Friday, July 31, 2009

Miller's Crossing

“I'm talkin' about friendship. I'm talkin' about character. I'm talkin' about - hell. Leo, I ain't embarrassed to use the word - I'm talkin' about ethics.”—Johnny Caspar

In the end, this is a film about those virtues, only not how you would think. Johnny Caspar is a crook that is complaining that he can’t fix a fight anymore because other crooks are cheating him at his own game. He fears anarchy, and in his mind organized crime and a boss run city is order—and good for everyone.

The main character in this story is not Johnny, but Tom, the right hand man of the big boss in town. The story is somewhat based on stories by Dashiell Hammett. The same stories that inspired such great films as Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars. In those films, a stranger comes into a town and proceeds to play two gangs against each other for profit. Instead, in Miller’s Crossing the main guy is not a stranger, but the best friend of one of the two bosses.

It’s not particularly deep, but it is thoughtful enough to add an added dimension to the normal gangster/noir movie elements. As far as those elements are concerned, the Coen brothers do a masterful job of creating a beautiful, visually stimulating, creative, and original addition to the genre.

Towards the beginning of the film, Leo (the big Boss) tells Tom, “I figure I can still trade body-blows with any man in this town… except you, Tom.” Later on we find out that he can, but that is not what he meant. Their friendship is too important to him. Tom burns his bridges with Leo, however, and has to start playing both sides in a mob war that breaks out without Tom’s sound advice to guide Leo.

In the end, well… two questions hang in the air the whole film. Will Johnny or Leo’s side win out in the war? And, will Tom and Leo be friends again?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Out of the Silent Planet

When Lewis set out to write the first story in his “Science Fiction” or “Planets” trilogy, he had multiple goals in mind. First of all, he and Tolkien were disappointed with the motivations and results of the current writers of their day; they felt that they could do a better job. They had often discussed the value and use of fiction and myth. So, it was decided that they would both try their hands at a story: Tolkien would tackle time travel and Lewis would try a story in space. At the same time, Lewis was inspired by contemporary fiction. “A Voyage to Arcturus” by David Lindsey (not a page turner by the way) had shown how fiction could effectively teach philosophical ideas. So he set pen to page to write a philosophical story with Christian themes instead of Gnostic ones.

And that is exactly what you get. Lewis, as always, writes in an easy to read style and the story flows quickly; and yet you are bombarded with little glimpses into Lewis’ mind. He was a thinker and reading his fiction you are forced to think. In this case we are exposed to ideas about:

What does it mean to be a spiritual creature?

The dangers of Humanism.

What are the effects of sin on the world?

And also slightly less weighty ideas: about cultural interactions, culture shock, and learning another language.

A particularly fun passage for people with cross-cultural experience comes at the end when Ransom must translate a speech for Weston. It is a bit of a sermon expounding the ideals of humanism, and the resulting translation into a language that lacks the very concepts needed to understand it exposes the weaknesses of Weston's philosophy in a way that is quite comical.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Costa Rica

When I was a kid we had a subscription to “National Geographic World.” I remember wondering if I would ever get to travel. It wasn’t but a year or so later that I experienced my first “real” travel. We got on a plane and flew over the Gulf of Mexico (I tried to see a whale—or Cuba) to Costa Rica, where we lived for a year to learn Spanish.

Pretty much everyone you meet who did language school in Costa Rica will have hated the place, but I didn’t. It was an adventure. I was disappointed that first night though, driving from the airport to our new house. There were no huts! San Jose was a bigger city than I had ever lived in.

We arrived in the dry season. When you went grocery shopping, the bag boys wouldn’t just take your stuff to the parking lot; they would push the cart all the way to your house if you wanted. We walked or rode busses everywhere. There were trails of ants that stretched for blocks transporting leaves bigger than they were. There were all sorts of strange fruits, and people ate beans and rice for every meal—even breakfast. They sold milk in plastic bags.

There were beetles the size of your hand, and scorpions just as big—usually in the house. There were pepperbushes so spicy that the juice would burn your skin. We had to be careful not to expose ourselves to parasites or strange, semi-tropical illnesses. You couldn’t flush toilet paper down the toilet. In fact, the whole city was kind of a giant trashcan.

They would cut the grass with a machete, in your yard and in the park. The park near our house was huge and wonderful. When the wet season came it rained—often for days on end. Sometimes it would rain on one side of the street while the other side remained sunny. You could hear the rain coming across the park and almost outrun it to the house. When the grass overtook the park and grew waist-high, my brother found a machete. I don’t remember what we did with it.

We caught a snake when the dry season returned. We played with it for about a week until one of the missionaries told us they thought it was a viper of some sort. It wasn’t, though.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Divine Assistant

The typical image of clueless missionary efforts is the opening scene of The African Queen; missionaries that try to impose culture instead of bringing a culture-transcending message. (A great movie by the way, you should definitely check it out, especially if you entire experience of the film has been seeing this opening scene in seminary or Bible College.)

US attitudes in modern missions can be just as misguided. Our pragmatic philosophy, our work ethic driven ethos, can cause us to believe in a self-sufficient, step-by-step, if-you-just-work-hard-enough-it-will-happen approach. Countless trees have given their lives to spread the word in endless church planting strategy manuals that seem to come along every few months and have ever shorter sell-by-dates stamped on them.

If someone is called by God to do cross-cultural missions, we should not assume that it is because they have something special to contribute to the effort. It may be that God wants them to be a part of something so beyond them that He alone will receive the glory for what is accomplished.

God is already at work amongst the lost all around the world. He wants assistants—not to help Him reach these lost people, but to be used for His glory as He reaches them. Often the role of a missionary is to merely be in the right place at the right time with their eyes wide open. Instead, too often we have “highly-trained” and “qualified” people too busy trying the “latest-greatest-methods” to notice that God is already at work inviting them to join Him.

If you can do what you have been called to do, or anyone can do it if they just work hard enough and with enough expertise, then it is not missions.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Galatians 6:11-18 (Conclusion)

Paul takes the pen from his secretary to write the final thoughts of his letter… to sum things up. He has been composing a well thought out argument for the Gospel and against religion. He finishes with an interesting statement about those who have been pushing religion on the Galatians:

“Those who desire to make a good showing in the flesh try to compel you to be circumcised, simply so that they will not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.”

The true aim of legalists is not to help those they are teaching and dictating behavior to, but rather to make themselves more accepted in their circle of influence. In Paul’s day, these leaders wanted to be accepted in Jewish society. Today it is the Evangelical Ghetto that people want to fit into. Instead of merely preaching the Biblical truth of Christ crucified and our total dependence on Him for salvation, they push a few extras that are not a part of our justification or even sanctification for that matter:

Instead of teaching that God has bought us completely and our whole lives and all our money are His; teach that he demands a very precise tenth of everything you receive (the gross—not net—and all of it must go to the local church!) Especially if the church budget looks in danger of not being met.

Instead of teaching that “food will not commend us to God” or “do not get drunk with wine” teach people that alcohol itself is sinful and no true Christian would even touch the stuff.

Instead of teaching that the Bible is God’s word and contains all the truth we need to understand God’s plan for the redemption of Mankind; require people to hold to only one interpretation of secondary doctrines where different interpretations are possible but only one if fashionable.

In the end, legalism and legalists are not concerned with helping others live better. They simply want to improve their own state in life or standing in the religious community. Instead, “religion is nothing, heathenism is nothing; being a new creature in Christ is everything.”

Friday, July 24, 2009

Come, Sing, Live

Come! Come as the spring.
Primavera so slow.
Anticipation brings,
Great desire fulfilling joy.
Until birds, flowers and bumblebees,
Finally come,

Sing! Sing as the song.
The flamenco dancer plays,
Melodious and fast,
Rhythmic beyond all music.
Until the listener dancers within.
Joyfully sing,

Live! Live as the man,
Who knows what really counts.
Who stores up memories,
And gives out certain love,
And doesn’t hold life so close it isn’t
Really lived.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Themes in Harry Potter

“I am sorry too. Sorry I will never know him... but he will know why I died and I hope he will understand. I was trying to make a world in which he could live a happier life.” –Remus Lupin

Rowling says the theme of her series is death. Others have pointed out the archetypal struggle between good and evil. It has been called fantasy, a coming-of-age tale, or a series of British boarding school novels. Certainly there is a lot of mystery and detection going on. What is the main theme of the series?

For all the insight and truth regarding adolescence and growing up in the books, that is not the main theme but more of a background or atmosphere. Ginny, for example, is a bit of a frustration in the series. The reader has gotten the (correct) impression all along that she and Harry are meant for each other, but that is not what the story is about so we just get glimpses of their story. It is a perfect example of how these sorts of stories get one so caught up in the lives of the characters that, even when the story is over we wish we could keep on seeing them live. Tolkien never did really get the hang of just telling the story and wrote chapter after chapter after the story had long ended. Rowling seems to have learned when to quite writing, even if she can’t help herself hinting more and more about the characters’ lives after these events.

The blood purity stuff has its obvious ties to Nazi Germany, and of course it should. One of the main sub-themes of the series is tolerance and acceptance and it is always a good idea to remember where humanity has erred in the past since we are never far from repeating our mistakes. People may think that after WWII we could never do something that terrible again without people remembering what was done back then, but it happens all the time around the world so… But that is not the main point either.

On the tolerance front, Rowling does a great job of showing the value of accepting others and different cultures without going too far. The Goblins are a great element in Rowling’s fiction because in spite of her “tolerance” theme, she is not one of those naïve people that think tolerance solves all problems. Simply having tolerance as an axiom does not mean everyone else will treat you tolerantly.


In the end, the whole series is about sacrifice. Rowling has said her books are ultimately about death, but that is not quite it. They are about love being stronger than death. That the fear of death can lead to a lot of evil in the world as people seek power to overcome that fear; but that love—a love strong enough to sacrifice itself for others—is a much more powerful thing than anything evil has to offer. Death is overcome, not by living forever, but when love and faith and sacrifice take away any fear of death.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


"‘’ he whispered. The green eyes found the black, but after a second, something in the depths of the dark pair seemed to vanish, leaving them fixed, blank, and empty. The hand holding Harry thudded to the floor, and Snape moved no more."

The affect of chapter 33 of this book on the series as a whole is Earth shattering. In a single brilliant move, Rowling shows us why Dumbledore placed such faith in such an unworthy man. It is not just one of those big reveals with little clues placed along the way either. Snape is amazing as a character.

He shows a truly flawed and corrupt individual who, for the sake of love, has found the ability to devote his life to good. He still struggles with his evil nature throughout the series. He is a man full of hatred and pettiness. He is a bad teacher, even if he manages to teach the subjects he is assigned. Dumbledore may think that a certain amount of “bad teaching” is good for students, but that just makes Snape a “necessary evil” at best. However, in the end we see that the love he possessed for another has affected everything he has done since she died.

That “everything” is no small thing either. He has had perhaps the hardest job of anyone working for Dumbledore. Everyone who worked against Voldemort lived in constant danger, but imagine working against him right under his nose! He really earned the title of “bravest man I ever knew.”

Then think about his final act. He exposes every embarrassing and shameful memory about his love to Harry. He had to do this so that Harry would connect the dots and believe the last bit of crucial information from Dumbledore. Yet these were the very things he did not want anyone, least of all Harry, to see. He made Dumbledore promise to never reveal his secret for fear that James’ son would find out. With all the hate he had for Harry, he truly protected him his whole life. In the end, when he found out Harry had to simply die in spite of all that protection, Snape still did everything he could to help Harry accomplish his mission.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” –Albus Dumbledore

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is an amazing literary experience. On its own it is perhaps great; as the culmination of an epic saga it is amazing. By this point the reader has invested so much in the story and the lives of the characters, and Rowling does not fail to use that to her advantage. The book doesn’t so much have a climax, as it is the climax. Event after event has so much meaning to the over all story.

Moments that stand out are many:

The Dursley’s farewell is surprisingly touching. Who would have thought that about Dudley? And we are teased once more with Petunia’s secret.

The escape from the Dursley’s has an intensity up until now reserved for the books’ climaxes.

The things Ron and Hermione have done to prepare to help Harry this year show that they may have weighed the cost even better than Harry has.

The moment the ministry falls to the Death Eaters should be very cinematic. Let’s hope they keep it.

Kreacher’s back-story and change of attitude is one of those eye-opening moments that Rowling is so good at. Understanding people and showing others love generally pays off.

One of the scariest scenes ever written (not just in this series, but in English in general) occurs after Ron leaves and Harry and Hermione go to Godric's Hollow. If they don’t keep that for the next film it will be criminal. The first time you read it and don’t know how it is headed but can see it slowly being revealed… it is truly terrifying!

Dumbledore gets the same treatment from Rowling as all of Harry’s idols—having his youth exposed humanizes him. It seems that all people are idiots or at least misguided in their youth. It makes Dumbledore that much of a greater man when we realize why he himself turned down power whenever it was presented to him.

When Ron comes back and destroys the Horcrux, it is one of those moments Rowling does so well… using her great imagination to reveal deep character qualities in a novel way. In those same scenes the doe patronus is a tantalizing clue of the greatest reveal to come.

When Harry is captured, we get the first of many intense moments where we ask ourselves how they are possibly going to get out of this situation. Dobby’s appearance is a huge cheering moment, but it is oh so short. The grief Harry (and the reader) experience here is probably the single greatest turning point of the series. From this point on, Harry has set his course in confidence; there are no more doubts the rest of the way. Harry seems to know he can do no wrong after the pivotal choice: Hallows or Horcruxes?

When the action gets back to Hogwarts, we are reminded that Harry and Ron and Hermione are not the only people standing up for what is right. The DA and the teachers of Hogwarts have been quietly doing their part and when the moment is right, they are ready to die for what is right. We have always known that these teachers were just waiting to show all they were capable of. It is exciting to see them act.

It is through the Weasley family that we ordinary people get to see the action through ordinary people’s eyes. This family has seen some of the worst of things in this epic, and at the climax it is no different. When Percy shows up to fight, it is so unexpected and such a moving moment… I think it affects me every time I read it more than the deaths to come. At least as much anyway.

More on themes and the most tantalizing character to come…

Monday, July 20, 2009

Galatians 6:6-10 (A Worthy Investment)

Today there is a lot of talk about house church, Missional living, and churches living more like community. There are a lot of compelling reasons to look in this direction, from the Biblical end of the spectrum all the way over to the old American stand-by: pragmatism. Some people get very excited about the idea of house churches not being saddled with the high cost of property, utilities and salaries. The idea is that a community meeting in homes can simply take up collections when the feel “led” to do so, and not worry about money the rest of the time.

That is all very good and well, and may even be a valid reason for doing house church. However, not all church leadership should go the way of the lay-leader or the bi-vocational leader. There is a good (and even Biblical) argument for communities to consider having some of their leadership—called of God—to devote themselves full-time to the leadership and spiritual growth of the community. Here, Paul says that the teacher deserves to receive from the learners.

The whole “reaping what you sow” teaching has many more applications to be sure, but the fact that the paragraph begins with a sentence regarding providing for spiritual leaders is not a coincidence. Communities who decide to invest in such leadership can benefit in the fact that they will have people devoted to their spiritual growth all the time.

That being said, the church today tends to err on both sides of the equation. There are far too many starving-church-mice pastors and even a few too many obscenely rich pastors as well.

Friday, July 17, 2009


Whales swim about,
Through the sea,
Without a worry or care.

With grace and beauty,
Moving free,
Like birds on wing in the air.

But me, I’m skinny,
Sans buoyancy,
And swim like a big wet dog.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Harry Potter and a Well-Made Summary of the General-Idea of the Sixth Book

With Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince being a personal favorite from among the books, and the movie being my number one most anticipated of the year, this film has little chance of getting a fair evaluation with just one viewing and in German to boot. However, a review it will get.

First, as most reviewers seem to be reacting, this film is among the best of the series. It is visually stunning. It manages to include much of the plot and even indulges in moments that make the book fans happy and perplex non-readers. Those who have not read the books seem to find the pacing slow and only wake up for the action set pieces. Readers on the other hand, face the same frustrating mix of joy and anger over the attempted adaptation of this story.

There is a wealth of things missing here. A mere list of characters cut will give some indication of the size of shears used: the Dursleys, Kreacher, Dobby, Bill Weasley, Rufus Scrimgeour, Fudge, Fleur, and Cho Chang are gone completely. Yes. The film can never be as informative, rich and extensive as a novel, so there is no real complaint there. However, why do the filmmakers add stuff not in the script at the expense of more stuff that was there?

Three examples:

Fenrir Greyback. This character had very little to do in the novel. In fact he was almost entirely an unseen character. What he did do though had a large impact on the story. One could expect the movie to cut this character, or at least keep him unseen—an unseen character is great for a movie. Instead, they chose to keep him—give him a lot of screen time—and have him do exactly nothing. Huh?

The Attack on The Burrow. It is in the trailer, so we all know it was coming. What we didn’t know was exactly why. The filmmakers claim that it was needed for pacing and that they needed to add more action to the film. What they failed to mention is the reason the needed more action. They completely cut the climax of the book. It seems that they felt it would ruin the whole eighth movie, as the climax to book seven is so similar. So instead of a hugely cinematic battle at the end of this move, the Death Eaters simply walk out of Hogwarts completely uncontested—and we get a totally inconsequential and illogical attack at Christmas.

There is a nice story that Slughorn tells about Harry’s mother that is not in the book. It serves as a good character moment and a good bit of foreshadowing to remind the viewers that a Wizard’s magic ceases to work when they die. Add that to the scene on the train that was left in (surprisingly) to foreshadow the Petrificus Totalis spell that Dumbledore uses on Harry, and it comes as a complete shock that they decided to change that pivotal scene as well.

Other things that are sadly missing are the second Quiditch match, most of the Voldemort memories, the funeral, Ginny and Harry hooking up, and Ginny and Harry breaking up.

All of those changes and additions manage to somehow not ruin the movie, even for someone who loves the books. It is a sign of David Yates’ talents as a storyteller that his two movies so far have come out capturing the spirit of the books they have changed so much. All in all the readers get a “Cliff Notes” view of what the story could have looked like, and the non-readers get a sense of the story that they missed. (Although it is admittedly easy to see why the non-readers opinion of the series is somewhat diminished by the films.)

Oh, and maybe this is just a fact that the German dubbing has helped, but Emma Watson’s acting in this film appears to be much better. She had begun to grate a bit as the series progressed. She comes across better in this movie than any of the previous five. Complete endorsement must wait for an English viewing of course.

After reviewing six of the seven books and films thus far, the resounding conclusion is… if you have not yet read the books: please do so!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

"And now, Harry, let us step out into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure." —Albus Dumbledore

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince slightly edges out books 3, 5, 7, and 4. But really it is difficult in this series to have a favorite book. Much like the Chronicles of Narnia, they are all so good. Also, much like the Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings and even books considered more as classics of the English language, this series is great literature and has earned its place among them. It is a worthy branch on the tree of story; a truly great sub-creation.

So why choose Half Blood Prince as favorite? That is hard to say. In some ways though, it just feels like the most enjoyable read. Up until the last few chapters, it is certainly Harry’s best and most care-free year. That is ironic, since he now finally has the knowledge that he is the “Chosen One” and will have to kill or be killed. Perhaps that is why the year is so easy for him. Now that he knows the worst to come, he can simply enjoy the little childhood that remains.

It is also the year that Harry has the most contact with Dumbledore. Dumbledore has, up until now been a largely unseen character, more of a barrier and protection, just stepping in to explain things at the end of each year’s adventure. But this year he takes an active role giving Harry his final preparations for the fight to come. Together they learn as much as they can about the enemy and how to destroy him.

Strangely enough, for a book with so much background on Voldemort; it joins Azkaban as one of only two books where Voldemort does not really appear. In fact, books six and three are similar in that both have largely inactive adversaries. In Azkaban it is Sirius, unseen until the end and a bit of misdirection anyway. Here it is “merely” Snape and Malfoy yet again. They have only ever before been red herrings or bullies.

That is not to say that there is no threat this year. Harry’s world has become a world at war. People are being killed left and right and nothing is safe anymore. Perhaps that is why the focus seems to linger on the good things that remain. People are scared too. Parents are either being killed or pulling their kids out of school due to the dangers everywhere. The new character this year, Professor Slughorn, is a calculating coward. Not a bad man, just a weak one. He is truly an appropriate character to introduce in this atmosphere. His fearful self-preserving type is the dominate sort in such times, but we also discover that in the better days it is his sort that help bring about the evil that they later fear.

For all the fun Harry and company have simply being students this year (and the many laugh out loud moments Rowling injects—“Dobby has not slept in a week, Harry Potter!” “Had a house-elf test every bottle after what happened to your poor friend Rupert.”), the last five chapters are tough to get through. Rowling demonstrates that her imagination is not just great at inventing fantastic thrills, but she can also devise torturous lose/lose situations. In a way, the whole year has been set up as just that—but the reader doesn’t learn the details until the next book.

There are clues, however. The time between the publication of Half Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows was a thrill of speculation and clue searching. (For example, compare the last full paragraph on (US edition) page 571 to the same one on page 595.) Those who noticed these clues early on had a good idea of what was coming. The final reveal, however, is magnificently done in the last book.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Worship Through Instrument

Take six measures of 4/4 in the key of C—C to F to G to Am back through G to C—repeat it over and over again starting out quietly and increase the intensity, the instrumentation, and the emotion. Such a simple thing can bring such great pleasure; especially if you get to play along. It is one thing to sing in a crowd, the bigger the better. But if you get to experience worship through playing an instrument, it can put you off singing forever. Every one ought to learn to play an instrument if for no other reason than to use that ability in worship.

The above example can be found on the album “Everything Glorious” track 13. “Our God reigns. Our God reigns. Forever Your Kingdom reigns.” Six and a half minutes of it. There is also a good example on Hillsong United’s “Look To You” album where they sing the chorus of “Awesome God” for five and a half minutes. This sort of worship can be very exciting and non-repetitive when you are a part of the band. The building, and grooving, and give and take are a really joyful and worshipful experience.

There are plenty of elements in the modern Praise and Worship movement that are problematic (the question of whether God or the music is the object of worship, the celebrity aspects, and the commercialism of it all just to name a few) but, repetitiveness is not necessarily one of them. Sometimes, a repetitive chant of truth can be an amazing thing. Apparently God has ordained some angels to do it for all of eternity. Who knows? In the timelessness of eternity there may be a good amount of it in our future and that could be a good thing—if we get to play along.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Galatians 5:25-6:5 (Mind Your Own Business)

When Paul argues in Galatians that faith and grace—not the law or works—is the basis for salvation, he is not saying that the law or works are evil. He is not embracing a complete abandon of any standard of conduct. He is just arguing against any claim that the law imparts righteousness. Legalism says that what we do determines our standing before God, and that the job of a religious community is to govern each other.

Paul over and over again in all his writings argues that Christ’s work alone is enough for the salvation of any who turn to Him. We are in right standing before God as a result of what He has done, not anything we have or could do. Therefore, there is no reason for the community of faith to act as judges of each other. Instead, we are to love each other and help each other out. If someone is struggling with any sin, the role of the community is to gently help that person overcome, not judge.

However, there is a Godly standard of conduct as exemplified by Jesus. It is the duty of every Christian to always strive toward a behavior that is acceptable to God in their life. So, in true relationship with God, it is up to each believer to hold themselves to a standard of behavior. If we can hold each other accountable to a standard that we have ourselves set as a result of our relationship with God, then we will find the spiritual way to growing in Godliness.

The difference is between community and self-imposed standards. Basically, mind your own business and invite people you trust to help you out.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

1991 in Film

1991 gave me the first cinematic experience of a crowded theater actually yelling at the screen warning the protagonist. We had truly forgotten that we were just watching a movie. We were on the edge of our seats screaming at Jodie Foster; telling here to turn around. It is no wonder that Silence of the Lambs swept the Oscars that year. Aside from the fact that it was a near perfect thriller, it had little competition. It is hard to come up with a top ten for 1991 without including some mindless blockbusters. Of course, the one competitor Lambs did have was Disney in the beginning of its huge come-back. Beauty and the Beast remains the only animated movie nominated for best picture.

Top 10 Personal Movies of 1991
1. Beauty and the Beast
2. Silence of the Lambs
3. T2
4. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
5. Barton Fink
6. City Slickers
7. Dead Again
8. Father of the Bride
9. Robin Hood Prince of Thieves
10. Pure Luck

Bottom 5 Personal Movies of 1991
1. Hook
2. Shattered
3. Nothing But Trouble
4. Dying Young (Julia Roberts Tie)
4. Sleeping With the Enemy (Julia Roberts Tie)
5. The Doors

Top Movies I Still Most Want to See or Revisit
1. Delicatessen
2. The Fisher King
3. Thelma & Louise
4. JFK (Saw it at the time and wasn’t impressed but want to see it again.)

Friday, July 10, 2009

Harry Potter and the Slightly Wild-Eyed Fan Rant Over Film Five

“Fudge isn't in his right mind. It's been twisted and warped by fear. Now fear makes people do terrible things, Harry. The last time Voldemort gained power he almost destroyed everything we hold most dear. Now he's returned, and I'm afraid the Minister will do almost anything to avoid facing that terrifying truth.” –Remus Lupin

Phoenix continues the trend of chopping, cutting, re-imagining, and changing that has been the trend in this series since at least Azkaban. If seen just after a reading of the book upon which it is inspired, it is really a terrible film. It is a testament to the greatness of the source material that –independent of a recent reading—it is fairly enjoyable. A list of the differences and changes would be too long to undertake in a simple blog entry. So instead, an attempt to judge the film on its own merits should be made.

The dominate theme of the film version of this story is the fear of evil and the negative effects it has on society. People will do almost anything, including evil things, to avoid admitting that there is evil in the world. In the Ministry of Magic we see some who have stuck their heads in the sand and invent stories as an alternative to the increasing evidence that Voldemort has returned. We also see some who will take advantage of the situation to progress their own agendas and satisfy their own evil tendencies.

OK, forget what is written two paragraphs back; it is impossible to make the themes of this story truly resonate with what is found in the films alone. Here in Phoenix, the actions of Fudge are a result of the choice he makes at the end of the last book. When forced by Dumbledore to either: undertake considerable, personal, political, risk and prepare the world for the fight that has come now the Voldemort is back or take the easy route and pretend Dumbledore is lying, he wimps out. After choosing to believe a lie, Fudge is forced to spend the whole of the next year campaigning against the truth and actually fighting against the people on the side of good. He is not in fact evil, but in fighting the forces of good, he does become a “bad guy.”

His ally in this fight is Professor Umbridge, who in the film is quite annoying and hateful but not nearly as much as she should have been. Still, she retains enough of the original idea to be the best villain of the films so far. Here the film score really manages to shine. In the early moments of the film when the Order of the Phoenix is flying across London, Hooper’s score sounds like the theme song from an 80’s Prime Time soap. However, Umbridge’s theme communicates well the girly, syrupy sweet yet sinister quality of the character. Once we are in the climax at the Ministry the score is in good form, if somewhat cliché in the “2000s fantasy movie climactic battle” vein.

In a complete failure to see this movie as a stand alone story, three moments at least have to be seen as at best missed opportunities and worst defrauding the viewer of the real experience of the book:

The hearing at the ministry is completely botched. In the book it is a brilliant continuation of the Dumbledore-Fudge confrontation at the end of Goblet. It sets the tone for everything to come in this story. We have Gambon to thank once again for playing some version of Dumbledore that only he knows.

The events surrounding Christmas beginning with the attack on Mr. Weasley which are some of the best in the whole series are glossed over in a completely forgettable bit of film. Part of what is missed here is the Neville issue which is the next point.

What is the deal with Neville in the films? How can they botch this character up so badly? We presume they have read the books, so they understand that Neville is important, but they consistently cut his actions out of the scripts! Then to give his character more weight, they cut another important character’s entire role and give it to Neville. What are they going to do with Doby come films 7 and 8? They simply can’t cut him and give all of his actions to Neville unless they intend on having Neville’s ghost conclude the film.

In a way this series of films has become a long string of cutting some characters and giving all their lines to others who don’t have enough to do—because their own lines have been trimmed out. One wonders why the producers didn’t split the three books that could have supported two movies and make money off of 10 or 11 films from the beginning.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

“This is precisely why I loathed being a teacher! Young people are so infernally convinced that they are right about everything.” –Phineas Nigellus Black

The aspect of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix that many find hard to endure is Harry himself. He is an angry, spoiled, self-pitying brat; in other words—a teenager. It really can be annoying at times, but the book is as good as or better than any other in the series, and some even consider it the best. Rowling really does a great job of capturing the know-it-all, self-centered nature of the teen mind and even incorporates it into the plot. Much of the story this year is not just clouded by Harry’s attitude, but is driven by it. To be fair, Harry’s anger is not all his own fault, and one of the more fulfilling aspects of the story is that, unlike many teens, Harry does come to recognize his error and learn from it.

There are many, many stand-out scenes in this book that develop character and deliver a lot of tension and its accompanying emotional pay-off:

The Trial that Harry faces to see if he will be punished for performing magic away from school looms over much of the opening chapters. When it finally comes, the interplay between Dumbledore and Fudge builds upon the tension in Goblet’s great chapter “The Parting of the Ways.” In many ways, the themes of power grabbing and reality denial or even appeasement in government are the biggest in this book. Dumbledore is especially good in this scene (something that is a big letdown in the cinematic re-imagining, but more on that tomorrow.)

Mr. Weasley’s attack and the aftermath over the Christmas break are especially hard to read. Just a reminder of how serious the series has become when dealing with the reality of evil and death.

Neville grows a lot as a character. His role as the series goes on becomes more and more important. There is a lot that can be said about Neville, but some of it must wait until the discussion of the movie. One interesting thing revealed here is how similar Neville and Harry actually are. When the prophecy is revealed at the end of Order, we discover that the only thing that kept Harry’s fate from going to Neville was a simple calculation on the part of Voldemort.

This year’s Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Umbridge, is yet again an incredible character. As a one-off enemy, she may be the best character-you-love-to-hate in the whole series. The only ones that manage to best here are series long characters Snape and Voldemort. In some ways, she is hated even more because she is not supposed to be a bad guy; at least with the baddies you expect evil. Her evilness is somehow more offensive.

The Weasley teens, Ginny, McGonagall and Hagrid all have moments to shine like never before. And, as always, Rowling shows an incredibly fun imagination describing such things as the fifth year exams and the peculiar role of the Headmaster Portraits. All in all it is worth the effort to read this entry, even though it is nearly as long as the first three books combined!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Caution: Ghettos Can Suck (Missional Vision Right Out of You.)

In a conversation with an aspiring church planter the other day, the question came up: “Do you find this thing we are trying to do hard?” The church planter in question was a German, so he was not referring to cross-cultural work; just the idea of starting new churches in Germany. We addressed all the issues that always come up in these conversations: the difficulty of reaching people who are “immunized” against the Gospel, the challenge of getting Germans to shift a social circle’s reason for being, etc. However, a truly interesting statement was made once he found out that our approach is single-minded.

“Ah yes. I can see how you would find the work hard if all you are doing is trying to start new churches. It is easier if you have something else to do in the church. Then you don’t feel like you are getting no results.”

What I didn’t tell him is that this is actually a common problem for us cross-cultural church planters. Countless numbers of missionaries I have known over the years are quickly absorbed into the traditional church’s sphere and never heard of again, at least in the lost culture. It is very easy to see how it happens. Don’t have any new church plants on the horizon? Go ahead and fill your time preaching a sermon here or teaching a Bible study there. Your expertise is there for a reason isn’t it? Plus, the churches are so grateful to have you work with them. You aren’t just spinning your wheels that way.

That does not mean churches should be avoided, but the Missional goal of the task should remain the drive behind everything that is done. Nothing should be done that does not contribute to the end goal of starting new work, new ways of doing church. After all, if you are just going to fill a need in a traditional church, why leave the home you came from? Traditional churches are always short of workers. It is a part of what traditional church is all about. Programs need workers and the Ghetto will suck you in—be it in the Bible Belt or halfway around the world.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Qualia, Zombies, and the Spiritual Dead

Nonmodern has touched on the topic of Zombie stories and their symbolism already, twice. It seems that the trend lately in popular culture is favoring Zombies over other traditional threats. This decade alone has seen the production of over 200 zombie movies, with a fourth of that number coming from the last 2 years alone. Part of that may be due to the relative simplicity of the stories and easy production of such movies, but the themes tied to Zombie invasions play a role as well.

Socialism, Communism, Apocalypse, and the true helplessness of Government to deal with real problems are all dealt with in Zombie fiction. They may not be as subtle or exciting as the traditional “good vs. evil” of vampire fiction, but seem to be more popular these days as vampire fiction has been overtaken by the romantically deluded mindset.

Aside from the literary themes of zombie fiction, there is a fascinating philosophical concept here as well: Qualia.

Qualia are basically the subjective perspectives of conscious experience. The two classic examples of qualia are “redness” and the “Philosophical Zombie.” How would you describe red to someone who had never seen color before? Even if a computer were to “learn” the wave-length definition of red, it would still not “know” what red looked like.

A “Philosophical Zombie” is the theoretical person without qualia. They are indistinguishable from normal people except that they do not truly experience anything. They are not true humanity.

All this is very theoretical and pointless speculation unless you begin to think about the spiritual side of things. Christianity claims that humanity has been robbed of its essence. We are all spiritually dead; incomplete people. Until someone enters into a relationship with God and is given spiritual rebirth, they are “spiritual zombies.”

(On a less serious point, this new book mixing Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice with zombies “augmented” by Seth Grahame-Smith looks so crazy it almost makes me want to give it a try.)

Monday, July 6, 2009

Galatians 5:22-24 (The Fruit of the Spirit)

When people want to come across as clever about the Bible, they say stuff like: “You realize, here, that Paul shows us that there is just ONE fruit of the Spirit, not nine. He says that the fruit (not fruits) of the Spirit is (not are)…” What do they mean by teaching that? If you are loving and gentle, but lack joy or self-control: “So sorry, man, you just have some virtues, not the fruit (singular) of the Spirit.” And how do they explain Paul’s statement that there is no law against such thingS?

Since this is such a pivotal passage, it supports a lot of teaching and reading and meditation. However, taken in the general theme of Galatians thus far argued—the Gospel vs. Religion and Legalism—these nine virtues stand out for how non-religious they are.

Religion and Legalism tell us to judge not love; that joy comes when we enjoy something—a sure sign that it must be wrong; that wrong behavior and belief should be purged and fought; that we should work hard to be perfect right now! Should we really be kind with others, even when they fail? Should goodness be treasured rather than righteousness? Should we just trust that the Spirit will perfect, when true faith would always be reflected in right behavior? Why be gentle with our fellow sinners when discipline should be hard? Why just worry about self-control, when there is a whole body of believers to control?

It seems instead that the fruit of the Spirit produces qualities in the individual, and when these qualities are exercised towards others they do not control, but support; they do not demand, but give; they do not impose, but seek to bless. Once again, Love not Law is what governs our behavior.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Harry Potter and the Hollywood Curse

“I just play him as myself, I don’t ease myself into any role really. I stick a beard on and play me. Every part I play is just a variant of my own personality.” –Michael Gambon

Ugh. This is the textbook example of how Hollywood can take a near-perfect book and make a mess of it. There is some question if people who don’t read the books even watch the films, but if they do there is no way they could make sense of this story. It is a mess. On the other hand, if you are familiar with the book, this film serves as a sort of visual taste of what parts of the story could have looked like—aside from the parts they changed, cut, rewrote, and butchered.

Without going into too much detail, here are a few things they got wrong:

The first fourth of the book (about 50,000 words) are condensed into ten minutes.

Michael Gambon completely missed the mark of Dumbledore’s character in this entry. Of course, he admits that he hasn’t read any of the books and simply plays Dumbledore as himself. (See above)

They changed major plot points and dumbed the overall plot down. Apparently movie goers are not as smart as the average 12 year-old.

They cut major characters important to this story and the overall series.

All the characters they didn’t cut, aside from Harry, Ron and Hermione are reduced to mere mentions. Rita Skeeter in particular was just a tease of the great character she is in the book.

Barty Crouch’s annoying tongue-tic. This is another testament to Hollywood’s opinion of its audience. Do we have to have some visual clue for the reveal later on? It is unfortunate because normally David Tennant and Brendan Gleeson are brilliant.

The last fourth of the book is severely watered down by: making the maze lame, eliminating Serius’s involvement, and cutting the amazing scenes of Dumbledore confronting Fudge and setting the war in motion.

On a personal note… everyone needs a haircut.

Thankfully, this did not signal the complete crash of the series. They hired a new director for parts five and six and with five at least, things improved a (little) bit.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

"You are blinded," said Dumbledore, his voice rising now, the aura of power around him palpable, his eyes blazing once more, "by the love of the office you hold, Cornelius! You place too much importance, and you always have done, on the so-called purity of blood! You fail to recognize that it matters not what someone is born, but what they grow up to be!"

With this book, the story of Harry Potter really takes off. The whole series up to this point has been introducing the reader to concepts that have to be understood and characters that we have grown to love, and now the evil that has always been hinted at and barely glimpsed will boil over into a full fledged war. However, it takes nearly 200,000 words and a complex mixture of mysterious plots to get there. By the end of the book we know what the stakes are. Evil in Rowling’s universe is real, the characters are in danger, and there are tough times ahead.

The mystery of this book is well crafted. There are genuine clues from the very start of the story, but in a way the mystery itself is a red-herring. If anyone did figure out what was really going on in the first reading; that would be surprising. Subsequent readings, however, do show that the signs and clues were there.

There are some side plots and themes that are revealed in this book that are worth exploring and will resurface as the series progresses:

House Elves play a large role in this book. Some find it annoying, but there is a reason they are here and why Hermione’s campaign is a part of the story. One of Rowling’s big themes across the whole series is the idea of accepting people who are different and treating all people equally and with respect. The interesting idea here in Goblet is that that does not always mean treating them the way you would like to be treated.

All too often the politically correct approach to diversity is to be open-minded and naïve at the same time. We campaign for the rights of those different from us, but don’t stop to ask what they want or need. Here, Hermione is determined to bring Elves a freedom that humans would wish with out realizing that it would be torture for most Elves. There are other role models in the books (like Dumbledore) who show the Elves just as much respect as Hermione, but with a level of understanding that she lacks.

This is an important truth that can be applied in “real life.” Just because our culture may want and can handle a certain form of Government does not mean that it is the best or even the right form of government for the whole world.

Another topic that is very well presented in this novel is the Media and public opinion. Rowling does a great job of showing how despicable and dangerous the media can be in its efforts to gain readership and power. Ideally the media exists to disseminate truth, but in reality it is used to control the public and destroy its enemies.

We just get a hint of the theme of politics and power in this book, through the character of Barty Crouch, but also in the excellent chapter “The Parting of the Ways.” It is a theme that will pour over into the rest of the series and play an important role in the next book.

Finally, death, the true theme of the whole series, makes its way into the story directly for the first time. Up until now it has always been seen in the past, but from now on it will threaten every character and as the series continues no one is safe.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Gift of Ministry in a Foreign Tongue

There is a blessing in having half your brain tied behind your back. When you work and operate 90 percent of the time in your second or third strongest language, you are forced to simplify everything you do. You find yourself shutting up a lot of the time. You ask yourself the question: “Is what I am about to try to say absolutely necessary? Will what I have to say help this situation, or just serve to remind people I am in the room?”

This is a gift for someone who is a “Kingdom Growth Catalyst,” “Cross-cultural Minister,” “Spiritual Arsonist,” (he-he love that one, Derek) or whatever you want to call missions nowadays. Because whatever else you are trying to accomplish in your efforts, you want to remain “behind the scenes.” You hear story after story of missionaries coming into an area, building a thriving, exciting splash based on their cultural novelty, and then leaving everything to die. Fellowship built around personality is not the goal.

Instead, you want to bring Jesus into already existent points of fellowship, teach the nationals to understand and develop Biblical community for themselves, stand back and watch it grow. When that is your goal, it is very helpful to have a handicap that forces you to stay quiet unless it is really needed.

It can frustrate, but let’s face it, Jesus Himself said of the Father: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” And the amazing thing is, when you minister in a foreign language you discover that when something really needs to be said you have the words come to you from nowhere. You use vocabulary you never learned and won’t remember the next day. On the other hand sometimes you speak just to be heard and that doesn’t always come out so well.
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