Thursday, January 29, 2009

21 Theological Themes for the New Year: Inaugural Prolegomena, 1-7

In the last 24 hours I have spent time discovering and naming 21 theological questions, propositions, themes, practices, and hankerings that have arisen in recent weeks and that I expect will be following me throughout the year. They're like new year's resolutions, only theological and mostly involuntary. I have a feeling they will be making return appearances here on the blog in 2009, so I figured a kind of inaugural blogging prolegomena were in order.

Throughout the day, off and on, I wrote on each one, originally thinking this would be a brief post. The entire thing ended up being 5,000 words long, so ... I figured I'd do it in installments. This is the first of three. Enjoy.

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1. The question mark of the people Israel. I am almost done with Douglas Harink's Paul Among the Postliberals, in which he has a 60-page chapter devoted to the question of the relationship between Israel and the church, explored through a severe critique of N.T. Wright, a new reading of Romans 9-11, and an explication of John Howard Yoder's work on and theology of Israel. I have read a good deal of both Wright and Yoder, and while Harink's chapter was unsettling and provocative, after going back to Romans 9-11 I remained unconvinced. On the other hand: I have no idea what to think on the topic. In some essay Hauerwas refers to "the" definitive book on the church and Israel, as yet to be written, and that's what I feel like: none of the options seem to work. Where is Israel in the economy of God's salvation? How does it relate to the church? How should Christians and Jews go forth? How does the rest of the New Testament outside of Romans 9-11 supplement, compliment, or detract from the project? I am truly in the dark.

2. Gendered language regarding God. My most recent Sunday Sabbath Poetry post included a poem I composed recently entitled "When in Seminary," in which I wrote, "Rather, know that God is not a male." That is, don't worry about all of that biblical, theological, systematic, ministerial nonsense -- just be sure not to call God "him." Obviously my tone is sarcastic, but it comes from deeper questions about how to speak of God.

I grew up in the Bible Belt as well as in a predominantly conservative tradition, so I would never have thought it odd to speak of God as "he" or "him." At the same time, I never had a conception of God as a male. My poem was written in response to what I perceive to be a radically overwrought reaction to anything not conceived or spoken of in perfectly egalitarian language; thus we come to the absurdity that it is more important to know that God is not male than that, or who, God is at all. At the same time, I recognize the importance of not raising our sons and daughters, of not teaching our adult men and women, to think of God as the great male in the sky; the overreaction of conservative churches to even speaking of humanity as anything other than "mankind" or "Man" proves the point.

But where do we go from here? It bends language to the breaking point to render sentences sans pronouns: "God loves out of God's own character which is God's own glorious triune relationship with God's self." Bah! In a tradition where everybody leads worship -- not a formally trained clergy -- it is incomprehensible to imagine normal people speaking in such a way. Not to mention the fact that it dissolves God of any personal nature; God is not a person, or persons, but a "God" that demands "God" language reserved "God" alone.

And finally, to shift from the trinitarian formula of Father, Son, and Spirit to Creater, Redeemer/Word, and Reconciler -- out of purely gender concerns -- is disconcerting because it loses the fundamental understanding of God as a parent-child relationship in his own being, and in his relationship to us. I heard the "new" lyrics for the classic hymn "Doxology" the other day, and I was beyond confused when, instead of singing "Father, Son, and Holy Ghost" an alternative swell of voices sang "Creator, Christ, and Spirit, One." We can't write simply write new songs with more inclusive language for God -- we have to change lyrics to old hymns, too?

I am perplexed. But I am also a man. I am from the South and part of a conservative tradition, even if I disagree with that tradition at many points. I know I have a bias. But that still doesn't ease my discomfort.

(Peripheral note: A line that always rings in my head here is from the preface to James McClendon's Ethics, where, in explaining that he retains language of Father, Son, and Spirit, he explains by saying something like, "having my own ideas about authentic inclusiveness.")

3. Sovereignty, glory, and the character of God. I recently shared with my wife how what I call "the specter of John Piper" overlays a great deal of my theological thinking. His theology influences not a few of the following themes, because while I have a deep respect for the man's service to and fierce love for God and God's church, his theology endlessly frustrates me. Some of it I merely dislike; but some, in my estimation, is borderline dangerous.

The reason is that theology is never abstract: it always finds legs and starts to walk around; and precisely then, on the ground, is when we can assess its value. And Piper's theology embodied (at least in my experience) often leads to ugly, impersonal, other-worldly faith that seems a far distance removed from anything resembling the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth. At the same time, I have numerous friends who are avid Piper readers or who attend "Piperian" churches -- you know these by counting the number of times he, or his recognizably particular language, is quoted in sermons -- who, faithful Christians all, find a great resource in his work for thinking, living, worshiping, and serving God in the midst of a hostile world. And I have no intention of puffing myself up to the arrogant stance of the "learned theologian" who dismisses such an influential and well-received minister of the gospel.

But he haunts me in my thoughts, and in this case, about the nature of God's sovereignty and his glory. Does God know the future in its fullness? Is everything that happens a direct result of God's choosing or ordaining it? Does God magnify himself? In response to all three, with various nuance and qualification, I say no. But neither am I done asking the questions.

4. Clergy and laity in the church catholic. I keep mentioning my tradition, churches of Christ, but that probably stems from the fact that I am largely an ecclesial and theological alien in a predominantly mainline Protestant seminary, and am thus daily confronted with the fact that I think and have been formed in vastly different ways than my peers. In that same vein, I have an instilled reaction against the flowing robes and formal distinctions of "clergy" and "laity" in Catholic and mainline, and even in some evangelical (I am unclear what that word means, but you probably know what I'm thinking of), traditions. Thus it is good for me to be learning in a place where I am forced to confront my assumptions against the clergy; at the moment, though, I just don't know what I am supposed to learn from it.

5. Discernment between acceptable disagreement and named heresy, and how to fellowship with Christians whose theology one dislikes. This leads, too, from the Piperian Specter mentioned above: namely, what to do with bad/destructive/dangerous theology? How to know the difference between orthodoxy and personal preference? What does it mean, what does it look like concretely, to be brother or sister to and with and for a fellow Christian whose theology (which always includes, and names, theology in practice) one finds disagreeable or even abhorrent? I realize the name for this is "church"; and it is not like I don't have friends who disagree with my theology and vice versa. I am just wondering how, in situations more serious and more drastic, discernment works in such a context.

6. Connections between Scripture, theology, and the freeing guidance of the Holy Spirit. I love theology. I love good theology. But a lot of theology, and even good theology, seems strangely removed from the witness, language, and emphases of Scripture. Now, I want to distinguish between exploratory theology (like Richard Beck's) and dogmatic theology. Theology that seeks to explore the contours of the endless playground of God, as Beck does so well, is the kind of wonderful, Spirit-led, playful practice in which more Christians should participate. But to a large extent, the point, the telos, is not to "arrive" at some quantifiable destination of certainty; rather, it is to run around, joyfully but seriously, in the wide world that is talk about God (theo-logy). The point is the doing, not the ending. The ending is the doing.

Dogmatic theology, on the other hand, at least as I understand it, seeks to make truthful claims about God, God's character, and God's creation. When Christians do it they do so under the authority of Scripture. Thus good dogmatic theology ought to be, in some perceivable way, biblical.

But how often do we read theology that would be totally unrecognizable to the authors and communities of the Bible? Not that there aren't a thousand things that concern us today that they wouldn't recognize, or that theology ought not to address philosophical (and ecclesial, and political, etc.) developments since the first century. All I mean is that theological claims are made with which the New Testament would likely, undoubtedly, or even outlandishly disagree. My question is: What to do with such theology, how does or ought it relate to the Bible, and what does the presence of the Spirit in the church mean for doing it?

7. Art, violence, and Christian criticism. Raised as a male in late 20th century America, I love action movies. Since developing some sense of cinematic criticism, I appreciate less the dumb action movie, but still (even more so?) appreciate the well-made action movie, or action done within a movie. Further, having come to understand the call of the gospel as a call to follow the peaceable, nonviolent, suffering and crucified Jesus as Lord, I have increasingly questioned how to understand, view, appreciate, critique, and/or enjoy action and violence in film. Concretely: I'm not quite sure I can lustily cheer on William Wallace in Braveheart with my Christian buddies. Cinematic bloodlust remains bloodlust. And we are powerfully formed by the art and entertainment intake to which we expose ourselves.

So what to do? Mark Love once spent Lent excluding violence from his life. That, in itself, names the problem for an American male: How hard must that have been! Not simply from desire, but purely pragmatically, how difficult it must be in our culture to not participate in any form of violence.

But that raises questions. What to do with the violence of the Bible? What to do with the violence of film and literature that serves a larger purpose (e.g., Schindler's List)? What to do as a(n amateur) film critic? Can I enjoy Quantum of Solace, or the Bourne trilogy, or superhero films? Are they off limits in the same way pornographic films similarly are (or should be)?

The thematic concern begins to sound familiar: I have no idea. But I'm thinking about it.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Year In Preview: Most Anticipated Movies and Music of 2009

And so we end our year in review: with a look at the next. This has felt a bit drawn out, so instead of in-depth previews, I'll either just list what I'm looking forward to music- and movies-wise (I haven't yet got on board with how to be attuned to upcoming releases of books -- feel free to offer any helpful hints or suggestions), or if I have comments, they'll be brief. Enjoy; and soon enough we'll be back to theology proper.

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Top Ten Most Anticipated Albums of 2009
(Note: Many of these are guesses based on each artist's last album, and their general period of time in between releases. If I'm off, correct me, but don't shoot me.)

1. Wilco -- TBA (Late Spring)
2. Sufjan Stevens -- TBA (Fall/Winter)
3. Iron & Wine -- TBA (Fall)
4. Derek Webb -- TBA (Summer-Fall)
5. The Arcade Fire -- TBA (Fall/Winter)
6. The Decemberists -- TBA (3.24.09)
7. The National -- TBA (Fall)
8. Spoon -- TBA (Fall)
9. Burlap to Cashmere -- TBA (Winter)
10. U2 -- No Line On The Horizon (3.3.09)

Also Upcoming: Cat Power, Cotton Jones Basket Ride, Damien Rice, Interpol, Jars of Clay, John Mayer, Modest Mouse, New Pornographers, Richard Swift, The Shins, Switchfoot, Wolfmother

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Top 50 Most Anticipated Movies of 2009

1. Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino) // 8.21.09
I love everything Quentin Tarantino does. The subject matter, universally beloved script, casting, and potential Sergio Leone score only enhance my excitement.
2. Up (Pete Docter and Bob Peterson) // 5.29.09
Everything Pixar does is good. Reports have Up as equal to or better than WALL-E. Do they have midnight screenings for kids' movies?
3. Watchmen (Zach Snyder) // 3.6.09
The Godfather of comic books finally makes it to the screen, with a to-the-T faithful script and a spot-on visual director and marvelous casting, even enduring a bitter legal battle ... but no squid. For lovers of the graphic novel, of which I am one, we can only be happy it's here.
4. Star Trek (J.J. Abrams) // 5.8.09
I was raised a dutiful Trekkie by my dad, and he will actually be in town this weekend to watch it together. I can't wait.
5. Avatar (James Cameron) //12.18.09
The master himself makes his return, with no less a spectacle than 3-D science fiction. Count me in.
6. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick) //Winter
I know not an ounce of information about this movie. Oh, except for "Directed by Terrence Malick."
7. Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese) //10.02.09
Another Dennis Lehane novel adaptation, another excellent director, another superb cast. I will be dragging a cinephile friend who hates Scorsese to this one.
8. The Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson) //11.6.09
After four grand slams and one halfway failure, another zag from the auteur Anderson, in the form of an animated film, is fine by me.
9. The Human Factor (Clint Eastwood) // Winter
Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela! Matt Damon as the South African soccer team captain! Clint Eastwood directing! Yes!
10. Public Enemies (Michael Mann) //7.1.09
A 1930s true story gangster film starring Christian Bale and Johnny Depp directed by Michael Mann. My goodness, all I have to do is describe these movies and they sell themselves!
11. The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson) // 12.11.09
12. The Road (John Hillcoat) // TBA
13. Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze) //10.16.09
Three embattled productions; three phenomenal directors ideally suited to their films' content; three films nearly devoid of pre-release images/stories/information. Color me blissfully ignorant and happily anxious.
14. Terminator Salvation (McG) //5.22.09
Skeptical, but hopeful. Just keep the mythology, set up the trilogy, don't kill Bale, and surprise us with something cool but unexpected. That's all we ask.
15. Invention of Lying (Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson) // Winter
16. The Year One (Harold Ramis) // 6.19.09
17. Funny People (Judd Apatow) // 7.31.09
18. Observe and Report (Jody Hill) //4.10.09
Is this the year of the comedy? Here is the combined cast of these films: Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Jonah Hill, Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Rob Lowe, Patrick Stewart, Christopher Guest, Jeffrey Tambor, Jack Black, Michael Cera, David Cross, Oliver Platt, Hank Azaria, Paul Rudd, Harold Ramis, Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jason Schwartzman, RZA, Sarah Silverman, Andy Dick, Norm McDonald, Anna Faris, Ray Liotta, Patton Oswalt, Michael Pena, and more. Wow.
19. A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen) // Fall-Winter
20. The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson) //5.29.09
I'm fascinated to continue to watch the Coen Brothers' progression of post-No Country film choices, just as I'm fascinated to watch Rian Johnson follow up his strangely awesome high school film noir Brick.
21. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (David Yates) //7.17.09
I loved the direction Yates took the fifth entry; he's hoping he sets up his own two-part splitting of the seventh with a solid, Harry-and-Dumbledore's-relationship-centered sixth.
22. Sherlock Holmes (Guy Ritchie) //11.13.09
I don't like Guy Ritchie; I do like Robert Downey, Jr. And I do like Sherlock Holmes. Let's see.
23. Green Zone (Paul Greengrass) //Fall-Winter
Paul Greengrass is always intriguing, especially when it's political, and this project seems no different.
24. Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn) //Fall-Winter
I had the benefit of seeing Matthew Vaughn make Daniel Craig Bond before he was Bond in Layer Cake at Harry Knowles' Butt-Numb-A-Thon in 2004. This adaptation of one quirky comic book tale sounds like a suitable follow-up to the disappointing Stardust.
25. Taking of Pelham 123 (Tony Scott) //6.12.09
I have a soft spot for Tony Scott pairing with Denzel Washington, and this (probably unneeded) remake is no exception.
26. The Three Stooges (Bobby and Peter Farrelly) // Fall-Winter
27. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Edgar Wright) //Fall-Winter
Totally unrelated, but both have the potential for me to be falling out of my chair laughing.
28. District 9 (Neill Blomkamp) // 8.14.09
29. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (Terry Gilliam) // 6.6.09
30. The Box (Richard Kelly) //11.6.09
Three directors all in some sense unproven at the moment: Blomkamp the rejected Halo director doing straight-up sci-fi; Gilliam the respected master with prime powderkeg content (Heath Ledger's last acting job!) but having botched recent outings; and Kelly, Donnie Darko cult leader, following the disaster of Southland Tales. Here's hoping for rebounds all around.
31. Coraline (Henry Selick) // 2.6.09
32. 9 (Shane Acker) //9.9.09
Dark, animated tales by serious artists. I know little, but I respect the care and artistry on display.
33. Bruno (Sacha Baron Cohen) //5.15.09
Borat was hilarious at times, even bitingly satirical, but ultimately proved ugly in its inhumanity and straw-man objectifying. Cohen is one smart dude; let's hope he learned his lesson.
34. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Michael Bay) // 6.26.09
35. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Gavin Hood) //5.1.09
As a childhood lover of Transformers, I was more than disappointed with Michael Bay's adaptation. I was also obsessed with Wolverine growing up; but, reports have it that Tsotsi director Gavin Hood has been pushed out of the driver's seat in production. Maybe Bay and (evil) Fox will prove our doubts wrong.
36. Nine (Rob Marshall) //11.25.09
Rob Marshall, no; Daniel Day-Lewis, yes. And what a cast of actresses!
37. The Good, the Bad, and the Weird (Ji-woon Kim) // Spring-Summer
38. Monsters vs. Aliens (Rob Letterman and Conran Vernon) // 3.27.09
39. Angels & Demons (Ron Howard) // 5.15.09
40. Ninja Assassin (James McTeigue) // Fall-Winter
41. The Wolf Man (Joe Johnston) // 11.6.09
42. Land of the Lost (Brad Silberling) //6.5.09
In order: the international joy of 2008; potentially fun; potentially better than the first; potentially cool; potentially terrifying; potentially goofy. We are now officially in the part of the list where it is likely that money, time, or interest will preclude actually seeing some of these movies this year.
43. Drag Me To Hell (Sam Raimi) // 5.29.09
44. Amelia (Mira Nair) //10.23.09
A horror meistro's return and a period epic; why the pairing? These could astound or flop, and I have no clue which way either is leaning.
45. A Christmas Carol (Robert Zemeckis) // 11.6.09
46. The Princess and the Frog (Ron Clements and John Musker) //12.25.09
Zemeckis continuing his (so far in my estimation, failed) foray into motion capture, though with the intriguing Jim Carrey as the peerlessly cynical Scrooge, as well as Disney's re-entry into the world of 2-D animation. I'm not on the edge of my seat, but it's likely I'll bite.
47. Riot (John Carpenter) // Fall-Winter
48. ...of the Dead (George Romero) // Fall-Winter
49. Red Cliff (John Woo) // Spring-Summer
50. Tetro (Francis Ford Coppola) //Fall-Winter
And so we come to the end, where four magisterial directors, known throughout the world, languish with unknown or questionable films. Any of these could very well be masterpieces waiting in the shadows, or just another fetid flop. I am more than ready to welcome all of these guys back to the relevant table again.
Honorable Mention: Toy Story 3-D //10.2.09
In celebration of Toy Story 3 coming out summer of 2010, Disney/Pixar is leading up to it with re-releases of the first two in Disney Digital 3-D. I'm not a 3-D guy especially -- I wear glasses, and am, at times, prone to motion sickness, so I'm not exactly the ideal candidate -- but seeing these classics on the big screen again, in digital 3-D, sounds about as good a gift as I can imagine. Now let's get on to the rest of the Pixar catalogue!
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And to conclude, for your viewing pleasure ... undoubtedly the most anticipated imaginary album of the year, as brought to you, in image and description, by my friend Patrick:

Tom Waits Covering Scarlett Johansson Covering Tom Waits!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Reese Roper

Ska is definitely not my thing. But for whatever reason, I have a special place in my heart for the band Five Iron Frenzy. Apart from the music (which I enjoy), Reese Roper's lyrics are superb, theologically and poetically. FIF's most beloved and well known song is entitled "Every New Day," and what everyone loves about it is the skyrocketing climax at the end. Below is just the chorus and the end of the climactic portion, which in my estimation functions as a wonderful kind of benediction. Along with Wendell Berry's "There is a day" poem, I hope to incorporate it into prayers in worship, because the liturgical scope of each is profound.

Also, my poem below Roper's just kind of welled up over me sometime this past week, and I thought I'd share it. It's a bit sarcastic, even caustic in its tone, but I hope the spirit is evident.

[Update: I have taken down poems I am in the process of submitting for publication. I apologize for the confusion and/or inconvenience!]

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Every New Day

By Reese Roper (of Five Iron Frenzy)

Dear Father, I need you
Your strength my heart to mend
I want to fly higher
Every new day again

Healing hands of God have mercy on our unclean souls once again
Jesus Christ, light of the world burning bright within our hearts forever
Freedom means love without condition, without a beginning or an end
Here's my heart: let it be forever yours -- only you can make every new day feel so new


Friday, January 23, 2009

Year In Review: The Best of the Blog

This week has been taking a look back at 2008 in lists, namely music, movies, and books and other favorites. (I realized I left out television in my catch-all yesterday. Here's my top five for best shows in 2008: 1) The Wire; 2) Battlestar Galactica; 3) Lost; 4) Mad Men; 5) The Office. There you go.) I borrowed from Ben Meyers in my catch-all yesterday; today I'm taking a page from Richard Beck. It's healthy for me to reflect upon my own work on the blog, and I hope I might introduce to you something you may have missed. Having only begun in August, a mere five months ago, there isn't as full a breadth to pull from, but regardless, it's enjoyable to look back in moving forward. Next week, of course, we'll get back to your regularly scheduled program, but not before a Year in Preview for 2009. Until then!

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To Vote Or Not To Vote. This series came to feel almost interminable, but of course by its very nature had an internal terminus. Over the year leading up to the election the seeds of concern planted previously began to sprout and grow, and my wife and I, with friends back at ACU, began to question whether we, as Christians, could or should vote in the presidential election. Part I was an introduction with links; Part II discussed Christian arguments in favor of voting; Part III evaluated those arguments; Part IV discussed Christian arguments against voting; an Excurcus was next, outlining what it means to be a Christian and disagree peaceably; Part V evluated Christian arguments against; Part VI drew preliminary conclusions and reflections; Part VII responded to my (astute) brother's dissatisfaction in my conclusions; Part VIII was an epilogue; and then there was a verdict.

Theology at the Movies. As you may have surmised by this point, I love movies! One of my very first posts was a theological exploration of David Lynch's The Straight Story. Then I found myself inadvertantly walking through Pixar's films and the way they embody the theme of hospitality to the stranger. I made known my great and unabashed love for movies. And I reviewed the newest Bond flick, Quantum of Solace, working off a reviewer's label intended pejoratively, but surprisingly full of depth.

Theology Matters. Theology is central to the life of the church because without good theology we find ourselves lost at sea -- in other words, exactly where the North American church finds itself today. So when I do theology I usually find myself reminding the church -- reminding myself -- what it is that we ought to be about as the church. So for these thematically linked posts. The first acted as an unofficial excursus from the voting series, entitled The Lure of Political Eschatology. The next was Following a Tortured Lord, in which I built off of Jimmy McCarty's Sojourners posts on Guantanamo Bay, America, torture, Jesus, and the church. This reminder furthered those thoughts; my social worker wife summarized, in brief, the call of the gospel; and I experienced doing theology with the poor. I re-posted something I wrote on an older blog, in which I tried to combat purely functional, reductionistic, non-narrative, non-normative, penal substitutionary understandings of the atonement. Then, deeply affected by an article written by an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi in response to the Mumbai attacks, I wrote a labored, lengthy, passionate response entitled On Loving Our Enemies. On a whim of inspiration I wrote a small piece about happy accidents and technology's role in diminishing them. Finally, on Christmas I did some remembering.

Scripture and Church Practices. Having grown up in the churches of Christ, it is in my bones to be centered around the church, Scripture, and the practices interrelated between the two. My very first post was about the apprenticeship of prayer, built off a wonderful story about my two younger brothers. For an introductory class in my MDiv program we wrote short papers at the beginning and end of the semester about Scripture and its role in the life of God's people. I wrote about the church's practice of hospitality as modeled after God's unmerited generosity toward us, as well as about gratitude for God's strange gift of good and loving family. I posted a literature essay I wrote for a class comparing Jonathan Kozol's Rachel and Her Children and Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian Walsh's Beyond Homelessness. I shared Unorganized Reflections on the Loss of the Authority of the Church. And I offered questions about the way worship forms us, related to Eucharist, Powerpoint, and what Mike Cope calls "downloading" Scripture.

Sports and Random Thoughts. In the midst of the run-up to the election and the all-important discernment of whether to vote, I took a break and made predictions for the 2008-2009 NBA season, including a number of reflections on the Spurs ... since I picked them to win over the Cavs in the Finals. Also related to sports, I posted an email I sent to Bill Simmons as an open question for him. I shared brief feelings leading into meeting family in Mississippi for Thanksgiving and heading home to Austin for the Christmas break. Finally, there were two posts in which I jumped through a bunch of topics; the first addressed Marilynne Robinson, the Hebrew phrase Mi Yodea?, Sarah Palin, football, and my dad. The second, longer and predictably loquacious, describes the beauty of fall in Atlanta, defends the Spurs' slow start, laments the inability to see movies, celebrates the glories of Saturday Night Live, responds to a commenter regarding Dobson's letter to America from 2012, reminds Christians how to respond to Obama's election, and remembers to pray for the nation's leaders. Whew!

Sunday Sabbath Poetry. Beginning Sunday, August 31st, I began a mostly weekly series in which, following Wendell Berry's lead, I honor the sabbath through poetry, posting a favorite poem or set of lyrics alongside a poem of my own composition. There were 14 in all by the end of 2008, and you can find them at the bottom of the column to your right, which has the date and author listed for each entry. I have already continued this practice into this new year, and plan to keep it as a regular fixture. I hope you are blessed by it, as I hope you are blessed by any other of these posts of mine. Thanks for reading.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Year In Review: Everything Else Catch-All!

Borrowing liberally from Ben Meyers (and tomorrow from Richard Beck!), I wanted to discuss all of the random bits and pieces of culture and life, other than movies and music, that I loved from 2008. (It may or may not be book heavy.) It's really only another reason to make a list ... but then, I do love lists. No apologies here, dear readers.


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Best novel of 2008: Home by Marilynne Robinson
I've written briefly of my love for Marilynne Robinson and the incredible world she has created in the Ames and Boughton families in the town of Gilead; put simply, she is writing on a peerless level. Just beautiful work.
Best non-2008 novel I read in 2008: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
"Startling," "sweeping," and "masterpiece" come to mind. Fun, wild, and meaningful throughout, Kavalier & Clay is all joy from beginning to end.
Best audiobook I listened to: The Road by Cormac McCarthy (read by Tom Stechschulte)
Halfway through listening to Tom Stechschulte's gripping, dramatic narration I looked up his other work on iTunes, just hoping for a gigantic body of work to delve into -- regardless of the quality of the books!
Best Hauerwas book I read: A Better Hope by Stanley Hauerwas
I (try to, or end up finding myself) read a Hauerwas book every couple of months, so it's difficult to choose the "best." But this collection of essays was my favorite combination of theology done seriously, humorously, and carefully -- all in his own particular way.
Most influential book I read: Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community by Wendell Berry
I can't believe it's only been a year! After John Howard Yoder (by way of Lee Camp and Hauerwas), discovering Wendell Berry -- or, rather, being found by Berry (is that blasphemous?) -- was one of the seminal moments of my intellectual/theological life. Though even to limit it to that limits his vision to anything other than all of life itself. I read nearly the entirety of this book on the plane ride coming back from my honeymoon, having never been able to read on a plane before. Life-changing stuff, here.
Most Scripturally-transformative book I read: Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul by Richard Hays
I'm not sure that's the way to put it; regardless, Richard Hays may become for me an annual summer read. His output is not nearly so prodigious as to warrant consuming everything at once, but summer 2007 was The Moral Vision of the New Testament, and last summer was Echoes of Scripture, both absolutely vital to understanding what it means to embody, to step into, the new world constituted in the New Testament. (Also: liberating!)
Best Book of Poetry I read in 2008: A Timbered Choir: Sabbath Poems by Wendell Berry
If I had one non-Bible book to bring with me on a desert island, this would be it. I'm always re-reading it, and I try to recite its last poem daily (being my inaugural Sunday Sabbath Poetry post). It also reignited in me a flurry of poetic activity that had largely been extinguished years before. I love Wendell Berry...
Best Essay I read in 2008: "A Citizen's Response to 'The National Security Strategy of the United States of America'" by Wendell Berry (from Citizenship Papers)
...yes I do! This essay put into words, black lines on white pages, what I had wanted to articulate for five years. The man is a prophet, pure and simple.
Most disappointing ending to an old book I had saved for a long time to read: Perelandra by C.S. Lewis
If you are interested in reading C.S. Lewis's brilliant, but generally unheralded, Space Trilogy, spoilers reside herein. To put it in the eternal language of basketball: Near the conclusion of a triple-double performance, down one point with 15 seconds left, Lewis inbounds, dribbles, passes, gets it back, spins, crosses over, goes up for a dunk to win at the buzzer ... and gets rim rejected. Badly. Perelandra picks up where Out of the Silent Planet left off, and continues masterfully until about two thirds in -- when, out of nowhere, his logic leads him to have God's plan for Ransom, in the midst of the creation of a new world, complete with its own version of Adam and Eve and the Tempter, to violently fight and kill the Devil. Really? Not only is this unjustifiable on biblical grounds; Lewis rightly takes into account that this is a new world created after the victory won on the cross -- so the rules are different: the new creation in Christ's resurrection impinges on this new world's creation. Yet -- and it stirs up real emotions in me that such a master could have missed such a gigantic point -- God founds the creation of this new world, and its retaining innocence and perfection, on murder?? Only the pagans found their worlds and cities and civilizations on murder; only the nations found their histories on violence. The creation by the God of Israel is grounded not in violence, but peace; not in death, but life. Yahweh speaks the world into existence. That same God speaks Jesus into flesh, and the incarnate Jesus breathes the Spirit onto his people. When the new creation is inaugurated in the crucifixion and resurrection of the Son of God, the crucified God -- utterly nonretaliatory, wholly nonviolent -- comes to his murderers -- a confluence of all the powers of the world: social, political, and religious, Jewish and Gentile -- not in vengeance but in forgiveness. Yet this new kingdom, ushered in by this Jesus and the Holy Spirit of God -- the Spirit who brings deepest shalom, forgiveness of sins, new life freed from enmity and spite -- remains somehow unimportant for Lewis, such that the repetitious bloody violence of fisticuffs, biting, tearing, clawing, and gnashing is appropriate for God's plan for new life on an old world? So disappointing. Hopefully That Hideous Strength will redeem the series for me.
Most distressing book that consistently missed the mark: The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright by John Piper
N.T. Wright's work undoubtedly deserves correction and advancement, but reading Piper's book felt like an exercise in frustration.
Happiest story told in a book: The story of how The Message came to be, chapters 6-8 in Eat This Book by Eugene Peterson
Exegesis, interpretation, and translation came alive for me in this wonderful story, which on its own is worth the price of admission.
Favorite theological blog: Experimental Theology by Richard Beck
I secretly wonder if ACU allows Beck time during the day to write his seemingly endless posts, and series of posts, always thought-provoking and always indicative of his insatiable curiosity and invaluable psychological perspective. His Theology of Calvin & Hobbes -- the comic strip being one of my most beloved, and enduring, loves from childhood -- was a particular favorite.
Favorite blogging discovery: Seeking First the Kingdom by Jimmy McCarty
I knew Jimmy McCarty's work from his posts on torture on Sojourners (about which I wrote in my own post) before I realized either that he had his own blog or (more importantly!) that he is a fellow member of that peculiar tradition called churches of Christ. Further, he serves at a local homeless shelter, and, as I am doing the same thing, I find his insight even more relevant and helpful. His blog is now a daily fixture for me.
Favorite (early 2009) blogging discovery: Inhabitatio Dei by Halden Doerge
I literally discovered this blog earlier this morning, but I have to include it, if only because I am so impressed. And not just impressed ... overwhelmed by how on target it seems to be, and how excited I am about going back into the archives as well as continuing to follow Doerge's superb commentary.
Favorite sports blog (and discovery!): 48 Minutes of Hell by Graydon Gordian and Timothy Varner
The answer to my heart's desire. A daily-updated, in-depth analysis blog totally devoted to all things San Antonio Spurs. I've traded emails back and forth with Tim, and they really seem to be on top of things over there. And now comes news that they are part of the TrueHoop Network -- headed by TrueHoop mastermind Henry Abbott, author of the best all-NBA blog on the internet -- and so linked together with ESPN, other NBA team blogs, etc. Congratulations, gentlemen, and here's to years more of quality Spurs analysis, and championships.
Favorite film blog: Motion/Captured by Drew McWeeny
Formerly "West Coast Editor" of Ain't It Cool News -- my original introduction into the wide world of internet movie news -- and known there by the nickname "Moriarty," McWeeny was always my favorite read. More than reporting the news, I wanted to know his opinion. But he's also a busy guy, what with two young kids, writing screenplays, and interviewing, and his output was, at times, sparse. So you can imagine my glee upon finding out that he moved over to HitFix, a new all-purpose entertainment site, as their resident movie blogger. It couldn't have happened to a better candidate. Daily cinematic dose from Moriarty? Yes, please.
Favorite regular podcast: The B.S. Report by Bill Simmons
Otherwise known as The Sports Guy, Bill Simmons is churning out 2-3 podcasts a week, and for someone like me who can listen to his iPod while working, that is pure gift. (It does interrupt my plan of regularly running through audiobooks ... but what's more important, classic literature or sports commentary?) I do wish he'd keep up the column production alongside the podcasts, but either way, they are a blast.
Favorite specific podcasts: The Problem of Interpretation by Richard Hays and God, the Tsunami, and 9/11: The New Problem of Evil by N.T. Wright
Reshelving books in the library, I found myself at various times amening, giggling, stiff with conviction, and catching myself pumping my fist. Yes, I respond to theology like a sports fan.
Favorite all-purpose news and opinion website: Slate Magazine
Just quality work over there. Every day there are at least half a dozen articles worth reading; it's almost overwhelming. And Slate is also the source of my weekly Christopher Hitchens fix. I might write a post soon about the loving discipline that is being a Christian and reading (and enjoying!) a man like Hitchens.
Favorite movie-going experience: Midnight Atlanta showing of Pineapple Express
It's always a good sign when, 15 minutes before the midnight start time of a movie centered around marijuana, the smoke is already so thick you can see it wafting up through the light beams of the film projector. Talk about a fun audience.
Greatest overreaction to a not-bad movie: Critics and fans alike to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Yes, it wasn't a classic like Raiders; yes, the ending was anticlimactic; and yes, the jungle vine-swinging Tarzan scene was indefensible. But Kingdom is not a bad movie; it's actually a blast, once you let yourself into it. People, Harrison Ford was Indiana Jones again! And Marion was back! With Spielberg directing them! No George Lucas scene- or script-meddling can ruin that. It'll grow on you with time, trust me.
Most disappointing movie: The Happening
I am -- or better, was -- an outspoken admirer and defender of M. Night Shyamalan. But this one just about did me in. Amateurish and bad on every level, it is unbelievable that Shyamalan is still set to direct a major action feature as the kickstart to a potential kids' franchise. Let's hope he somehow gets back on his feet.
Best ending as startlingly meaningful bookend to earlier masterpiece: Gran Torino
If you haven't seen it, don't keep reading; but how poignant a (potential) conclusion to Clint Eastwood's career is the final image of him sprawled, cruciform, on the lawn of gangbangers, having sacrified himself for his neighbors? And not only that, but viewed as an alternate version of the climactic shootout in Unforgiven, and a commentary upon his old gunslinger image, how much more does it say? He even pulls out an imaginary gun, and with his finger "bang bang" shoots every gang member, just like Unforgiven -- yet, instead, fake draws again to instigate his own murder at their hands, in a powerful act of self-sacrifice. All hail Clint.
Best all-purpose magazine: Paste Magazine
I keep up with Pitchfork, but for my money -- and it really is my money, since it's a "real" magazine! -- Paste offers equal information and coverage sans the condescension and snobbery. Plus, beyond music they cover movies, books, cultural issues, even video games. "Signs of life" indeed.
Best replacement for Austin, Texas (if necessary): Decatur, Georgia
We wouldn't have guessed it, but Decatur -- blurred over from the eastern edge of Atlanta -- has been a serviceable, even enjoyable, stand-in for the best city in the world. Having lived in (beloved) Abilene for four years, the low-key locality of Decatur has been a welcome and happy surprise in our continued exile from Austin. Place defines us, and we are right fine with Decatur defining us. For now.
Best seminary class: "Theology of the Reformed Tradition" taught by Harry Beverly
It may not be quite as awe-inspiring for other as it was for me, but for someone my age, to learn Reformed theology from a man who studied under Karl Barth in Basel is about the equivalent of learning Pauline mission theory from Barnabas. (In a previous post I shared a picture of Barth with MLK in Princeton. Like King, for me Barth is a historical figure, a giant who "lived once," who is larger than life, not mere flesh and blood. Now I am three degrees separated from King? That's crazy.) And this is not even to mention how much I learned from our daily 4-hour discussions with only six other students in the classroom. So much learning and so much conversation and so much fun. I love theology.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Year In Review: The Best Film of 2008

In a word: movies are my favorite. When I write or make lists about music, it's only because I like listening to it, not because I imagine I actually know anything about the medium itself. Now, I don't necessarily know any more about film per se, but I do pay attention to it with an eye ever-seeking to learn how to knowledgeably and sympathetically critique it. That is, when I watch movies I want to both enjoy them for what they are and learn what it means and takes to make a good movie. What is it that makes a movie "good"? I take it so seriously that, had I not felt called into (the ministry of) teaching, writing, and doing theology, I would have majored in film in college. I may have the worst directorial eye in the world, but it is a lingering sadness that I will never explore the possibility.

All that to say: I take movies seriously. But I also love them! So, two things before we get going, a caveat and an entreaty:

1) I didn't mention this yesterday in my post on music, but I intentionally differentiate between "Best" and "Favorite." Unbreakable is one of my favorite all-time movies; that doesn't mean I think it was the best movie released in 2000. Neither is Schindler's List one of my "favorite" movies, in that sense; but I do believe it to be one of the best movies released in recent decades. I find this distinction to be both helpful and more honest.

2) Get in on the fun! As I said Monday, lists are only worthwhile insofar as they elicit conversation and cross-list sharing. I want to know what you think -- what I got wrong, what I got right, and what I'm completely missing. I pronounce welcome on your additions and subtractions to my pontifications.

And now, enjoy.

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Top 10 Best Movies of 2008

Blind Spots: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu); Chop Shop (Ramin Bahrani); Doubt (John Patrick Shanley); A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin); The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin); Firaaq (Nandita Das); Frozen River (Courtney Hunt); Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh); Milk (Gus Van Sant); Shotgun Stories (Jeff Nichols); Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen).

Honorable Mention: Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard); Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood); Iron Man (Jon Favreau); Kung Fu Panda (Mark Osborne and John Stevenson); Pineapple Express (David Gordon Green); Quantum of Solace (Marc Forster); Snow Angels (David Gordon Green); Standard Operating Procedure (Errol Morris); Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman); The Visitor (Thomas McCarthy).

10. Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog)

From my original review:

Encounters is properly Herzogian in its character exactly because it continues to witness to his wonderful embodiment of openness toward -- indeed, radical welcome of and hope for -- happy accidents. Herzog's movies never end up being about what his (goofily serious, Germanly self-deprecating) narration sets us up for at the beginning. We might think Grizzly Man is about a man who died living with and studying wild bears; instead it transforms into a movie about what it means to love, to live, to know or experience nature, to approach the terrifying and the beautiful. Herzog's telos is always shifting; better put, his telos is the shifting. Whatever stories, whatever characters, whatever images introduce themselves into his path -- that will be the focus now. The point is that the path is intended to find and to gather and to put into focus these scattered, tattered, strewn-about, glory-filled points of holy reference. Signs of the wonder of the universe, signposts on the way to life. Encounters at the End of the World is just such a wandering way, and to be sure, Herzog finds his signs. Whether gazing at the alien underworld beneath the ice or peering over the edge of a volcanic cliff -- all scored to otherworldly, cosmically beautiful choirs and strings -- Werner Herzog's indomitable spirit proves, once again, a worthy leader through the dark and awesome wonders of the earth.

9. Redbelt (David Mamet)

With some movies you just know. Redbelt was one of those movies for me. From the very first preview I saw, I was hooked; it was only a matter of time before the already-initiated connection would lead to fully-immersed love. In normal Hollywood terms, there is little "exciting" about Redbelt -- but from the first drumbeats, from the first flashes of black and white balls plucked from a bowl, I was captivated. Rooted in the ever-dependable writing of David Mamet (who also directs) and in the rock solid performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor (quickly becoming one of my favorite working actors), the film tells interlocking stories centered upon Jiu-Jitsu instructor Mike Terry (Ejiofor) and his spiritual quest to be pure to his art/sport/code/way. The obstacles are real and seemingly immovable: friendships, the law, organized crime, greed, corruption, the system, violence, love, dishonesty, ingratitude, suicide, betrayal, fame, purity, honor, authority. Somehow, Mike finds his way, and his story is one of the most unsung cinematic triumphs of the year.

8. Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle)

Danny Boyle's previous effort, Sunshine, lacked neither vision nor craft, but its third act fell in upon itself and ultimately marked the film as a magnificently constructed failure. With Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle continues his trend of scattershot and unbounded genre-jumping, but fortunately, the risks inherent to this project (greater even than science fiction's) -- sentimentality, liberal guilt, Western triumphalism, greed-as-virtue celebration, etc. -- are happily bypassed in the wonderful (love) story of a boy from the slums who makes it to the final question of India's version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?. Along with The Dark Knight and WALL-E, Slumdog Millionaire is one of the year's most audience-friendly critical achievements. No need to know anything beyond that; just go see it, and cheer for Jamar!

7. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)

I have described Let the Right One In to friends in two different ways. The first is simple: "A Swedish vampire movie." The second is by analogy: "Imagine Twilight, but terrifying, realistic, and starring 12-year old Swedish children." That about sums it up, but I'll go on: Let the Right One In is at once a profound vampire tale, a thrilling horror movie, a simple love story, and a moving window into social ostracization and friendship. The film's look is stark and independent, and the first murder intimates more the feeling of a lonely serial killer than a mythological creature. But even then the terrors of the film are greatest in the smallest moments and most mundane situations: a lonely boy cuts his hand to shake intimately with a new friend, the red droplets float to the ground, and a little girl's eyes flash with hunger; a drunk man nears the dark corner of an overhang where a little girl's whimpering calls; the slow circling of a gang of bullies and the bullied's unflinching stance of suffering courage. Wildly, Tomas Alfredson posits the question, Which rejection, which isolation is harder: a bullied child, or one forced to kill others for sustenance? Connecting the experience of social seclusion equally in teenager and vampire alike is Alfredson's genius.

6. Man On Wire (James Marsh)

My wife suspects that I have Man on Wire this high on the list -- and particularly above Slumdog Millionaire -- for two reasons: first, Slumdog has become too popular, and second, a black-and-white documentary is a bit more "legit" for a year-end list. It is indispensable for me to hear her voice, which constantly reminds, "Don't take yourself so seriously!" So, it is certainly possible that that is what's going on here. But -- I don't think it is. Instead, I think that James Marsh's rapturous telling of Philippe Petit's daring, successful attempt in 1974 to string a wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and walk it back and forth for 45 minutes is, simply, masterful. The reenactments play like a heist movie, and Petit's excited storytelling invites us into the raw emotions of such a (literally unbelievable) performance of art. (This is not even to mention the haunting, but never manipulated, images of the towers still standing.) Why did he do it? To do something beautiful. So the same for Marsh's similarly beautiful film.

5. The Wrestler (Darren Aranofsky)

Talk about a hard movie to watch. I had no idea beforehand, but this fourth directorial outing by Darren Aranofsky (following his previous compelling triad of films: Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain) is, in a word, graphic. Aranofsky returns to an aesthetic closer to that of Pi, gritty and grainy like a documentary, often following a character from behind, seeing the world as he or she sees it. The central "he" in this case is Randy "The Ram" Robinson, as played to extraordinarily ubiquitous acclaim by Mickey Rourke. (I have etched into my brain the quote on every poster: "Witness the resurrection of Mickey Rourke." What an incredible recommendation!) To add my small voice to the grand chorus, I need only say that he does, in fact, fulfill the (almost impossibly high) expectations. What I didn't know to expect was the central role his body plays: some combination of movie magic, makeup, and Rourke himself taking on the real rigors of wrestling coheres to produce a visual testimony to the previously unexplored world of the gladiator-like brutality that is popular wrestling today. In any case, what emerges is a uniquely human story told without flinching or sentimentality. Resurrected, indeed.

4. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher)

Epic. That is the word that comes to mind in reflecting on the strange, wonderful story of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Epic and lifelong. David Fincher's steady hand would not have been my first guess for a movie like Benjamin Button, but it is exactly his eyes and ears for honesty, narrative, and patience that drive this tale from start to (lengthy) finish. I am not an avid admirer of writer Eric Roth's work on Forrest Gump, but every pitfall of that similarly eventful story of a simple man is gracefully avoided in this one. Whatever combination it is of Fincher, Roth, and Brad Pitt that keeps the rudder straight, turning neither to the right (exploitative tears) nor to the left (meaning-sapping coincidences), it is a terrific success. Speaking of Brad Pitt, it is essential to mention him because he is literally the anchor to the entire voyage. Somehow -- though, yes, with the help of so-good-you-forget special effects -- we have to believe that this middle-aged man is "growing young" and experiencing the trials of life through his own quiet, observant way. Just like WALL-E (below), though, at its heart Benjamin Button is a love story, told over a lifetime and with ups and downs; and that is how it has stayed with me in the weeks since I saw it. The power of its message about time and loss, death and family -- all perplexingly staged against the impending backdrop of Katrina's landfall -- is to be found only in its love story, and one we have to buy into. The magic is that we actually do believe.

3. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton)

I have already written at length about my love for Pixar's work, and WALL-E is only one more deposit in that ever-growing reserve of gratitude and respect. One part love story, one part silent comedy, one part human tragedy, one part cosmological warning sign, one part love letter to earth, one part clarion call to get up off our butts -- WALL-E is more than the sum of its parts without losing any of the parts' necessary ingredients. I was worried heading into the summer that, with the supposed diminishing returns of Pixar's product (relatively speaking, and according to the pundits), an animated movie with two main characters who literally do not speak through words would not exactly ... smash box office records. But what a wonderful sign it is that audiences American and the world over -- and children! -- could become so enthralled by the beeps and boops of a little trash-compacting robot and his universe-sprawling love story. I should also note that I believe that WALL-E and The Dark Knight (below) form a profound one-two punch in that they were released weeks from each other and speak to the same America (and world) in the same time and context, only from vastly different perspectives and in markedly different ways. That an animated "children's movie" (though of course we know it is not that) could speak so germanely to our world today is a testament to the virtues of Pixar's work and art.

2. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan)

Through the end of 2008 this was the best movie I had seen, and since the end of the summer I had felt sure that it would end up as #1 on my eventual list. It may have slipped one notch, but that fact has nothing to do with any dearth of quality or fall in stature; only with the marvelous impact the top film had on me. But enough with apologies! Who would have guessed the return of Batman would have elicited this kind of response from both public and critics alike? For me, it was a perfect storm: 1) I have been a fan of Christopher Nolan's from the beginning, which for me was when I (and my date) had an older couple in line buy our tickets to see the R-rated Memento in its opening weekend at the Arbor in Austin, because, though we were too young, I was determined to get in; 2) I am a Batman fiend; 3) Michael Mann's Heat is my favorite movie. How does Heat come into play, you ask? Because The Dark Knight is, in all its complexity and originality, an homage to Heat. From the opening bank heist (whose shotgun-wielding manager is the central character Roger Van Sant in Heat) to the star-studded ensemble to the circuitous Shakespearean morality plays to the mirror-image, each-the-other-side-of-the-coin "good" and "bad" main characters to the center-of-the-film, unexpected conversation showdown to the dramatic and upending third act finale. One of my ultimate standards for the lasting endurance (and singular quality) of a great film is whether or not it could be made at any other point in history. My answer for The Dark Knight is a flat no. The reason for its unparalleled success, in all forms, here and throughout the world, is precisely because it is a creation of its time and place, and its evocative images, dialogue, story, and questions speak directly to where we are as a people. Batman, The Joker, Two-Face, and the city of Gotham somehow, mysteriously or miraculously, embody what it means to be American, and to live in the American context, in 2008. The Dark Knight, honored or ignored by the Academy this week, rightfully takes its place next to Battlestar Galactica as one of the most potent and important works of art post-9/11. Now then ... good luck with the sequel.

1. Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme)

Without a doubt, I did not see this one coming. The only reason I made a point to see it before I constructed my final list was because Ed Gonzalez over at Slant Magazine named it his best film of the year. Gonzalez and his crew at Slant are remarkable lovers and critics of film, and while often they seem to lean toward the latter identity more than the former, I always make sure to seek out obscure or ignored movies per their recommendation. And how glad I am that I did with Rachel Getting Married! It is more than possible that I am simply in a stage of life perfectly situated to be touched by this film: I just celebrated my one year anniversary (after a 13-month engagement, and thus, 13-month wedding planning); beginning last October through this upcoming October I will have been in four different weddings of lifelong friends; and when I saw Rachel I had just returned from Austin, where my wife and I visited the chapel where our ceremony was held as well as the restaurant that hosted our rehearsal dinner, not to mention seeing all of our family (immediate and extended). That is to say ... I might be in a unique position in being hit square in the chest by Jonathan Demme's film. On the other hand, as Drew McWeeny notes in his review of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, we can see movies no other way! We are decidedly contextualized, situated, storied people; if a certain piece of art speaks to us right where we are because we are where we are, that is exactly how it ought to be. And so it is with Rachel Getting Married. I did not watch a trailer and I recommend you don't either. It is a hard, hard thing to watch; it is real -- I promise you, it is real -- and the pain the various family members experience and inflict upon one another is difficult to accept, much less step into. But if you can, it is worth it. Jonathan Demme finds a way -- though not without his magnificent cast, including the incomparable Anne Hathaway, whose performance grounds every second -- to capture what it is to live the messy, funny, ugly, loving, exhilirating and debilitating human existence called family. And I can think of no greater achievement.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Year In Review: The Best Music of 2008

Exactly two years I stopped burning or receiving copied CDs, because I came to the decision that, even though it is a widely accepted cultural practice -- even among Christians -- its illegality meant I ought not to participate in it. Before that I had already made the decision not to download music without paying for it. (My exception to these rules is if the creators of the music, as band or artist, make explicitly clear that they encourage such free transmission of their own music. Derek Webb is an example; Radiohead similarly offered their most recent album for free download.)

I don't mention that to highlight my own amazing ethical rigor, but only to emphasize that, when paying for all of one's own music, it is a difficult thing indeed to buy and listen to "enough" music from a single year to make a list that doesn't have crater-sized holes in it! In that way movies are much easier, because with the advent of Netflix, you could literally watch 200+ movies a year averaging $1 or less per film. That is also why music is the best area for sharing favorites, because if you recommend something highly enough that I'm missing, I just might be willing to shell out for it.

So, without further adieu, my picks for the best music of 2008.

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Top 20 Best Songs/Singles From 2008 (limit one song per album)

1. Fleet Foxes - "White Winter Hymnal"
2. Bon Iver - "Skinny Love"
3. Beyonce - "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)"
4. Coldplay - "Viva La Vida"
5. Fleet Foxes - "Mykonos"
6. Duffy - "Mercy"
7. Jamie Lidell - "Another Day"
8. Kanye West - "Love Lockdown"
9. Vampire Weekend - "Oxford Comma"
10. She & Him - "Sentimental Heart"
11. M.I.A. - "Paper Planes"
12. Langhorne Slim - "Rebel Side of Heaven"
13. The Black Keys - "Strange Times"
14. Bonnie "Prince" Billy - "I'll Be Glad"
15. Sigur Ros - "Gobbledigook"
16. Peter Gabriel - "Down to Earth"
17. Okkervil River - "Lost Coastlines"
18. The Low Anthem - "Charlie Darwin"
19. TV On The Radio - "Halfway Home"
20. Slow Runner - "Love and Doubt"

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Top 10 Best Albums of 2008

Blind Spots: Kanye West -- 808s and Hearbreak; Deerhunter -- Microcastle; The Welcome Wagon -- Welcome to the Welcome Wagon; Cat Power -- Jukebox; Lucinda Williams -- Little Honey

Honorable Mention: Langhorne Slim -- Langhorne Slim; Silver Jews -- Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea; The Hold Steady -- Stay Positive; Jamie Lidell -- Jim; The Black Keys -- Attack & Release

Special Mention:
Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard -- The Dark Knight
Thomas Newman -- WALL-E

I don't think it would be fair to include either of these original film scores in the normal list, nor do I in all honesty know how I would if I wanted to. So a special mention seems in order, precisely because the work of these composers demands attention. And what surprise is it that two of the year's best films would have two of the most distinctive, original, and powerful scores in recent memory? For The Dark Knight, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard expanded on the themes begun in their work on Batman Begins, but it was particularly their theme for The Joker that pushed the entire score -- and the film with it -- to the next level. The eerie, anxious silence that begins the movie makes you think something with the audio might be wrong ... until you hear that unnerving, shrill drilling growing louder, and you realize it's some sort of disturbing note being played. Christopher Nolan's deft use of Zimmer and Howard's score is nothing less than brilliant.

In a similar way, the opening music of WALL-E sets the tone from the outset. But this time there is tension, because the happy lyrics from Hello, Dolly set to gorgeous images of the universe give way to the sparse, sad plucking of the recurrent theme as the camera shifts from the cosmos down into the polluted, cluttered muck of earth. Somehow, Thomas Newman delivers a score that walks this tightrope act without ever forsaking the mood or honesty of either side. WALL-E is about falling in love head over heels, following that love to the ends of the universe, and the willingness of that self-sacrificial love to die for the beloved. It is also about ecological degradation, consumerism, obesity, laziness, technology, power, and homecoming. Somehow, Newman delivers the goods. (Not only that, his work with Peter Gabriel on "Down to Earth" offers us one of the best songs of the year.) Quite simply, these are two of the best pieces of music made for films in recent memory.

10. The Low Anthem -- Oh My God, Charlie Darwin

This one caught me by surprise. I heard the first song, "Charlie Darwin," by chance on a Paste Mix, and it hooked me instantly. The album as a whole is equal to its beginning, an energetic mix of acoustic harmonies and electric hooks. But the lyrics are the biggest draw, evocatively interlocking -- as the album's title suggests -- God and world in an intimate dance. Consistent water imagery overlays the music with the sense of a threatened narrative, a worldview under siege, waters rising but somehow stayed. Time and life "float above the storm," and "them ghosts who write history books" look back at the chaos and pen the songs that tell the story of a world that keeps marching along. The Low Anthem's music and words themselves become the means through which that chaos comes to order.

9. TV On The Radio -- Dear Science

I am similarly new to the TVotR party, though I had certainly heard of them, particularly from their phenomenal single "Wolf Like Me" from a couple years ago. Their style simply did not seem like a fit -- music made more on laptops than instruments is usually not my thing. However, I finally relented and gave them a shot with Dear Science, and what I found was a profoundly smart band whose words matched the cerebral brilliance of their weirdly danceable music. Try out these lyrics, sung like a rollercoaster by lead man Tunde Adebimpe (who won me over in a separate creative venture, Rachel Getting Married, in a classic musical scene) from the song "Crying": "And Mary and David smoke dung in the trenches. While Zion's behavior never gets mentioned. The writings on your wall. And the blood on the cradle. And the ashes you wade through. God you callin' God's name in vain. Leave the damned to damn it all! 's got you cryin'." Yes, please.

8. Okkervil River -- The Stand-Ins

Okkervil River skyrocketed to the upper echelons of my favorite bands with their masterpiece of literary musicality -- and my pick for best album of 2007 (to my wife's eternal chagrin) -- The Stage Names. Their decision to make a kind of sequel to it a year later was exactly the kind of thing you would expect them to do, and while The Stand-Ins may not be quite equal to its predecessor, it is certainly a worthy further step in the vast tapestry Will Sheff is weaving with his music and words. "Lost Coastlines" kicks the album off in good fashion and is probably the best song of the bunch; and among that bunch we find, like their previous albums, a wide swath of upbeat, slow, rockin', and ballad. Of course, the catch for most people is Sheff's warbly, emotional baritone. For me, it's perfect: its honesty sans sentimentality and power without perfection render it ideal for the type of aural novels Okkervil's songs, and albums, play out for us. Here's hoping for only more zags from this zig-confounding band.

7. Vampire Weekend -- Vampire Weekend

It was not a good start, Vampire Weekend and me. I had been reading about this new band and how good their debut album was, but what got me to go out and buy it was someone's (I don't remember whose) inexplicable likening of Vampire Weekend to The Arcade Fire. That was as direct a command to go forth and buy as I could have received -- The Arcade Fire is one of the most innovative and important musical artists of this decade. You can understand my disappointment, then, when song after song on Vampire Weekend only deepened my increasing bewilderment. Goofy Afro-pop by Ivy Leaguers does not an Arcade Fire sound-a-like make. Suffice to say, it has been an uphill climb, but once you give them a chance, this happy little album is as catchy, musically diverse, and worthwhile as everyone says. Just don't expect the next Funeral.

6. Coldplay -- Viva La Vida or Death And All His Friends

Talk about getting an unfair rap. The waters of Coldplay critic-love must still be poisoned from the disaster (and it was a disaster) of X&Y, because Viva La Vida is a fantastic album, but nearly nobody in critics' circles gave it much more than a "well, they didn't screw the pooch twice in a row." How about some recognition for turning the boat around right in front of the waterfall? Coldplay could have cemented itself as the king of global napping music by churning out another overwrought, sentimental, meaningless disc of ballads and bore; instead, they changed their style, went against their own (well hewn and well known) tendencies, introduced new elements from other musical cultures, and decided to start singing about something (other than fake break-ups and chromosomes and such). The first half of Viva is solid, rhythmic radio rock (not to mention the fact that they begin the album with an instrumental song); but the second half is when things really get interesting. "Viva La Vida"'s pulse never seems to stop, and the words ring out like George W. Bush looking back on his presidency through a medieval lens. Prophetic and smart. And the closer, "Death and All His Friends," is a powerful conclusion to an album speaking, in all of its potential popularity and artistic change-ups, against a world and a culture of death. To which I say: amen and amen.

5. Bon Iver -- For Emma, Forever Ago

"It just makes me so sad." Such are the (oft-repeated) words of my wife whenever listening to For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver's epic folk tragedy. Every song is steeped in the depths of sorrow and loneliness, and even when the pace picks up or you hear something other than voice and guitar, the mood never departs. Such is the tonal consistency and truthfulness with which Justin Vernon constructs his wide vista of loss and solitude. "Skinny Love" most perfectly captures the angry, yelping yearning of all that he has lost. Nothing captures better the sense that place -- emotionally and geographically -- is inescapable in knowing ourselves. A product of separation from loved ones and literal separation into a cabin, Vernon's time in the silence of the woods has produced for us a window into the music that springs out of such an experience, and we are invited to share in it.

4. She & Him -- Volume One

Paste Magazine's pick for best album of the year caught me by surprise, but their track record (excluding 2005) has been excellent, so I gave She & Him a shot. And what a payoff! The unpredictable brainchild offspring (mixing metaphors...) of M. Ward, he of independent music fame, and Zooey Deschanel, she of independent movie fame, Volume One is an odd experiment gone right. The music is a mix of folksy country, 50s pop, and gooey lyrics, without ever following the false trail of buying into one's own ingenuity. The backup vocals, arrangements, and accompanying music are fantastic, but it is the singular voice of Zooey Deschanel that holds everything together. Sweet, even adorable, yet strong enough -- on a debut album no less! -- to hold her own as the center of every song: undeniably an achievement worthy of a second volume.

3. Sigur Ros -- Med Suf leyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust

I did not see this coming. After the strange non-outing of ( ) and the solid but generally forgettable Takk..., I thought the ground-shattering glories of Agaetis byrjun were a thing of the past. So when I heard that Sigur Ros had released a new album, my response was a hearty "meh." I gave in late in the year, upon reading so many favorable reviews, and am happy to report (as the last person in line!) that Sigur Ros is, indeed, back. Not back from the dead, mind you, but back, instead, from the cycle of trying to "be" Sigur Ros. The failure of ( ) is understandable as trying to follow up an epoch-inaugurating classic, but Takk... felt like a retread, like an attempt by a gifted band known for being "X" trying to be the best "X" they could be. With Med Suf leyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust, Sigur Ros sounds, for the first time in a long while, fresh. They don't sound like they're "trying" to do anything, much less to fulfill others' expectations -- instead, simply like they're having fun making good music. And when Sigur Ros is having fun making good music, it is good news for everyone else.

2. Fleet Foxes -- Fleet Foxes & Sun Giant EP

Much ink has already been spilled (does that metaphor still work online?) on the fantastic surprise that is sitting down and listening to Fleet Foxes beginning to end. You don't need to see its cover (or the equally great EP's) to feel yourself transported back in time, to a place medieval and earthy and pastoral ... yet with electric guitars. (You know, like Oregon.) The thick harmonies and diverse instrumentation blend perfectly for a musical experience unexpected and unprecedented. It is one thing to be good; it is another to change the shape of popular music for the foreseeable future. (Their phenomenal performance on Saturday Night Live can only have helped them in this regard.) Few would have imagined music like Fleet Foxes' making waves in 2008, but their flag is planted and we can expect the trendy followers to be showing up soon enough. For now, before someone else comes along and ruins it, we can enjoy Fleet Foxes' songs for what they are: powerful, prescient, groovy ballads that sweep us away to another world.

1. Bonnie "Prince" Billy -- Lie Down in the Light

I do not believe that anything, music included, can be properly assessed or engaged in a vacuum; even albums are part of a story. Thus it is not possible to understand the achievement of Radiohead's Kid A apart from what led up to it, particularly the universally acclaimed masterpiece that was its predecessor, OK Computer. On the other hand, I wonder if fresh ears can offer an alternative perspective when approaching greatness that has become so routine, so expected, that its wonder has lost its original shine. Thus do I come to Bonnie "Prince" Billy's Lie Down in the Light: it is my first album by, and hence my introduction to, the music of Will Oldham. So it is possible that my reaction to and appraisal of his most recent work is not complete or fully informed, precisely because I do not know its place in the "story." However: regardless of the extent to which I need to go back and fill in the pieces -- a task I am already in the process of completing! -- I can testify that Lie Down in the Light is without a doubt the best album I have heard from 2008. Twelve songs of heartfelt precision, spiritual vulnerability, musical honesty, virtuoso performances, perfect pacing, ideal diversity, glorious crescendoes, enveloping quietness, and endless depth. Beautiful and sad and funny and truthful. In other words, a masterpiece.