Thursday, June 30, 2011

For a Few Dollars More (1965)

The theme of Sergio Leone’s second western is that of justice and revenge. Being a society almost without law, or at least too wild and new for a strong law to be established, the bounty hunter is an important character of the west. Most westerns do not focus on the bounty hunter’s story however. Leone uses it to explore the difference between revenge: an individual seeking retribution for a wrong against them, and justice: society’s answer for people who infringe upon the laws that protect individuals from wrong.

At first you might disagree with that assessment. After all we do not get a justice system here with checks and balances and order. We might even have to say that the enforcers of law and order here are men just as bad as the criminals they hunt. They are just taking advantage of the system to engage in violence for gain. However, in a world requiring a legal system to protect people, any such legal system will involve a degree of answering evil with evil; an eye for an eye, if you will. The western justice is not just an example of law and order in the extreme of the frontier; it informs the way America still thinks of justice and its role in the world.

In the end of this story, justice is done and a woman is avenged. An evil man pays for his sins, and the wronged party walks away satisfied. The justice system also serves its purpose, the “hero” of the film rides off with a wagon full of bodies that he can turn into the nearest law office for a handsome reward… and he might just walk off with the stolen bank money too. Did they have insurance in the Old West?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Top 25 Animated Films

Time magazine is getting quite a bit of slack for their list claiming to name the 25 best animated movies of all time. This is due partly to the fact that they left a lot of great films off the list, and also to the fact that they included what amounts to a cheap television compilation in the third spot. The first problem is unavoidable, as varying tastes and a huge amount of films from which to choose will make any list of 25 incomplete. The second is simply a cheat, the original theatrical material is genius, but would be better addressed in a list of Short Films.

Here is the current state of the NonModern animated film list, with a couple caveats. While I have seen some of Miyazaki’s films, I haven’t yet seen the ones considered his best, so none of his are on this list at this point. Also, while I will save the shorts for their own list, I too include what is technically one compilation of three shorts to form a feature.

25. The Great Mouse Detective

In the Disney “dark ages” of the eighties, this adaptation of Eve Titus’ great books has all the right ingredients for a great Victorian sleuth adventure.

24. Sleeping Beauty

The best of Disney’s “neoclassic” period. The art work here is almost too formal and stylized, but beautiful.

23. Chicken Run

A great story from Aardman, hints of The Great Escape, and a good lesson to boot.

22. Prince of Egypt

One of the last American hand drawn films, and not even Disney. Some of the choices adapting this Biblical story were inspired. (But then there was that song with the magicians.)

21. Pinocchio

Time’s number one does deserve to be on the list. A morality play in the greatest tradition.

20. Toy Story

Not only is it the first computer animated feature, it is a great story. Apparently those of us who imagined their toys having a life of their own were not alone.

19. Fantasia 2000 & 18. Fantasia

A whole separate art form, really. Hopefully it won’t take half a century for the next entry.

17. WALL-E

Pure cinema. Silent film meets science fiction meets robot romance.

16. Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Wererabbit

Wallace and Gromit are two of the all time greatest characters in cinema. With this full-length feature they pay hilarious treatment to good old fashioned horror.

15. Coraline

Speaking of horror, the best children’s stories that attempt to teach lessons need healthy doses of it. Coraline is genuinely scary and genuinely appropriate for kids of all ages.

14. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves

How often does the first attempt at a genre end up being still watchable nearly a century later. Will number 20 fare so well?

13. How to Train Your Dragon

For those of us who HATE 3D, this was a film that made it work. And it is still effective in normalvision. It does the “boy and his dog” story proud.

12. Toy Story 2

Pixar didn’t get into the sequel business willingly, but when it had to it did it right. A sequel that is better than the original.

11. Monsters Inc.

The concept is purely original, yet makes so much sense. And it is a perfect tool to critique and explore modern societal fears.

10. The Jungle Book

Great music and great art direction all driving the sort of story kids need to hear. Sometimes you don’t know what is best for you or even what you really want.

9. One Hundred and One Dalmatians

The first film in the Disney “modern” era using Xerox and the distinctive look that it brought. This film has some of the best art that the 60s cinema ever produced.

8. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh

One of the best book adaptations ever brought to cinema, especially since it brought the book itself along.

7. Finding Nemo

Pixar’s first real mega-hit and the one that took Pixar over the top in comparison to Disney. Started the Pixar tradition of films that spoke more to the parents while keeping the kids entertained.

6. Beauty and the Beast

The animated film that almost got the Oscar. They created a whole separate category after this to avoid the potential “embarrassment.”

5. Up

The opening section of this film alone is a masterpiece. The rest of the film keeps up nicely.

4. Ratatouille

With this film, computer animation surpassed real life in some ways. Paris is beautiful, but it never looked so good.

3. The Incredibles

An incredibly mature story for an animated film. Then again, Brad Bird likes to remind people that animation is not a genre. The art design of this film is a character in its own right.

2. Toy Story 3

Pixar returns to its original vision, this time to address the parents. The end of this one is a tear jerker like the beginning of “Up.”

1. The Iron Giant

One of the best sorts of “preachy” stories ever drawn on celluloid.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Diamond Hardness and Revelation

One of the more persistent and annoying misunderstandings in the general consciousness these days concerns the geological property “hardness” as it relates to diamonds. OK, maybe it is just annoying to a certain, nerdy portion of the populace. But, come on! This is an Earth Sciences 101 issue.

Roughly speaking, hardness indicates how a substance will react to a force applied to it. Can you scratch it? Toughness, on the other hand, indicates a materials ability to resist fracturing. While diamonds are well known as the hardest of substances, however they are only moderately tough. So, while they can only be scratched by other diamonds, they are relatively easy to break.

The misconception out there is that diamonds are indestructible. This is commonly seen in entertainment like movies and television. Even “smart” shows like “The Mentalist” use this untruth, as seen in the episode promo below.

This misunderstanding about diamonds is similar to another misconception concerning the Bible. Whether you subscribe to the term inerrant, infallible or some other word for how the Bible communicates truth, the way that the Bible is the Word of God is misunderstood by a majority of people.

What would the equivalent of taking a fire extinguisher to try to smash a diamond in Biblical revelation terms be? How about claiming that the Bible can be used to teach anything, including things that the Bible does not address? Or maybe trying to claim that the Bible can only be used to support one stance on all the secondary issues of faith like eschatology or church polity?

The point is that interpretation is an important aspect of the Word of God. A lot of careful work and thought need to go into the reading of the Bible, not to mention divine assistance. It is all good and well to throw about ideas like inerrancy or infallibility, but care needs to be taken not to create litmus tests of faith based on particular interpretations of particular issues.

A lot of fractures have been created by brute force when all that was called for was scratching the surface.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Don't Be a Tattle-Tale! (Ephesians 5:22-6:9)

The age-old human tendency towards seeking religion rather than relationship is evidenced in the “tattle-tale” approach to life. There are always those (and most of us fit into this category at one point or another) who would rather focus on others, and all the things they are doing wrong, than on their own shortcomings or responsibilities. Jesus warned his followers away from this religious tendency when He told them they should look for planks in their own before they attempt to remove specks from others’ eyes.

One area of Christianity where the religious over relationship approach is most evident is in the way people interpret/apply the “household rules.” Found in both Ephesians and Colossians, Paul instructs believers in the way that a life of love should express itself in the family circle.

The religious reading of these texts is the one where the reader focuses on the aspects that do not pertain to their role. For example, the man who calls for his wife to submit to him instead of realizing that he should love her, or worse, the man who misinterprets the passage completely and calls on all women to submit to all men in general. From some readings of these texts you would think they are exclusively about wives and kids.

The only thing that an individual can do to improve their family life is to focus on improving the one thing they have any power to change: their own role. So, the general approach to reading these passages should be to look for where the passage addresses the reader directly; for example, husbands should concern themselves more with what they are instructed to do than what their wives should be doing and vice-verse.

Friday, June 24, 2011

A Very Personal Reading of the Tree of Life

Terrence Malick is more poet than a storyteller. As a result, his films are always moving, beautiful and thought provoking, meditations. However, they are not always successes as narratives. Despite Malick’s attempts to tell stories he is usually too consumed with other aspects of his art to do his stories justice. Perhaps that is why “The Tree of Life” is, for me, his most enjoyable film. It is only concerned with story in certain portions of the film, and then only very loosely. Malick embraces the fact that this film is a meditation. He pieces together diverse verses and stanzas, centered on a theme and then leaves it to the audience to interpret.

Many reviewers are calling this latest effort pretentious, but the most pretentious things related to “The Tree of Life” seem to be the reviews. Any reading of this film would have to be personal; with the filmmaker’s being perhaps the most authoritative. Since that is not likely to be revealed any time soon, here is merely one personal reaction:

The themes here are clearly Job’s, mostly questions about good and evil, why does God allow the world to be as it is, and is there hope to be had? As with the Biblical source that it plays with, the film is not going to give any answers. However, in contrast to “2001: A Space Odyssey” (a film that this movie is in some ways akin to) “The Tree of Life” is rich in humanity, emotion and hope.

The dichotomy of the film is “Nature or Grace.” It reflects the Biblical idea of flesh and spirit, law and love, or the way of the creature versus the way of the Creator. It is wrong, perhaps, to call it a dichotomy, because there is not always a clear distinction between nature and love in the film.

The term Nature can be misleading. It does not mean nature in the sense of creation or the environment. In fact, in the visions of early creation, we see examples of Grace ruling. Also, Nature in this film is seen in the glass architecture of the cityscape. Grace is found in trees and plants and landscape. Instead, Nature is man’s fight to survive, the struggle to overcome and succeed.

In the Father, Nature is represented by the stern training he uses to prepare his children for the harsh reality he has encountered in the world. It may even be born out of a love, but the results are often evil or at least harmful.

Grace, on the other hand is about things like forgiveness, trust and beauty. It is clearly the nobler path, but that does not mean that it is a safer path. Tragedy impacts all lives, and the prayers throughout the film are largely concerned with the questions that tragedy inspires.

Where the story falls apart, is when the child representing the main perspective of the film reaches the age where he starts to become his own person. Throughout his life he has observed the way of Nature in his father, and the way of Grace in his mother. The way of Grace is more attractive to him, and his younger brother seems to embrace it easily. To his own horror, though, our main character is becoming his father.

Up until this point, the entire film has felt universal to me. It may not be, but to an American boy with ties to Texas, it is familiar. Malick has tapped into sources that feel very real. The loss of innocence, however, feels false, overdone, and foreign.

Perhaps it is due to the fact that I was given a gift as a young boy. I have a clear memory from when I was three years old. It is one of the most formative memories I have. My father lost his temper with me over the fact that I was afraid of something on my favorite television show. All he did was make me turn the TV off and go to my room. Later that morning, though, he apologized to me and told me he was wrong for the way he had reacted. Just as I answered to his authority, he had an authority in his life as well.

That is not to say that I never later on butted heads with my Father. I did. But it was never a fight against Nature as seen here in this story. Perhaps the best path is a balance between Nature and Grace, with Grace given preference in all things.

The very end of this film is where things become completely impressionistic. No one may really know what happens in the mind of the child, now grown up, as he comes to terms with his past and with God. Perhaps not even the poet himself. However, it is a hope that, in the context of the story itself, could be rather empty. Unlike the concrete visions of the beginning of reality, this all occurs in the mind of a man. That is consistent with the source material for this meditation. Job does not answer any of its questions either. You either accept God’s stance or you don’t.

Who are we to ask such questions?

(Perhaps it should be said, this is a must see film for people who like to think, for those who love beauty, and the music is stunningly amazing. Recommend!)

Thursday, June 23, 2011


Oscar Thompson claimed that the most important word in the English language is “Relationship.” By that he meant that the interactions between people, the relationships, are the most important thing in human existence. He was right.

A close second, however—perhaps even tied with relationship—is the idea of Story. The human perspective of reality is ultimately always shaped in and through Story. Sometimes the Story is a product of human imagination, and sometimes it is molded from real events, but it is always encapsulated in the form of Story.

Even in the film genre of the documentary, events and facts are shaped into a form that fits into the convention of Story. Even our actual memories and the history of humanity are edited and pieced together in a form that will make sense along the rules of Story. Think of all the “inconsequential” events that do not make it into the records, the thousands of memories that we lose every single year.

The important question we must ask when we think of Story and reality is not: “Did a story happen exactly that way, or even at all?” but rather: “Is the story telling the truth.” Most of the time, stories are not ultimately about the plot, but instead about principles and truths of reality, often about truth in relationships.

Consider the stories you create, discover, recount and highlight in life. What are you communicating? Outside of the relationships in your life, the most important influence you will exercise on the world will be with your stories. Choose them carefully!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

In the Shelter of the Vine, Day 2

(Day 1)

Inside the bend of a river, there lies a city. Outside the city, on a ridge just across the river, sits a man. From where the man sits, it is hard to make out the city through the heat waves. It is turning out to be a scorcher. The wind has shifted around to the East, straight out of the desert. The sun is beating down hotter than usual, and to top things off the vine is all but dead. Upon investigating he sees that it has been consumed by some sort of worm right where the stalk comes out of the ground. Irreparable damage.

He spends the morning watching the city and thinking. It shows signs of life. The people are starting to go about their business again. It won’t be long before they forget this whole episode. The problem with threats that are not carried out is that people soon tell themselves they never were threats; that it was all the ravings of some mad man combined with some mass hysteria. These sinners would go about their lives as before! Their sin would continue! It was just a matter of time! Why had God wasted his time?

By noon, he is feeling the effects of the sun, and it is only going to get worse. He curses the grub that ate the plant, and curses the plant that has died. He curses his own life wasted saving sinners who deserve death. He curses his life and wishes for death.

Where does this story end? That is a hard question to answer, because it is an open ended story. We decide what the man will do. Will he curse the people he hates until the heat kills him, or embrace the grace that he has seen? What will you do? What task have you been given? Are you running from your fears and hatred, or sitting comfortably in a shelter that you fool yourself into thinking you built?

Sometimes we take a lot of pride in what we think we have done. We look at our stuff and pat ourselves on the back and say, "what a nice life." Then so often we look out on the sinners in the world from our sheltered perch and sit in judgment. That is easy to do with all the messed up stuff going on in the world today, but we must never let the wrong of the world cloud our vision. The world may deserve judgment, but so do we. We need to remember that before God decides to remind us.

In the last scene of this story, God approaches the prophet. When God asks him if he has a right to be mad over a shelter he did not build, He shows him that, as God, He has a much greater right to love a city full of people He has created. God loves this world very much, and He wants to see all men come to know Him.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

In the Shelter of the Vine, Day 1

Inside the bend of a river, there lies a city. Outside the city, on a ridge just across the river, sits a man. From where the man is, the city spreads as far as he can see. Huge walls surround it. They must be over 30 cubits tall. When he first arrived at the city weeks ago, the city guards were doing their rounds in chariots on the walls. At times he had seen three chariots riding abreast with room to spare. Now there was no activity at all.

The only thing moving in the city from what he can see is the smoke still rising from the fires all over town. No, the town had not been destroyed by fire. These fires had been deliberately set and controlled. Their purpose was to produce the ashes that currently covered all the towns' residents, human or beast. The city is otherwise fine, and that enrages the man.

He sits under a shelter he had built for himself. Not a great construction, after all, he is a prophet not a carpenter. The shelter is really just a bunch of dead branches leaning up against the sapling from which he had cut them. He had lined it with some sackcloth from the city. It had been the only material he could find. All the nice clothes and textiles had been burned.

Despite its shortcomings, the shelter is great today. He is fortunate in that he built it right where a vine had decided to spring up, and it has grown exceptionally fast. It appears to the man that shortly some fruit will be ripe enough to eat.

The man feels better than he has in weeks. He had been through a lot. Back home, he was considered a great prophet. He was well respected and people listened to him. That all changed when the Word of God came to him, telling him to warn these Assyrians that their city would be destroyed in forty days.

Well, he had not initially liked the idea of giving the Assyrians a warning of their destruction. He ran. He wasn’t afraid, even though his friends accused him of fearing that great city. He was a prophet! He trusted God totally. He had been in His presence! He knew that God could protect him from anything. He also knew God enough to know that if He was telling a city they were wrong, He would give them a chance to repent.

The truth was he hated the Assyrians. They did not deserve forgiveness. They were a terrible, evil people. So he ran, but not away from God—no one could get away from the Almighty. He simply booked passage as far as he could go in the opposite direction. Traveling in the wrong direction was the best step towards not fulfilling God’s command.

God, however, had different plans. The first night, he was awakened in the belly of a storm tossed, quickly sinking ship. When he realized that the storm was a result of his disobedience, he told the sailors to toss him overboard. They tried as best as they could to save the ship without doing as he said. (They cared more for his life than he had ever cared for theirs.) In the end they had to toss him; and over he went.

Next he woke up in Sheol, the place of the dead. At least that is what he thought. Actually he had gone from the belly of a ship to the belly of a fish. God had saved him. He realized that he was not in control. So when the fish threw him up on the beach and God told him again to go… he went. The best he could hope for was that this would turn out as Sodom and Gomorra had, and these sinners would get what was coming to them.

But that wasn’t happening at all. And as he sits looking at the city, he starts to lose hope.

Day 2

Monday, June 20, 2011

Before and After (Ephesians)

One of the repeated themes in the letter to the Ephesians is the clear distinction between the state of being before belief compared to that which comes after belief. People who make the decision to believe are changed. This is a truth that often escapes us afterwards. We know that it is true in our relationship with God, but we are also keenly aware that the change as it is lived out is a (sometimes slow) process that God works out in our lives with our cooperation. The fact that we forget that this process is ongoing in the lives of all believers is what causes us to try to force everyone’s change to reflect ours through rules and laws and artificial control. More often than not, we should not try to take on the task that is God’s responsibility in other’s lives.

So, beyond that reminder/warning, what does the change look like according to Paul in Ephesians? There a five clear “before/after” statements here:

Ephesians 2:1-10 “Formerly dead in sin… now, alive through faith in Christ.” The first dramatic change is the resurrection we experience on a spiritual level. Being alive spiritually speaking is what makes all the changes possible. This is why it is ridiculous to try to impose the Christian lifestyle and morals on people who do not believe through legal means. You can’t govern morality.

Ephesians 2:11-13 “Formerly separate from God… now, near in Christ.” It is not religion that brings us close to God. The Jews made this mistake when they took pride in their status as God’s people. They failed to see that it was nothing special in them that brought them near to God. He approached and rescued them. It was all about grace. Today, everyone who believes has been approached by God and is near to Him. He is changing us, but we often forget and begin to think of the changes as something we have achieved on our own. We take pride in our position and behavior and think we are some standard for others to emulate. That is a pathetic (and dangerous) attitude to take.

Ephesians 2:19-22 “Formerly alone… now, in community.” While we make a mistake when we think that we have a standard that we can impose upon everybody to help them become more Christ-like, we are created to be in community. Sin separates us from everyone and breaks every relationship in our lives. After belief, however, we have the blessing of the community with God and His people. We can build each other up and help each other to grow and change. That help is achieved not through religion or legalism, but through love and encouragement. Love can come in the form of “tough love” at times, but it always looks different than legalistic imposition.

Ephesians 4:17-24 “Formerly in darkness of mind… now, with a renewed mind.” The biggest way we experience the change is in our outlook. Before we believe we struggle to understand the world and we fail to see the things of God. After we believe we do begin to understand more, but mostly we give up the struggle. The things of God are too large for our creaturely minds to fully grasp. In our walk with God, though, we begin to learn from Him and to grow in understanding. We enter into a process for eternity.

Ephesians 5:8 “Formerly darkness… now, light.” In belief we change from being people who contribute to the confusion and misdirection of the world—a part of the problem—and we become a source of light in the world. Our lives are used by God to help other people discover the truth and enter into the changing process with Him. It is a whole chain-reaction sort of thing that has been going on in small, quiet ways for centuries. Not the huge, mighty, institutional religious type of Christendom that most people think of when they hear the word Christianity; but rather the quiet, life-changing, power of relationships.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Comic Book Adaptations: The Rom-Coms for… Nobody?

Romantic Comedies are often cited as one of the most formulaic film genres going. While that is probably true, they are not alone in being formulaic. The very concept of a genre demands a certain degree of formula, and a sign of a great genre piece is the way it plays with the formula to subvert expectations and cause reflection on the part of the audience.

As a sub-set of the sci-fi/fantasy movie genre, comic book adaptations suffer from the problem of a predictable formula more than most. This is not a problem inherent to comic book stories per se; so much as it is a problem of the story most often told in comic book movies: the origin story.

The origin story probably accounts for over 90% of the comic book movies out there. Even in the case of a third or fourth installment in a franchise, where the hero’s origin has already been told, the story tends to be about the origin of one of their enemies. This is unfortunate because comic book history is full of rich and thoughtful stories that could be told. It is a mystery why more comic book movies don’t go in a different direction. The most popular examples tend to be non-origin stories. Spiderman 2 does look at Doc Ock’s origin, but the main story is a non-origin look at Peter Parker’s struggle with balancing his personal life with his hero identity. In perhaps the best example to date, The Dark Knight explores the Batman character after his origin was told in the previous film and the main villain, the Joker, is left completely shrouded in mystery.

This mystery is actually appealing. Why would we want to start our story about an amazing world by demystifying the thing that makes it amazing? And, aren’t all origin stories ultimately the same thing in the end? Thus the formulaic aspect that has gotten so old.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Thoughts on "A Good Man Goes To War"

Admittedly, the midseason climax of this year’s Doctor Who is manipulative and pushes all kinds of fan-boy buttons, but it is a great story. It is especially good for people who have been paying attention during the Eleventh Doctor’s run so far. It completely confirms Steven Moffat as one of the great writers of this generation. Doctor Who in this century has always managed to make the big episodes (season openers, finales, and specials) very emotional, but they haven’t always earned their storylines. This one has been building for three years, and it delivers. In addition to the big reveal/cliff hanger, however, there are several special or insightful moments:

The first is a throwaway moment when three characters meet each other for the first time:
“Hello. I'm the Thin One. This is my husband. He's the Fat One.”
“Don't you have names?”
“We're the Thin Fat Gay married Anglican Marines. Why would we need names as well?”

A lot of people will completely miss the brilliance of this moment because they are distracted by the homosexual aspect of the characters. I for one can’t decide if this is a commentary on the way society labels people or if it is pointing out that complaining about labels is silly as we are in some ways the sum of all our labels culminating in the ultimate label of name.

Another brilliance of this episode is the way that it plays with language and meaning. Amy meets a young girl who has enlisted in the army with the aim of meeting the Doctor. When Amy asks her why she joined the army, she responds, “How else do you meet a great warrior?” Amy’s responds, “He is not a warrior.” The girls then questions, “Then why is he called the Doctor?” This sequence doesn’t make sense until later, when River Song is chastising the Doctor for his actions:

“This was exactly you. All this. All of it. You make them so afraid. When you began all those years ago, sailing off to see the Universe, did you ever think you'd become this? The man who can turn an army around at the mention of his name? "Doctor." The word for healer and wise man throughout the Universe. We get that word from you, you know. If you carry on the way you are, what might that word come to mean? To the people of the Gamma Forests, the word Doctor means "Mighty Warrior." How far you've come.”

It is a great moment. Up until this moment, the viewer has been reveling in the fact that the Doctor has become a warrior and is taking the fight to the people who have hurt his friends. That is not who the Doctor is, though. He does save the day, and he always comes through for the people he cares about, but he does not fight wars. He only fights when he is forced to and even then people are usually only hurt by their own actions. The Doctor and the audience of the show need this reminder. Good can overcome evil without stooping to its level. It is hinted at in another scene earlier where the Doctor confronts the woman who kidnapped Amy. She claims is not afraid of the Doctor because, “The anger of a good man is not a problem. Good men have too many rules.”

His response: “Good men don't need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many.” The truth is that the Doctor is good. He does not need rules because to do wrong would be against his nature. However, in his anger he is flirting with needing some rules.

Not all questions are answered in this episode. There is plenty of ground that needs to be covered in the second half of the season before we understand the season opening shocker. But it is one of the great episodes ever and brings the River Song character several leaps forward from where we met her back in season 4. Even there, though, there is more to be explored.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Recently the country of Germany experienced their annual Evangelical Lutheran convention; this time in the (no bias here) most beautiful German city—Dresden. We were not in town for the week-end but we had a lot of feedback from people we know who did check it out, and what we heard was interesting—and eye-opening.

First of all, there were several groups that targeted Kirchentag with evangelistic campaigns. This may at first seem like a silly idea. After all, church members from all over Germany descended on Dresden, and a lot of atheists made it a point to get out of town. However, even while a large percentage of Germans are church members—either of the Catholic or the Lutheran churches—less than 2% consider themselves to be “born again” or to have a personal relationship with Christ. The groups that did do evangelism at Kirchentag experienced a lot of success. After all, they spoke with a lot of people who believed in God and what the Bible says about Jesus, they simply had never applied that truth to their own lives. They had never been encouraged to do so!

Secondly, we learned that those aforementioned evangelistic efforts… were officially forbidden by the event organizers! You wouldn’t want a church convention to have too many people talking about Jesus, after all[?]

So, what was the discussion all about? The main topics of discussion this year seemed to be: ecology, atomic power, and to a lesser degree Sudan. All great issues needing to be addressed, and even things the body of Christ needs to think about and engage, but it seemed like a strange, side issue for Christians meeting in a city where 80% of the population claim to be atheists.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Buffy Rewatch (Season 4a)

This post is inspired by the ongoing Buffy Re-watch being conducted over at Nik at Night. Check them out for a better, more detailed look at each episode every Tuesday.

<--Season 3b  Season 4b-->

Series Four of Buffy saw a major shift in the series. High School was over. College was about to begin. Over the course of the first three years of the series the heroes had become confident in their little world. In fact, we had been led to believe that they had indeed saved the whole world on several occasions. Now we learn not only that there is a whole larger world out there, but that Sunnydale itself is quite a bit bigger than we initially thought. Buffy moves to the other side of town and is rendered a little bit helpless for a while as she adjusts to life after High School. Unfortunately, this leads to a little instability in this season. The sum of all of its parts is not as strong as several of the components that make up this season.

College Life itself dominates a few of the early episodes: 1. The Freshman, 2. Living Conditions, and 5. Beer Bad. In these episodes the writers do a good job of showing Buffy’s disorientation embarking on this new phase of life, but it renders her as an annoying and whinny character at times. (This will not be the last we see of this side of Buffy’s character.)

The Initiative is the “little bad” for the season, and three seasons running now we are following a rather clear formula. This combined with the more sci-fi aspect of the threat causes the season to feel a bit weaker. There is a clear and essential difference between what could be called the “vampire” and the “mad scientist” streams of horror fiction. Buffy obviously belongs to the former, but in season four they focus on the later. This is another big shift for the series. Basically we have a government institution seeking to fight and/or tap into the power that is focused in Sunnydale. The episodes in this half of the season that develop this plot are: 3. The Harsh Light of Day, 7. The Initiative, and 11. Doomed. The last of these has some hilarious stuff involving Spike, who returns this season in a regular role.

The standout episodes of season four are the stand alone ones:

4. Fear, Itself

A frat Halloween party turns sour when, in an attempt to create a scary atmosphere they invoke a “fear demon.” The house that hosts the party starts to tap into everyone’s deepest fears and seemingly makes them come true. The only problem is that a fear demon apparently only has that ability—to scare. The discovery of this episode is that, sometimes, the biggest threat our fears pose for us is what they cause us to do.

6. Wild at Heart

Oz and Willow’s high school love is threatened in the new environment of college when Oz meets a girl who is a lot more like him. She is a musician… and a werewolf. The problem is that she has another idea about what this side of their nature means for them and Oz has to stop her. However, through the experience Oz realizes that he has a serious problem and he has to find a way to master his baser instincts. He is safe for no one until he does, so he leaves to find the answer.

8. Pangs

Buffy (the show) does a pretty good job of addressing the whole European Explorers vs. Native American cultures debate. They present both sides and then use a couple “disinterested observer” characters to place the whole thing into perspective.

9. Something Blue

We continue to see Willow turn to magic to help her deal with the problems in her life. The overarching theme in “mad scientist” horror fiction is humanity reaching into forbidden sources of power; trying to tread where only God should venture. Magic in the Buffy-verse is similar to this theme. The difference is that the mad scientist tries to tap into God’s creative power. The magician looks to just as forbidden powers but they are demonic and not divine. This is a dangerous (and therefore forbidden) venture, and the series will do a good job of showing Willow’s slow spiral down into areas she should not go. This time around, we see that her capacity for evil is truly huge—even though she resists the temptation for now.

10. Hush

An effective fairy-tale. Demons invade the town in search of a certain number of hearts and they render the town incapable of speaking—both to weaken their defenses and because a scream is their Achilles Heel. This episode is beautifully creepy.

12. A New Man

Giles has struggled to find purpose this season, having been let go by the Watcher’s Council and being somewhat left behind by Buffy as she embarks on the new phase of life that is college. In this comedic episode, his “mid-life crisis” is accentuated when he is turned into a demon. By this episode, it has become quite apparent that the little community of heroes we follow in this series has lost their connection and could easily be pushed to the breaking point…

Monday, June 13, 2011

Reaction to the Heat Loss

While I do not fall into the category of the devoted—the adoring fanatics—I was happy to hear of the results of this year’s NBA finals series. Had the Heat won, it would have been easy enough to avoid experiencing the celebration. No one is forced to watch such things. However, it is nice to know that presumptions are not fulfilled.

Presumptions like those of LeBron James and the Heat, who saw themselves as the best without having to earn the title. It wasn’t bad enough that they thought the season was a foregone conclusion; they expected to win all the championships remaining in their careers to hear them speak.

Or the presumptions of the self-proclaimed “experts”—the prophets and prognosticators of the sports world weren’t much better. They all declared outrageous futures for the Heat before a single game had been played. Even after the season had been played and the Heat had been exposed as mere humans, the experts qualified every statement they made about the team. King LeBron did not live up to their expectations, but they still refused to recognize the evidence. He would turn things around, because they had all declared him the best before he had actually won.

Still, the desire to witness pride taking a fall has reminded me of the uncomfortable parallels between current sports fandom in America, and the human tendency toward religious adoration and worship. People are created to worship, and even in denying God they find other things on which to direct this creaturely drive. Sport in the 21st Century has become uncannily close to old regional pagan deity worship. People converge together to adore their heroes. They wear the signs and symbols of their pantheon. They exercise faith that their objects of adoration will triumph. They project godlike qualities on the athletes they worship. It can all become a little too weird for comfort.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

2007 in Film

2007 was a year with a lot of good-not-great films. Filling out the middle of the road 11 through 20 film range would be movies like: Enchanted, Stardust, Juno, Disturbia, [Rec], Mr. Bean’s Holiday, Hot Fuzz, Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood, and that National Treasure Sequel. The top ten are:

Top Ten Personal Films of 2007:
1. Ratatouille
2. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (in spite of what was written here at NonModernBlog)
3. No Country for Old Men
4. 3:10 to Yuma
5. The Bourne Ultimatum
6. Ocean’s Thirteen
7. El Orfanato
8. Surf’s Up
9. Zodiac
10. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

Bottom or Most Disappointing Films of 2007:
-5. Bee Movie
-4. The Golden Compass
-3. 30 Days of Night
-2. Death Proof
-1. Halloween

Films I Still Have to See:
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
Day Watch
The Myst
Sweeney Todd

Friday, June 10, 2011

Pirates of the Missed Opportunity

The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is an interesting phenomenon. Who would have predicted that a movie based on an amusement park ride would have spawned so much success? Of course, it isn’t really based on the ride, is it? Inspired by maybe. The fact is that the ride merely supplied the atmosphere, and that isn’t even really unique to the ride either.

The first film was such a huge success due to the combined elements of great production values, wonderful performances and direction, and most importantly a solid story. It is a story that is not only entertaining, but it also deals with issues like rebellion, the consequences of betrayal, and redemption. Most people see the film as a vehicle for the character of Jack Sparrow. The truth is that, while the main characters are ostensibly Will Turner and Liz Swann, the film is an ensemble piece. Sparrow is a fun but almost secondary character. In fact he is so fun because he doesn’t have to carry any serious parts of the storyline.

The next two films suffer from a story line that is far too sprawling. Or perhaps the best way of looking at these films is that they attempt to be epic without having enough ideas or even enough to say about the ideas they bring up.

However, the latest entry, “On Stranger Tides” has the opposite problem. It has a whole lot of interesting ideas and concepts that it presents, but it fails to deal with any of the ideas in a satisfactory or interesting manner. As in the first three films, there is a romantic couple in this story. However, instead of carrying the most important plotlines, they are at best third tier characters. This is unfortunate, because the themes of the story—the Fountain of Youth and its metaphysical and religious implications—could have best been served by making the missionary character the focus of the story. Instead, Jack is made the main character and in doing that the character is damaged as he has to carry serious, emotional beats of the story for which the character is not suited.

As a ride, the fourth film is entertaining—if you don’t stop to think about anything going on in the story.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams (1932)

The Greater Trumps is seen by some as being a companion piece to The Place of the Lion. Williams’ first three novels all dealt with aspects of the supernatural invading the natural world—a magic realism of sorts. In “Lion” and “Trumps,” this continues, but the supernatural is highly symbolic. Whereas “Lion” used the Platonic archetypes, “The Greater Trumps” uses a fictitious deck of Tarot cards.

The plot, as lean as it is, concerns a family of Gypsies who seek to obtain the original deck of Tarot. It is possessed by a man who has inherited it from a friend, with the instruction that he in turn must bequeath it to the London Museum. The man’s daughter is engaged to the son of the gypsy family, and since the man will not willingly give the deck away, the plan is to use the deck to kill the man by producing a storm. It seems the deck can be used to control the elements, because the deck represents the supernatural powers that control reality. These powers are manifest also in a set of figurines that perform and endless dance on a table in the house where the gypsies live. As if all that is not dense enough, there is an attempt by Williams to assign meaning to the various figures of the Tarot, with the Fool holding the most important role of all.

This is the least directly Christian of Williams’ novels. He does bring hints of it in through discussions of the Christ figure, and references to the Athanasian Creed. (Williams brings this creed up in other novels as well.)

The biggest hurdle keeping the reader from fully engaging in the many interesting ideas Williams raises in this novel is the fact that the characters and plot are almost non-existent. When compared to Lewis, Williams falls short in that he wants to present ideas in a story that is pure afterthought. Lewis used to tell rich stories that happened to give the reader a lot to think about.

Of course, the other problem here is that Williams presents a lot of compelling ideas without having decided what he really thinks about any of them. He leaves any connections to the truth to be made by the reader, if there are any to even be made.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

61, 62, 63

Lord, my God,
Come hear my call.
Come take me to where You are.
For you have been,
My tower of strength.
I will praise your name forever.

My soul waits,
For You alone.
Lord, You are my Salvation.
You are my rock,
My one true fortress.
I will not be shaken.

When I come,
Before your throne.
On my knees I’ll be in awe.
To see your power,
And your glory.
Your love is more than life to me.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People

Episodes 5 and 6 of this season of Doctor Who mainly serve to move the season-long plot along. They have some interesting ideas, but they are not really explored. The basic plot is as follows: The Doctor and his companions arrive on earth in the future where a factory is being run by a small crew using surrogate-style clones. The surrogates gain independent life through an electrical surge and the originals and copies fight it out over who gets to live the life and memories they share. Hardly the stuff of a two episode adventure.

Digging a little deeper, (and we are in spoiler heavy territory now) we see that the Doctor intends to drop Amy and Rory off somewhere for this adventure. He is not going to this factory by accident, and it must involve the couple in some way. Once there, we also see that the Doctor already knew about the “flesh” and the surrogates are called, only in a more advanced stage of their development. While there, he intentionally creates a surrogate of himself and tests the limits of how convincing the copy can be.

This is where the ideas that could have been explored more emerge. This story poses the question: what makes us who we are? The answer according to this story is that we are more than the sum of our physical being and our life experiences. There is an intangible part of us that ultimately defines who we are.

Of course, the real purpose of this story—as already stated—is to further the season long plot. We finally find out (partially) what happened to changed Amy between episodes one and two, and Amy unwittingly informs the Doctor that she has seen him die. All of these greater revelations are intriguing and raise even more anticipation for the eventual answers the season will deliver. That and several of the set-pieces and visuals are, as ever, thrilling.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Walk Wisely (Ephesians 5:15-21)

Let’s look at how Paul describes the believer’s walk so far: He calls for it to be a walk in unity, that is to say humbly. He reminds believers to not walk as they used to before they believed. It is a walk in love. It is a walk in the light. Finally, he encourages the believer to walk in wisdom.

Wisdom in the Bible is always understood as the recognition that we are creatures who answer to the Creator. We are wise when we yield to His ways, His plans, and live the lives we are given on His terms. It is more than knowledge, intelligence or even common sense. It is in a certain sense a fear of God. We walk in wisdom when we walk in respect for the One who created the world in which we live. Instead of being controlled by something like alcohol, for instance, (or people, or our desires, or anything that we turn our will over to) we allow God to call the shots in our lives.

Not only that, but Paul clarifies here that the way a walk of wisdom is achieved. Just as the walk of unity is a corporate walk, the walk in wisdom needs community. We learn from each other. This is what the singing and melodies are all about in this passage. This is not a worship service. This is an example of the way communities educate each other and teach truths to be remembered. It is not the only way, but the point here is that we build each other up in our understanding of God’s ways and how to live a life of wisdom. We learn to yield to God by submitting to each other by hearing what others have learned in their walk with God.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

"The Fisherman and His Wife" (Ephesians 5:1-21)

This short is one of the “Fractured Fairy Tales” that appeared on the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. They always involved a well known children’s tale, but were told in such a way as to make them funny, ridiculous, and simply unexpected.

“Red Riding Hood” had the girl as a fur dealer trying to kill the wolf.

“Cinderella” had the prince up to his eyeballs in debt looking for a rich wife.

In this story, the fisherman’s greedy wife wishes for change after change. She tries to improve her life with stuff, but always ends up wanting more. Over time, the couple fall more and more out of love and out of happiness. When the fisherman finally wishes for his wife to merely be happy, everything goes back to the way it was in the beginning. This is a twist on the original, where the couple is returned to misery for wishing too much. Instead, here the original state was one of happiness that is only recognized by the fisherman when his wishes are granted.

We are often like the fisherman’s wife, wanting things to be different. We think if we could just have more money, talent or opportunities, we would be content. What we don’t realize is that God has our best in mind, and we need to learn contentment for where He has us. We have everything we need to accomplish the plans that He has for our lives. True happiness is found in purpose and in fulfilling that purpose. This is the secret to both wisdom and true joy.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Adaptors, Transformers and the Real Deal

Today marks the last day of our fifth year in Germany. Five years ago we were embarking, not so much on an adventure, but more precisely on a transformation. We arrived to our new home armed with a few electric adaptors and transformers enabling us to use the many electronic devices that we thought we needed. Today we don’t use them much. Most of the things we own have been purchased here and work in the environment in which they have been made to function. We have ceased to cope as though we were on a temporary adventure, and have instead adapted to the culture that we now call our own.

Ironically, we just completed an orientation course that Germany has just recently decided we needed to take to live here. The good news is that five years of intentional integration made the actual course superfluous. We would have passed the test in any case, as it is we aced the test—something our teacher told us few if any Germans could do. We did, however, learn some interesting facts about our new home:

-Even Germans tend to think (erroneously) that their history began in 1933. The course does not mention any history prior to Hitler’s rise to power.

-Despite increasing problem of generations of underperforming, directionless children, Germans are convinced that antiauthoritarian—scratch that—totally permissive parenting is the way to go. They have gone so far as to make it the law of the land. It is illegal to discipline children, and parents are not allowed any say in how their children use they’re state mandated allowance.

-Germany thinks it is a country where church and state are separate, because they say that they are. The reality of the situation is that the country has not only one official, institutional religion, but two.

-Germans by and large are incredibly sweet people. They’re history and opinionated natures tend to make people think the worst, but (perhaps due to that fact) they are incredibly tolerant and understanding and love to help people who want to adapt to life here in Germany.

Any person who wants to be a part of and influence a culture needs to first be a part of that culture. The adaptation process is an important one. In the same way that you need to do away with things that hold you back to the old life and embrace the things that work in the new; it is just as important to adapt your cultural thinking. The best agent of change in a culture is an insider; the second best is an outsider who has integrated.
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