Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Enjoying the Tepid Heat

I was always only a slight fan of the NBA. When I played I lived in South America, so I was only rarely able to catch a game, usually months after it aired recorded on a video cassette. Back then the whole world loved the Chicago Bulls. They were a dominating team, but most people still rooted for them. Even those that didn’t had to admit that they were amazing to watch. In the years since those days, the league’s reputation has decreased as the image of its players has gotten worse.

Fast forward to this past summer. The most talented player of this generation, LaBron James, made his highly publicized switch to the Miami Heat and in so doing created the de facto favorite team to win the championship this year. Many predicted that they would break the record for single season wins. Apparently, there was no reason to even play the game this year. More conservative commentators set the over/under win count for the first twenty games at 17.5.

Maybe it is that universal desire to see prideful people take a fall, or simply the desire to see the status quo/popular consensus proved wrong; whatever the reason, I became interested in the NBA again. Not enough to watch the games right away, but enough to check the box scores.

The heat lost their opening game. They lost four of their first ten. At the end of November, they had lost 8 of 18 and were not first, nor second in their own division let alone the league. They have lost 4 in a row on the road and are 5 for 5 in their past 10. It is not as exciting as watching Jordan and company win back in the eighties, but almost as much fun. Perhaps the most entertaining aspect is to see all the “experts” eating their words. For them, this team winning was a done deal before a single game had been played.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Romans 12:3-21 (Love is Service)

Once Paul gets down to the business of describing the secret to a successful Christian walk, he does what he did in all of his teaching. It was his pattern really. Thom Wolf calls it the Universal Disciple pattern. In it, Faith is our response to God’s gift of grace where we turn away from the old way of life and embrace the new. Hope is where we stand firm against the difficulties and persecution we face in the world. Love is the way we interact with each other. Here in Romans, Paul really focuses a lot on Love. There are three main thrusts he sees to the way Christians should live with each other in love:

The first is seen in humble service. Paul starts out by describing how we all should recognize that we are no better than any other Christian, but rather all a part of one body. We have all been gifted in special ways that—working together in the body—help us to accomplish the tasks God has laid out for us as a body.

He then goes on to create a list of the ways Christians should deal with each other in love. These days we are used to that phrase being used when we really want to chew someone out or criticize them for something we see in them that is wrong. That is not what Paul has in mind; instead, loving each other means honoring each other, showing affection, and keeping the peace. We are to work hard for the benefit of each other. Especially for those with whom we do not get along. If you think the church is a place where you will not have “enemies,” you have not been around many churches. The best of families have conflict and the family of God on earth is no different.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Mann’s and Stewart’s 50s Westerns (1950, 52, 53, 55, 55)

In the 1950s director Anthony Mann and actor Jimmy Stewart made eight films together, five of which were westerns. These westerns were darker tonally than most of the action adventure westerns that had come before. The “hero” that Stewart played went against the “all-American-good-guy” type for which he had become famous. The main character of these films tended to be troubled and out for revenge. Here are a couple of examples:

Winchester ’73 (1950)

This story has the ingenious idea of following the trail of a rifle as it passes from man to man and bad things happen to them as they have it. It all starts when Lin McAdam wins the rifle in a contest while he is tracking down a man named Dutch Henry. Dutch steals the rifle from Lin and escapes from town. The rest of the movie follows Lin as he chases Dutch in addition to the story of the rifle. The rifle symbolizes the chain of evil that spreads as bad men do bad things to each other. The evil in the world grows and escalates as time passes. In the end, we learn why Lin is so bent on chasing and killing Dutch. It is a case of revenge that is more like western justice.

The Naked Spur (1953)

Here we again follow the story of Jimmy Stewart’s character Howard Kemp as he is tracking down a criminal named Ben Vandergroat, this time for a bounty. Along the way, he enlists the help of a couple men and when they catch Ben and a girl traveling with him, Ben begins to play them against each other. To make matters worse, Howard begins to fall in love with the girl (Lina, played by Janet Leigh). We gradually learn that Howard’s heart was broken and his livelihood was ruined when his fiancée sold his land during the war and took off with another man. He needs the reward money to get his land back. So, once again we have a man driven by revenge—not precisely against Ben, but rather against life in general. In the end, greed and temptation destroy the weak partnership and kill the two men helping Howard. Lina begs him to abandon his vengeful course and start over with her out west.

These films are not the fun, adventure and shoot-‘em-up westerns that the genre is known for. They are more like films noir filmed in the bright light of the American West. They are essential viewing for the genre. Look for Bend of the River (1952), The Man from Laramie (1955) and The Far Country (1955) too.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Giving Thanks: for the Cake and the Eating of the Same

As we look back on the presumed historic context of today’s celebration, Americans have a lot in common with those societies we have been seeing on shows like Lost and more recently The Walking Dead. We have come from and are influenced by people who were pioneers, who faced a lot of challenges but built the world in the way they saw fit. We (for the most part, and up until recently, anyway) are a society that questions the status quo and embraces change. We do not like being told what to do, but prefer to live by an ethical standard that we choose for ourselves. We have become completely dependent on each other and on the society we have built (not many of us would last long alone on a deserted island) but we value to fact that we do not much get into each other’s business.

It is amazing to think that such a society ever came into existence and that it has lasted as long as it has. The fact is that the majority of people prefer to either tell others what to do or be told what to do. Every group in our history, from the very conservative Puritans to the very liberal Hippies, have been all about proclaiming the way they think other people should live their lives. How we ever came up with a system that keeps groups from dictating how individuals should live and keeps government from being dictatorial is a mystery and in every election it seems in danger of falling apart. This is lately more evident than perhaps ever before, not due to threats of war or crisis, but simply due to the personality of the masses today.

For now, this type Gamma personality is thankful that he is still a citizen of a culture that allows you the freedom to have your cake and eat it too. I could never make it completely on my own, but I am glad to pretend that am free to live how I like and that (so far) no one is telling me how to live to enjoy the benefits of our great society.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thoughts on The Walking Dead Episodes 3 & 4 “Tell It to the Frogs” and “Vatos”

The Walking Dead saw an appreciable improvement in the middle two episodes this season. At the very beginning of episode three a major shift occurs when Rick is reunited with his wife and son. What we now have is no longer a story about a man searching for his family, but instead a show about society and human culture on the edge. Similarly to with show like Lost, we get to see how we would behave if modern society with all of its norms and barriers was no longer there to keep us “human.” In fact, zombies are almost an afterthought in these two episodes.

The real “baddies” in both of these episodes are the humans. We see the tension and danger that comes from people interacting with people, whether it be an abusive husband with his wife, racists force to confront their stereotypes as people, or two threatened groups of people competing for resources.

For now it looks as though Rick’s wife was acting under the impression that he was dead, and that no betrayal had occurred beforehand. This leads to one of the best moments in the season so far, where she tells Shane that there will be nothing further between them. In this moment, with all of his anger and pain still fresh, he has to stop a man from beating his wife. In this new society that is forming after the apocalypse, there is nothing holding him back from taking out his anger on the man and justifying the level of violence he employs. It is as disturbing as any police brutality case, but there is no higher authority here to stop him.

Another great moment occurs in the next episode, where Rick and company confront another pocket of humanity in the city. This begins as almost a cliché of post-apocalyptic fiction, and we prepare ourselves for the just use of violence to help our heroes survive. Instead, the whole moment is unexpectedly diffused and we get to see “the enemy” in a whole new light.

Two thirds of the way through the season, the climax to episode four reminds us that we are in a world plagued by zombies, but are they really the source of this latest attack?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Buffy without Joss: Story in Culture

The big buzz worldwide on the internet today is the outrage over the fact that a hugely beloved series is being brought back/rebooted cinematically without the involvement of its creator. Admittedly, it seems like a really dumb idea. Why would you consider telling a Buffy the Vampire Slayer story without Joss Whedon, one of the most talented story-tellers out there today?

This is just the latest in a long stream of examples of world-wide “geekdom” the guardians of popular culture’s most important stories, rising up to protest details or approaches to telling those stories. George Lukas and Steven Spielberg are continually critiqued for the way they have changed or added onto the stories they initiated in the seventies and eighties. Fantasy films like the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises are nit-picked for every casting decision and change that is made from page to screen. Comic book geeks can be the worst.

The fact of the matter is that Story has always been an important part of human culture. It is even more so now in the times of Postmodernism and all the emerging post-postmodern philosophical streams. Whether it is stories that are based on real events and history, or stories made up from some person (or group’s) fertile imagination, stories have the capacity to communicate important truths. And that is what is really important in the end.

Will the new Buffy (if it ends up being made) tell a good story, and communicate something worth thinking about? Joss Whedon didn’t always hit a home run with every episode or season of the show. (Remember the climax of season 4, or how about all but one episode of season six?) The movie will probably fail to capture the magic that the series did, but why judge it before it even has a chance to be told. Why are we so protective of the stories we love that we don’t give new ones a chance? That too seems to be a pervasive problem in human culture.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Romans 12:1,2 (Getting Practical)

Paul followed a regular pattern in most of his correspondence with churches. He would use the first part of his letters teaching, clarifying, answering questions and addressing problems. The second portion of his letters tended to be practical applications of what he had just taught. Here in Romans he does the same thing. Since he had not met the church and his letter had been a basic outline of his understanding of the Gospel, the application we get here is a general application of the Gospel that is universally applicable. He starts out with one of the most basic charges Christians can read in the Bible. What do we do as Christians?

Our “spiritual” (read logical or reasonable) Service of Worship is to:

Present our bodies as Living Sacrifices; meaning that we are not fashioned after this temporary age. That can mean both that we are not fashioned after the sinful world, but also that we are not fashioned after the religious world. Both ways of living are condemned by the Bible in general and by Romans specifically. This is the outward, visible aspect of the Christian life. There is also an inner aspect:

We are instead metamorphosed (read radically changed, made completely other) into a new mind. This transformation is accomplished by the Holy Spirit and experienced through sanctification and the practice of spiritual disciplines.

When we are not formed by the culture we live in, but transformed by God’s Spirit, we exhibit and demonstrate that God's Will is:

Acceptable and pleasing both to God and to us as well. Living as we were intended to, accomplishing the purposes for which we were created is the very definition of fulfillment.

Beneficial and profitable to God’s Kingdom, to those of us who live that way, and to the world. Once again, when God’s will is accomplished through people, the world gets a glimpse of things the way they should be. God’s righteousness breaks through into broken relationships and broken lives.

Complete and perfect. This is harder to see this side of heaven, but God’s will works throughout all the circumstances in our lives and accomplishes everything He purposes.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

1993 in Film

This was still in the period of my life where I saw a lot of films in the theater. Whereas for the past decade or so, I average around ten movies in the theater a year, I must have seen around 30 in 1993 in the little college theater at West Texas A&M. If dollar theaters like that didn’t exist, how else would anyone have seen Leprechaun in theaters? This year also had a lot of good-but-middle-of-the-road movies that don’t make the top (or bottom) of the list. Films like Cool Runnings, Last Action Hero, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Cronos, and The Sandlot might could have taken the 10 spot, but I would have to take the time to revisit them all.

Top Ten Personal Films of 1993:
1. Schindler’s List
2. Jurassic Park
3. The Wrong Trousers
4. Much Ado about Nothing
5. Swing Kids
6. Sleepless in Seattle
7. The Fugitive
8. The Nightmare before Christmas
9. Groundhog Day
10. So I Married an Axe Murderer

Bottom Films of 1993:
1. Fire in the Sky
2. Mad Dog and Glory
3. Free Willy
4. Leprechaun
5. National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon

Films I Still Need to See:
A Perfect World
Remains of the Day
True Romance
In the Name of the Father

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Beauty that is Rio Bravo

The basic plot line of Rio Bravo is similar to High Noon. A sheriff is faced with a difficult task opposed by powerful, bad men. He has to stand his ground and do what is right. The difference is that in this town, there are lots of people willing to help him do the right thing. The west of Wayne and Hawk’s vision is full of people with a strong code of honor and a willingness to fight for what is right. Similar to Cooper’s Kane in High Noon, Wayne’s Chance is faced with bad odds. The difference being that instead of begging cowards for help, Wayne turns unqualified help away.

The film is famous for these comparisons and the fact that they are intentionally a part of the story. It should be known, however, for the story of the friendship between Chance and “The Dude,” played by Dean Martin. The Dude is a former deputy-turned-drunk, and in this story we get to witness his redemption. The movie opens with a brilliant bit of pure cinema. For several minutes, we are introduced to the main characters and we witness the event that triggers the whole story—all without any dialogue. The dude is taunted by a powerful man in town and hits Chance over the head when he intervenes. In the scuffle that follows, the man kills someone, and Chance is forced to arrest him. He is only able to do so, when the Dude plays the role of deputy again. From that point on, the Dude is a real deputy again and fights to give up his addiction and become a man again.

Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson, and Walter Brennan all turn in well-played, interesting roles to round out this well-crafted western.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

Perhaps more than any other entry in the series thus far, Harry Potter 7a is completely entwined in the story of the other films. As a stand-alone movie, this one would be terrible, but then again it is not intended to stand alone. When one looks at the series so far David Yates is coming off like a directorial genius. Chris Columbus did a good job of setting up the universe and telling the first two stories for the child-like introduction that they were. Alfonso Cuaron helped the series grow up a lot and refined the look for a more serious tone, but nearly ruined the whole thing with his insistence that a more cinematic take on the story required cutting away a lot of the side plots and what at the time must have seemed like a lot of “fluff.” Mike Newell ran with Cuaron’s ideas and slaughtered the fourth entry, but then Yates stepped in and captured the best take on the series overall.

Part 7a picks up where the last one left off. The world we have come to know and love is gone. Evil has gained the upper hand and all the magical wonder has been replaced with danger fear and despair. This feeling is sustained pretty much unrelentingly throughout this film and we are left in the end with a perfect set up for the show down of all show downs.

The predictions made here on NonModern turned out to be spot on, but that is no great accomplishment. It proved to be the only way of doing things really. It is great to see the five hour hopes fulfilled. This is a tough view, though. We last saw one of the hardest to swallow setbacks in the whole series. Our opening scenes in this chapter have us witnessing Hermione perform a spell that we only hear about in the book, and it is heart breaking. From that point on until the predicted ending point we face more and more suffering and hardships for the characters we have grown to love.

Our anticipation for the final battle is completely whetted by this film, and Yates is well on his way to having a trilogy of films (in parts 5, 6, and 7a/b) knock some of NonModern’s top ten out of their slots.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Gospel According to Jesus by Chris Seay

This book is an examination of what the Biblical message of the Gospel really is. It is a careful look at what most churches in America today are teaching and how that simplified and watered down message is not what the Bible really teaches. It is another (good) example of what so many Christian teachers in this generation have been bringing to the Church’s attention. We are (and have been) in danger of missing the point. We have let God’s message about relationship become nothing more than another religion.

This book is right on target for the most part, and is one that Christians especially Christians in America need to be reading. The only problem is that, as it is written, that will require a little work. It is not the kind of book you can consume easily in one sitting. It requires thought and digestion, and many will not have the patience for that.

A final thought on “The Gospel According to Jesus” would have to be about the title. It is often the case these days that authors of this sort of book do not select the title. This may be a marketing move, or it may be Chris Seay’s idea, but this book is poorly named. It is really more a case of a Biblical teaching/clarification of the Gospel. That includes what Jesus taught, but there is a lot of Paul and other thinkers in the mix here as well.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Thomas Nelson Publishers as part of their Book Review Blogger program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

International Cinema

It is curious to note the approach various cultures have towards international cinema. In Latin America, the rule of thumb is for all films that are not aimed primarily at kids to be subtitled. This allows the audience to experience the film as it was intended, but with an aid for understanding. Many people in Latin America learn English in school, and since that is the language of most foreign films there, they have a limited ability to understand the film without the subtitles, but most people need them. The curious thing for people who do know both languages (both the original and the subtitled) is to see where the words have been changed, either for clarity or to overcome a cultural barrier.

Germany and some other parts of Europe prefer to have their foreign films dubbed. This causes some delay for a lot of films as they have to go through the process, and that is not always planned for before the world-wide release date. More problematic is the way films tend to be dumbed-down in the dubbing. For some reason, translators do not trust the audience to get the point. They regularly eliminate irony, simile, and any other creative language used. Often, they will change the whole point of a phrase for no apparent reason. For these reasons, many film fans in these parts campaign for films to be shown in their “original version.”

The USA is completely different. They see limited use of subtitles, and slightly more (also poorly done) dubbing. Mostly, however, American audiences cannot be trusted to even see foreign films. They need for the best cinema of other lands to be completely redone in English, with American actors and re-imagined into an American (and insular) context. It is a shame really.

To be fair, it is hard for a person to enjoy a film that is in a completely unknown language and coming from a context that is totally foreign to the viewer. One needs some practice experiencing other perspectives before one can appreciate what those perspectives have to offer.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Romans 11 (Germany and Other Speculations)

Reading Romans 11, one can’t help but think in terms of specific “branches.” What churches and nations have faced similar fates as Israel? Traveling through places like Turkey, it is hard to imagine that that land used to be the center of Christian activity in the world. There were churches there that even got a mention in the Scripture. Today, many of the sites of those churches don’t even have a town anymore, but where towns are, the church has long since died.

Who would have predicted the turnaround in Germanic Christianity? The land that brought a return to the Biblical faith and took steps to save the Church universal from deep, deep corruption brought some of the worst suffering against God’s people just a few generations later. Today, less than 1.5% of the population knows anything about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. That branch may have fallen, but there is still hope and a remnant being reached in Germany. Many see signs that a new revival could be coming to Germany.

Many think that the United States was also a nation being used by God, and certainly Christianity was strong in the US at one time. That influence has declined. However, Romans 11 is an important passage for those who would call America “back” to its Biblical roots. Political efforts or trying to legislate morality into the culture is not the path to take. The Jewish branch was rejected for this time due to their pride and legalism. They misunderstood their position with God as one of right and not grace.

The church in America needs to live out its faith and spread the Gospel through their lives and in love, not “force” a return to a legalistic “theocratic” past that never really existed. Or—if it did—one that was quickly rejected by the likes of Baptists and other expressions of faith that saw the importance of a strong separation of the church and the state.

Friday, November 12, 2010

More Top Films: The Searchers

Ford’s classic is considered by most to be the best western ever made. It is probably the best film Ford, one of the best directors in film history, ever made. So much of the story is told cinematically. For example, the back story between Wayne’s character and Martha, the sister-in-law whom he obviously loves, is told without a word of dialogue to clarify things for the viewer. It is all done with silent acting, the way the shots are framed, and a similar parallel story told with the characters Martin and Laurie.

The story told here is one that was apparently based on a real case, and in fact there were a lot of cases where children were taken and raised by Indians. By all accounts, any such children would completely identify with their captors after just about a year and, even when rescued, never fully reintegrated into their birth culture. The events in this story are terribly tragic and hard to imagine. It does, however, carefully examine the clash that occurs between two cultures when so much wrong has been committed. It is particularly illuminating for today’s world, where we see such an intense global clash of cultures.

Wayne always thought that the character of Ethan was his best role. He is not a character to be admired. He is a man full of hatred and bitterness. It is understandable when one considers that this man’s mother (notice the grave marker), the woman he loved, and one of his nieces (daughters?) have all been brutally killed by Comanche. The racism that Ethan has is all consuming. He hates the Indians so much that he has ironically gotten to know their culture very well. He even speaks their language. Ironically we learn that the enemy, Comanche chief Scar, is Ethan’s mirror image. He is motivated by a hatred fed on revenge as well.

Ford does a good job of showing the tragedy of such hatred. Ethan is an eternal outcast. His hatred has made him become the thing he hates and he has no place in his birth culture. He is a killer and a man of violence. He is Cain, forced to wander and never settle—he has no home.

“What makes a man to wander?
What makes a man to roam?
What makes a man leave bed and board
And turn his back on home?
Ride away, ride away, ride away.”

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Graduation Night

Day has come
And gone
Without a burst
Of light
Fire in the sky
Or bells sounding
In the church.

I’ve passed
The tassle
From right to left
And now have
A degree.
And still
Cannot convince myself
I differ from

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Thoughts on The Walking Dead Episodes 1 & 2 “Days Gone By” and “Guts”

So far it must be said that AMC’s new series, “The Walking Dead” has been a bit of a disappointment for the NonModernBlog.

That is not to say that it is a bad series. Its production values, its vision, its story telling and direction have all been superb. It is just that the message, the commentary we were hoping for has not materialized. It does have a message, it is just that the message it has is nothing terribly insightful or something that we have not seen already from other stories of this sort. Given time it might get there, but so far it runs the danger of alienating both the thinking and thrill seeking audiences.

The horror fans that simply want to be grossed out have got to be disappointed in the quantity of gore. To be sure, there is more gore here than most people would like to see on TV, but for the fans of the sick-out Saw and Hostel variety of horror it is spaced out quite a lot. (Most of the rest of us can be thankful for that!)

For the thinking audience, there is so far nothing here that has not been told in other zombie stories: the collapse of society and structure—how people cope with and recreate order out of chaos—the eye-opening perspective on humanity that such a calamity provides.

There is also another huge problem brewing that could go very bad for the story, and here there be spoilers—but let’s face it, if you are reading this blog you have either seen this already or have no intention of seeing it anyway…

If the entire dramatic tension rests on the hope of our main character’s reunion with his wife and child, you would think that the wife character would be likable and we would desire that reunion. So far, she is not a character we like, mainly because she seems to have moved on just fine. One could see the relationship between her and her husband’s partner developing after he is thought to be dead, and some interesting if uncomfortable conflict is on the horizon as a result. However, it does seem as though they could be setting things up to say that she was already engaged in an affair with his best friend before the apocalypse occurred. If that is the case (and comic readers may be able to shed light on this) then we may end up liking the zombies better than her as a character.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Animals, Textbooks, and Speaking in Heaven

No one really knows exactly what the new heaven and the new earth will be like. So if we aren’t too dogmatic about it, we can all imagine what we would like it to be like when we get there. For instance, my family has always thought that in the restored order of creation it is likely we will be able to have close friendships with all animals the way we do today with pets only even better. So, we like to pick which sort of animal we will “have” in heaven.

Another thought that I have about heaven concerns knowledge and language. A lot of people think that in heaven we will know everything. I don’t think so. I prefer to think that we will all start out in eternity with the same basic knowledge we had before we died. Over eternity we will then have a chance to learn more about God and His creation and our place in His Kingdom.

Some people think (and it is quite possible Biblically) that we will all speak the same language in heaven. I hope not. I think that we will all (once again) possess the linguistic abilities we had in life. We will then be able to spend eternity learning new languages and ways to communicate and worship God. It is so much more interesting that I will have to learn Hebrew as I try to get to know some of those Biblical heroes better. (As I teach them a little English along the way.) Also, knowing languages the way I do, it will be so much better having hundreds of languages to express different nuances as we communicate throughout eternity.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Romans 11

In chapter 11 of Romans, we see that our Western emphasis on individuals is incomplete. There are several passages like this in the Bible. We need to be reminded that, while we do stand as individuals before God—and we can have a personal relationship with Him, we are also a part of larger groups. We have been created for relationship. “It is not good that man be alone.” Just as God is Trinity and community, we have been designed for community. Family, tribe, fellowship, nation, etc. we exist in groups. In the same way that we are responsible for our own actions, we are partially responsible and answer for the actions of the groups to which we belong.

Here Paul paints the picture of a giant tree. The roots and structure of the tree represent the people that God chose in which to show Himself to the world—the people through whom He would make salvation possible—the Jews. In Paul’s picture, the Jews of his day have been cut off the tree. The Jews by-in-large were not hearing or understanding the message of the Gospel. However, other peoples have been grafted into the tree. Salvation, as had been God’s plan all along, is available to all people groups in the world. These new branches that have been grafted into the tree have their own peculiar qualities and characteristics, but they are supported by the tree that God has established.

The warning for us today is that the same thing that happened to the Jews is a very real danger for anyone other group of people. Individuals cannot lose their relationship with God, but groups who forget their place certainly can lose their usefulness to God. There is no church, nation, or any other group of people who intrinsically deserve their place in God’s kingdom.

Friday, November 5, 2010

More Top Films: Stagecoach (1939)

It is ironic that when John Ford got around to making his first talkie western—the film that is usually sited as legitimizing the genre—westerns had run their course and played out in popular opinion. It is hard to imagine these days that they had already been making these movies for over 30 years. Stagecoach is, with a few exceptions perhaps, the first western worth considering.

The thing that makes Stagecoach stand out—aside from its stellar cast and the fact that it was directed by one of the best directors of all time—is the story and the commentary it makes. The important theme here as with many westerns, that is an insight into the American mindset, is that civilization often stifles and judges people as types and not the individuals that they are.

The story here is one of nine individuals travelling through a dangerous Indian territory, in alternating action and character development scenes. We are introduced to the characters as they prepare to embark on the trip, and they each represent a type.

Three of the characters are judged negatively by society. Dallas is the saloon girl/prostitute, Dr. Josiah Boone is the town drunk, and Ringo is an escaped convict looking to avenge his imprisonment and the murders of his family. Dallas and the Doctor are being run out of town by puritanical women. The movie never condones their choices or faults—Dallas is embarrassed by what she has done to survive, and Doc knows it has ruined him as a professional—but the story does show that they have redeeming human qualities as well, and they too deserve respect and have something to contribute.

Three other characters in the film are respected by society: the banker, the wife of an officer and a whiskey maker. As it turns out, the banker is a thief, and the lady is as snobbish and judgmental as the ladies in town. A gambler joins the trip to protect her honor against the undesirables on the trip. The driver of the coach and the sheriff serving as rifleman round out our cast.

By the end of the story, the suspect characters have proven their worth and humanity helping the society of the stagecoach survive. The more respected elements have been cut down to size and shown as no better than the others in two moments of crisis. All along the way a naïve Ringo teaches everyone a lesson in manners and respect. After he avenges his father and brother, he and Dallas ride off to be married and start life anew on his ranch.

A line from the doctor to the sheriff as they watch the two leave sums up the message of the movie: “Well, they’re saved from the blessings of civilization.” It is not that civilization is bad exactly. It is just that we Americans like our civilization where people are allowed to be and do what they desire; as long as it doesn’t hurt someone else’s right to the same. That may be a good attitude or it may be a bad one but it is helpful to know if you want to understand an American. It is also good to know if you are an American, because that ingrained attitude is going to affect your perspective on everything. After all, we can be just as puritanical as the women in this film about our freedoms and ideas of good civilization.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Getting to Know the Western Genre

There were pretty much two things my grandfather would watch if they were on television… guaranteed: Warner Brother’s cartoons and westerns. As a kid, I of course understood the first, but I never could appreciate his love of cowboy movies. They were long, formulaic and old looking. A lot of them seemed to be so much cheap and dated pulp. A few contemporary westerns that came out in the 80s and 90s caught my attention, but they were exceptions to the rule. Then I saw some real classics like Stagecoach and The Searchers and my opinion changed.

Westerns have the potential to be perfect films for the likes of this blog and its objectives, and it is my intention to start incorporating more westerns into the rotation of reviews. It is a set genre with very narrowly defined types and storylines, but it has been used to deliver some powerful messages. I am woefully underexposed to this genre so as I view and review them I will be learning and probably miss some important ideas and entries. For now, and leading up to the Coen Brothers highly anticipated release later this year (January in Germany) I plan a series of posts in this genre.


A little background: Between 1910 and 1960 the Western was the most important genre in cinema. (That explains while a child of the seventies and eighties failed to appreciate it at first.) The genre is tightly defined. Most all of the stories occur between 1865 and 1890 and deal with the expansion of society into the wilds of the west, with the wars against the native population, the establishment of the new civilization, and the gradual order that was achieved. In exploring this period of American history, the Western has become the true mythology of America. It explains a lot of American mentality and why the United States is the way it is. In the telling of its stories, it clarifies a lot about the context of the culture when the stories are told, thereby serving as an exploration of American culture throughout our history and not just the years following the Civil War when the stories take place.

The hero of the Western is an introverted, self-made man who has his own individual code that he lives by. He is a moral person, but his morality is limited to what he believes and what makes sense to him. The society of the Western is on the edge of wilderness and struggling to find itself. There is always the danger that society will completely fall apart, and at times that is not really seen as a bad thing.

Philip French (Westerns 1973) classifies the genre into seven stories: the railway story, the ranch story, the cattle empire story, the revenge story, the cavalry versus Indians story, the outlaw story and the marshal or law and order story. Norbert Grob and Bernd Keifer (Filmgenres: Western 2003) list nine basic plots: discovering new frontiers, the war against Indians, the process of civilization, crime and revenge, town tamer stories, the call of the wild, Indian adventures, the fall of a dynasty, and the building of legends.


I am open to suggestions, but for now here are some of the titles I have in mind to check out or revisit: Stagecoach (1939); Winchester ’73 (1950) and all the Stewart/Mann efforts; The Searchers (1956); Rio Bravo (1959); The Magnificent Seven (1960); Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns (1964-); True Grit (1969); Silverado (1985); Dances With Wolves (1989); 3:10 to Yuma (2007); and or course, True Grit (2010).

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

"Far Beyond the World I've Known..."

A cheap sale on DVDs and a nostalgic parent provided four children of the 21st century the opportunity to see “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.” It is an enjoyably cheese 70s look at the far future, with plenty of disco bass and feathered hair. Along with all that, it is also one of the most straight forward examples of where science fiction attempts to comment on current society through story.

Buck Rogers is a man from the late twentieth century living 500 years in the future. The problems they face are illuminated through his ancient perspective, but coincidentally they are also the sort of problems viewers and the culture in which the show aired faced. It is typical if somewhat more obvious than usual for the genre.

There is a scene at the end of the pilot episode that is particularly interesting from the perspective of a cross-cultural Christian and a TCK. Buck is offered a job working with the leaders of society in the future. They value his “outsider’s” perspective and the fact that he is not adjusted to their culture. They know that he will see things differently and offer ideas that they would never consider. They understand that they have a lot to learn from him. Also, the fact that he has not grown up in their highly bureaucratic society gives him some freedom and a license to make cultural mistakes that could serve him well as he seeks to help them change the flaws in their culture.

That is a pretty perceptive insight into some of the ways this crazy fish-out-of-water life can have its advantages.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

"That's Why They Call Him the Streak!"

Back in the sixties and seventies there was a phenomenon gaining in popularity in western culture known as streaking. That is not what this post is about. Today, we are seeing the latest in a sports culture phenomenon where a “streak” of consecutive appearances takes on a life of its own.

Where one could see a misguided reasoning for running through a public place naked, streaking in the sports record books is a problem. The goal in any sporting event is to win, and in a team sport individual performance should always take a back seat to the needs of the team. When a player like Brett Favre gets too big and has a run of starts too large it simply hurts the team. The strategy of the coach is affected because he is not able to start another player and feels obligated to continue to play the player with the individual record even if that is not what is best for the team.

This is a human obsession. We love patterns and numbers and sometimes forms and sequences take on a life of their own. People are enamored with things as silly as when an arbitrary system of counting days renders a date like 8/9/10. (Even when much of the world would see that same day as being 9/8/10 and the actual date ends in 2010 not just 10.)

In our spiritual lives we do the same thing. We forget that our ultimate goal in life is to bring God glory and spread His story of salvation through the world. Instead we often see our spirituality measured by such trivial things like how many days in a row we keep a legalistic form of “quiet time” or how many Sundays of perfect attendance in Sunday School we can string together.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Romans 10:8-15 (The Missional Paradox)

Many a heresy has been constructed around the paradoxes of Scriptural teaching. God and the things of God are often beyond our puny human understanding, but in an effort to impose our limited logic on God, we err to one side or another of an issue. Was Jesus God or man? Is God one or three persons? Is God sovereign, or do we have free will?

How enlightening, illuminating and ironic is it that one of the strongest passages about God’s election is also one of the strongest in demonstrating the need of all to hear the Gospel message? One argument that Paul addresses specifically in this section (that is still regularly thrown out, I heard it again just last week) is: how can God judge me as a sinner when He made me this way? That same argument, presented in the Church is: why do we need to share God’s message of forgiveness when He already knows who will accept it?

Whichever side of the predestination argument you fall on (or even if you prefer a more Biblical balance), one issue that cannot be doubted is that God’s plan is for His people to share His message with the entire world.
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