Monday, September 29, 2008

Movies & Music, Last Year and (So Far) This Year

I am by nature a list-maker. I make lists of everything. The movie High Fidelity speaks directly to my heart with the characters' incessant requests for a Top 5 of any categorizable opinion or experience. Being a film fanatic and (to a slightly lesser extent) a music person, I keep ongoing lists of new movies and music that come out each year. Then at the end of each year, I do a kind of "final" ranking and compare with the various year-end lists in magazines and entertainment websites. Whatever is missing from my lists, or that I have yet to try, I know to give a shot the next time I have a chance (or, more likely, an extra buck). Of course, all of the list-making is solely for my own enjoyment, and mostly just for nerdy fun.

But! The best part of lists is comparing with friends. (Story: while in Africa for two months, Mr. Heath Newton and I went on a crazy list binge, making cinematic lists of just about every conceivable category. I think we ended by making a Top 100 Favorite Films. Yes!) So I thought I would give a sort of update in the midst of this year so far, while also offering my lists from last year so as to give you an idea of my tastes. More than anything, I love recommendations from others, and I'm always willing to give something new a try. So feel free to start a conversation with me, whether you hated a favorite of mine or don't see a favorite of yours in my own lists.

(Also, I am swamped in studying for a test while preparing to make a trip to Texas later this week, and this is a bit easier than a full, worthwhile theological blog post. Not that musical and cinematic art is not theology! To the contrary. And that is why it is a wonderful thing to enjoy them as God's good gifts to us.)

Thus, without further ado, welcome to the glorious world of lists, and lists, and more lists.

Top Albums from 2007
1. Okkervil River -- The Stage Names
2. Iron & Wine -- The Shepherd's Dog
3. Radiohead -- In Rainbows
4. Spoon -- Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
5. Wilco -- Sky Blue Sky
6. The National -- Boxer
7. Feist -- The Reminder
8. The Arcade Fire -- Neon Bible
9. Modest Mouse -- We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank
10. Robert Plant & Alison Krauss -- Raising Sand

Honorable Mention: Bon Iver -- For Emma, Forever Ago; Bright Eyes -- Cassadaga; The New Pornographers -- Challengers; Josh Ritter -- The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter; Beirut -- The Flying Club Cup

Top Albums from 2008 (through September)
1. Bonnie "Prince" Billy -- Lie Down in the Light
2. Thomas Newman -- WALL-E Soundtrack
3. Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard -- The Dark Knight Soundtrack
4. Okkervil River -- The Stand-Ins
5. Coldplay -- Viva la Vida or Dearth and All His Friends
6. Langhorne Slim -- Langhorne Slim
7. Silver Jews -- Lookout Mountain
8. The Black Keys -- Attack & Release
9. Jamie Lidell -- Jim
10. Vampire Weekend -- Vampire Weekend

Sound Unheard: Cat Power -- Jukebox; Sigur Ros -- Med Suf Ieyrum vit Spilum Endalaust; Fleet Foxes -- Fleet Foxes; Conor Oberst -- Conor Oberst; TV On The Radio -- Dear Science

Top Films from 2007
1. There Will Be Blood
2. No Country For Old Men
3. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
4. Atonement
5. Ratatouille
6. Lars and the Real Girl
7. Gone Baby Gone
8. Zodiac
9. King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
10. Superbad

Honorable Mention: Michael Clayton; We Own the Night; Juno; The Bourne Ultimatum; Eastern Promises

Top Films from 2008 (through September)
1. The Dark Knight
2. WALL-E
3. Iron Man
4. Pineapple Express
5. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
6. Kung Fu Panda
7. Burn After Reading
8. Son of Rambow
9. The Incredible Hulk
10. Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Sight Unseen: (Just about everything, but including) Mongol; Tropic Thunder; Eagle Eye; Miracle at St. Anna; Appaloosa; Snow Angels; Man on Wire; Shine a Light; Horton Hears a Who; Diary of the Dead; The Visitor; The Foot Fist Way; Brideshead Revisited; Towelhead; Blindness; The Wackness

Enjoy, and may the conversations begin. A final note: in the chaos of moving, and being a married grad student (=less money for movies), I have barely seen anything this year, so that is why the end of my movie list starts to get so lean by the end. Or maybe that's just a sign of the times...less quality movies, and comic book films a thousandfold.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Derek Webb

This Too Shall Be Made Right

by Derek Webb

People love you the most for the things you hate
And hate you for loving the things that you cannot keep straight
People judge you on a curve
And tell you you’re getting what you deserve
This too shall be made right

Children cannot learn when children cannot eat
Stack them like lumber when children cannot sleep
Children dream of wishing wells
Whose waters quench all the fires of Hell
This too shall be made right

The earth and the sky and the sea are all holding their breath
Wars and abuses have nature groaning with death
We say we’re just trying to stay alive
But it looks so much more like a way to die
This too shall be made right

There’s a time for peace and there is a time for war
There's a time to forgive and a time to settle the score
A time for babies to lose their lives
A time for hunger and genocide
This too shall be made right

I don’t know the suffering of people outside my front door
I join the oppressors of those who I choose to ignore
I’m trading comfort for human life
And that’s not just murder it’s suicide
This too shall be made right

Oh this too shall be made right

- - - - - - -

Given Life

Vocation is sunrise
But sunset is sabbath
Horizon reveals part
But silence unearths all

The rest of God is whole
As earth and heaven formed
As light and darkness one
Together eyelids close

The skies relinquish speech
For fear wisdom begets
The earth is quiet all
But all break out in song!

The unity of word
And song and poem full
Is not the gluttony
Of breathless heart attack

But thickest balance beam
Is given life, and thanks
To work and sleep, to love
And weep, is marathon

Of goodness even in
The fallenness of now
For hope is rhythm lived
When God entrusted still

Illumines work in light
As candle flickers, wanes
The one creating day
Sustaining even night

Friday, September 26, 2008

What a Fantastic Debate!

The commentary and punditry is just beginning, but wow, that was a great debate. Each side attempted to downplay expectations leading into it, and there were worries that either McCain would be dry or Obama would be bumbling, neither of which ended up coming true. Both candidates were knowledgeable, direct, leaderly, and mostly devoid of stumbles. (My goodness, all of the nation and history and name dropping alone was a masterful display by both men.)

If I were to characterize the night and who "won," I would split up the 90 minutes into thirds: the first third both were solid, with Obama having a slight edge; the second third, Obama peaked and had his best moments; the final third, McCain had finally warmed up and landed his best punches.

Overall, we saw two very different candidates with strikingly different philosophies, fundamentally dissimilar plans for leadership. Next week I will get back into the series asking whether Christians should vote (and if so, how), but for now, after the first Presidential debate, my inner political pundit's heart feels strangely warmed.

Various Friday Links

It has been a busy week, and I don't have much time to post anything worthwhile. But here is what I've been reading this week:

Enjoy! Remember that the NBA season begins in one month, and with that, have a great weekend.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Family and Gratitude: Reflections on a Birthday

Imagine this: some morning we awake to the cultural consensus that a family, however else defined, is a sort of compact of mutual loyalty, organized around the hope of giving rich, human meaning to the lives of its members. Toward this end they do what people do – play with their babies, comfort their sick, keep their holidays, commemorate their occasions, sing songs, tell jokes, fight and reconcile, teach and learn what they know about what is right and wrong, about what is beautiful and what is to be valued. They enjoy each other and make themselves enjoyable. They are kind and receive kindness, they are generous and are sustained and enriched by others' generosity. The antidote to fear, distrust, self-interest is always loyalty. The balm for failure or weakness, or even for disloyalty, is always loyalty.

–Marilynne Robinson

- - - - - - -

Growing up in a loving family is not normal.

Having every need met, whether physical, emotional, spiritual, or otherwise, is not normal. We live in a world in which it is a subversive, countercultural act to be and stay married, to live in lifelong monogamous fidelity, to desire and receive and welcome children into the world, to keep steady employment, to live in (relative) locational stability, to have extended family on which to depend, to have a father present in the home (much less the parenting), to graduate from high school (much less higher education), to be raised in and formed by a faithful church home ... so many things that can be taken for granted that simply are not aspects of life familiar to most persons living in America or the world. But, of course, all of those dynamics lead to increased wholeness and health of mind and body, potentially leading one to forget that they are not normalities to be assumed or taken for granted.

I turn 23 today. Thus, it is good on days like today to remember the good gift God has given us called family, and to be thankful for such a gift we could never have expected. Through family God gratuitously gives us more than we need, more than we could ask for. Through family God forms and sustains and provides for us; through family God reveals to us one of the primary metaphors by which we know the character of God: parent. As the best mother and father are to their children, so even more is God to his human creatures on the earth. Similarly, through family we learn what it means to be God's people: brothers and sisters made adopted family by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even further, through family God comes to us in the rhythms of daily mundane life: meals and prayers, sleep and work, rest and play, births and funerals, anniversaries and parties. (There is an unspoken word here for a future post: memory.) The hospitality of the family that welcomes children into its midst mirrors the hospitality of the church that welcomes (read: adopts) new members into its life and worship.

There really is no end to what family is, to the wonderful mystery God has given us in the blessing of family.

It can be difficult for those of us who "take for granted" family being cohesive, supportive, noncoercive, loving, interdependent, and Christ-centered to simply accept the gifts (great and small) from family as if they are "due" us, as if we are "owed" them or it is "just normal."

No, it is not just normal; no, we are not entitled to it; no, there is no gift too small or routine for which we ought not to be extravagently grateful. Every single day is a gift, and whenever God reminds us, through the mundane reality called family, that we are not abandoned or alone, let us be thankful. Let us thank God and thank our families for such unique and caring graces, that we might be a part of a mystery we assume is normal.

Family is not normal, but neither is the God we serve. And thank heaven for an abnormal God.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Woody Guthrie

Christ For President

By Woody Guthrie

Let's have Christ our President
Let us have him for our king
Cast your vote for the Carpenter
That they call the Nazarene

The only way we could ever beat
These crooked politician men
Is to cast the moneychangers out of the temple
Put the Carpenter in

Oh it's Jesus Christ our President
God above our king
With a job and pension for young and old
We will make hallelujah ring

Every year we waste enough
To feed the ones who starve
We build our civilization up
And we shoot it down with wars

But with the Carpenter on the seat
Way up in the capitol town
The USA be on the way
Prosperity bound

- - - - - - -

Free Market Competition

Jesus said the poor are blessed
And to me, he said No
But I am not one to be refused
And No must be Yes, for
Jesus is a nice enough guy, yes?
I make his No a Yes and walk along,
Make his cry a whimper, stride untouched
Sing and punch my ticket with marked,
Corporate faithfulness

Knowing this will not be forgotten.

I climb the ecclesial ladder, the
Oldest ladder known, the sparkling steps
Of heavenly ambition

Hedonist that I am, literal and realistic
Jesus says Jump! and I measure the cost
In spreadsheets – yes, yes, worth it it is –
And I hope or skip or even jog
(My how he tests me with these games!)

Knowing this will not be forgotten.
Someone, somewhere, watching.

Making notes on a clipboard, scribbles
Of performance and potential, my ratios
Of blessing and curse, managerial
Upheaval coming down the line
Oh, how these opportunities do
Arrive so fortuitously – God, sovereign and
Almighty, has me in mind for promotion

Yes, this jumping hoops and spinning plates
Looks to be paying off, the scales tipping
In my favor as he’s always foreordained

Knowing this will not be forgotten.
Somebody paying attention.

I will be there to collect the prize.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

No Place For Fortified Walls: Practicing Unmerited Generosity in an Unforgiving Age

We live in a world that simply does not allow for mistakes. In nearly every area of life -- I am talking about American life, the only life I know -- even the tiniest misstep can lead to misery. Our world is now so interconnected that, like a guitar string wound too tight, the most insignificant flick can snap the balance, leaving the entire instrument out of tune.

There is no area of life left untouched. A waitress brings the wrong dish, she's berated; a speaker drifts off for a moment, he's boring; a relative compliments, it's back-handed; a peer makes a joke, he's a bigot.

And as my father is wont to remind me, the world of religion is perhaps the most inflammatory of all on this account. Everybody knows to put on the mask Sunday morning, or else the gossip, or silence, or condemnation, or rejection will rain down from heaven above. Make a mistake in this world, and you better keep it to yourself or find another church home, because forgiveness is one item in short supply around here.

If there is one thing the world needs from the church in the midst of such an oppressive, anxious, unforgiving, and tight-fisted context -- fortified on all sides by walls of fear and loneliness -- it is the perpetual stance of unmerited generosity for the other.

The good news of God's kingdom declares that God is uninterested in how little we think of ourselves, much less what we think of others. At the end of the day, the worker hired late will be given the same pay as the worker hired early; the wayward and selfish son's return will be celebrated with a feast the responsible son could never dream of; prostitute and IRS agent and drug addict will all be welcomed into the kingdom before any preacher, missionary, or regular churchgoer.

That is the way God's kingdom works; that is the message of Jesus of Nazareth.

So. The next time a speaker fumbles, a song leader misses pitch, a waiter makes a mistake, an employee stumbles, a boss berates, a friend wrongly jokes, an in-law suggests, a spouse requests, a parent offers, a child is ugly, a peer confronts -- remember that we are called not to do what others deserve (as if we could ever know what that is), but rather, we are called precisely to what God has done for us: unmerited, unasked for, uninitiated, grace.

Take the stance of generosity in all of your dealings, remembering not only what God has done for us in Christ, but also that Christ is present in every single person we encounter. How am I treating this person for whom Christ died? How am I interacting with this person created in the image of God? How often have I stumbled or made a stupid mistake and only wished that no one would notice, or even more, that someone would notice, and brush it away with a gentle smile or an understanding look?

We learn from Scripture that Christ himself comes to us in the stranger. We must remember that more often than not, our friends, our spouse, our children, our community are often enough estranged from us, and in them Christ is present to us as much as the literal stranger.

The church is called to be God's hospitable people. Christians ought to be known as that peculiar people by whom others feel strangely welcomed, loved, and given the room to be themselves -- that is, imperfect but God-beloved human beings. Practicing such hospitality is practicing resurrection. It is embodying the forgiveness of sins. It is enlisting in the nonviolent war of the Lamb. It is "loving others even as I have loved you."

It is breaking down walls with God's own gracious generosity.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Following a Tortured Lord

Most mornings, not even my beloved coffee wakes me up very fast. So you can imagine my surprise when I was knocked flat on my back, reeling and wide awake, after reading an article online at 8:30 last Friday morning. Entitled "Torturing the Least of These" and written by Jimmy McCarty, I experienced a powerful wake up jolt, an unexpected reminder, and a call to discipleship.

McCarty begins with this doubletake of an opening line: "Christians are people who follow a tortured and murdered God." He continues, "This fact speaks clearly to what our values should be. One of those values should be a rejection of torture, violence in the name of 'law' and the common good, and murder."

Wow. It is always good to hear the word of God anew, the gospel as potentially bad news before it is good news. I read and write and think so much in the world of theology that I can become numb to truthful expressions of the heart of the gospel, but thank God for Christians like Jimmy McCarty who remind us both who we are and who we follow.

He goes on to say that "[i]n torturing those imprisoned for crimes they have not yet been found guilty of, we torture, again, our Lord and Savior." He concludes: "For those of us shaped by what occurred to a political prisoner 2,000 years ago on a hill called Golgotha, what happens at Guantanamo Bay should pierce our souls."

Amen! is all I can add to that.

However, upon reading the various reader comments on his article, McCarty posted another in response, called "Jesus Convinces Some Evangelicals to Reject Torture." (This guy knows how to push buttons.) Much of the body of this second post is his reaction to said comments, as well as exploration of polling data questioning American Evangelicals' stance(s) on torture.

The general gist is that a majority of white southern Evangelicals believe that torture is justified at times, but (a) strange discrepancies appear so that the respondents don't seem to be consistent, and (b) when questioned about their reasoning and how Christian (namely Jesus') teachings influence their view, a solid chunk change their minds about torture ever being justified.

McCarty writes: "How do those who respond to the call of Jesus to 'follow me' end up supporting the torture of children of God? By forgetting what he taught and lived." He again concludes with reminder, call, challenge, and (if we can hear it) good news: "Jesus does not call us to 'common sense' but to radical discipleship and love. He calls us to the type of discipleship and love that is more likely to get you tortured than approve of the torture of others."

And all the church said? Amen.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Pixar and the Stranger: A Walk With Woody, Remy, WALL-E, and Friends

Reading a political column on Slate the other day, I came upon a sentence utterly unrelated to politics, yet so full of wonderful implications that I left the article and went scouring the Internet like crazy. The sentence – written, along with the rest of the column, by Dahlia Lithwick – went as follows:

“If Palin stands for anything, it’s that when it comes to both the presidency and Pixar movies, nothing good ever happens until the stranger comes to town.”

What in the world? I am the biggest Pixar fan in the world, and I had no clue what this was referencing. A stranger coming to town? Is this some kind of central motif I, the film fan, am somehow clueless about? After 13 years and nine movies, have I yet to pick up on a blindingly obvious trend? Is everyone in on this except me?

After trying to find something else online with any mention of this, my searches have come up nil. However, it’s fully possible that it remains a fact fully explored and dissected elsewhere, or at least known and acknowledged.

Regardless, in reflecting on Pixar’s filmography, I realized how true, and profound, Lithwick’s comment was. Not only does nothing good ever happen in a Pixar film until a stranger comes to town, the central conceit of almost every Pixar movie is built upon the idea of an outsider messing up the established normalcy of a given community.

Now, upon further reflection, I realized that, in a way, this description is true about most stories worth telling. What is the name we give for what every story needs? Conflict. And what is conflict? The unknown/abnormal/different rubbing up against the known/normal/same, compelling drama/hilarity/suspense/horror/adventure ensuing, and resolution concluding the dissonance. (Thus the tripartite structure so inherent in good stories and, moving out, trilogies; and, pulling out even further, theological truths: land/exile/restoration, and crucifixion/death/resurrection.)

All that to say, I realize that the “outsider arrives/community reacts/resolution is found” structure is not groundbreaking. What is groundbreaking, or at least worth considering – given the enormous popularity of Pixar’s films with children and families, along with their unparalleled record of critical acclaim – is the consistent emphasis upon a specific, identifiable stranger as the crux of the movies’ narratives.

Think about it:

· Toy Story (1995) – Buzz shatters Woody’s settled world of being Andy’s favorite, and coolest, toy; Buzz and Woody both enter the terrifying world of Sid’s bedroom, though the “freaks” they encounter are more than what they seem.

· A Bug’s Life (1997) – Flik must enter the wider, more dangerous bug world (“the city”) in order to save his colony from starvation; Flik’s troupe of (fake) warrior bugs arrive at the colony, which eventually comes face to face with the troupe's deception.

· Toy Story 2 (1999) – After being stolen by a toy collector, Woody must deal with being the outsider in a community of toys in which he is supposed to belong (but doesn’t desire); Buzz is an outsider to his own “people” – the new line of Buzz Lightyear, none of whom know they are toys; the “Woody’s Roundup” group is fearful of leaving their established community for the outside world.

· Monsters, Inc. (2001) – Mike and Sulley, professional scary monsters, respond to Boo, a human child (!), entering Monstropolis. (This is literally the whole of the story: an entire city responding to the intrusion of a “toxic” foreigner – whose terror makes possible their way of life – into their settled, unblemished world.)

· Finding Nemo (2003) – There are so many possibilities here: as father to Nemo, Marlin insulates him from the outside world as a reaction to a barracuda attack which took his wife and other children; Nemo is captured by humans and dropped into a foreign fish tank; Marlin sets out to find his son and happens upon Dory, and meeting a colorful host of strangers along the way. (Note: Dory is perhaps the quintessential Pixar character: hilarious, welcoming, adventurous, undeterred – namely, a good friend. More on this some other time.)

· The Incredibles (2004)– Once the envy and celebrated hero of the world, Mr. Incredible (along with his family and, by extension, all superheroes) lives a repressed life of quotidian anonymity, until a mysterious stranger offers a chance to be “super” again; each member of the Incredible family must learn what it means be true to him or herself in spite of the world’s hostility, and the world must learn to accept them as they are.

· Cars (2006) – Upon being separated from his transport truck, Lightning McQueen, rookie star of the racecar circuit, must adapt to the seemingly mundane life of Radiator Springs, an old-fashioned community in the desert; Doc Hudson, the town judge, deals with issues from his past that Lightning’s unwanted presence revives.

· Ratatouille (2007) – Remy, a French rat who loves to cook, upon separation from his home and family, finds himself braving the perils of a human kitchen for the sake of his love; Linguini, jobless and clueless, finds himself employed by said kitchen but ostracized by much of the staff; evil food critic Anton Ego has made himself an outsider to both human contact and his original love for food.

· WALL-E (2008) – Garbage robot WALL-E, alone for 700 years, falls in love with EVE when she arrives on Earth looking for life; humans, bloated and isolated from one another, realize their lonely estrangement.

(And, just for fun, let’s look at Pixar’s upcoming slate to see if the trend continues:

· Up (2009) – Carl, 78-year old man, and Russell, 9-year old boy, fly away in a balloon-lifted house to adventures in foreign lands and, one assumes, the trials of being so different from each other.

· Toy Story 3 (2010) – Woody, Buzz, and the gang are dropped off at a day-care center as Andy heads off to college, presumably being forced to deal with an alien and potentially hostile environment/community.

· Newt (2011) – Newt is one of the last blue-footed newts left in the world, living in a cage in a community college science lab, preparing his mating ritual for when he finally meets a female; however, upon her entrance into his strange world, they end up not getting along, and eventually find themselves in a world alien to him: nature.

· The Bear and the Bow (2011) – Royal Merida gives up the family name to become an archer, but at some point makes a mistake that imperils her family’s kingdom.

· Cars 2 (2012) – Unknown, apart from it “going international.”)

Those descriptions were intended to be concise, one-sentence summaries ... but they grew organically simply because there seem to be so many facets to the stranger motif in these films (and, possibly, because I love them so much). I’ll leave this as a stand-alone post, what with its unexpected longevity, but with so many unexplored dimensions, I hope to offer further commentary in future posts (or even a new series! I can see it now: The Theology of Pixar). However, I will share one more thought, the entire reason I have become so transfixed upon this idea.

The church speaks the language of what these films embody, known by a host of names – embrace of the other, Incarnation, love for enemies, “Not so with you,” ekklesia, suffering servanthood, baptism, “Whatsoever you do to the least of these,” the forgiveness of sins, shalom, the peaceable kingdom, Eucharist, “for you were once slaves in Egypt,” imago Dei, eschatology, gospel, “God is love” – but there is one word in particular that wholly names the thread connecting these wonderful stories of welcoming the stranger.

Hospitality.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Sam Beam

Innocent Bones

By Sam Beam (aka Iron & Wine)

Cain got a milk-eyed mule from the auction
Abel got a telephone
And even the last of their blue-eyed babies know
That the burning man
Is the color of the end of day
And how every tongue that gets bit
Always has another word to say

Cain bought a blade from some witch at the window
Abel bought a bag of weed
And even the last of their brown-eyed babies see
That the cartoon king
Has a tattoo of a bleeding heart
There ain't a penthouse Christian wants the pain of the scab
But they all want the scar
How every mouth sings of what it's without
So we all sing of love
And how it ain't one dog who's good at f***ing
And denying who he's thinking of

Cain heard a cat tumble limp off the rooftop
Abel heard his papa pray
That even the last of their black-eyed babies say
That every saint has a chair
You can borrow and a church to sell
That the wind blows cold across the back
Of the master and the kitchen help
There’s a big pile of innocent bones
Still holding up the garden wall
And it was always the broken hand
We learn to lean on after all

How God knows if Christ came back,
He would find us in a poker game
After finding out the drinks were all free
But they won't let you out the door again

- - - - - - -

Holy Eucharist

The whole of life, the unending
turn, the forever spinning still
in place, the essence which is missed
in grand poetry, song and dance,
the fullness of the reign of God
on earth is casseroles. To sit

in candlelit gloom, as ghostly
stillness, aborted futures, glide
and ricochet in terrible
swaths, wafting slowly to the view
of none but one – this is all the
drift of fallenness full. But grace

is women sitting, knitting, still
like the departed; cooking still
for sustenance to breathe, endure
the anti-revelry of grief
that is the silent elegy
of death distilled. The offerings

of women good, unthinking act,
tradition kept, divine wisdom,
are Christ in action. Full and near,
alive as death but present still,
remembering is worship when
a casserole is Eucharist.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Scripture and God's People

It is helpful to be a graduate theology student when maintaining a theological blog, as assignments pop up which would make excellent stand-alone posts themselves. So, enjoy my brief reflections on the role and function of Scripture in the life of the church. Afterwards, I will include one of my favorite quotes about the Bible from Barbara Brown Taylor (from her book, The Preaching Life, which I recommend in the highest degree).

- - - - - - -

The Bible is a story. The Bible tells the story of the one God, creator of all, and his ongoing, fiery, caring relationship with the world he has created; not only the world, but particularly the people, called Israel, whom he has called out of the world, precisely in order to be his own people for the world. In the cross and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, and the confession of his Lordship, the doors of Israel, God’s people, have been flung open to all nations, so that there are no boundaries or dividing walls any longer. The Old and New Testaments record this story from start to finish (ending in the future!).

The church, as God’s people, is called to live into God’s story as told in Scripture. The Bible is not merely a huge set of true-or-false propositions to which believers give their intellectual assent (or go to hell), nor is the Bible the “once for all delivered” capital-T truth containing eternal and timeless truths for all humanity if only we will heed them (that is, disembodied "facts" unconcretized and ethereal, like Greek philosophy).

The Bible is a truthful story into whose world God’s people are called to live. It is not relative truth for each individual to pick and choose what is “true” for his or her life; rather, Scripture is particular truth, a story and a way of life to be embodied by a particular community in a particular time and place, so that the witness of the Bible is true insofar as it is lived out by the church at such-and-such place, in such-and-such time.

So, for example, if you ask me about the truth to which the Bible witnesses, I will respond in accord with the story in John 1: “Come and see. Come and see the life of the Round Rock Church of Christ: witness the character of God, the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the empowerment of the Spirit, the hope to come, and the continuing story of God, his people, and the world he loves.”

Scripture, in its witness to the God of Israel and the church, thus shows us what it means to be faithful hearers and doers of God’s word. Because God’s word must be enfleshed in particularity – just as Jesus was a male Jew in first century Galilee – so it must be in the community of Jesus’ followers. Again, this does not mean that "any" interpretation goes, so that the authority of the Bible is lost. The Bible is the authority for faithful Christian life together, but only as it is lived by the community of believers who have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit to listen to the word of God aright, who have committed their lives in full to follow the way of the cross, who submit themselves to the hard discipline and good work of struggling with their God over how to live into the reality of Scripture. In this way it is clear that to call the Bible “inerrant” or “fallible” is a category mistake; the assumptions behind such labels have little to do with what Scripture is about, or what function God intends it to have.

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For all the human handiwork it displays, the Bible remains a peculiarly holy book. I cannot think of any other text that has such authority over me, interpreting me faster than I can interpret it. It speaks to me not with the stuffy voice of some mummified sage but with the fresh, lively tones of someone who knows what happened to me an hour ago. Familiar passages accumulate meaning as I return to them again and again. They seem to grow during my absences from them; I am always finding something new in them I never found before, something designed to meet me where I am at this particular moment in time.

When I recognize my life in its pages – when I am convinced that this story is my story – then I am lifted out of my own time and space and set free, liberated by the knowledge that my oddly shaped piece of life is not a fluke but fits into a much larger and more reliable puzzle. In other words, I am not an orphan. I have a community, a history, a future, a God. The Bible is my birth certificate and my family tree, but it is more: it is the living vein that connects me to my maker, pumping me the stories I need to know about who we have been to one another from the beginning of time, and who we are now, and who we shall be when time is no more.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Lure of Political Eschatology: On Remembering to Remember that the World is in God's Hands, Not the President's

Following the presidential race this year (or any year), I've noticed an inevitable trend that peaks its head with marked regularity, but is especially noticeable this year. It is an offshoot of what I will call political eschatology: the ongoing, pervasive belief that the fate of the world (at the very least, the nation) hangs on the outcome of the presidential election.

And in reading political commentary on both sides, surveying bumper stickers, and listening to everyday people talk about the candidates, you might just buy into the fact that the world will fall apart if America does not make the right choice.

Into this situation and these assumptions, then, the church bears good, if difficult, news: the world does not depend on America for sustenance, provision, life, virtue, or need; for those things the world depends on God.

I realize for many Christians that statement may not seem like anything new; however, the way people -- often Christians -- speak about this election belies trust in anything other than the American political process to hold together the fragile state of the global situation. That is not to say that the election of Obama or McCain would not entail profound differences, or that these differences are not serious enough to cause one to vote with hope one way or the other. Rather, in remembering both God's promise to not forsake his creation and his calling of a people to offer the world an alternative to its rebellion, Christians cannot give into the alluring temptation that any nation is the key to holding the world in balance. The church has a better name than keeping-chaos-at-bay for what God has given us in Jesus: shalom (Hebrew for "peace" or "wholeness"). And the shalom of the people of God cannot be left behind simply because we have forgotten to remember that in Jesus God has given us a gift greater than military strength, or democracy, or political freedom.

So let conservative Christians affirm: if Obama is elected, the world will not end. The economy will not self-destruct, terrorists will not overtake the government, the judiciary will not dissolve the rule of law.

And let liberal Christians affirm: if McCain is elected, the world will not end. The poor will not be forgotten, nukes will not be launched at a moment's whim, a new global ice age will not be inaugurated.

For the truth is indeed good news (and let all Christians affirm!): in the cross of Jesus of Nazareth, the world did end. But in Christ's resurrection the world has been made anew, the shalom of God's Spirit has been breathed onto God's people, and the "end" which will come with Jesus's return will not be destruction and finality, but restoration and renewal, forgiveness and reconciliation, redemption and new creation.

This is good news, because we, the church, do not have to worry about what will happen come the first Tuesday of November, for we know that "the God who moves the sun and the stars is the same God who was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth," the crucified and resurrected one. That is, we know that neither Obama nor McCain will put the world to rights, and neither can offer to the world the shalom of God.

And that is okay. But we will not do either candidate any good with messianic hope or eschatological doom. Instead, we must be patient -- that most important virtue of God's people -- and rest easy knowing that God is in control, and the President of the United States of America is not.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Will Oldham Shannon Stephens

UPDATE (6/29/09): Ten months later, I have come to discover that this beloved song of mine, as sung by Will Oldham on Bonnie "Prince" Billy's superb 2008 album Lie Down in the Light, is actually a cover. The original was written and performed by Shannon Stephens on her 2000 self-titled first album. You can learn more about Shannon here, where you can listen to the original "I'll Be Glad" and also read about her new album The Breadwinner, coming out later this year. As penance, I just might pick it up; either way, please continue to enjoy these wonderful lyrics!

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I'll Be Glad

By Will Oldham (aka Bonnie "Prince" Billy) Shannon Stephens

I'll go anywhere that you do
And if you don't go before
Lord, I don't want to go
Without you anymore

Meet me in a pillar of fire
Shade me with a big white cloud
Lord, wherever you go
You'll always have me around

You will give my body rest
And never let me thirst
So I'm not going anywhere
If you don't go there first

And when I see you beckoning
Me, that's how I'll know
Lord, following your lead
Is the only way I'll go

When you get your flock together
Please take me along
Lord, I'm too weak to travel
I'll be glad you're strong

And I'll lean on your arm

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Nature Sabbath

Behind our home the trees are family.
Their hospitality is brave, and near—
I sit and listen to their tragedy;
I sit and eye creation’s stare severe.

A bird! He flies, careens invisible
To all but me; no eye is fixed but here
And now, in this time indivisible,
In this place inimitable. (The fear

Is of small things: bugs, neighbors, oxygen.)
A different bird—proud scarlet!—hops about.
The man who lived without the fox’s den
Is blinking, breathing slowly: in, then out.

The trees are eyelids—heavy, silent, deep;
The Holy One of Israel asleep.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Gilead, Hebrew, Palin, Football, and Fatherhood

In anticipation of the release of its companion/sequel Home (which came out on Tuesday), I recently finished re-reading Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, which has the esteemed honor of being both my favorite book and the first novel I have ever re-read. I originally planned to review it similar to how I did The Straight Story -- a plan I am likely to take up in the future with most movies, books, and CDs I find valuable for theological exploration -- but upon reflection, I decided against it.

I can't bring myself to spoil one iota of the book itself. All I can do is recommend it in the highest terms possible. Let me be clear: I believe Marilynne Robinson to be one of the great literary masters of our time. She has only written five total books so far; three novels ( the one I have yet to mention is Housekeeping, a densely poetic and moving work), one collection of nonfiction essays (The Death of Adam -- absolutely spectacular), and Mother Country, an exploration of nuclear waste in Great Britain and its consequences for nuclear power in the rest of the world (on my shelf and ready to read).

As you can tell merely by looking at a description of her work, the woman is brilliant. She teaches writing for a living, and is one of those creatures less rare than you think: an imminently thoughtful Christian recognized in the larger world of her discipline for her obvious mastery. (Gilead won the Putlizer Prize, after all.)

Reading Gilead is, simply put, a delight and a joy. I am not exaggerating when I say that every single page is a marvel. I had to pace myself just to keep from reading it all at once -- for the second time. Re-entering the world of old John Ames, the town of Gilead, his family and his church, his friend Boughton and godson Jack, his theological prose and love for the world -- every paragraph, every sentence, filled with to the brim with what C.S. Lewis identified as Joy: the brief, stabbing pains of otherworldliness, of divinity, of beauty and glory and wonder and life.

And now, with Home, I get to spend more time in Gilead, only in another household. Praise God for writers like Marilynne Robinson.

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This semester I am taking Urban Ministries, Old Testament I (Genesis through Nehemiah), Thinking Through Theological Education, and Hebrew Readings. It has been approximately 16 months since I last waded into the world of biblical Hebrew, so that is going to be the class receiving the bulk of my attention this semester. We will be translating the entire book of Deuteronomy, plus a handful of Psalms and other passages. Whew.

On a related, and exciting, note, my little semi-epigraph on the side of the blog -- thoughts on "Mi Yodea?" and its implications for theology -- has, before my ignorant eyes, sprouted up in various other passages in the Old Testament, and I find myself realizing I may have stumbled onto something of which I knew nothing at the outset. I have found close to a dozen instances in the Old Testament where a person utters the phrase "Who knows?" in response to something mighty God can do, or a potential mercy he may do. I will explore this in a later post, but count me excited for accidentally (what a word!) happening upon such a happy discovery.

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Anybody watch Sarah Palin's speech last night? While the media was right to call it a knockout, man, that woman knows how to throw some punches. As multiple (male and female) commentators have noted, she has sure figured out the nuance of sticking in the knife without ever breaking a smile.

I also want to clarify my previous post, to make absolutely sure that no one heard me saying, in my excitement about McCain making a politically brilliant choice, that Sarah Palin as a candidate, or John McCain -- or Biden or Obama -- has my support or my vote. I hoped to make that clear through my predication (usually overly explanatory) about my having my own thoughts about what it means for Christians to be political, but I don't want there to be any confusion on the matter. So: politics, yay; endorsing one side or the other, nay.

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Basketball is by far my favorite sport, and the NBA is my league. However, after basketball is football, and my goodness do I love the NFL -- which happens to be starting tonight. I know I'm strange in a world where the "integrity" (or what have you) of sports is said to be found in the college games, but there is nothing like a Sunday full of good football. Go Cowboys!

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To conclude, please feel free to read about just how incredible a man is the one I call Dad.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

May We All Ride Lawnmowers: Learning Patience and Hospitality from David Lynch and Alvin Straight

In the summer of 1994, at the ripe old age of 73, Alvin Straight took a trip. Having received word that his older brother, Henry -- to whom he had not spoken for a decade -- had just suffered a stroke, Alvin decided it was time he see his brother.

The problem was not just his age; his bad eyes meant no driver's license, and he didn't trust public transportation. So how to cross 240 miles from Laurens, Iowa, to Mount Zion, Wisconsin?

On a 1966 John Deere lawnmower, that's how.

On July 5th, Alvin hitched a 10-foot trailer to his lawnmower, and set out on an odyssey -- five miles an hour, top speed -- to see his ailing brother.

The trip made headlines around the country, but Alvin shunned publicity. He died two years later of heart failure.

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In 1999, auteur David Lynch -- a director not known for making "linear" films (that is, movies with a comprehensible narrative) -- released his cinematic take on Alvin's tale, called The Straight Story. The title reflects both Alvin's last name and the unusually straightforward nature of the story for a Lynch film. After receiving acclaim at Cannes, Disney picked it up for distribution, the movie got a "G" rating, and while it didn't exactly shake the foundations of the box office, it received widespread critical acclaim, and Richard Farnsworth, who played Alvin Straight, was nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards. He is the oldest person to be nominated for Best Actor.

Farnsworth could relate to Alvin during the shoot, as he was suffering from significant pain in his legs; unfortunately, the pain became so severe that a year later, Farnsworth ended his own life by shooting himself in the head.

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The pace of The Straight Story reflects the speed of Alvin's life: impossibly slow. My assumption is that this characteristic, obviously intentional on Lynch's part, might prove trying for viewers used to quick editing and constant action. However, the flow of the film, the narrative, and Alvin's own personality (as powerfully acted by Farnsworth) combine to impress into the viewer the same calming patience of Alvin's long journey.

As viewers, we cannot help but empathize with Alvin's situation; when he falls down in his own house in the opening scene, with nobody around to notice, he must simply wait for someone (a friend, a neighbor, and his daughter) to find him and help him back up.

Of the 14 children his wife gave birth to, seven made it to adulthood, and only one of those remains in town with Alvin. She is mentally handicapped in some way, but functional; Alvin, reflecting on her, says that others call her "slow," but that he knows better. Living with his daughter only further teaches him the virtues of patience and what it means to let someone others deem "slow" take care of you.

Once Alvin sets his mind to his journey, there is no turning back, but on the way to reunite with his brother he is constantly interrupted. A straight line intersected by a spiderweb of stories and people, Alvin never once seems bothered by these interruptions; rather, he welcomes each and every intersection with the hospitality and understanding of a man who knows what the stuff of the good life really is.

His first night camping a pregnant teenage girl, running away from home, joins him by his fire. Though initially hostile, she warms to the old man; eventually he is able to share with her why he can't imagine that her family would rather never see her again than know of her baby. He tells her what family means to him: individual sticks, which can be broken easily enough on their own, gathered and wrapped together in a bundle, now unable to be broken. He wakes up the next morning with a bundle of sticks waiting for him, the girl gone.

He camps with a group of young male cyclists, all intent on knowing what it's like to be so old; he kindly guides them both toward understanding what it is like, and how demeaning their questions are.

He comes across an infuriated woman who has hit a deer for the umpteenth time in the road. She vents her frustration to him, all the while him listening silently. Eventually she drives away.

He almost dies careening down a steep hill, then is hosted and housed for a few days by a small town, while they repair his lawnmower. They offer to drive him the rest of the way, but he knows he must finish the trip alone. In that same town a fellow World War II veteran takes him out to get a drink, and while sharing stories from their time in the war, each breaks down telling the other something he has told no one else.

He meets a priest while camping in a graveyard, and shares with him the reasons (namely, stupidity, stubbornness, and alcohol) he and his brother are estranged; that all he wants to do is look up at the stars with his brother once more, that that will be his reconciliation.

And in the final minutes of the movie, he finds his brother's house, and we see the climax of Alvin Straight's odyssey. We see that there is no brokenness which cannot be mended; that there is always life ready to follow death; that the point is not found in "estrangement/reconciliation" alone, but rather that Alvin could never set out to restore what was broken without being willing to endure the journey; that Alvin's patient endurance is not a product of his determination to see his brother, but rather the essence of the kind of character which would set out to reconcile at all. We see and learn from Alvin the ways in which the unexpected is, and must always be received as, gift: just as his "slow" daughter is not slow at all, Alvin's interruptions along the way are not interruptions, but wonderful opportunities to take the time God has given to stop, listen, and share, to eat, rest, and keep on going.

For as Alvin knows, a lawnmower may be slow, but perhaps that is the point; Mount Zion is just over the next hill, and it's not going anywhere.