antidote?  Love.  We all age.  We fall ill.  We grow weak.  We become disabled.  Life can get very hard.  Euthanasia raises the fundamental question of whether our culture will retain the moral capacity to sustain a culture of care for those who have entered life's most difficult stages.  On that question, it seems to me, hangs the moral future of Western civilization.  For as the Canadian journalist Andrew Coyne has cogently warned: "A society that believes in nothing can offer no argument even against death.  A culture that has lost its faith in life cannot comprehend why it should be endured.

So that's it?  Love?  Not taking to the courts, mounting advocacy for life, passing laws to protect the elderly and infirm?  Just love?

In that same issue of First Things, in an article entitled "Lena Dunhams's Inviolable Self," Alan Jacobs contrasts the moral world of Jane Austen and the apparently amoral world of Girls, an HBO series in its first season.  He describes a sexual fantasy that one of the main characters, Adam, has about his rape of an 11-year old heroin addict.  As shocking as this is, what Jacobs focuses on is even more shocking: In all the reviews of the show none of the journalists admit to the possibility that there could be a moral dimension to Adam's reverie.  And apparently fans have no problem with all this either.  They continue to watch.  This is in contrast to the moral world of Jane Austen, where there are categories of right and wrong and we all know what they are.

Once again, however, the antidote to this amorality is not, Jacobs says, to meet it head on.  He concludes: "To someone who thinks Adam's fantasies are unproblematic, or even commendable, there is nothing for me to say.  I confront a linguistically unbridgeable gap; I confront incommensurability." In other words, these two worlds do not connect.  As I said to someone I was having a heated discussion with many years ago, we have lost the ability to communicate, at least propositionally, as we do not share the same understanding of the world and, in a sense, the same language.  We talk past each other.

So what do we do?  Jacobs says that what we need "is not condemnation. . . but better art and better stories --- better fictional worlds. . . . [N]ot the abolition of mythic sandboxes but the making of sandboxes in which to play with true, or truer, myths."  Rather than simply condemning the fictive world of Girls, we can write and film truer stories that capture the imagination, that give viewers or readers a vision of a different reality.  Rather than shows about the "beautiful death" of assisted suicide, we offer up excellent stories of the reverberating compassion and love that might surround the disabled or aged, stories that help people imagine that compassion grows in the face of suffering, in standing with the dying, not in ending their lives.

We may reach some people by arguing propositional truth.  But in this time we may reach more by telling better stories, by opening a portal to the True Truth at the heart of Reality.  In a culture that no longer speaks our language, our venue for persuasion has shifted.

A decade ago I was standing at the back of the Acoustic Stage at the Cornerstone Music Festival when a muddied grunge-rock fan ambled up.  He stood gaping at what he heard.  "This is beautiful, man, just beautiful.  What is it?"  The acoustic, story-driven songs resonated with him.  All he had heard was the loud and gutteral screaming of the bands playing in the tent next door.  He was mesmerized by the different reality of the Acoustic Stage.  And as a result, I was able to tell him what he was hearing.

"Art," Picasso said, "is the lie that tells the truth." "Tell it slant," said Emily Dickenson.  Christians, get busy lying.  And get busy loving.  That's the antidote for a culture gone wrong.  That just might change the weather.




Why We Aren't Going to the Art House

I wanted to see "The Tree of Life," but the movie is only playing at art houses.  My son said he would not go if it was at an art house, that the movie sounded weird and, besides, strange things can happen to people at art houses.  I told him that the worst that might happen is that we would be accosted by some Democrats, that it would do us good to get out in the world and mingle.  He said it was a place of low life intelligentsia, academics in argyle sweaters, aging hippies, bad popcorn and health drinks.  He prefers movies with car chases and women, like Angelina Jolie, said that he doesn't go to movies to think but to be entertained, said he did all his thinking in college and won't take that up again until a new school year.

I did not raise him this way. I tried to inculcate good values.

Oh, "Tree of Life."  I'll get there.  I feel intelligent just thinking about seeing it.  I don't really need to go.  Maybe I could read a couple of reviews, see the trailer online, memorize a few pithy comments, and be done with it.  Just enough to comment intelligently about a movie the masses will not see.  I guess I don't need to see it.

[Son: I don't either.  I have no desire to see a mundane plot about family suffering interwoven with a surrealistic depiction of the supposed origins of life on earth.]

Actually, I don't recall that I have ever been to an art house.  

[Son: .... and we don't need to start now.  I have a reputation to uphold.  Let's go see "Bad Teacher."  No, no car chase.  What's happened to film these days?]

Maybe "Midnight in Paris?"  A little Woody Allen nihilism?  The last thing I saw by him was "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)."   I saw it in high school with four guys at a drive-in movie in a Volkswagen Beetle.

[Son: I don't even want to discuss that.  That's just sick.]

You had to be there.

[Son: I told you I do not want to discuss it.  I mean I really do not want to even think about it.]

Well, we did see that art movie (was that an art movie) about astronauts or something at an art house didn't we?

[Son: Yes, no one came besides us --- well, not many.]

Well, there you go.  Only the elite go to art houses.  It wouldn't do for one to be crowded.  It would kill the film.  Only a select few can appreciate these celluloid masterpieces.  So what'll we see tonight?

[Son: Transformers. . . there's a film.  You don't have to think to see that one.]

Sad, isn't it? 

The Power of Words: A Review of "The Mockingbird Parables," by Matt Litton

79575998Until a few years ago, I had not seen nor read To Kill a Mockingbird.  That was to my great loss.  The book --- a sobering and yet ultimately life-affirming and hopeful story of racism --- is one of the great American novels.  The movie, a faithful retelling of the story with stellar acting by Gregory Peck and the supporting cast, particularly Mary Badham, who played "Scout," is also one of my perennial favorites.  The book and movie are a repository of virtuous character while at the same time contrasting that character with the impiety of religious hypocrisy and small-minded prejudice.

It is that repository of virtue that is ably mined by Matt Litton in The Mockingbird Parables: Tranforming Lives Through the Power of Story.  In ten meditations  on the characters and events of the book, filtered through his personal experiences, the author fleshes out the ramifications of these parables or stories for how we live in the world.  His avowed purpose is to help the reader "rediscover what it means to be a good neighbor --- and to experience the gospel message retold in modern language, unobscured by religious dogma."  For this reader, he succeeds.

From the outset Litton is all about de-familiarizing the gospel so as to bring its truth home to us.  For example, in the first chapter, "Discovering Our Divine Mysterious Neighbor," he analogizes the question that the movie asks, "Who is Boo Radley," to the question we all ask and keep asking in life, "Who is God?"  He addresses our tendency to domesticate God, taming Him, much as the townspeople of Maycomb, instead of accepting the mystery of Boo have "chosen instead to ignore define him, ignore him, and keep him in his place."  He speaks of seeking as being essential to our relationship with God, one that is never static, resting in a definition of God, but remains dynamic, as it must with a Being that is infinite and not fully comprehensible to us.  He is also one who is constantly pursuing us, a truth that the author says is pictured in Boo Radley's leaving items for the children in the knothole of an oak tree.

And so it goes, each chapter opening us up to another truth --- the responsibility to care for our neighbor and for Creation, courage, financial responsibility, parenting, and finally, in a powerful ending, in the way we communicate with one another, the very words we use.  I found this last chapter to be the most powerful in the book, a reminder of the divine nature of our communication, of the great power of words to hurt or heal, to build up or to tear down.  The model is Atticus Finch, a man the same at home as in public, a man who measures out his words carefully and always to build up or, when they must tear down (as when he exposes Mayella Ewell to be a liar), to serve a higher good never rejoicing in the tearing down but doing what must be down to preserve the truth.

Litton's words hit home.  The Christian community, whether politically left or right, can be some of the worst offenders in their use of language in the public square, having to have the last word, not listening, having to be vindicated to be right.  He commends instead the many scriptural admonitions to listen before speaking, to letting our conversations be full of grace, to letting our words build bridges rather than create division.  As he summarizes: "Atticus Finch affirms to us, and To Kill a Mockingbird reminds us, that it is the mission and deepest responsibility of the words we use to communicate hope, to spread truth, to be agents of grace and change to the hearts of our fellow men and women, and to speak God's reality of compassion into the souls of our neighbors."

As a result of reading this book, I can return to Harper Lee's novel with a new appreciation of how it resonates with the truth of the Gospel, and I can return to the Gospel narratives with the great analogies of the word-pictures of the novel to help put hands and feet to the meaning of scripture. Laced with scripture, memoir, and the images of the book and movie, I heartily recommend reading To Kill a Mockingbird, watching the movie, and then reading The Mockingbird Parables as a way of letting the overly familiar words of the Gospel become unfamiliar so as to become more real.

Having said all this, the one chapter that I felt was too polemical for the context of the book was the one on the role of women in faith.  That women are affirmed by Jesus and given high and equal stature to men by Jesus is unquestioned and the corrective offered by the author to any contrary notion is commendable and certainly evidenced by analogy in Harper Lee's book.  To then argue that women should be ordained and share in pastoral leadership is another matter, one on which Christians disagree.  Litton attempts to make that case but fails to account for the counter-arguments that are made, arguments that do not necessarily accord an inequality to women but a different role ascribed by scripture.  This chapter seemed out of place and weighed against the irenic spirit of the rest of the book.  All that being said, many of the insights here, as elsewhere in the book, are valuable and don't detract from the positive impact of the book as a whole.

I recommend The Mockingbird Parables.  Read it and be transformed through the power of story, through the power of the Gospel.

In Praise of Slow Film: A Review of Henry Poole is Here

Henry Poole

Henry Poole is sad. For some initially inexplicable reason, which becomes clearer as the story slowly unfolds, he leaves his job, breaks up with his girlfriend, and moves back to his childhood neighborhood. He moves into a small stucco house, with little furniture, and begins to drink and do little more than lay on the bed in his clothes or in a chaise lounge in the backyard. But Henry's planned decline goes awry. A deeply religious neighbor, a kind woman named Esmeralda, claims to see the face of God on the back wall of Henry's house. Although Henry wants to be left alone, she befriends him, as does the single Mom next door and her young daughter who hasn't spoken since her father left home, and the check out girl at the supermarket, and finally the priest who Esmeralda brings to examine the face on the wall.

Henry doesn't believe in the face and is upset by the crowds of people flocking to his backyard. He wants to be left alone. And yet as the story unfolds and Henry feels the love of those around him and witnesses the power of faith, he too begins to change.

This is low-budget but well-cast film with a great heart and not one ounce of cynicism. It is difficult to believe that such a film was well-received at the Sundance Film Festival where the weird and avant-garde reign. Luke Wilson plays a convincing role as Henry, but in reality I found every one of the actors credible, just like people you would expect to meet in the neighborhood.

It's a slow story, and deliberately so. The camera dwells on faces. There is time to get to know people. While Henry doesn't seem so likeable at the beginning, it's not because he's mean, just sad. In fact everyone has some measure of sadness --- Patience, the check out girl; Millie, the little girl who will not speak; Esmeralda, who lost her boyfriend --- and yet everyone comes to hope, experiences positive change by the end of the story. Though serious, there is humor throughout, comedy even in sadness.

This is a movie I still think about, even five days after watching it. It's that good.

The film is rated PG for some language, all from Henry, none of which is gratuitous, the most serious of which is the couple of occasions he takes God's name in vain, all because he is upset that the image has appeared on the side of his house. It is appropriate because, in the end, he is angry at God. There is no violence , nudity, or inappropriate sexual innuendo. Young kids would be bored. Some older kids may appreciate the story, but given that there is little action, I suspect the primary audience is adult.

I highly recommend Henry Poole is Here. It's a story that will stick with you.

Watch the trailer here:

This Wonderful Life

its-a-wonderful-life-title If you, like me, find yourself watching Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life this time of year, you are not alone by a long shot.  The 1946 movie starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed is a movie classic, a study in the choices we face in life, whether to follow dreams, to do as we want, when confronted by responsibility and duty.  More than that, it’s a movie that reveals the mystery of God’s providence (without saying so) for, in the case of George Bailey, the veil is pulled back for a time to show him what life would have been like had he not been born and, conversely, the great good that occurred, largely unbeknownst to him, because of his life of virtuous choices.

In an essay in Touchstone, entitled “Potterville Nation,” Anthony Esolen takes a decidedly bleak look at the world and decides it is just that --- a place, like Potterville, not Bedford Falls, full of greed and avarice, of people chasing the vain imaginations of their hearts, of churches that encourage rather than stand in judgment over such vanities.  According to Esolen, the message of It’s a Wonderful Life “ is not simply that every life is important, but that what makes my life important, in the long view, in the providential view, is almost always what the world considers silly, small-town, no-account, trivial --- a waste.”  And for Christians, those similarly trivial, daily, choices are the stuff of true spiritual pilgrimage, of a life where even our poor choices are redeemed by a God who “works all things together for the good of those who love Him” (Rom. 8:28).

We may live in a place, in a world full of greed, avarice, and evil, yet if we look for them we will find plenty of George Baileys who are faithfully doing what is necessary --- going to work, spending time with children, teaching school, cleaning houses and offices, fixing streets, and so on --- and not leaving to chase vain imaginings.  When I visit New York City or Los Angeles, for example, I’m keenly aware of the vanities of life, of crime, of urban blight, and yet at the same time I’m amazed that things work reasonably well most of the time.  People get up and go to work.  Teachers teach.  The garbage is picked up.  Water flows 35 stories up to my hotel room.  Streets are passable. People often do what is required --- never, perhaps, from entirely pure motives, but still they do it.  By God’s grace, there is civilization, not anarchy.  Look for good and you will find it.  It’s not all Potterville but if you look again it’s Bedford Falls.  Look at what sin has twisted and see the potentiality of good or, at least, believe in God’s providential reordering of evil to good, of His undoing of the curse.

At the end of my our Christmas Eve viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life, it occurred to me that it was unlikely that anyone who acted in the film was still living.  One is.  Karolyn Grimes, who played young Zuzu, George Baily’s daughter, six at the time and now 68, has had a life filled with tragedy --- her mother died when she was 14, she lost her father in a  car crash a year later, was sent to live with an aunt in what she referred to as a “bad home,” never made it in acting, lost her first husband in a hunting accident, lost her second husband to cancer, lost her 18-year old son to suicide, and lost all the money she had in the recession of the early 2000s.  Can you imagine?  And yet she can still say this: "There have been adverse things happen in my own life, but there are balances out there. And the movie itself has affected my life so much because I have George Bailey's philosophy … that friendships and caring and loving will carry you through anything.  I really feel like Zuzu is kind of a mission maybe, I don't know. I think that there is a higher power at work and that I had to go through a lot of adverse situations in my life to understand other people's pain.”

Thank God there is a “higher power” at work, a hand of providence.  Thank God we don’t have our way all the time.  Thank God for the trivial, small-town, and seemingly insignificant lives we live.  We may never know all the good that’s come of it, and all the evil left undone.  If you believe God is on the move, it’s a wonderful life after all.

Expelled: See It Now

240x240_ai Don't wait.  Run to the theatre to see Expelled, Ben Stein's documentary exposing the reasons why the Academy thought police will not allow scientists to teach about intelligent design.  It's well-produced, entertaining, and informative.  Stein travels all over the world speaking both to the many scientists expelled from teaching for even mentioning "intelligent design," as well as to committed atheists like Richard Dawkins, who essentially believes religious believers are idiots.

Running through this movie is a comparison of what is happening to academic freedom with the Berlin wall, with those who want to wall out free-thinkers who want to follow the evidence where it leads.  This is not some Bible-thumping fundamentalist propaganda piece, nor is it Creation Science, a movement I always had some difficulty with because of its quite literal interpretation of the Genesis account (aka six 24-hour days), meaning it is treated as simply historical narrative with no poetic component, and in its attempt to fit the Bible to science.  These are scientists, some Christian, some not, who simply want to follow the evidence where it leads, and who are quite honest about their biases and presuppositions, something you can't say about many Darwinists.

See it now.  This movie is playing in major theatres, but films like this don't hang around if people don't buy tickets.  Better yet, take a skeptic. Take your kids. Take anyone who simply wants to think.  Find a theatre and time here.

Once: A Movie About What We Really Want

clip_image002On the recommendation of a friend, I finally watched Once last night. This is a beautiful, sweet, beguilingly simple yet powerful movie that has deeply affected many people. Shot with what appears to be a single camera, it unfolds like a home movie, offering an intimate portrait of two people and their developing friendship around the music they share together. I’ll warn you now --- I can’t comment on the movie without revealing its plot line, so turn back now if you can’t handle a spoiler.

The movie begins with actor Glen Hansard playing and singing his heart out on the streets of Dublin, guitar case open for contributions.  Marketa Iglova, a Czech flower girl, stops to listen, and they strike up a conversation.  Now here's the other quirky thing --- these folks are known as Guy and Girl in the credits, so we never actually find out their names.  I never actually notice this while watching until the credits rolled.

With a tagline of "How often do you find the right person?" you're all set up for romance.  You figure that after some awkwardness, maybe some standoffishness, that eventually this budding relationship must result in a sexual liaison, all the more so because Hansard is lonely, missing his girlfriend who he is still deeply love with and who has gone ahead of him to London, and Iglova is separated from her husband, living with her mother and her little girl, and wondering if he would ever come.  I mean, it has to happen, right?  Wrong.  The refreshing surprise of this movie is that a deep friendship develops between a man and a woman, a real phileo love with nary a bit of eros love.  Now that, in this time, is a miracle, and this is a good part of the reason people have gravitated to this film.  We deeply desire a true friend, someone who understands us, and this Girl and Guy grow to understand one another and help one another.  Marketa gives Glen the confidence he needs to continue his music, and Glen befriends Marketa who is trying to survive in a alien place without her husband.  Just friendship.  No sex.

The other thing that's refreshing about the movie is its tenderness, its humanity.  When a street person steals Glen's bit of change in his guitar case, Glen chases him down, but not to pummel him but, in the end, to give him the money.  Then there's the community of the musicians, all having a good time just paying and singing, as even a skeptical engineer in the studio comes to join in.  Another deep desire --- community.

And what about the music?  Enchanting, passionate, lovely.  These are moving melodies that stick to you and follow you around all the next day, and in this day when music bombards us from all over, this is quite a feat.  I have to have this soundtrack!

No nudity.  No violence.  No sex.  Very little profanity, really.  So why's the movie rated R?  Because of the inclusion of a half dozen or more uses of the F word, no doubt, though the inclusion of this language adds nothing to the film and its deletion would not affect it in the least.  It's there, no doubt, to push this movie over to an R rating so we will all know that it is a serious movie for adults and one that probably belongs in art houses (which is mostly where it ended up).  Otherwise, this would be a PG rated movie.

Nevertheless, if you can tolerate the word, you'll love this enchanting movie and its music.  The day after, you'll forget the word, but you will not forget the story and music for a long time.  Highly recommended.

[See more about the movie, including a trailer, and listen to the soundtrack here.]

Amazing Grace: A Reaction

Ag_webbanner_150x69Kudos to Walden Media for their role in bringing the story of William Wilberforce to the screen with excellence. I was able, courtesy of our local newspaper, to see a preview of the movie tonight, before its general release tomorrow. It was excellent --- well acted, accurate as any movie can be, and inspiring without any preachiness.

My test of a good movie with Christian themes is to consider whether a nonChristian would think it well done even though they may not embrace some of the beliefs. Amazing Grace passes that test. The obvious message of the film is the equality of men, as Wilberforce fought his fight for the abolition of slavery. But deeper messages abound --- perseverance in the face of seeming hopelessness, patience (incremental change, if need be, rather than the violence of revolution), adherence to God's call upon your life (even when it's very difficult and unrewarding), and, of course, faith.

Early in his lfe Wilberforce came to faith. On that coming, he felt that he should go into ministry, that that call and the call of politics were mutually exclusive. He stands as a great example of the now apparant fact that one can serve God in politics as well as in a number of legitimate vocations.

Albery Finny excellently played the part of John Newton, the slave trader turned pastor and friend of Wilberforce's who penned "Amazing Grace." He uttered the famous line " I may not remember many things, but I do remember two: that I am a great sinner and God is a great Savior." He is convincing in his role, as are all the actors.

These are the kind of excellent films that we should support. And here's the important thing: the box office receipts of the premeire weekend of a film are the most important, as they can make or break a film. So? Go see this film this weekend. Take your family (kids 12 and up). Make it a success. Not because it's a film by Christians, but because it's an excellently made film that happens to also resonate with Christian themes. Bottom line: it's a great story.

To see a more detailed review, go here. And to read about the philosophy behind Walden Media, read this.

Facing the Giants

GiantsI do not often comment on films, as I am not a particularly astute critic of the medium. However, I was pleasantly surprised by an overdue viewing of Facing the Giants this past weekend. Though many friends had encouraged me to see this film, I declined, convinced that it would not be worth the watching. An indie production with a low-budget made by a church with a Christian message about football? Sad to say, all those were strikes against it for me. I don't care for football, nor do my kids (who initially refused to watch it). Low-budgets usually mean low-quality. A Christian film made by a church? That means hokey, corny, preachy, and definitely just preaching to the choir, right?

Almost all wrong. This is a surprisingly good film. True, it won't win any Academy Awards, but then the judges there wouldn't understand the film anyway. And yes, the plot is predictable and the acting not top-notch -- but wait a minute, none of these people are even trained actors! And yet they are very believeable. Finally, while there is a message in this film, the story wins out. After a half-hour forced viewing, my kids were hooked, as were we. Good stories always win out. And they do not have to be morally ambiguous, complicated, and be left painfully unresolved at the end to earn the status of "art."

The basic plot runs like this: In six years of coaching, Grant Taylor has never led his Shiloh (Christian School) Eagles to a winning season. Everything is going wrong for him. He and his wife Brooke face infertility, his team is losing, his car won't start, there's a putrid odor in the house (a dead rat), the stove won't work, and then he discovers that a group of fathers are secretly organizing to have him dismissed as head coach. After what seems like too, too long, he cries out to God in desperation. It's the beginning of charting a new purpose for his life, his team, and his school. Essentially we watch a spiritual revival occur in Grant, his football team, and the school as a result of his surrender to God.

The cynic in us cries out that it can't be so neat and nice. Things never turn out so well. Isn't this idealistic rubbish? But ask yourself this (I did): Are we so jaded that we can't simply be inspired by a film that encourages us to trust God and praise him, "whether we win or lose?" And doesn't God sometimes answer prayer with a resounding "Yes?" Sure He does. We simply live in a cynical time when such stories -- stories of miracles and happy endings -- are dismissed and mocked. I even hear that attitude of dismissal in some "scholarly" Christian reviews I read -- the critics too sophisticated to simply say they enjoyed a good story and seeing how God can work in the life of a people. In fact, isn't the problem that sometimes, deep down, we really don't believe the very true "fairy tale" of the Gospel, that wild vision of Heaven, is really true? Sure doubt comes to all of us at one time or the other, but persistent doubt tends to make one suspicious of any happy ending.

The movie led to some productive discussion in my family about what "giants" we face in our own lives. And we asked each other for prayer that we might stand up to those giants. That is another good result of such a film. No, we know it's not easy, and we know that sometimes God allows trials to go on and revival to tarry (someting implicit in the film, as they were a losing team for six years), but it's no crime to focus our attention on times that He does not tarry but answers prayer in miraculous ways.

The backstory to this film, some of which is explained in some extras with the DVD, is just as much a story. The film was produced by Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia. Two brothers in the church, Alex and Steven Kendrick, expressed the desire to their pastor to produce Christian films. He and the church supported them, raised the money, and made the film. Now that right there is amzing enough. Only after it was completed did Provident Distribution pick it up. All the actors came from the church, the church school, or the community. Only five professionals were used, all technical people. And this is precisely what a church should do for artists -- support them! No, it's the way they should encourage the giftedness of every person. The church should support them and not put roadblocks in their way. These Baptists got it right.

I want these brothers to make more films like Facing the Giants. They will get better. They will master the craft. Let's support them. Don't rent the film, buy it here. And next time, when a film like this comes out, go see it on the opening weekend. That can make or break a film.

Now, back to my own giants. . .

The Nativity Story

Poster_1024 Tonight I went with my family to see The Nativity Story, a new movie about the Birth of Christ.  I found it faithful to the story and helpful as well in giving us a sense of the reality of the story.  Nevertheless, seeing this true story come to life on a screen where countless other fictional works have played, and all the while munching on popcorn and drinking soda, was a bit incongruous.  It almost had a leveling effect, putting the story on the same level as all the other stories that have played on these screens.  I don't know if I like this.  I much prefer a telling of the story (albeit later in Jesus's life) in prose, as in Anne Rice's Christ the Lord.  I feel less entertained and less marketed to.

Nevertheless, there is good in the film telling of the story.  We gain a sense of the perilous and difficult situation facing Mary, and even Joseph, as the child was born out of wedlock.  We have an appreciation for what it meant to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a long and difficult journey and yet one tersely covered in scripture by the words "So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David" (Lk. 2:4).  The film provides the possible back-story to this terse account, filling in the interstices of scripture.  That's helpful.

The bottom line, though, is that I have to keep reminding myself that this is reality.  This wild tale of supernatural beings appearing to humble human beings, of God Himself taking on human form through a miraculous birth to a virgin, happened.  It really happened.  It can't simply be dismissed as a beautiful legend.  And that's why I can't quite abide seeing it on the screen.

I recommend the movie.  Find out more about it here.  But I recommend reading the account of Scripture even more.

The Boy Ten Feet Tall

BoytenfeetI'm still old enough to remember Circle K movie matinees.  These were movies shown on Saturday morning at our local theater, a beautiful old style cinema, with an orchestra pit, balcony, eerie looking statutes in boxes overlooking the stage, and a huge chandelier in the middle of the ceiling.  That theater, the Carolina, in Greensboro, has now been restored, after it fell into disrepair in the 1970s.

But then, in the mid-Sixties, it was a fine place.  My family saw every John Wayne movie there, and I believe the last movie I saw there was Patton, starring George C. Scott, on its premiere.

But back to matinees. . . . I don't remember a single matinee I saw except one called The Boy Ten Feet Tall, one I remember distinctly to this day.  I suppose it's because this movie would appeal to every young boy.  The plot is this: A young boy living in Port Said, Egypt narrowly escapes a bomb blast (having to do with some unexplained violence in 1956) that destroys the apartment block where he lives and kills both his parents.  He decides to travel on foot to Durban, South Africa, to be with his only living relative, an aunt.  During his 4500 mile trip he falls in with different people, good and bad, has an experience with the slave trade, poachers, criminals, and wild animals.  It's an incredible journey.

I have thought about this movie every now and then, but it has never been released on DVD or VHS tape.  In fact, I don't recall it ever being released on television.  This is sad, because I'd love for my own children to see it.  However, a movie released this year on DVD, Duma, bears some resemblance.  In Duma, a young South African boy loses his father and on his own journeys across the Kalahari Desert to return a cheetah they raised to the wild.  It's an adventure, but not quite as long or exciting as the one for Sammy in A Boy Ten Feet Tall.  I recommend it, though.

A Boy Then Feet Tall was actually based on a book by W.H. Canaway entitled Find the Boy, and then reissued under the name of the movie title.  I found a used copy a couple years ago, which was released in 1961.  The price?  50 cents.

I credit the movie with my love of travel.  At 10, it for the first time fueled my interest in the world outside my hometown, outside my neighborhood.  The feeling I had watching that movie could not be elicited now, with special effects and sensationalistic movies standard fare for kids.  But then it was really something.  When I came out of that theater, I wasn't quite the same.  It gave me a dream of something heroic.

Blog Church, Lion in Babylon, and Rabbit Fur

Ever have times when you just have too many things you're thinking about?  Today's the day for me.  This is a bit random, but perhaps there is some connection here:

  • Though I will not dwell much on the topic of why I blog (can you imagine a more boring topic?), I do think the phenomenon of blogging is interesting.  So does Jeremy Huggins, a blogger who devoted quite a lot of time to an analysis of the movement in an article called "Blogging Our Hearts Out ," found in Critique, the newsletter of Ransom Fellowship.  He is particularly interested in how the emergent evangelicals champion the movement as ushering in a more communal, less hierarchical church, and he questions this.  As Huggins says, "Because the emergent bloggers feel that they have been let down, to some degree, by the church, they are seeking to circumvent traditional church structures and authorities, feeling that true community comes through collaboration and shared community rather than top-down through select individuals."  He asks, "Will the abuse of blogging lead the church back to a gnostic, disembodied spirituality?  It's something to consider.
  • Speaking of Ransom Fellowship, in the latest issue (sorry, not online), Denis Haack asks if all the cheering by evangelicals about the Chronicles of Narnia film, while understandable (as in, "finally a film about Christianity in the media!"), is really a good thing.  Before you dismiss him as a curmudgeon (I met him, and he's not, much), consider these comments: "Consider what our response [to the film] would be if the gospel, not the culture war, is our primary concern.  Remember that America is both clearly post-Christian, and increasingly pluralistic, and that much of the postmodern generation thinks it has seen and heard what we stand for, and finds it wanting.  That our desire to evangelize is primarily a power play, a way to gain political and cultural influence until we are able to impose our standards on society." Ouch.  Is that a bit harsh?  He asks "[W]hy not let the film (and book) stand on its own? Why not trust God enough to allow the Holy Spirit to use a great, subtly creative and powerful story to awaken non-Christians to the Story of the gospel?  It's something to consider, right?
  • JennyTo me the most intriguing new release today is an indie album by Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins called Rabbit Fur Coat.  Twenty-something Jenny's life is sadly representative of many young adults who have grown up in a tide of brokenness from dysfunctional families and relationships.  The pain is evident in her songs, though she has a beautiful voice and can pen a very human if sad song.  Here's a sample: "What are you changing?/ What do you think you're changing?/ You can't change things./ We're all stuck in our ways./ It's like trying to clean the ocean./ What do you think, you can drain it?/ Well, it was poison and dry/ long before you came."  Not too much hope there.  You can read a bit about her in a cover story from Harp, and listen to her here.

Enough said for now!