Friday, December 31, 2010

End of the Year 2010

The NonModern experiment had another year with growing success. I again had fun sharing thoughts and maintaining a habit of thinking and writing about culture, and the things going on around me. After three plus years it is a habit that is hopefully beneficial to a few people.

Coming up in 2011: More thoughts on film with reviews and critiques of 2010 movies and other years as well as continued lists by year and decade. Further exploration of the western genre, and finally a look at some of the more influential German films. Hopefully, an increase in reviews and thoughts on books. Reflections on television shows will continue including a year-long series of entries on each season of Buffy tying in with a major re-watch occurring online next year here. Further entries are coming taking us through Ephesians and Philippians, then more Paul. On a personal level, I plan on reviewing my Hebrew and doing more with it, but I don’t know if that will make its way onto the blog. There is also an idea I am toying around with concerning German idioms.

Thanks for reading and keep visiting! As always, feel free to comment!

Here is some data about the blog’s performance for 2010:

Entries in 2010: 278 (Weekdays in 2010: 261)

Page Views: 14,500+ (Up from 7,851 in 2009)

Visits came from 1,810 cities on six continents.

Countries: 107 and all 50 States

Top ten countries by viewers: USA, Germany, UK, Canada, India, Australia, Brazil, Spain, Phillipines, Italy

Top ten states by viewers: Texas, California, Georgia, Virginia, Washington, New York, New Mexico, Florida, Illinois, Montana

Some of the most viewed entries in 2010:

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

Top Films: Bram Stoker’s Dracula

When Weblog Becomes Dream Journal

Christmas Song Problems

The Mentalist

Inception: A (Spoiler Heavy) Critique

More Top Films: High Noon

Redeeming Halloween

Top Films: Butterfly Circus

You Are Leaving the American Sector

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Diary of a Wimpy Translation



My tweens have recently taken an interest in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, eating them up as fast as we can get a hold of them. So, with the Christmas break upon us (and the movie we really wanted to see being too expensive) we checked out the first adaptation yesterday. The trailer had looked really amusing and of course the kids have been quoting the books for a few weeks now, so we were surprised with how disappointing it was.

When we got home, I did what I should have done weeks ago. It is something that I as a former youth minister had told myself I would always do with the books movies and music my kids get into. I read the book.

What we have here is a great example of a story being poorly translated. The book is simply a series of amusing anecdotes that happen to a dumb little middle-school student. The movie takes the same basic plotline, most of the incidents that occur in the book, and totally ruin it. They do so by inserting motivation.

In the book Greg is pretty passive. He simply goes through the year and things happen to him. In the movie, they decided to make him an active character. He orchestrates every episode in an attempt to become the most popular kid in school. Along the way, we are shown the valuable truth that trying to be cool is the worst way to be so. Greg’s dopey friend who cares nothing about popularity and is happy with the way he is actually succeeds in being accepted in school. This would normally be a great thing for a movie aimed at tweens to do. The problem here is that you hate the main character.

In the book, he isn’t particularly good, but a book of this sort can sustain an unlikable main character. A movie cannot. What’s worse is that the filmmakers forgot to have their main character learn the lesson they were preaching.

If you have kids or are a kid in this target age range, skip the film and read the books.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The 25 Most Anticipated Films of 2011 (All in one shot.)

First the five most truly anticipated, the ones that need little or no justification in ascending order of excitement:

5. Tree of Life


4. The Adventures of Tin Tin: The Secret of the Unicorn


3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo


2. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows


1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2



Group two look interesting for one reason or another. They may bomb or be terrible, but NonModern will give them a chance and hope. In order of release:

The Rite

(Supernatural themes, theological ones too? Looks like it is about the nature of faith anyway.)

The Adjustment Bureau

(Philip K. Dick material, so philosophical and seemingly deep, we hope!)

Limitless

(This looks like the sort of sci-fi that comes with a message. The promotional material is great.)

Source Code

(Once again, philosophical sci-fi—I hope. If it ends up that Gyllenhaal is dead the whole time though…)

Super 8

(Not much going for this other than J.J. but that may be enough.)

Cowboys & Aliens

(This looks fun, plus it deserves kudos for NOT going 3D.)

Mr. Popper’s Penguins

(I loved the book, but dread the potential butchery.)

Fright Night
(Again, I loved the original and liked Tennant as the Doctor. I am wondering why they are making a remake though.)

Contagion
(This material has potential, and the director can be great at times.)

Mission Impossible—Ghost Protocol

(A 4th entry is only worth a look because of Brad Bird.)

This third group is more like long shots, in order of release:

Season of the Witch

(Anticipated in 2010, has been pushed back to this year and that is never good…)

The Way Back

(Peter Weir is a favorite director, but I don’t always like his story choices.)

Unknown

(The sort of action that can be good and a Berlin setting to boot. However, I think I see the solution to the mystery in the trailer and that is never good!)

Rango

(Depp, Verbinsky, and good looking visuals.)

Jane Eyre

(The director was good with Sin Nombre, and the material is solid.)

Red Riding Hood

(I’m a sucker for this sort of story, but it better not go the Twilight route.)

Scream 4

(I like the trilogy, or at least the first one, and I like Craven.)

Priest

(Once again, I thought this one had potential last year, but the push back—and Legion—make this a long shot.)

Winnie the Pooh

(For the sake of the art form and the source material, I hope this one succeeds.)

Now
No Promotional Material Available
(Not much info about this one yet, but it looks interesting.)

There are other titles with potential, of course. Anonymous, any super hero film, Sucker Punch, Immortals, Real Steel, Rise of the Apes, etc. etc. But you have to draw the line somewhere.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)



A Fistful of Dollars may be one of the best known films in America that was not made in America. It is one of those “foreign films” that everyone hates to go see. Ironically, it is a remake (made by Sergio Leone from Italy) of another foreign film called Yojimbo (made by Akira Kurosawa from Japan.) Fistful is such an obvious remake that Kurosawa won a lawsuit against Leone, and made more money off of it than his own, slightly superior version.

It is also an example that the remaking process does not have to be the evil that some like to think it is. Yojimbo is an incredible film. A Fistful of Dollars is too. The fact that they tell the exact same story is not what matters here, so much as how that story is told. (Thirty years later, Walter Hill would make yet another remake of Yojimbo that was pretty awful showing that a great story is not enough to make a film great.)

Where Fistful shines more than its inspiration is in the emotion that Leone is able to capture with his trademark extreme close-ups. The scene where the Man With No Name is finally compelled to make an unselfish and risky decision for the first time to save a family is very moving in this version. That is an important moment in both films, because it is the moment when our antihero becomes a human being again.

Ultimately, this story is not an incredibly uplifting or instructive one. In the hands of less gifted storytellers it would be (and is) just a terrible story. However, Leone is gifted enough that this cruel story is a must see. Oh, and the music is some of the best film music ever made.

(This is an example of the worst sort of trailer, but here you go:)

Monday, December 27, 2010

Romans 16 (A Final Warning and Task)

Paul closes out his most theological of epistles with the customary greetings. He starts by mentioning those brothers and sisters in Rome whom he knew. It is here that we see once again the nature of the work and the Church in this early day. This letter had not been addressed to “the Church” in Rome, but to the believers there, and here in the greeting we see that there are many churches meeting in homes in Rome. This is an insight into the nature of the church that Paul went about planting and that was normal in those days. The regular practice of believers in those days was to meet in small groups sharing life. They surely had a network amongst the churches and probably met together on occasion, but the way church was best lived out was in small fellowships.

At this point, Paul probably takes the pen from his secretary to write a personal word. He often closed out letters this way. Perhaps it was a thought brought to mind as he mentioned the house churches that he knew of, or maybe it was a thought that had been left out in all his effort to explain his view of the Gospel, especially as it related to the Jew-Gentile situation. In any case, his personal word at the end of this letter is a warning of supreme importance even today in the life of the Church. It is especially relevant to small groups meeting as the early church did:

Basically, be on your guard against false teachers and charlatans.

For some reason, the work of God in the world—the Church—is most often attacked from “within.” Yes, there is incredible persecution and pressure from without at times and in certain places, but the ever present danger comes from people posing as messengers from God. It is a shame that things are that way, but the Church’s number one activity on earth, aside from bearing witness to God’s activity, is to know the Word and sound doctrine and to guard against false teaching. Sadly, we are often not very successful on either account.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Many Dimensions by Charles Williams (1931)



“Many Dimensions” is Williams’ second published (but third written) novel in what could loosely be deemed a trilogy of books about the supernatural invading the natural world. In “War in Heaven,” the Grail represented an aspect of the power of God. The way it was received and used exposed the good, and more importantly evil, in human intentions. Here in “Many Dimensions,” Williams uses a relic that is unfamiliar to the reader—the Stone of Solomon. Basically, it is a stone that gives its owner whatever they wish. They can instantly be somewhere else in space. They can be in a better state of health. More perilously, they can be somewhere else in time. Once again, this supernatural power serves to expose a lot of the intentions of the characters in the book. We first see the Stone after a character from the previous book, Sir Giles, has obtained it in some vaguely treacherous way. In “War in Heaven,” Sir Giles was a secondary adversary. Here he is the main villain.

What exactly is the Stone? It is called by many names in the story: the Mystery, the End of Desire, the Unity, the Centre of Derivations, and the First Matter. Theologically, it seems to be a physical manifestation of the Tetragrammaton—the Name of God. Practically, it is a bit of the eternal shown up in the temporal. This provides Williams with the opportunity to explore metaphysical questions issues of time and space. In fact, it is amazing to think that this book was published in 1931. At one point it presents the idea of the Multiverse the way Science Fiction today speaks of it; in a quantum-mechanics sort of way well before that idea had been developed! More importantly, and true to Williams’ interests, it gives him a chance to explore the way the creature-Creator relationship should function.

In a climactic moment towards the end Chloe, the main heroine, is faced with a decision: should she use the Stone to save herself (and the Stone itself) from the enemy? Or should she avoid using the Stone because the act of using it is offensive to her? The account of her thought process at this point is illuminating:
“The she would use it; after all she was using it to save it. She was doing for it what it could not do for itself. She was protecting it. Not being a reader of religious history Chloe was ignorant what things have been done on the strength of that plea, or with what passionate anxiety men have struggled to protect the subordination of Omnipotence.”
Ultimately, Chloe decides (correctly) that God does not need her help and decides to simply pray.

This novel is a much harder story to work through than War in Heaven. The concepts are even more abstract and Williams’ style is as difficult as before at times. It is precisely in the abstract and difficult passages that the most important information is delivered, making this read less about entertainment and more about provoking thought and exploring the nature of faith. That being said, it remains entertaining enough for those who are interested in these deeper questions of life.

For those interested, this is a book that can be found completely online.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Happy Holidays! Bring on the Boycotts.

As is always the case this time of year, the season is being turned into a war of ideology. Can we put up Christmas Trees in public spaces? Do you wish people a Merry Christmas, or Happy Holidays? Missions Misunderstood has some good things to say about the topic here.

In some ways, I think I would make the argument that—forced to choose one way or the other—I would err on the side of “Happy Holidays.”

The whole thing is silly really. (It is thankfully also more of an American problem than a global crisis.) It is silly because some American Christians have decided to make a wonderful time of year into a line in the sand where none should be.

People who are in a relationship with Jesus Christ want to spread that joy around. They are compelled to share what they have discovered. It should be a year-long focus, and it should be good news. Instead, some Evangelicals do little to no sharing all year long. Then, when the end of the year approaches, they go into rabid brand-pusher mode that resembles something like an annoying Apple computer user. “Christmas is just about Jesus!” “Jesus is the reason for the season!” “I will boycott your store if you wish me a Happy Holiday!”

The fact is that, while Jesus’ birthday is the primary reason we Christians celebrate this season now, it is not the only thing we enjoy, and it has not always been this way. I for one have a long list of things I enjoy about Christmas that have nothing or only little to do with Jesus: Christmas Trees, Snow, Presents, Christmas Markets, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “A Christmas Carol,” Snoopy, lights, spiced tea, family gatherings, and nutcrackers. We have never tried to “trick” our kids into believing in Santa Claus, but we still like songs and decorations about him. (Some of the “Christian” attitudes about Santa are really “out there.” Really? A "unisex freak of Satan?")

Instead of becoming that person that everybody avoids because they are crazy, fanatical, and hard to be around, why not enjoy life and cause those around you to light up when you’re around? Wish everyone a Merry Christmas in a way that comes across as a wish and not a sermon. Wish your friends who celebrate other holidays at this time of year the appropriate wish. (I personally also celebrate Thanksgiving, New Year’s, Advent Sundays, St. Nicholas—for the chocolate—and any other holiday I can get my hands on during this—my favorite time of year.) What? You don’t have any friends different from you culturally or religiously? There’s your problem.

Some may argue that it was ideological atheists and not Christians that started this war. That may be the case, but it takes two to fight. Do we really want to respond in kind to the sort of attacks that come our way? The only thing more annoying and killjoy-ish than atheists moaning about Christmas is PETA supporters arguing that we replace cow milk with breast milk.

If you simply can’t stomach “Happy Holidays,” try “Season’s Greetings” on for size.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Movie Review: True Grit (1969)



As it looks like we in Germany will have to wait well into 2011 to see one of the most anticipated films of 2010, I will have to content myself with a look at the 1969 version of True Grit for now. To be honest, it is a little surprising to a Western novice to see that the Coen’s have chosen this title to remake. After all, it was a John Wayne film, and he is one of those actors whose stature and reputation would discourage most from remaking any of his roles. To make matters worse, and even though it is the one film for which he received an Oscar, it is hardly the title in Wayne’s cannon of films one would consider remaking. It is fun, and watchable, but it has a flavor that reminds the viewer more of seventies films like the “Apple Dumpling Gang” more than contemporary titles like “Once Upon a Time in the West” or “The Wild Bunch.” Then again, that may make it the perfect title to tackle.

…Especially when you look at the source material. By all accounts it is a very good novel with good historical detail, Biblical themes and style, and a popular subject matter where Westerns are concerned: revenge. The story is that of a 14 year old girl trying to avenge her father’s murder by hiring a Deputy Marshall and chasing the killer into Indian Territory. Along the way there are gun fights, rattlesnakes, and outdoor camping in winter weather… everything you could ask for from a western adventure.

Part of the reason this film feels too modern is that it looks at a side of the Old West that we are not used to seeing. We often forget that this period in history was close to modern times. Back east the industrial revolution was about to occur, and this story takes place on the eastern edge of the wild in Arkansas and Oklahoma (even if the filming took place hundreds of miles away from those areas.) The girl in this story would be a middle aged woman by the time the 1st World War occurred. We like to think of the Old West as ancient, mythic history, but the reality and the myth are two very different things and this story tries to straddle the boundary.

The Coen Brothers, if they stay true to form, will lean towards the reality over the myth. Hopefully they will bring out a lot of the deeper issues from the novel as well.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The German Army in France Again, A Cultural Funny

A couple weeks ago, as a part of an EU cooperation exercise or some such agreement, German troops were stationed in France with a French troop. It is the first time since—you know, 70ish years ago—that German troops have set up shop there. Interviews conducted on the radio to mark the occasion were rather humorous. French troops noticed a few odd things about the German troops:

They ate their lunch in 20 minutes flat and were back at work, as opposed to the 60-90 minute French ones.

German troops are not given a red wine dejeurner? Alcohol is forbidden during work hours?!?

The German troops start their day at 7:00 am instead of 8:30.

The funniest thing for an American observer of the whole event, is that we tend to think the Germans—as befitting most Europeans—are very laid-back people. Yes, they are efficient and industrious, but they know how to relax. They consider a 30 hour week very full, and like a glass of red wine at bedtime. If reports are accurate, their armed forces value beer as a very important military essential and their conditioning regime is far less strenuous than the American one. It just goes to show that everything is relative, especially where cultural standards are concerned.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Roman 15:14-33 (You Say Calling, I Say Command)

Why does Paul think that he should or could write such a letter to a congregation that he had never met? Not out of presumption, but merely out of his calling. Paul claims that he only speaks, teaches and does what Christ had led him to do. This is a wise example to follow today. Even people with the gift of teaching or preaching need to remember to bite their tongues when it comes to stuff that they do not feel specifically led to speak. Such people are gifted to share what God has shown them and compelled them to share—not simply in speaking generally. The same goes for all spiritual gifts and service. We should do what we are led to do for God’s glory and that only. We should regularly obtain confirmation of our message, not merely at the beginning of a lifetime of presumed ministry.

Paul also gives us some insight here into his motivations for moving west. He is called to serve where there is no other voice. He has already filled the regions where he was with the message of the Gospel. Now he has no valid reason to remain there. His mission needs to continue, and not transition into another form of ministry in the established churches. He needs to continue in his gifting. We too need to be aware of our calling, our gifting and what God has for us to do for His glory. If that requires us to leave comfort zones to remain useful, we need to be prepared to do so.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

1983 in Film

I saw most of the movies released in 1983 much later, on video or television. This is reaching back into the days before I really did much cinema. The Star Wars film may be the only one actually. A lot of these movies go back to that year in my life where we lived in Costa Rica and had one cable provider that supplied one channel that switched around to whatever the guy who supplied the cable wanted to see. (That ended up being a lot of Cubs baseball and movie channels.) One stand-out film that probably suffers from the circumstances of my viewing it was Mr. Mom. I saw it on the flight from San Jose to Santiago, Chile and I did not know that you could watch it in English. So between my being only half-awake and only knowing a little Spanish, it remains one of my worst movie experiences to this day.

Top Ten Personal Films of 1983:
*. Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
1. A Christmas Story
2. Wargames
3. Something Wicked This Way Comes
4. Mickey’s Christmas Carol
5. Never Cry Wolf
6. Never Say Never Again
7. Octopussy
8. Krull
9. Trading Places
10. Yentl

Bottom (or Most Disappointing) Films of 1983:
1. Jaws 3D
2. The Hunger
3. Mr. Mom
4. Brainstorm
5. Blue Thunder

Films I Still Need to See or Revisit:
Gorky Park
The King of Comedy
The Right Stuff
Scarface
Terms of Endearment

Friday, December 17, 2010

More Top Films: The Far Country (1955)



In the Far Country, Mann and Stewart subvert one of the main themes of traditional westerns: self-reliance. One of the standbys of a lot of westerns is the self-made-man, the cowboy who lives by his own code and answers to no one, the guy who needs help from nobody. Here in The Far Country we have that to the extreme. Jeff Webster not only needs no help, he distrusts it. Somehow, it is a fatal sign of weakness for him and that is not a good thing. He is clearly presented as a flawed character, someone with whom we are not supposed to agree.

This is especially subversive because it is one of those ideals that American culture aspires to fulfill. We look askew at other cultures that place high value on the good of society over the individual. We like to see ourselves as the cowboy who can go it on our own. The truth is that this ideal is not something that carried American culture into the frontier successfully, and The Far Country reminds us of that. Yes, there were a lot of self-reliant types in the frontier. There had to be. But those same capable people brought civilization into the wild. They built communities and cities. They cooperated and looked out for the common good. They built churches and courthouses. They brought the rule of law.

In the end, Jeff Webster is forced into acknowledging that he needs people, and perhaps just as importantly, that people need his help as well. There are things in the world more important than looking out for number one. Other people are worth fighting for as well. This is an important message in a lot of other westerns, if not quite as clearly presented as in The Far Country. It is an important part of American culture as well.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Walking Dead Episodes 5 & 6 “Wildfire” and “TS-19”


All in all, season 1 of The Walking Dead was a pretty big disappointment. The production values were great. The writing was good. The acting was pretty good too. However, the series took a downward path from great beginnings to middling viewing. These last two episodes were, for lack of a better word: boring.

They tried to tackle important subjects. They are to be commended for avoiding gore for gore’s sake and actually spending time showing us important conversations about deep subjects. They tackled the issues of how people would deal with a Zombie apocalypse (or any devastating, world ending tragedy), how they would find closure, how they would accept the inevitable or hold on to hope… all good stuff but all done ultimately in a boring fashion.

The problem likely lies in the choice of metaphor. Zombies have always been problematic as a metaphor for evil or communicating any message really, because they are about as pessimistic a view of the world as one could present. Most stories told in the Zombie subgenre are by definition nihilistic and hopeless. Vampire stories (before they were appropriated by those annoying Twilight sycophants) are hopeful because they represent an evil that can be fought and defeated. Other horrors similarly represent morality plays where there is a choice. Zombie stories assume that humanity is lost. Those who remain are not fighting to overcome the “evil” but merely to survive as long as possible. They are postponing the inevitable.

The Walking Dead has painted itself into this corner for now. It began as a story of a man searching for his family. Once that was resolved, it became a philosophical exploration of a post-human world. It can be commended for taking the thoughtful road over the thrill-ride. Unfortunately, it lacks any compelling thrills at all. It has created a scenario in which we have ceased to care about any of the characters and we no longer have a compelling reason to visit the world they have created. Unless something changes early on in season two, things do not bode well for the audience.

The characters end the first season choosing any sort of (brief) life over certain death; but the show may have done too good a job of painting a hopeless situation for us to imagine that as a good decision.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Reflections from a Community Catalyst: (2) The Best of Mirrors

This week the groups from our little community plant here got together in one place for a Christmas service. We had another one of those insightful, humorous-if-you-look-at-it-the-right-way moments.

The message was brought by a man from another community that meets with us at times. It was all about the story of the prodigal son. For those who had grown up in church, it sounded pretty much like every other prodigal son sermon you have ever heard. (In fact, it may have been one that you have heard.) It was good. However, and as is often the case, there were a few of those special one liners thrown into the sermon that always cause a lot of people to shout amen. They are not Biblical, but someone said them once and now everyone likes to repeat them because (a) they sound cool and (b) they get a good response. In this case, one of those phrases was: “In the end, God always arrives punctually.” (OK, that doesn’t sound great when you read it here—but take my word for it—it is great in German.) His point was that God always steps in to make things right, to save the day. More on that in a moment…

Of course, the whole time he is preaching, I am thinking of how this story is a perfect example of the joys and pains of working with new/non-Christians vs. established Christians as seen in the two brothers in the story. Most people make the story all about the prodigal son, but it is really more about the brother who stayed home. The context of the story is Jesus justifying the fact that He preferred hanging out with sinners rather than religious types. The sad truth for most people is that the longer you live as a Christian, the more “religious” you become. You forget who you really are and begin to think you are someone, when in reality we are all prodigals who deserve nothing. We have to work at remembering this. We have to be reminded that we have not already “arrived.”

As the sermon drew to a close, someone stepped in to do just that. One of our brand new brothers asked for some clarification. He didn’t understand what the speaker meant in saying that God always steps in at the right time. The way he saw it, plenty of bad things happen in the world and if God—being sovereign—really did step in to fix all things nothing bad would ever happen. At least Christians would be spared. This set off a lengthy (and funny) scramble where most of the Christians in the room went to lengthy (and precarious) measures to show him how bad things had to be good things. How God’s reality and our reality were not the same. Etc. etc. In the end, all he really needed was for (a) that pithy phrase to be reconsidered and (b) for people to admit that they did not always understand how God worked. (The other thing that happens to a lot of us the longer we are Christians is that we forget it is all about faith and not understanding.)

The best way to avoid becoming the older brother in the parable is to spend as much time as possible with newly returned prodigals. They often show us the best reflection of whom we are and where we are headed.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Reflections from a Community Catalyst: (1) Birthing Pains

Helping new communities of faith to form and thrive can be an interesting ministry—if you have the sense of humor to keep you from pulling your hair out. We have had a couple of these eyebrow-raising moments in our own little community plant here lately. They both hinge on the difference between non/new-Christians and established older believers. Other catalysts I have known have often expressed the preference they have for spending time with non-Christians over their fellow believers. Until recently, I always questioned the spiritual health of such an opinion. Now I am beginning to understand in what sense they meant it.

Two years ago, this group was born as a simple Bible Study. New believers and Christians seeking more had gathered together to study the Word and share their faith in the neighborhood. They asked me to come teach them what the Bible really said about “Church.” After six months, they decided that they had all the qualities that the Bible said a church should have. They split into three groups to make room for new people to join with a view of growing yet maintaining the advantages a small group offers for community. Over time, some left for a more “traditional” idea of church. One group fizzled out and was reborn later as a group of mainly non-Christians looking for God. People have been saved and community has strengthened, but it was time for the next step. The vision needed to be recast, (as it had been periodically) yet again.

Three weeks ago, and then again a week later, the two groups heard a message about reaching out, sharing the faith and looking forward towards growth and change. The reaction in the two groups was amazingly different. However, it should have been expected. The two groups are so different, even while they meet together as one once a month.

One group is composed of many original members and a couple of new believers. They received the message with excitement and affirmation. It was a great evening of sharing and plans being made for reaching the neighborhood.

The other group has few original members left. Some are temporarily gone while others have gone back to traditional church. The new additions to the group are all believers from other churches who are excited about what this new plant has to offer. They did not like the message. They responded with explanations of what they thought the church should be, based on their own views and experiences, not what the Bible has to say. They got caught up in theological arguments about minor issues. They attacked the speaker’s German grammar. It was an eye-opening experience. The whole thing ended up being an illustration of the difference between community and institution—between relationship and religion.

Like I said, I understand in what sense those other planters expressed their preference for non-church folks.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Romans 14:1-15:13 (Love is Selfless Sacrifice)

Love amongst the body of Christ is especially hard when there is conflict about the faith. Therefore, Paul addresses this as he had already done with the Corinthian church. Basically, the instruction is as follows: Stronger Christians don’t disdain the weaker. Weaker Christians, don’t judge the stronger. Remember, we answer to God not each other, and He deals with us all as individuals—that is to say, differently.

The important thing in living a Christian life is to do all in obedience to Christ, and for God’s glory—not merely out of our own freedom or weakness as the case may be. Whether or not our motives are pure or not is a matter between each believer and their Lord, not the body. God will be the judge.

Love demands not only that we do not judge, but that we look out for the needs of others. We may be free in many aspects of our lives, but we are still subject to one another. If my freedom causes another Christian to stumble in their walk, I will give that freedom up so as to not hurt anyone. Notice that the role of the stronger Christian is to sacrifice freedom, not instruct the weaker Christian. Whether we are weak or strong is a matter for God to determine, and He will be our instructor when it comes to freedom.

Love demands that we sacrifice our freedoms and pleasures for the body of Christ. Christ Himself is our best example of this. We should follow his lead. There is no difference—be it weak or strong or Jew or Gentile—that should cause conflict in the Church.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Batoru rowaiaru (2000)



It is more a case of limited free time for movies, and a strong commitment to the discipline of writing about culture and artistic expression than the actual merits of Battle Royal that prompt this review. That being said, there is a lot being said about this film even ten years after it was made. Tarantino has sited it as his favorite film of the past 20 years. There is talk of a Hollywood remake, even though the film never managed to get an official release in the US to begin with. Topically, it has received more attention recently with the publication of the similarly themed Hunger Games Trilogy.

In this film, set in an alternate reality Japan, the government has instituted a “Millennial Education Reform Act” in which (apparently) one class is selected each year and forced to participate in a Battle Royale. The class is abducted, sent to an island and equipped with tracking collars. They are forced to kill each other until only one student survives. The collars are also equipped to kill them if they try to escape, or if more than one is alive at the end of three days.

As the film is about a bunch of middle school students killing each other, it was understandably controversial. By today’s standards—even just ten years later—the film is surprisingly tame. Its production values give it more of a TV movie feel, but that is the case in a lot of Japanese films these days. The controversy is more in the subject matter and how it is handled. Many students quickly choose to commit suicide rather than kill or be killed. Others attempt to carry on surviving without killing, but with the circumstances being what they are, end up fighting out of fear when it appears that they are being betrayed.

The meaning behind this story, if such a message can be deemed meaningful, is very pessimistic and empty. It is a picture of what life amounts to for many people in the world today. Life without hope and purpose is little more than a game in which there are no winners and everyone dies. The heroes of this story survive, but only to go on the run as they refuse to kill, but they will be hunted down for the rest of their lives.

All in all, this film is not as bad as some people make it out to be, but it is also certainly not as meaningful as others want to believe it is. So if you are after thoughtful art, skip it. If you want it for the controversy you will be disappointed as well.

Warning: The Trailer for this film that is available online has some shocking violence in it, and would probably be a Red Band Trailer under normal circumstances even though it is not labeled as such.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Non-Rain Dance Chant

(Translated from the ancient Lap-asazi)

Rain, rain, go away
Come again some other time
I would rather “roundelay
To the sleigh bell’s merry chime”

Take your rata-pat-pat-pat
Away ‘til after February
I’ve in mind another dance
That is more winter and more merry

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Christmas Song Problems

I am a Christmas Music connoisseur. I grew up in a home where music was not played all the time, but around Christmas it was and we had a lot of albums. I started collecting Christmas music as soon as I set out on my own, and have generally added an album a year to my collection. I usually switch all the music listening in my house for the last two months of the year over to Holiday music. So, I have a lot of thoughts on the subject. Here are some of the songs or renditions of songs that are problematic for me.



The Stupidest Christmas Song: The titular track to Trisha Yearwood’s album, The Sweetest Gift. It is a song all about a mother visiting her son in prison. She gives him the “sweetest gift” that he could ever get… a smile.


The Most Embarrassing Christmas Song: Garth Brooks’ version of Silent Night. Actually, his whole album is hard to listen to, but in Silent Night he has one of those moments where he talks in the middle of the song, recounting a memorable Christmas he had after he first moved to Nashville. He and his first wife thought they might not make it home due to weather, but when they realize they are going to get there, she says to him, “You’re gonna see your mama!”


Most Needlessly Re-recorded Christmas Song: Steven Curtis Chapman’s “Christmas is All in the Heart.” This is a wonderful song on Chapman’s first album, but why did he record it again for his second album? Listened back to back, you might have a hard time telling the two apart, even though it is backed by a woman in the first version and by Vince Gill in the second.



Most Offensive to My Intelligence: My Grown Up Christmas List. Popularized by Amy Grant on her second Christmas Album, this song is annoying for so many reasons. It sounds really deep and caring, so a lot of people probably like it. However, it approaches the holiday as a time for childish ignorance that wishes good things for the world from an imaginary source of magic. Instead, Christmas is a time when we remember that a very real God provided truly good things for the world in reality. Christmas is a celebration of real hope provided for us at a tremendously costly price; not a time of people deluding themselves into thinking an imaginary fat man could deliver a problem free world wrapped with a bow.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Crate Contemplation

It is often said that you can tell what is important to a person—what they worship—by studying their calendar and their check-book. When a person gets rid of most of their worldly possessions—and moves to another culture to share their faith—that may seem like a good indicator as well. However, for many such “cross-cultural ministers” there is another, even better measurement of worth: the crate.

When you have a single box in which you put every last thing you deem important enough to keep and ship to your new home, you can be sure that the things you pack in there are important. Over the years, we have done two of these, and as I look at what we are declaring important, I am getting to know myself better.

We were not moving to a place where necessities were hard to come by, so everything we brought was simply stuff that we wanted to bring—stuff we were willing to spend the money to ship. Outside of one piece of furniture, we brought two things: books, and Christmas stuff. The books were self explanatory, we are book lovers. The Christmas stuff seems also to be self-evident, but we are amazed at how many people in our position did not bring any with them.

Our Christmas decoration is the result of tiny, incremental collection over our 16 years of Christmas together. As the kids came along, we added to the collection in their name as well. It is one of those intentional and carefully constructed traditions that make a house a home and that enable one to take that home wherever one goes. Christmas season and the way we celebrate it is not the only one of these traditions we have as a family, but it is one of the bigger ones. All of these little traditions and family memories we build are important things that any parent should build for their children, but for someone spanning two or more cultures, they are indispensable.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Romans 13 (Love is Submission)

A big part of the Christian life is submission. A big part of sinful nature is that we hate submission. These days most people probably think of submission and Christianity exclusively in the context of Ephesians 5:22. A more appropriate verse regarding Christian submission would likely be Ephesians 5:21, or even better, Proverbs 1:7. As creatures, we are to live in submission… read respectful deferment… read fear—of the Creator. Some egalitarians might read that statement about Ephesians 5:21 above and think, “Yeah, right on! Put those male chauvinists in their place!” However, that strikes more once again of a problem with submission—something all Christians are intended to do—than an attempt at reading Scripture correctly.

So, Christians are to submit to God and to each other, wives are to submit to their own husbands and children to their parents; but here in Romans we see the thing carried even further. We are to submit to secular government. In the western world where the rule of law and democracy is the form of government that is something that is easier to stomach than it was back in Paul’s day. However, the manner in which a Christian approaches the government says a lot more about how they relate to God than most people would like to admit. A zealous fight to force government to be “more Christian” or at least “more my idea of Christianity” may demonstrate less Godliness than a submissive peaceful acceptance of the way things are and the things we can and should be doing as citizens.

In general, our behavior in our communities should be no different than our behavior in the family of God. We should be ruled by love. Sadly we need first to adjust the behavior in most churches before we make it our model for Christian behavior in the world, but once we have “be subject to one another” will be the rule of thumb. If we could manage to live loving the world the way we should also be loving each other, then we would be making great strides towards making the Kingdom of God manifest in the world.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Cross-Cultural Story-Telling The Magnificent Seven (1960)



The Magnificent Seven is a remake of Shichinin no samurai, but it is really more of a cultural reinterpretation. They did not merely retell the same story as so many remakes do, but really did adapt the story to a different context. On its own The Magnificent Seven is a great film, but considering these cultural differences adds a whole other fascinating element to the movie.

To begin with, the film shifts the setting from the very iconic Japanese 16th century to a no less iconic American West. This is a good choice, because the audiences in the states do not know the samurai for the mythic figure that it is in Japanese literature. The gunfighter in the old West is a very similar archetype and the cultural translation of the story is well served with this shift. Now the audiences do not need to be educated in historic and mythic background for the story to work.

Another helpful shift is in the message that the story communicates. Instead of attacking caste system and a fatalistic culture that made sense to the Japanese audiences of the original story, the American film tackles a similar but more relevant topic for America in the 1950s and 60s: racism. Whereas the original had the first samurai save a boy by sacrificing his honor, this film has our two main heroes introduced as they risk their lives to deliver a body to the town cemetery for burial. It is a dangerous job because the racist element in town does not want Indians buried there. The rest of the film of course has the seven helping to save a town of Mexicans.

Throughout the film, one is struck by how close they remain to details of the original story while at the same time making adjustments here and there to help the story be understood by its audience. The seven gunfighters are given more distinct and individual traits than the original seven, and some new storylines are added here as one of the gunfighters has lost his nerve and must prove himself again. The young “would-be” gunfighter leaves camp and infiltrates the bandits as in the original, but instead of being reprimanded for exhibiting individualism over teamwork, he gains respect. This film also ends far more hopeful, as the gunfighter who falls in love joins the farmers in the end, while in the original the caste spanning romance is doomed.

Finally, whether it is a cultural demand or not, this film clocks in at two hours instead of three and a half.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

More Top Films and Kurosawa: Shichinin no samurai


The Seven Samurai is in some ways the pinnacle of Japanese and action films. It was filmed in 1954, the same year as Godzilla, but this film is in a whole different class. It is one of the most influential films of all time. Most of the conventions of the genre were created for this film, and at three and a half hours it is able to contain all of them. In spite of the fact that it is an “action” film, it has several delicate and insightful plotlines.

The leader of the samurai, Kambei, is introduced saving a young boy from a kidnapper. To do so, he disguises himself as a priest. To most of us in the west today, that does not hold much meaning. However to the highly stratified Japanese culture of the 16th century, the haircut that Kambei subjects himself to is the height of dishonor. He shows that true honor is seen in a person’s actions and not the external forms that people impose on us. Relational behavior is more important than some legalistic code. Throughout the film, Kambei’s hair returns as he leads the samurai in defending the poorest of the poor classes against bandits.

This emphasis of individual over cultural strata is continued in the stories of some of the other samurai. Kikuchiyo is a farmer’s son who wants to be a samurai, even though his people and family were destroyed by that class when he was a baby. He learns the hard way, though, that individual glory at the expense of the group is a costly pursuit. The class system is certainly wrong, but the good of the community needs to be protected. Katsushiro is an aristocrat also wanting the life of a warrior. When he falls in love with a farmer’s daughter, he begins to understand just how bad a life the farmers have.

The seven do what they do in part because it is all they can do. They are warriors and they must fight or starve. That is why they take the job for nothing more than three meals a day. However, we also see very plainly that these samurai see the value in the lives of those they are defending. They know that their own class of people has often been no better than bandits to the farmers, and that this is wrong. They fight and die for the farmers. The few that live in the end admit that it is the village and not the samurai that have won. The simple life of the peaceful village will return to normal, free of the fear that the bandits brought. There is no more need for warriors, at least for now. In an era run by the warring classes, this was a step in the right direction.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

War in Heaven by Charles Williams (1930)


Charles Williams wrote seven novels that encompass a sub-genre all their own. Some have called them “spiritual shockers,” but they would not be considered thrillers by today’s standards. Williams was a poet and a mystic and both of these occupations heavily influence his fiction. He ran in a special circle known as “the Inklings.” All of that makes the reading of these novels a worthwhile pursuit—while the special content and perspective the novels offer alone would make their reading worthy as well.

War in Heaven, his first novel, is also perhaps his most accessible. At times it masquerades as a normal mystery novel involving the pursuit of the Holy Grail. It is far better written than say—The Da Vinci Code—and a thousand times deeper. There is murder, intrigue, high speed chases and black magic; but also theological pondering and psychological exploration.

Admittedly, most readers with less than a university education will have a hard time understanding what is going on at times, and those with that education will occasionally find themselves rereading paragraphs to be sure that they did. Not all the insights and views expressed are necessarily Biblical, good, or even well thought out—but the majority are great and serve to put the reader into another way of seeing the world—that is in almost every instance a good thing.

When I first read this novel shortly after my undergrad, I found the Archdeacon (arguably the main hero of the book) a bit too inactive and not an evangelically strong enough Christian for my taste. Now, years later, I find him wise. It must also be noted that the further one progresses in the action, the more obtuse the story becomes and the final chapter is a bit disappointing. The journey to get there, however, is fulfilling.
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