Thursday, February 28, 2013

Papal Perusings

A little over eight years ago, on April 19th 2005, I ate lunch with my brother in an Abuelo’s in the DFW area. I remember the day well. It was the day after my wife’s birthday, and the day before my first son’s seventh. (It was also the tenth anniversary of that OK city bombing and an even older commemoration of the Waco thing.) But the thing that marks this moment to a specific event is that Pope Benedict XVI was elected to be the Catholic Church’s mediary between God and men by 115 guardians of that institution.

I remember we sat there talking about some of the theories as to who would be the next guy. (Many of which are being repeated these days.) But when we heard the actual results we were a bit surprised. What made things more interesting in retrospect was that we had to switch our thoughts from Latin America—where we grew up and many thought the church would look for their man—to Germany where I would end up living just a year later. At the time, I hadn’t even given any thought to living overseas again.

Now, not even eight years later, it seems a bit surprising that we are going to witness the whole process again. At the time we predicted this, though. However, we did not expect it to go down like this. 600 years have gone by since the last pope—the man some think to be the voice of God on Earth—has retired. Today that will happen, and one presumes a lot of believing people will be without God’s voice for a few weeks.

What one could wish for this time around is that the church will name a man who will reduce people’s dependence on a man-made institution and redirect them back to the Word of God and the truth that we do not approach God through a religious system anymore.

But that is equating the religion of Catholicism with some form of Biblical faith just because they both sort of look to Christ for answers. That would be a mistake to make.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

"Hitchcock" (2012)

Several years ago I bought and read “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho.” It is an incredibly interesting book about a fascinating undertaking. However, when I heard they were making a film based on the book I had my doubts. It is one thing to watch a movie from one of the greatest filmmakers of all time; it is quite another to watch a movie about them making the film.

Well, it is a loose statement indeed to say this film is based on the book. (See a similar situation in yesterday’s review of Argo.) But that is a good thing, because this fictional account of the making of “Psycho” is very entertaining indeed. More than the making of a film, this is the story of a married couple’s complex relationship at a difficult and challenging point in their lives. That and some fun speculation about just how dark Hitchcock’s thought life must have been like.

This is one of a handful of films that came out in 2012 that, despite not being particularly deep or “on message,” are highly recommendable as a whole package. The acting in particular was some of the best seen last year. (While I’m at it, I recommend the book too. Especially if you are any sort of Hitchcock fan at all.)

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The "Argo" Question

Argo is one of the better films of 2012. As of this writing, it is in the top five films I have seen from that year. From a cinematic point of view, it is nearly everything you would hope for from a thriller. The design, the art direction, the camera work, and the direction itself are all top notch. Even that occasional problem of Affleck’s—his wooden performance style that conveys little to know emotion or character—in this case serves the story well.

This is a great suspense story, with every scene increasing the tension until the audience is ready to burst. It is also a great period piece. The film really does feel like it is embodying the time period that it is supposed to be representing.

The problem, if there is one, is in the “based on a true story” element. It is more of an interesting point to ponder than a problem really. We all understand that stories are designed to fulfill a purpose. In this case, the number one job is to entertain through suspense. However, there are also stories designed to communicate an event that really occurred, and this film presents itself as that as well; it is selling itself as a representation of historic fact. Or so we are allowed to believe. In actual fact, for those who care to learn more about the story, the filmmakers are careful to say that they have changed just about everything from the way it really happened.

Once again that is not bad, since they are being clear up front and honest about their process, but one gets the impression that people today are not going to do their homework and learn the truth.

So all of that to ask the question: how much license should films about history be allowed to take? If they are going to change just about everything, should storytellers simply make pure fiction, even if they are inspired by real events? Should “Argo” have been clearer about the fact that they were loosely interpreting the incident?

Monday, February 25, 2013

No Cop Outs (1 Timothy 6:1,2)

What is endlessly fascinating to me about the passages like this in the Bible is the way they demonstrate the audacious nature of faith. Contrary to what many superficial readings may say, this passage does not endorse the concept of slavery. The Biblical message in its entirety does not allow for slavery. In fact, it is Biblical ethical teaching that has moved human culture away from slavery. However, this passage and others like it dare to look at what it means to be a follower of Jesus in the real world. If your reality includes injustices like slavery, what do you do?

In today’s world, people following Jesus have slowly but determinedly changed the world so much that we can no longer truly appreciate the context of this passage; but we do still have evil and injustice in the world. And to some degree, we are called to follow Jesus in the context of living in the world the way it is. We do not get to be Pollyannaish. Most importantly, we do not get to stop doing what is right by pointing to other’s wrongs.

We don’t like this message today. We want to point to other people’s financial dishonesty or excesses to justify doing things that we know are not up to the standard of Jesus. We want to justify violence and excess of force, even to the point of torture and killing, just because those against us hold to that lower standard. We invent all sorts of justifications for not doing what God asks of us by comparing ourselves to other sinners. The problem is that we should have our eyes on—we should be comparing ourselves to—the higher standard of Jesus.

Friday, February 22, 2013


A careful reading of the book of Daniel may be a good, eye-opening experience for many self-proclaimed Christians these days. In it we are introduced to a tragic figure, Nebuchadnezzar. He was a pagan king who was very religious. He believed in many, many gods. More than that, he believed in the God of the Bible. His faith was flawed, however.

While he acknowledged that God is the most powerful God, capable of doing whatever He wants, he never seems to achieve the sort of faith that changed his life. In story after story, Nebuchadnezzar sees things that make him say God is the greatest, deserving praise and honor from all, he never seems to turn away from his many other gods.

More than anything else, though, Nebuchadnezzar was guilty of self-worship. He was his own God. He is ultimately driven mad until he confesses that God, and not Nebuchadnezzar, is deserving of all worship.

We do not ultimately know if Nebuchadnezzar became a child of God. However, we see many people professing a Christianity that resembles his form of faith than that which the Bible demands. They are of the opinion that God exists. They agree intellectually with the fact that Jesus was God and He died for their sins. They tell everyone that they should worship Jesus, and that he is the greatest. However, they tend to see Jesus as more of a charm than a Lord. They don’t take their devotion to Jesus to the extreme of actually doing whatever He asks of them. They simply interpret their faith in a way that justifies their own preferences in life.

Many “Christians” today are not followers of Jesus. They believe in a version of God that looks just like them and that does not require them to do anything other than what they already want to do. They do not look to scripture to learn how they should change, but rather to justify their already formed perceptions of the way they should live, and to help them tell everyone else that they should be just like them.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Ethical Quandary

Living life is a series of choices. This is what everybody struggles with every day. It is the essence of every story. The choices we make shape who we are and reveal our understanding, limited as it is, of Truth. There are basically three approaches to choices.

Logic. We consider our understanding of reality and make the decision that makes sense to us.

Emotion. We do what feels good. We avoid what feels bad. We don’t always make sense but we base our choices on our ever changing moods, which in turn affects our moods and has us chasing our tails.

Ethics. We attempt to do what is right and avoid what is wrong.

Our culture has long since decided that right and wrong are things that no one can know, and we don’t trust any sort of outside voice on the matter. That leaves us with the first two options. As an example you have some people saying that violence—or the ability to do harm—is an effective deterrent to violence. “Fight the threat of harm with the display of a similar ability.” And you have just as many people saying that violence is ugly and not nice, so no one should entertain the thought of it. The world will be better if we all just get along. Logic vs. emotion.

Words like “right” and “wrong” may even be used in our arguments about choice, but no one can truly hold an advantage in the struggle because everyone’s position is based upon a limited perspective or a nebulous emotion.

The true ethical approach would be to appeal to an outside, unbiased, accurate perspective. That is a possible solution, but since humanity’s decision to place ourselves in the judgment seat it requires an initial step of humility that few grasp. That initial step is also dependant on outside help to be achieved.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Things We Get Wrong (1 Timothy 5:17-25)

[17] Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. [18] For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” [19] Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. [20] As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. [21] In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality. [22] Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure. [23] (No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.) [24] The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later. [25] So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden.
(1 Timothy 5:17-25 ESV)

People look to this passage to justify vocational ministry. (They are not exactly wrong in doing so.) However, the way the industry of religious professionals has developed is not what this single verse is about. There is probably a whole book worth of content on how we do professional church leadership wrong these days. The fact that elders are hired guns that climb a career ladder and usually remain outside the local family is just the tip of the iceberg.

Then again, this whole remaining paragraph here could be labeled “things about which the church ignores the Bible.” We generally don’t handle accusations this way, and we don’t judge true violations this way. We appoint far too many people to positions too hastily and we drag our feet too much with others. We make up all sorts of laws that shouldn’t be violated like the way we handle (or don’t) alcohol; and worse, we cloud the waters when it comes to true sin with all of our legalistic traditions.

What it all boils down to (when these problems are readily apparent) is that the church has ceased to be a family and a household and has become a traditional institution of a cultural, man-made religion. We need to get back to being a community of faith.

Friday, February 15, 2013

"The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951)

A man visits our planet with a massage of peace, an appeal for people to get along. He poses as a carpenter and is killed only to rise again and return to the heavens, but first leaves us an ultimatum. Find a way to resolve your differences or you will not be welcome in the heavenly realms. In fact, you will be destroyed.

No, this is not some confused interpretation of the Christian story. It is a cold war allegory calling for an end to the atomic power struggle. And it is a great film that holds up great these 60+ years later. This is the best sort of Sci-Fi. Even though there are very few special effects, the story is strong and it keeps us engaged. This is such strong drama, in fact, that it may play better than some of its effects-heavy contemporary examples.

Here the enemy is not an alien, not even his robot. Human paranoia is the danger that threatens to destroy the planet. We are so busy imagining how terrible the visitors intentions may be that we are not prepared to stop and listen to the real warning he has come to deliver.

Even beyond the great script and acting, this is a gem of a visual story. Wise directs this film using interesting angles, compositions and a beautiful interplay of light and shadow. The art direction, set design and cinematography are wonderful. It truly is one of the greatest films.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Star Trek Deep Space Nine (Season 4b)

Season 4a - Season 4c

Episode 10: “Our Man Bashir” 

Spy fantasy vs. spy reality. Idealism vs. Pragmatism. Heroes vs. Operatives. Doing what is right vs. doing what will win. We all love a good spy yarn, but we also know that such stories are pure fantasy; nothing like the ugly reality of espionage. Here Bashir plays at such fantasy with a running commentary from his real spy friend. When things suddenly become deadly and earnest both sides learn that the best approach is a mixture of idealism and tough realism.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"Zero Dark Thrity" (2012)

If “The Hurt Locker” was a “meandering slice of life,” Kathryn Bigelow’s latest is similar in that it offers—instead of a story—an exercise in cherry-picking the major events of the war on terror to create a fictionalized account. At two and a half hours, it is a relatively short summary of one (made up) person’s tedious study of interviews, interrogations, and speculations. Fortunately for the viewers, this person’s initial hunch turns out to be right and we get an account with a resolution. Before OBL was killed in real life, this was going to be a movie about the failure to find him.

The film itself is fairly neutral as evidenced by people on both sides of the political spectrum being bothered by it. It is really less about the political conversation some want to insert it into and more about a study of obsession. The final image of this film is not the success of the mission, but the empty future of a person who has completed the only thing that has ever given her life meaning. This seems to be something that preoccupies Bigelow. In “The Hurt Locker” she had the protagonist reject “normal” life and return to the front. Here Maya does not have that option. Her quest was to see one man die and he is dead.

What one could possibly call fascinating about “Zero Dark Thirty” is the way that these obsessions—on national and ideological levels—impact so many lives. The way obsession and evil in this fallen world are so tied into each other. We see hatred for the west drive men to die in an effort to kill people for living how they wish. We see western the response to avoid further attacks drive people to torture and abuse people for (hopefully valid) information. We see unarmed men and women killed in front of their children. There is no argument that some of those killed are very evil people. It is still jarring to see a soldier shoot a mother and then turn to the crying, hysterical, terrified kids and say “it’s OK.”

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Branding the Gospel

It used to be that the church’s approach to fulfilling its great commission looked a lot like that of a traveling salesman. We had our pitch and our high pressure offer. We focused on strangers like they were quotas and we chased notches in our spiritual belts. Or, at least those that were good at sales did. Most of us just felt guilty that we were not brave enough to be so abrasive, or jealous that we weren’t as persuasive.

That seems to be changing. We know that we are not sent to make converts, but disciples; that we are not meant to ignore family and friends in favor of strangers with whom we can afford to be weird. However, the change that is really happening is not an evolution of theological understanding, but an evolution in marketing.

Today the church is all about branding the Gospel. Go to any seminary or church and look at the walls. You will quickly realize that being a good Christian today means having the knack to package Biblical ideas in colorful phrases and names that are easy to remember. It is no longer understanding and living truth, but rather putting your own, trademark-able spin on it.

What is worse, there is an increasing danger that we are not even marketing the Gospel, but rather Christian Culture. Religion. Tradition.

Monday, February 11, 2013

"Seven Psychopaths" and the Insanity of Current Culture

Martin McDonagh has been lauded as Ireland’s most important current playwright. This reviewer can only comment on his screenplays, but one has to wonder how so many of these writers get praise when they rely so heavily on a one word vocabulary.

McDonagh made a splash in the cinema word a few years ago with “In Bruges,” the story of hit men and pacifism. It was a paradoxical work, preaching non-violence while being one of the more violent films of the year. It sort of worked.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Law of Love in Charity (1 Timothy 5:3-16)

This is a good example of a passage that people either:

-take too legalistically and make it about a single, narrow issue.

-make an example of how the Bible is too cultural and narrow to apply today.

-or read as it was intended and use it as a helpful guide in many aspects of church, life and culture.

Paul’s writings will often be about a specific topic that affected a church at the time, but that we can glean principles from to apply to a whole host of issues today. So here we have a passage about widows. This passage does not dictate that the church begin taking care of widows older than 60 (not that that would be a bad thing) and send younger ones away to their parents or to remarry. The principles here deal with charitable practices of the time, and the principles that should govern them.

Today we could open these principles to apply to a whole host of charitable ministries of the church. We are not the only source of help for widows today, but we often do a lot of work with the down-and-out and the needy people in society. The principle here is that such help should be given to those who are truly helpless, and that others should be assisted into finding constructive lives. Rather than hand out money and support people who just don’t want to do anything, we should be discriminate in how and who we help.

All too often churches become magnets for people who are too willing to live off the kindness of others. Some would say we are not responsible for how help is taken; we are simply to help where we can. This passage would indicate otherwise. All too often “help” is actually doing more damage, or providing a means for people to be “idlers, gossips and busybodies.”

As is often the case, the true work of the church is a little more complicated than many would have it be. We are not simply to evangelize, we should disciple. We are not supposed to grow as churches, we should multiply. We can’t just follow a few rules, we need to love. We don’t just give money; we need to truly help people with what they need, and even when that may be tough love. Even when people decline the offer.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Star Trek Deep Space Nine (Season 4a)

Season 3b   Season 4b

Star Trek The Next Generation really took off at the end of the 3rd season with the “to be continued” at the end of “The Best of Both Worlds Part 1.” That set up the continuing tradition for that series, of ending every season with a cliff hanger. “Deep Space Nine” did not continue that particular model. Instead they ended the first two seasons with big revelations, but had the 2 part story come at the start of the next season with a looser connection to what had come before. Where they did follow the Next Generation pattern, was in really hitting their stride in the 4th season. These first several episodes are (mostly) really well done in every way:

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Syncretism in American Christianity

A couple stories this week served to remind (and perhaps even shock) me back to the realization that our faith is often far too syncretic. It is the constant challenge with which the follower of Jesus struggles. How do we grow in an understanding of what God wants, of what the Bible really says, without turning it into just another man-made religion? Or worse, without falling into just another age-old but updated version of animism?

(I probably ought to point out that the following observations are not a reflection or judgment on the people involved or the ones sharing and agreeing with the stories. This syncretism is so deeply ingrained in us, or taught to us, that it is usually a case of people not thinking about what they are passing along. We are all too often syncretic without realizing it.)

The first was, unsurprisingly for this week, a sports story. Ray Lewis has become known for interjecting statements of faith and “quoting” scripture after games. He sort of did it again with Sal Paolantonio after the Super Bowl.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

"Django Unchained" (2012)

As usual, Tarantino has placed his audience in a very uncomfortable position. “Django Unchained” is a near flawless piece of filmmaking. The cinematography, the script, the acting, and the direction are amazing. One is emotionally engaged in the story, and completely manipulated by everything Tarantino does. And you feel terrible about it all.

Tarantino is the cinematic expert on revenge stories. He is not the only filmmaker specializing in this sort of story (it is a common theme) but he is the master. What he does is simple, but he pulls it off with a certain artistic flair. He takes straw-men villains, makes them completely one dimensional and hateful, and then allows the audience to see them get… not their comeuppance, exactly. They get their death delivered in the most over-the-top, almost “Looney Tune” violent way.

Tarantino likes to think that he has instigated a fresh dialogue on slavery in America. May be. What we really get with “Django” is perhaps the most extreme racism ever seen on film. Maybe there really were people that evil back then. But we suspect that the driving force here is not documentarian realism, but rather we need to be worked up into a lather of hatred to put up with the level of violence we are expected to cheer for at the end. The same beliefs that drive me to despise slavery and racism make it impossible for me to enjoy the revenge on display.

There are two stand-out things that do work really well here. One is a darkly comic scene involving a proto-Klan raid where the men argue over whether they should wear hoods over their heads or not. This ridiculing of the hate driven men may be more satisfying than seeing such men killed later on. The other is Christoph Waltz. His performance and his character are mesmerizing.

Monday, February 4, 2013

It's a Family Thing (1 Timothy 5:1,2)

Growing up and a child of missionaries, we had a great tradition. We referred to the other missionaries as uncles and aunts. Being so far away from extended family, we found a surrogate one in the family of God on the field of service. Unfortunately, that practice didn’t always extend beyond the children. There were times when it would have been better if the adults had seen each other as siblings and not merely colleagues.

This is actually good and even biblical advice for the church on God’s mission in the world. We know we are working together to accomplish an important task, but that often results in disagreements, conflicts, and a whole range of other interpersonal relational problems. A lot of that could be avoided if we would just remember we are family. Not necessarily the family in which we were raised. Our biological families are at times unfortunately even more dysfunctional than our working/ministry teams. However, when we treat each other as the family of God we avoid a lot of problems.

We can appeal to our common cause and tolerate different views and understandings. We can work through disagreements without loss of love, with forgiveness for mistakes and celebration when things we thought would not work out… do. Perhaps we would even be able to avoid some of the problems that arise when we work in mixed company. Instead of seeing each other as men and women, we could interact as brothers and sisters.

Friday, February 1, 2013

"Frankenweenie" (2012)

Tim Burton has been frustrating fans for years with films that almost work, or seem to be all style with no real story. However, “Frankenweenie” is a great return to form. It is all the style with tons of substance. It is a loving tribute to the old, classic, monster horror that tended to preach while it scared.

Burton returns to a theme he has touched upon before, that Americana can be downright creepy. This is the classic Frankenstein story, but the villain here is not the mad scientist trying to be God. Instead we have a boy who loves his dog. The trouble is stirred up when a science fair taps into the competitive nature of the suburbanite kids and they recklessly race into irresponsible experiments that they do not understand.

Of course, the real enemy—as is always the case in these stories—is the mob. Long before they become the inevitable torch-bearing variety, they are the narrow minded, scared mass of humanity lashing out at those who are different. The general attitude that prevailed in the history of the nation’s birth was one of tolerance and freedom to believe the way one wishes, but the very early people coming to America were fleeing intolerance with an aim at creating their own variety of it. That attitude tends to rear its head again and again, whether it is Christians fearing non-Christians, Atheists hating believers, or everyone hating people of certain exotic origins.

In this film, the silliness of this attitude is exposed in the town hall meeting called to fire the local science teacher, a gentleman of Czech origin. He delivers a speech to defend his position in his less than perfect English:

“Ladies and gentlemen. I think the confusion here is that you are all very ignorant. Is that right word, ignorant? I mean stupid, primitive, unenlightened. You do not understand science, so you are afraid of it. Like a dog is afraid of thunder or balloons. To you, science is magic and witchcraft because you have such small minds. I cannot make your heads bigger, but your children's heads; I can take them and crack them open. This is what I try to do, to get at their brains!”

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