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.

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