Friday, January 29, 2016

The Short Take on the Pitches

“Pitch Perfect” was a fun film a couple years ago. It had a story, it had character development, and it had clever, well-crafted remixes. The music was what made the film. It was where the re-watch-ability lay. I even considered buying the soundtrack. Considered.

The sequel, however, goes the way that the first film should have gone had it not overachieved where music is concerned. Here, we don’t have story. We don’t get development. And the songs are not thought out. Instead we get a string of non-sequiturs that are supposed to stand in for humor. We get montages of song clips that can fill out a soundtrack (or two) but aren’t interesting or developed. And, we get more crass, less class.

And a flashlight is not an elegant metaphore.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

“Fight Club” by Chuck Palahniuk

The problem with the little book that caused such a cultural stir is that it is sort of brilliant. Palahniuk shows incredible insight into our culture. In particular, he has modern men—full grown fatherless boys—with their pathetic, spineless, herd-mentality figured out. However, his solution is just more of the prevailing mentality.

It is all good and well to point out the vacant, materialistic, attitude that makes the masses so easily manipulated. But to present the alternative as a nihilism that doesn’t just border on insanity—his protagonist is truly looney—is either an exacerbation of the problem, or an actual call to embrace a worse alternative.

Many people in my generation speak of “Fight Club” as if it is a voice of wisdom. I see in Tyler Durden something more akin to the father of lies.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

“Bereshit bara Elohiym eth hashamayim w’et ha’eretz” (Genesis 1:1)

1:1 “In beginning God created the heavens and the earth”

The five words in verse one (sans the articles and the conjunction) are tricky to read. Well, the basic idea is clear—God made everything that exists. But there is so much more to be speculated about here:

First, we can ask ourselves, “Is this a standalone statement, a title, or a temporal clause tied into the following verses?” Maybe it is a little of everything.

If it is a title, then the creative action begins in verse 3. Heavens and Earth is a formulation that conveys our modern concept of “universe,” but the heavens are created on day two and earth on day three, so it can be read as a title statement. Then again, it can be read as a declaration that God created everything, and then what follows is a description of His action ordering and structuring creation.

The main idea here is that the biblical account of creation is that God did it. He did it alone. He did it in power and starting from nothing. There is no realm already in existence. There are no other gods in cahoots nor in opposition. God works with intention and not out of caprice. And all of that is wholly and utterly different from every other account of creation in the ancient world.

And perhaps more than anything else, that is the purpose of the prologue to Genesis. And more than a detailed technical schematic or how God created the universe, the theological points that will be made in comparison to other worldview of the time will be what is important going forward…

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The X Files "My Struggle" and "Founder's Mutation"

While it is not a perfect show (seasons eight and nine being exhibit a) “The X-Files” is my favorite TV show. I love the mystery, the characters, the horror and the humor. It may have been the perfect show for my generation with its “Trust Know One” cynicism, but also with the hope of “I want to believe.”

My kids and I are only just into season three, but we have jumped ahead and started watching the new shows as they air. It does a good job of bringing in new audiences. You don’t have to have seen the whole run to catch up. But, as my kids point out, it isn’t as though The X Files is about presenting concrete developments. As the master storyteller J. J. Abrams says, the real joy is in the anticipation, not the reveal.

“My Struggle” is a mixed joy. We get the good stuff of old. The opening is there. The conspiracies are there. Things have been brilliantly updated to the current climate post nine eleven. And it is fun to see them mix real world problems with the coo coo.

But there is also a bitter sweet side to things. A lot of time has past and we can see that Mulder and Scully have not had a happy ever after. And, to be realistic this first episode is just an exercise in catching people up and introducing newbies.

“Founder’s Mutation” though is The X Files as it should be. Even better, we now have better technologies, effects and new-even-scarier boogiemen.

In the nineties, The X Files worked because life was safe and good. The Cold War was over, we trusted the system, and horror stories were simply harmless fun. Today, the world is a scarier place. We are experiencing a new global religious war, anyone can be a target and we know that our governments can’t be trusted to protect us. That the show has managed to adapt is impressive. I can’t wait to see what is in store.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Jesus' Good News (John 5:19-24)

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whosoever hears my word and believes in him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.” –v. 24

Jesus responds to the religious leaders when they judge Him for healing on the Sabbath. Their approach to life is to follow a list of rules to avoid God’s anger. To avoid His judgement. The only problem is that they, like all people, stand under His judgement already. No list of rules ever kept anyone from failing to live up to God’s standards.

That is the irony of legalism. We take God’s commands to holiness and make them at once too demanding and too petty. We create new laws that attempt to keep people from sinning, but only deal with superficial issues. We aim at the heart, but only influence behavior.

Wait, there is another problem for the religious leaders here. They are overstepping their bounds. They stand in judgement—a position only God can occupy—and ironically aim that judgement at the only man—the Son of God—God has given the right to judge.

And what Jesus tells these legalistic, morally proud, judgmental leaders, is a wonderful, good, news. Our sin problem is not solved changing behavior. That doesn’t cut it. The good can never outweigh the bad. Our sin problem is no problem for God. And anyone who hears the message of Christ and trusts in the God who sent Him can have their problem wiped away!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Star Trek Enterprise (Season 1a)


In the first few episodes of Enterprise, we get to know the crew and see how they begin to form relationships and test the boundaries of team. The stories themselves are largely just background. What we learn thus far is that earth has had warp technology for nearly 100 years but is just beginning to get out into space. Thus far the Vulkans have been a bit “overprotective” like cautious parents. In some ways they are simply helping humanity avoid a lot of dangerous “rookie” mistakes. But they also clearly want the humans to be more Vulkan-like before they will feel ready to let them enjoy their independence.

What we get story-wise are:

Broken Bow (1,2): A mission to return a Klingon back to his planet with important information about an alien/time traveler interference in a Klingon civil war. (The beginning of a recurring storyline involving Sulibans and a 27th Century Cabal.)

Fight or Flight (3): An encounter with a race that harvests humanoids for resources.

Strange New World (4): Exploration of an M class planet with apparent mysterious aliens and a crazy conspiracy. All courtesy of hallucinogenic pollen.

Unexpected (5): Helping another species out allows Tucker to explore new experiences, including a pregnancy of sorts.

Terra Nova (6): A mess of an episode. Ughh!

This early in, I am wondering if I am going to be able to handle the whole concept of the show. It is taking place over 100 years before TOS, about 150 years from now. The challenge there is that fans familiar with what has aired before can’t help but notice the show is much more advanced, in both Tech and complexity, than the original show. But it should provide for some interesting stories is handled right. Whereas TOS saw exploration along the lines of Magellan or Cook—exploring the unknown by means of expert use of known technology, here we have the danger of space itself. The Enterprise crew are also just getting to know space exploration.

The other big problem this early on is some of the acting, particularly with the Vulkan character, T’Pol. Her delivery is stilted. Also, there are some very clumsy attempts to turn her into a titillating diversion.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

“Elleh Toledoth” (Genesis Introductory Issues: Structure)

Genesis has a natural structure that is easily apparent to the reader. There is a natural divide between the early, universal human history and the later, patriarchal stuff. And that second half easily divides itself by the generations of the protagonists. But, there is an even more precise mechanism being used that solidifies this outline. The phrase “this is the history of the generations of…” occurs eleven times in the book. Each of these (save perhaps one) serve to introduce a section, so with the prologue of the creation week you get the following:

1:1-2:3 Prologue (Creation)

2:4-4:26 History of Heaven and Earth (Creation and Fall) 

5:1-6:8 History of Adam (Genealogical Interlude)

6:9-9:29 History of Noah 

10:1-11:9 History of Noah’s Sons (Genealogical Interlude)

11:10-26 History of Shem (Genealogical Interlude)

11:27-25:11 History of Terah (Abraham’s Story) 

25:12-18 History of Ishmael (Genealogical Interlude)

25:19-35:29 History of Isaac (Jacob’s Story) 

36:1-37:1 History of Esau (Genealogical Interlude)

37:2-50:26 History of Jacob (Joseph’s Story) 

Just about every other one of these sections is not a narrative, but rather a family tree that serves as an interlude that advances the history to the next major figure.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Tragedy of Unbelief (John 5:1-18)

With the third sign in John’s Gospel we see the tragedy of unbelief.

Jesus finds a man who has been lame for many years. The man is waiting near a pool where he believed he might be healed, if only he could get into the water first after an angel stirred the surface. Jesus choses to heal him without having to wait on the superstition to be fulfilled.

It is important to see here that Jesus heals the man, independent of faith. It is Jesus (that is to say God, see the next passage) that heals the man, not his belief. In other stories in the Gospel people could try to make the erroneous argument that a person’s faith is what heals them. That is never the case. In the Gospels faith is nothing more than trust in God, and it is God who works in the lives of those who trust Him. Or, as in this case, those who don’t trust but in whom God wants to move.

When this man is accused of breaking the religious law, he is quick to absolve himself. It isn’t his fault, the man who healed him told him to carry his bed! He is clearly one of those people who see themselves simply as victims of everything around them.

The Pharisees for their part are not interested in any miracle or sign of God’s power in their midst. They are too concerned with keeping all the rules they have created to avoid offending God. As is the case with such legalistic people, they have slowly shifted their thinking so that they are no longer concerned with what God might think. Forget offending God, you better not step on their toes!

Jesus later warns the man that he needs to change his way of life. His sin is going to lead to his destruction. This man has encountered God, has been healed by God, and is invited to trust and follow God’s better way of life. How does he respond?

He turns to the religious legalists of his day to let them know who it was that made him break their law.

He looks like he is well on his way to being a good, religious hypocrite!

Don’t get to know Jesus only to become a good “Christian.” That would be the tragedy of unbelief. Jesus wants those who will trust and follow, those who will look to HIM as Lord.

Friday, January 15, 2016

"A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" (2014)

You would think that an original idea and great cinematography would make a great film. “Girl Walks Home” has both in spades. The idea of a female vampire in an Islamic culture has a lot of potential for commentary and message. Make the town the most corrupt, strange oil town in Iran with drugs and corruption run rampant and you have all sorts of comeuppance just waiting to be passed around.

And the shots here are really well done. There are beautiful shots where you wouldn’t expect them. A plate of fried eggs never looked so photogenic. And there are situations where expectations are subverted, like when the vampire taunts and imitates an old man on the street. That is the sort of thing you expect violent men to do to lone women on dark, lonely streets.

But then there are also moments where this film thinks it is so artistic and only comes across as silly pretention. The lady (?) dancing with the balloon, for example. What is up with that? So much of this film lingers, and lingers. In the right hands that could be ominous, but here it just feels like lethargy. The editing could certainly be tightened up a lot. And the story concept, for all its originality, still comes up short. They had a good idea, but didn’t have a fully developed story.

This is an interesting bit of art for those who like the genre or the concept, but it isn’t a great film.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Quantum Leap Rewatch (Episodes 1-6)


The genius of “Quantum Leap” was that its premise allowed it to be completely message oriented and even preachy, but people still saw it as fun entertainment. Since it was couched as science fiction and had the humor of a “fish out of water” with the time travel, it was able to point out problems and wrongs in society without raising too many hackles.

Episodes 1 & 2: "Genesis”

Things start off a bit confusingly, since the whole concept has to be introduced. Sam has to understand what is happening to him, which is convenient since we too are fuzzy on the details. Instead of the big societal issues that will come later, we get the mystery of time travel and later Sam gets to fulfill a personal wish to talk to his dad. So slow, but a needed introduction to the series.

Episode 3: “Star-Crossed”

Again, this early into things, Sam gets to address some personal issues. It’s as if whatever is leaping him around in time is allowing him to start of where he is already motivated. Sam will have more opportunities to change his own life, but these are exceptions rather than the norm. An interesting aspect of this episode is the way this Baby Boomer show is rather critical of the looseness of the sexual revolution.

Episode 4: “Right Hand of God”

One of the issues the show does not shy away from is the spiritual. There is a suspicion that Sam’s jumps may be controlled by God, and this episode sees Sam as a boxer helping some nuns. They believe he is sent by God, and his mission involves helping them regain and maintain their faith. Sam, the scientist certainly seems open to an idea of God.

Episode 5: “How the Tess Was Born”

In this Texas ranching episode, Sam has been sent to tame a shrew. The episode gives us a nice twist on this trope, however. That said, what got changed thanks to Sam’s presence? Not much of anything.

Episode 6: “Double Identity”

By this point in the series it is clear we are in for a highly ethical, moralistic show. Sam is thrown into a mafia hitman who is having an affair with the “Godfather’s” girlfriend. But forget about any mission. Al and the computer are ready to try to bring Sam home. Sam, however, can’t help but try to change things. He wants the hitman to stop killing, the girlfriend to learn to respect herself, the boss to stop cheating on his wife, and on and on. However, the attempted rescue from the future only manages to leap Sam from the hitman to the boss, so Sam’s changes are able to solidify before his next unscheduled, God controlled (?) jump…

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Avoid Distractions (Genesis Introductory Issues: Authorship)

You can’t take a serious look at Genesis these days without getting caught up in the question of who wrote it. And, it seems like such a life or death issue for so many people. For some, anything less than “Moses wrote the whole thing” is heresy. For others, the search for “sources” has overwhelmed any ability to simply read the text. It is all a bit silly.

The Bible is not just a sacred text for multiple religious worldviews, it is incredibly rich literature. It seems that a healthy understanding of divine inspiration would make all these authorial issues irrelevant. God is capable of using a process and multiple individuals to communicate His perfect message. (Just look at the Bible as a whole.) Besides, there is no indication in Scripture that Moses wrote the whole thing. (Or any of Genesis for that matter.) As to sources, whether they existed or not is irrelevant, because the teaching is found in the text as it has existed for thousands of years. This text, not any hypothetical source materials or oral traditions.

So, take Genesis as we have received it: an anonymous, divinely inspired text, communicating God’s truth about creation, the fall, and the beginnings of His plan to redeem humanity. Appreciate the literary and artistic ways that this text communicates its message. And don’t insist on clouding that message with traditions or interpretations that have been added after the fact. What does Genesis actually say to us?

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

"Switched on Pop"

Another gem of a podcast discovery from last year is “Switched on Pop.” On this podcast a songwriter and a musicologist analyze various aspects of popular music. What they manage to do is highlight the sometimes incredible design and thinking that goes into pop music. Either that or they give these artists way too much credit and make them sound much more intelligent than they are.

Everything from the songwriting genius of Taylor Swift (an obvious observation) to the fact that One Direction are really just the modern day castrati is covered. If you already enjoy some of these songs and acts, hearing how their choice of scales, keys, chord progressions, and instrumentation ties into the lyrics to strengthen the message is fun to see. If not, you still get an interesting education into how and why these acts work so well.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Thoughts on the Second Sign in John (John 4:43-54)

Why did Jesus leave Samaria? The people there believed in Him, accepted that He was the Messiah. He could have had a much more successful ministry amongst such accepting people, right? Then again, if Jesus had been accepted as the Messiah He couldn’t very well have fulfilled the plan God had for the Messiah, could He? John has already made clear in the prologue that Jesus came to His own and His own rejected Him. So, Jesus sets out for Galilee again, to those who will not see Him for who He is.

However, when He arrives in Cana the people greet Him with excitement. They had also been to Judea and had seen His miracles there. They were likely part of the crowds that “believed” in Jesus due to his miracles. Those that the John has already said were “believing” in the wrong way.

When the official arrives and asks for Jesus to come heal his son, Jesus confirms as much. It is with exasperation that he declares of the crowd that they need to see signs and wonders. They wanted Jesus as a supplier of needs and an earthly power. Jesus’ message is altogether different. He is declaring a need for repentance, a change, in light of the Kingdom of God. Jesus wants people to surrender and trust.

But this man seems uninterested in signs and wonders. He is only concerned for his son. When Jesus tells him his son is healed, the man doesn’t stick around to see Jesus’ power. He doesn’t try to convince Jesus to come with him, “just in case.” He simply heads back home, in the hope that his son is indeed better.

And once he confirms that Jesus’ word and power were true, he became a true believer. Interestingly, his first act as a follower was apparently to lead his whole household to believe in Jesus as well. So far, every conversion in the Gospel of John has led to a multiplication of followers through testimony.

Friday, January 8, 2016

"Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation" (2015)

Outside of the first film in the series—which had an intricate, complicated mystery of a plot (that many simply couldn’t grasp)—the Mission Impossible movies are all about action. And Rogue Nation delivers. And don’t think they gave the goods away in the trailer with that airplane stunt. That is just the cold open. Impressive and dangerous, sure. But the stuff that comes later is even more of a rush. The motorcycle chase for example.

But what really makes people come back to this series again and again is the simple, carbon-copy plots. At the start of this film the government is trying to shut the team down. They aren’t skilled saviors of democracy and freedom, just lucky gamblers. So once again we have our disavowed, alone against the system, lucky (have no doubt, the film shows it is pure luck) heroes.

It really is good fun, but we are a bit schizophrenic right? We fantasize about super cool agencies that will safeguard our freedoms by any means necessary, run by complete nincompoops.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

"The Black Tapes Podcast"

Another interesting podcast discovery of last year was “The Black Tapes Podcast.” It came across—in the beginning—like another “Serial” but it quickly became clear that this was a fictional experiment. Or is it?

The most interesting aspect of The Black Tapes Podcast is the way it does storytelling. Each episode tackles a different “case” or mystery, but hardly ever draws that case to closure. After all, these are unsolved, paranormal occurrences that can’t (yet) be disproven. However, added to that, we get to see the reporter (Alex Reagan) explore the over-arching mystery of the paranormal investigator himself (Dr. Richard Strand). He has a backstory. But then, as the season goes along, we begin to see that all the mysteries Alex has been looking at might be tied together, and they might be related to Dr. Strand himself.

This is an interesting way to do storytelling. I can only imagine how incredible it would be if the stories were even more polished. As it is, this podcast ties into the joy and entertainment—even humor—of the circus that is overnight radio ala “Coast to Coast.”

One last thought: For a person like myself, a person of faith who sees himself as commissioned to be a witness and storyteller, there is a lot to learn from the people who make these sorts of podcasts. Sometimes we might do well to let our stories draw people in and awaken curiosity. We need people to want to know more, leave them craving our next interaction. All too often we tell our story in such a way as to scare people away or make them yawn.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Right Questions (Genesis Introductory Issues: Purpose)

I may have written about this elsewhere, but one of my most formative educational experiences took place in a class I took devoted entirely to Genesis 1-11. (It was so in depth, in fact, that it ended up being devoted to just Genesis 1-3.)

To start the class off our professor, Dr. Johnson, asked us to study our watches for an entire minute. He asked us to memorize every detail, color, and aspect of our watch, and to be prepared to answer his questions after the minute. Once we had all concentrated and memorized, he asked us just one question: “What time is it?”

Well, we felt pretty stupid but we all fell for it. Not a one of us knew the time. We had spent so much of our study preparing for all the wrong questions. And that was the point.

People often approach the Bible, and particularly the book of Genesis with all the wrong questions. As a result, over time believers have also cast a bunch of sacred cows built up around those misguided questions and the answers we have imagined as a result.

As you read Genesis you need to always start with the correct mindset. What is the text trying to say? What issues and worldviews is the writer addressing? What is the purpose of the story I am reading? If you press Genesis into answering things for which it was not designed, you will miss what God is trying to say.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Doctor Who: "The Husbands of River Song"

The latest Doctor Who Christmas special may be the most enjoyable ever, certainly it has the best writing and comedic touches. That being said it isn’t all that Christmassy and might require more familiarity with past episodes, at least some of the River Song ones, going back several seasons.

One of the more enjoyable things about “The Husbands of River Song” is the way the Doctor gets to see River being herself, unawares of who he is. This predictably leads to much consternation and disappointment for the Doctor, but in the end he sees she is the woman he thought she was, just maybe not exactly the way he would want that to play out.

The kind of love River has for the Doctor (and his reciprocal feelings) are a good standard for any married couple in a sense. Each loves the other with no demands. In fact, they operate under the assumption that their feelings are not really returned. River’s quote says it all:

“When you love the Doctor, it's like loving the stars themselves. You don't expect a sunset to admire you back. And if I happen to find myself in danger, let me tell you, the Doctor is not stupid enough, or sentimental enough, and he is certainly not in love enough to find himself standing in it with me!”

Of course the Doctor does, in fact, love her too, and he is, in fact, standing in it with her. He probably orchestrated events that led to him being there to save her.

Too many “lovers” today only give in expectation of return. True love is sacrifice, giving of oneself unselfishly for the good of the other.

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Harvest Sandwich (John 4:31-42)

Here in chapter four of John we have another case of “story sandwiching” similar to what we find frequently in Mark. As Jesus finishes his conversation with the woman at the well, she runs off to town to tell others about Jesus. The disciples show up and Jesus tells them that His food is to do the work that God sent Him to complete. He then tells the disciples to pray for workers for the harvest, people to spread and share the good news. At that point, the woman and people from the town arrive to check Jesus out and ask Him to stay with them.

People pray for workers for the harvest all the time. Often, what they are thinking of is for evangelists and missionaries to be sent out from churches to go to places where people need to hear. And, that is something that happens and needs to happen more. However, in this context I don’t think that is what John is talking about. The sandwiching of the teaching about the harvest shows that the workers Jesus is wanting his disciples to pray for come from the harvest itself.

Of course, in Jesus day there were no established churches. (Just Pharisees) So the workers had to come from the harvest. But things are not that different today. The best workers to reach people with testimony about Jesus are family members and friends. So pray for the harvest. And don’t just be the harvest, work in your fields.
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