Friday, June 28, 2013

"Killing Them Softly" (2013)

This neo-noir has none of the style or artistry that makes the genre worthwhile. It is a brutish, vile story that fails to offer any compelling characters or motivations that would create a tension in the viewer’s mind. There is nothing to like. Instead of a more general commentary on the evils of human nature that the genre was invented to address, we get an all-too-on-the-nose running commentary on how the American political economic system is basically organized crime.

The one almost identifiable character is Brad Pitt’s hit-man, Jackie Cogan. As he interacts with all the deviants, reprobates, and killers in the movie, his reactions and opinions almost make one forget that he is a cold-blooded killer himself. His movie-ending monologue sums up the whole run of the film in a way that could save people a lot of time. Read the quote and you don’t need to waste the hour and a half (or 99 cent special rental that sucked me in) to see what all the buzz is about:

“My friend, Thomas Jefferson is an American saint because he wrote the words 'All men are created equal', words he clearly didn't believe since he allowed his own children to live in slavery. He's a rich white snob who's sick of paying taxes to the Brits. So, yeah, he writes some lovely words and aroused the rabble and they went and died for those words while he sat back and drank his wine and ****ed his slave girl. This guy wants to tell me we're living in a community? Don't make me laugh. I'm living in America, and in America you're on your own. America's not a country. It's just a business. Now ****’n pay me.”

Harsh, cynical, and over the top. And just maybe in danger of being right.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Danger: The Proverbial Miscalculations of Social Media!

More often than people like to admit, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is an approach that leads to trouble. At the very least it is an uncomfortable policy. Normally, it unites us with people we don’t normally like in order to face an even greater threat from a third, commonly feared party. For instance, we “befriended” a monster in Stalin to defeat the monster of Hitler. It was a less than desirable situation, but we did it and then we set about dealing with the (what seemed at the time to be) lesser evil.

However, an even stupider application of this proverb would go as follows:

You dislike a biased media that trends toward worldviews with which you do not agree.

Said biased media exposes someone as having a worldview that is just as distasteful as liberal public policy, or worse... like racism.

You publicly express support for the racist, aligning yourself with their repugnant views.

Regardless of whether you believe the exposé (and the accused has admitted it is accurate) in public forums and therefor public opinion, you have embraced their evil. In rushing to the aid of the enemy of your enemy, you have “cut of your nose to spite your face.”

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A "Charlie's Angels" Stretch

Confronted with travel and not a lot to do the past couple weeks, (at least not a lot I was in the mood to do) I started watching some old episodes of “Charlie’s Angels” that I got for a steal on iTunes years back. "Charlie’s Angels" is the stereotypical “guilty pleasure” for me. Not something I feel ashamed of because it is wrong, just because it is so bad. This is not the stuff of high art, or even quality pop-culture. Especially the last couple seasons, episodes I had never seen before now.

As the show entered the early eighties, they started spending more money on “high fashion” and—if the scantily clad angels of earlier seasons bothered some, the Eighties tastes are downright offensive! Hair became frizzy, sweaters and furs popped up everywhere, and for some reason the girls started carrying those money bags you get from banks as purses.

However, I have always enjoyed the Angels. I think most of my fascination stems from the first episode I remember seeing as a little kid. It was a first season episode involving a strangler who killed women with a rag-doll. It was basically a horror movie for a grade-schooler. It terrified me, and I was hooked. I also like any story where basically normal people are thrust into adventure. The Angels may be professional investigators, but they always came across as normal girls in over their heads.

Then there is the spiritual dimension. Yes, I am reading into things here, but only a little bit. Mystery stories can be deeply symbolic and spiritual. “Charlie’s Angels” is a bit like a poor man’s Nero Wolfe in some ways. The Angels are agents of a boss they never see, but who they take orders from. They are sent out on clear missions with mere guidelines of plans, and they are expected to be agents of good in a bad world using those guidelines and their own wits. In many ways that is a picture of the Christian life. We are Angels on a mission.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Countering Evil (2 Timothy 3:1-9)

There are three interesting aspects to this passage in 2 Timothy. It appears to be merely another “list of vices” common to Paul’s writings. However, here we have a list of 18 or 19 (depending on how you read them) vices that:

Characterize evil leaders and teachers working within and preying upon the church.

Signal people that Timothy, as a good leader is to avoid. Timothy is basically instructed to not even actively oppose them because…

They will be clearly exposed all on their own.

One of the biggest problems in the church in any age is false teaching and the wolves that come to prey on weak believers. However, maybe the best way to counter these attacks is not to fight the wolves directly, but rather to teach good, solid, Biblical doctrine. To disciple people correctly so that such lies and evil doers will be recognized and ignored in the church, rather than followed and glorified.

Friday, June 21, 2013

"Stoker" (2013)

“Stoker” is the most impressively crafted film of the year so far. It is visually stunning, it has a great, creative use of sound and is masterfully directed. It is also supremely disturbing in its philosophical foundation. It is the modern “Shadow of a Doubt”—Hitchcock’s masterpiece of the 40s—reinterpreted for our cynical, nihilistic, hedonistic times. The opening narration, in the voice of 18 year-old India, says it all:

“My ears hear what others cannot hear; small faraway things people cannot normally see are visible to me. These senses are the fruits of a lifetime of longing, longing to be rescued, to be completed. Just as this skirt needs the wind to billow, I'm not formed by things that are of myself alone. I wear my father's belt tied around my mother's blouse, and shoes which are from my uncle. This is me. Just as a flower does not choose its color, we are not responsible for what we have come to be. Only once you realize this do you become free, and to become adult is to become free.”

In the 40s, Hitchcock disturbed audiences by exposing the darker underbelly of puritanical culture. “Stoker” takes place in a time—much like our own—where we know our potential monstrosities. Where it shocks (or, more disturbingly affirms) modern sensibilities is in its claim that the correct response to evil is to embrace it.

India starts out as the counterpart to the niece in “Shadow of a Doubt,” but when that girl discovered her uncle’s dark secret she stopped him and saved the day. India takes another approach, and it isn’t exactly what you may be thinking. The question is, how does one embrace a wholly irresponsible approach to evil in humanity when the outcome is so inevitably bleak?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Those Who Can’t, Pretend (Missional Myths 3)

There seem to be three (at least) Missional Myths that people are embracing to one degree or another these days. They are all born out of solid ideas, but taken to extremes they are detrimental. And the more people buy into these myths the worse it is for their impact on the mission.

OK, so this third entry is not so much another myth as it is a subset of the second one. And it is less myth and more malpractice. If some people embrace the idea that mission requires platform out of a thirst for all that “undercover” evokes, others do so out of the plethora of opportunities it provides.

Missional efforts, especially in post-Christian contexts, can be daunting. Before one even begins to explore how such efforts are carried out, one has to wrestle with the question: How does one begin? Unlike the traditional idea of Christian mission where at least social assistance and cultural betterment was an available fallback where Gospel receptivity was less than desired, in the hardest fields today where the message is misunderstood before it is delivered there is nothing else to be offered. They don’t want God. They don’t need Him either. At least that is how it feels.

So what is to be done when mission is misunderstood? When it seems to get in the way of itself?

Even when we know that our message will never be popular—that it will be rejected by most—we feel like we have to make it palatable. Or, to make ourselves more palatable. And that is the way it starts. We feel like we have to make excuses for ourselves. “Why am I here? You wouldn’t understand why I’ve left home and country to come all this way to meet you. So, I will give you a fake reason and break the truth to you later. When you’re ready.” We abandon our purpose because we think acceptance is the first step. Who can they hear unless they first listen? But acceptance at the cost of the message is worthless.

However, that is just the first step. Then comes the realization: “I can be anything I want! As long as I am pretending, I might as well do something I always wished I could.” Yes there is a place for real professionals in the mission. But those who have been set apart to devote themselves to it with all their time really ought to.

Yes, there are endless valid reasons platform is needed or simply useful. However, when platform is merely a way you get to live your vocational dreams without actually living off them, you might need to reevaluate.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Naïf’s Lament

I’ve the curse we’ve all woven
I am not what I am
If we’re not purely evil
We are sadly naïve
While some pursue their own end
Come hell or all be damned
Other’s chase their ideal
And evil mistakes weave.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Thoughts on "Elementary" Season One

It is hard to put a finger exactly on what makes “Elementary” a lesser Holmes, but it does feel as though it is.

On the one hand it is an entertaining enough show. It has engaging crimes and clever solutions. It is well written and acted. It develops the characters over the course of the season and has a compelling season-long arch. However, something feels off.

For instance, there is the ultimately gimmicky conceit of Watson as a woman. That would not be so bad in and of itself, but there are two things working against it here:

Monday, June 17, 2013

Vital vs. Best (2 Timothy 2:23-26)

Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

One of the keys to good leadership is the ability to distinguish between that which is vital and that which is simply best.

There are certain things—ideas, methods, approaches, beliefs, etc.—which are essential to the movements, communities and projects that we lead. They are the things that we cannot do without.

However, there are also things which are merely the best. They are things that we know from experience or from others’ experience (or that we simply believe to be) the best of many ways forward. Sometimes the biggest mistake leaders make is to insist on “the best” from those they lead. Instead of making progress and allowing people to advance in their own way, they gum up the process by insisting that people attempt things that they are not capable of, that they don’t believe in, or that they are not gifted to do.

In the areas of doctrine and faith this is often one of the most important things to grasp, and yet it is also an area where it is hardest to achieve. Some leaders see their views on pet, side issues as being more important than they really are. Some get so caught up in these arguments over extraneous issues that they fail to ensure a correct understanding of the vital doctrines. Even in areas where error may exist in such, minor teachings, it is often better to lay them aside in favor of more vital teaching. The side issues can correct themselves over time or simply don’t deserve the time and effort that can be spent on truly important issues.

Friday, June 14, 2013

"Hanna" (2011)

It is a story that has been told before, many, many times. It is even presented in the traditional way, albeit with a modern take. “Hanna” is a fairy-tale about the dangers and horrors of growing up and leaving home. As a film it is beautiful, visually interesting, and excellently made. As a story it lacks a certain spirit. However, that may be because it really is just a fairy tale a la Grimm.

Hanna is a 15 year old who has been raised by her father in the arctic regions with a singularity of purpose. Her whole life has been preparation for the time when she will leave home and face the world, as well as a mission that will ensure her future. There is a woman in the world who will try to kill her if she ever finds out Hanna is alive. (Here is the point where one asks, why not train or simply BE someone else?) If Hanna ever wants to grow up and live a “normal” life, she will have to kill this wicked witch/big bad wolf first.

The only problem is that, with all the preparation for what must be done, Hanna is never taught the sort of skills she will need later on—how to live in the world. It is a classic case of prepare-your-kid-for-evil-at-the-expense-of-preparing-her-for-good. Sure enough, Hanna leaves home, fulfills her mission (she thinks), and then realizes she is wholly unprepared for the rest of her life.

As a movie “Hanna” is good enough, as a message it is OK, but just as Hanna was insufficient and missing something vital, this film is lacking enough to be considered great.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Lifestyle Evangelism 007 Edition (Missional Myths 2)

There seem to be three (at least) Missional Myths that people are embracing to one degree or another these days. They are all born out of solid ideas, but taken to extremes they are detrimental. And the more people buy into these myths the worse it is for their impact on the mission.

In my younger days I ran into an approach to witnessing that combined a good idea (live as you believe, be authentic) with a cop-out. It went something like this: “I let my life be my witness.” These people would really have you believe that a religious lifestyle alone would bring people to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. In fact, they were usually simply too ashamed of their own faith to talk about it.

These days there is a similar, just as pervasive, philosophy in missions. It also takes a good or at least needed idea (sometimes you have to be something other than a religious professional to gain access to the lost) and tries to make it a universal “best practice” for all mission efforts. They would have you believe that the best way to reach people with the story of Christ is to pretend to be something other than a witness.

Now, there are places in the world where Christians are not free to share their story. There are places where people are not allowed to live if sharing the Gospel is their job. In those places, people need another reason to be there. Most of the time their other reason is a legitimate job. However, to convince me that this is the best approach everywhere they need to do more than just say it is so. The data tends to argue against them. Even in places where being a witness is illegal, the people who openly do so see more results than those who hide their faith.

The sad truth is that a lot of these believers spend more energy and time maintaining a “cover” than they do witnessing, all to maintain a method of witness that is less effective. Part of the appeal may lie in the romantic idea of having a cover. Missional types are more susceptible to hero complexes than those who do not follow a missional vocation, and the 007 approach to mission certainly feels more heroic than openly embracing a message and a lifestyle than tend to be looked upon with disdain.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

TV and Storytelling

The Writer’s Guild of America recently released a list of the 101 best written TV series of all time. The list is—as all of these things are—highly debatable and a mere conglomeration of opinions. However, it is also highly interesting and thought provoking. For instance:

16 of the shows are currently airing, and over half of the best TV of all time aired in this millennium, within the past 13 years. Almost 10 percent are talk or variety shows. None are “reality shows.” 60% are hour-long programs. On a more personal level, I have seen every episode of exactly six of the series, but not a single episode of 43 of the series. So, my television IQ is not very high compared to the pop-culture experts. My own tentative top eleven list would be something more along the lines of:

11. The Twilight Zone

10. Seinfeld

9. Sherlock

8. Buffy the Vampire Slayer

7. A Nero Wolfe Mystery

6. Mr. Bean

5. Doctor Who

4. The Andy Griffith Show

3. Lost

2. The X Files

1. Columbo

In any case, television as a story telling medium has grown and developed over the years. In many ways it may be a better potential medium for storytelling than film these days. However, its cultural context is perhaps even more anchored in its own time, and its real zeitgeist and influence on culture is more limited and fragile.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

With (2 Timothy 2:22)

“Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.

So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.”

English teachers like my mother insist that punctuation is vital and can severely impact the meaning of a text. They are right, of course. However, Biblical texts are a special problem when it comes to punctuation. They didn’t have commas back then, and translators often have to make a judgment call as to the exact meaning of a sentence.

In the case above, the last comma makes a huge difference. I, for one, agree with the English translators. German texts offer a different reading. They render the text, “peace with those who call…”

What’s the big difference? I think this text is calling for accountability in community. The German reading makes it simply a list of things we strive to achieve. The English reading encourages us to flee the dishonorable and pursue virtue in community. And this is a big part of what life in the Kingdom of God is supposed to be like. We live in relationship. We strengthen each other. We help one another to stand strong and resist our worst impulses. Not following prescriptive, limited rules, but helping each other in love.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Global from Home: or It’s a Small World After All (Missional Myths 1)

There seem to be three (at least) Missional Myths that people are embracing to one degree or another these days. They are all born out of solid ideas, but taken to extremes they are detrimental. And the more people buy into these myths the worse it is for their impact on the mission.

The first of these could be labeled the “It’s a Small World After All” myth. It looks at the way our global community is growing, and how that seems to blow away barriers of distance and language and says, “We can now impact the world form Christ right from our own home.” To a degree this is true, but where the myth goes south is where it says that we no longer need “sent out ones.” At least not in a permanent, sacrificial way. To put it in a Biblical image, it is as though God had approached Abraham and said, “Go to the land I will show you, I need you there for a week or so.”

We are now creating a generation of believers who, when they feel the Macedonian call to go where people have not head the good news, they think it is something they can do without ever really leaving home. They go for a week or two, at the most a few months. Maybe as a church, they establish a “relationship” in the area they are trying to reach and travel there multiple times. However, they are not sent really out from a church to help establish new ones. They take a break, have an adventure, but never really leave one home for another.

On a global scale this has a huge impact. Fewer and fewer believers are truly crossing cultural boundaries. Less work is being done in people’s heart language. The danger of transposing culture alongside the Gospel is greater than ever. Contextualization is occurring less and less. The bottom line transaction that is occurring is financial, and maybe a little bit of culture is being transported as well. What doesn’t always make it into the mix is the story being told in a way that transforms the new culture. The sacrifice and obedience that Abraham exhibited, and that God used to bless all peoples—that that demands someone leave one home for a true new one—is a rare thing indeed.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

"Dances with Wolves" (1990)

I have always had a fickle relationship with “Dances with Wolves.” I liked a lot of Kostner’s early films, and Dances was no exception. However, in the intervening years I have adopted at times the dismissive opinions of it. “It is just a bleeding heart variety, environmental piece.” “It is a misguided, one-sided and naïve look at the Native American conflict.” And yet, I still manage to consistently place it amongst my favorite films. It is my favorite film of 1990, beating out such gems as “Edward Sissorhands” and “Miller’s Crossing” but it fails to break into the top 20 films of the decade.

Perhaps it has to do with my own personal interaction with the film, dictated by my age and its release. It came out near the end of my High School years, when one is more susceptible to and embracing of the kind of message it is trying to communicate. My class hosted a premier screening of the film in our town theater as a fund raising event. It was also around the time that I began to see films as more than mere entertainment.

And it is a work of art, really. It is one the one hand beautifully shot and masterfully assembled. On the other hand it is heavy handed and a bit of an ego piece. But more than just well-crafted and epic, it is a beautiful story.

The West of Dances is the West I love. It is before the real expansion was in full force, back when that part of America could not yet be called the frontier. It was a foreign world. It is before the world of cowboys and Indians, there is just the Indian, the explorer, and nature. That is what “Dances with Wolves” is really exploring, at least in the beginning. A world that no longer exists. It is not a study of civilization through the eyes of society on civilization’s edge; it is a study of an unknown world, an exploration into another world and a foreign culture. Before you get to the climactic conflict when “bad” white man’s civilization comes to mark and end of the wonder, it is simply a study, a picture of something we all long for at times: an adventure into the unknown.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Ich verstehe immer noch nicht

After several years now in in the land of my ancestors, and multiple discoveries as to why I tick the way I do, I still encounter situations where this culture doesn’t behave the way it should. Germans are nothing if not organized. They construct their routines in such a way as to never be caught unprepared. They have a shared, cultural readiness for all expected eventualities. They are insured for any possible unforeseen ones. They may even have insurance against overlooked insurance policies.

And yet, there are times when they are curiously oblivious. Air travel, for instance.

Anyone who flies at all in today’s security-sensitive climate understands the hoops that must be jumped through to get into a boarding area. When a frequent flyer approaches a security checkpoint they go into automatic-mode. Transfer everything from one’s pockets to one’s carry-on. Remove belt, watch and anything that could potentially set of a metal detector. Take laptop and fluids (in a see-through, zip-lock bag) out of carry on. Remove jacket (and depending on where you are, shoes.) All of this is done in the ample time one has approaching the checkpoint in the slowly moving line.

That is unless you are German. Germans, almost without exception, casually stand in the line to the checkpoint, talking to each other or on their phones, right up until they greet the screener. Then, they act as though it is their first time to ever fly. They slowly take off their jacket, and have to be prompted to remove things from their pockets and bags. Then, at least in the case of my flight this morning, they set off the alarm anyway. Ten people in a row without fail!

Perhaps the motivation behind German routines is to blame. Germans construct elaborate, convoluted systems for doing life largely in an effort to avoid the unforeseen and the threatening. They don’t like to consider things like disaster and death. Maybe flying in a metal cylinder thousands of feet above the earth is something that short circuits their thinking. They are organized to avoid dangers and flying is—no matter how much you tell yourself it’s the safest way to travel—a bit crazy.

In the back of our minds we all know we can’t avoid what life throws at us. No manner of planning and preparing will enable any of us to save ourselves from death or disaster. But rather than give it some thought and turn to the one possible source of help, most would rather stand in line and act surprised when they finally arrive at the gate.

Monday, June 3, 2013

"Remind" (2 Timothy 2:14-19)

“Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers…”

Not only are we to remember Christ and His sacrifice as a motivation for our efforts and even suffering for the cause of the mission, a large part of that mission is to remind others of the same thing. This seems like such a simple task, and it is. However, it is hard to get people—especially vocational ministers—to do it.

Most people look upon the Gospel ministry as a complex and complicated task. They think it requires tremendous amounts of education and training to be done correctly. At the very least one must have a college degree and several years of post-graduate theological training. We think you have to have read the Bible through several times and be well versed in all the nuances of various theories of minute doctrines before you can lead a community or disciple someone in the faith.

The fact is that, at its most basic and therefore most effective, the Gospel ministry is remembering and reminding others of one story. All of the rest, the growth in knowledge and obedience, the understanding of God’s will and His heart, are laid out as clearly as God wished it to be and clarified for the believer by God Himself.

The reasons this has been lost are many. Church leadership tend to lack a trust in God to build His church, they lack a trust in believers to actually exercise their faith, we want to control the church and make sure it fits into our limited even if growing understanding of what God wants. Beyond that we have made the church much more complex structurally (but much too simple effectively) to be what it should be naturally (or perhaps supernaturally.)

Let’s have a little less talking that breeds structure and a little more reflection that spurs action.

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