Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Reflections on Universalism: Hermeneutics and Proclamation

It seems to me that the question of universalism—a challenge to the church's thinking for more than 18 centuries: in other words, nothing new—is not finally about doctrine or discrete beliefs per se, but rather two crucial second order tasks for the church.

The first is hermeneutics, which names the way in which the Christian community goes about reading the texts of Scripture, the "lens" or "guide" or "key" by and through which our reading attends to and accords with what the Spirit would have us hear as the word of the living Christ spoken to us today. Of course, this is a highly contested theological question, and there are no simple answers; the more important point, however, is that prior to engaging the texts themselves, there is open disagreement about how we should do that at all. Nor is the hermeneutical challenge answered by the texts, for they can only be interpreted as they are read, and that returns us to back again to how we shall read.

The second task is proclamation, having to do not with what is read or argued about or even taught within the church, but with what is spoken and declared publicly as the very word of the gospel for all to hear as good news. Here the Reformation principle of lex proclamandi lex credendi—"the law of proclaiming is the law of believing"—is especially helpful. Rather than ask, "What does the church believe about such-and-such?" the question becomes, "What should the church proclaim as gospel regarding such-and-such?"

Universalism challenges us hermeneutically by sending us back to texts we thought we already knew, urging re-readings and openness to others' voices, communal discernment and a softening of views which may have been self-interested or immovably rigid. And we enclose and surround that messy job of reading and re-reading with the charge of asking questions about the nature of Scripture, its use in God's purposes for the church, its relation to the content of faith, its diversity and unity and intertextual connections, and so on.

Regarding the specific question of universalism and the Bible, the issue seems rather straightforward: many texts clearly expect a final and decisive judgment by God on the wicked; many texts presuppose or assert that severe punishment will follow this judgment; many texts speak of eternality characterizing this judgment and/or punishment. At the same time, many texts speak without apparent reservation of universal or cosmos-inclusive salvation/redemption/deliverance, and those particular texts that speak of gehenna (hell) or haidos (Hades) contain enormous ambiguities related to genre, rhetoric, and historical referent.

Hence, how one "solves" the problem of salvation and damnation, and so answers the question of universalism, will have everything to do with hermeneutical decisions made prior to the interpretive act, specifically regarding the extent of biblical diversity and internal disagreement, the overall eschatological vision, the freedom of God over against Scripture, etc.

This is why Christians of different theological stripes belonging to different traditions of interpretation are bound to simply speak past each other in these sorts of conversation; the answer is already given in the way they approach Scripture in the first place. That is where the conversation must be had, instead of the (seemingly open, but in fact predetermined) doctrinal question.

And here is where the lex proclamandi comes in. Wonderfully, it cuts both ways, because in this case the universalist and the dual-destinationist will alike—assuming they believe what they believe because they believe it to be true—seek to proclaim, respectively, universal salvation or limited salvation. That is what Christians are called to do, after all: proclaim the good news to all as the truth of the final destiny of all things.

But perhaps there is another way. Indeed, I contend that Christians should proclaim neither universal nor limited salvation.

To refrain from preaching either doctrine has to do primarily with humility of language and respect for the tradition. On the one hand, I think it perfectly fine for a Christian to believe that all will be saved, or indeed, that all may ultimately be saved. But neither of these affirmations entails that the matter is settled, only that (at any one time or place) it is acceptable for a Christian individual or group to assent to them.

The essential logic is that, with regard to a question so ambiguous, contested, and ultimately unknowable, Christians should have the humility to halt their proclamation either way at the point of saying definitively whether all will be saved or some will be damned. The humility of faith demands it, for just as we should not claim to know without a doubt who is “out,” so also should we refuse the temptation to speak with absolute confidence on behalf of God concerning who is “in.” On what grounds would we make such claims, and for what reasons would we state them as public truth?

The negative rule of proclamation is, therefore, to preach the gospel in such a way that one never claims that any human beings will not be saved, nor that all human beings will eventually be saved. The positive rule is, vice versa, to preach the gospel in such a way, on the one hand, that all persons hear that they are rightly the recipients of the message of God's free and gratuitous good news, and, on the other hand, that one's response to this message is of decisive and eternal import.

The humility required, then, is first of all toward God: we must respect God's freedom as regards both the justice of divine judgment and the sovereign mercy revealed in Christ. After all, Scripture could be summarized as the story of God's successive overturnings of faithful believers' confident interpretations of prior, seemingly clear revelation. Should we not anticipate a similar upending of our own finite understanding, particularly concerning a question of such enormous weight?

Our humility is directed also toward the dead—that is, Christians from past ages. If God's freedom mitigates our arrogance to presume we have a "read" on others' final fate, here confidence in our own interpretation is qualified by those who have come before. For there can be no doubt that the destination of hell as a real possibility for some human beings dominates the church’s tradition (though there have been minority voices throughout); and in Scripture, too, while ambiguity is present, it is difficult to avoid passages about eternal punishment, burning fire, and final damnation. That does not mean we ought not to hope—or better, to pray—for the salvation of all, believing as we do that God desires all to be saved; only that it is neither our mission nor our prerogative to proclaim it to the world.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Nancey Murphy on Reimagining Christian History Without Souls to Save

"What might theology be like today, and how might Christian history have gone differently, if a physicalist sort of anthropology had predominated rather than dualism? It seems clear that much of the Christian spiritual tradition would be different. There would be no notion of care of the soul as the point of Christian disciplines -- certainly no concept of depriving the body in order that the soul might flourish. As some feminist thinkers have been saying for some time: dualist anthropology all too easily leads to disparagement of the body and all that goes along with being embodied. [. . .]

"Here are some questions: Without the Neoplatonic notion that the goal of life is to prepare the soul for its proper abode in heaven, would Christians through the centuries have devoted more of their attention to working for God's reign on earth? And would Jesus' teachings be regarded as a proper blueprint for that earthly society? Would the creeds, then, not have skipped from his birth to his death, leaving out his teaching and faithful life? Would Christians then see a broader, richer role for Jesus Messiah than as facilitator of the forgiveness of their sins? If Christians had been focusing more, throughout all of these centuries, on following Jesus' teachings about sharing, and about loving our enemies at least enough so as not to kill them, how different might world politics be today? What would Christians have been doing these past 2000 years if there were no such things as souls to save?"

--Nancey Murphy, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 27

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Brief Insight into Yoder's Understanding of Christian Ethics and Their Relevance for the World

For John Howard Yoder, it is axiomatic that Christians ethics is for Christians; proposed alternatives tend to fall prey to unbelieving modes of moral discernment, whether Constantinian (thinking morally first of all from the position of the powerful) or Kantian (thinking morally first of all from what can be demanded of everyone).

This position is often taken to be sectarian, and therefore apolitical: the church does its thing, the state does its thing, and Christians accordingly have nothing to say to or to expect of the state.

This reading, however, confuses implementation and validation.

Implementation, on the one hand, names the actual possibility that the state, when addressed by the church (as the church is called in its life of witness to do in word and deed) to obey the form of life revealed in Christ as the will of God, really is able to respond, for whatever reason and in whatever way, in agreement with and enactment of the church's address. Hence: non-Christian or secular appropriations of Christian initiatives such as communal meetings of open dialogue, institutions for care of the sick, nonviolent resistance of oppression, privileging of the underdog, and so on.

Validation, on the other hand, names the (often unspoken) philosophical expectation or demand that Christian ethics be both applicable to and practicable for every person in any given society (including the ruler and the nonbeliever); if it fails this test, it is thereby rendered invalid. Yoder explicitly and vehemently rejects this approach to the so-called "relevance" or "responsibility" of Christian ethics, revealing it for what it is: a smokescreen for disallowing radical discipleship to be seriously expected of all who claim to be disciples, on the false grounds that it only "applies" to a "sect" -- for "we know" that the gospel is "political" and so concerns "everybody" and includes "all realms of life."

Indeed, the gospel is political and does concern all people and realms of life -- but in a peculiar way consistent with its own message and practice. Thus construed, Christian ethics, as the form of life of that particular people in the world called the church, constitutes a concrete and viable offer to the world which the world may in fact adopt, adapt, or otherwise appropriate. Whether or not the world does so, and in what way and for which reasons, bears no relation whatsoever either to the substance of the gospel's moral vision or to the expectation that the church obey it. To assume or allow such a determining relationship would be to presuppose that the world's internal possibilities encapsulate and so confirm or invalidate the command of God in Jesus Christ, rather than -- as Scripture and as Yoder so emphatically insist -- the other way around.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Resources for Thinking Through Western Intervention in Libya

Some diverse (and ideologically disparate) resources for thinking through the West's -- and therefore the American-led -- intervention in Libya and of the extensive bombing campaign taking place.

First, Adam Kotsko has questions to ask, including:
Why is the alternative between a bombing campaign and somehow tacitly supporting Qaddafi? Shouldn’t this emotional blackmail in itself make us suspicious? Hard as it is to believe, there are some problems that perhaps can’t be solved through Western-led bombing campaigns — and some problems that could potentially be made worse, even after near-term gains. NATO air power is not the right hand of God. [. . .]

What sovereign country, no matter what its form of government, wouldn’t react forcefully to armed rebellion? I doubt Obama would be restrained if Texas seceded, for example, or if armed rebels took control of Alaska — nor would any of the pundits now demonizing Qaddafi (which, to be fair, seems like a fair portrayal) call for restraint in such a case. Qaddafi appears to thirst for blood to an unusual degree, but collective punishment is not unheard of even among Western nations (see: Israel). Why is this case of putting down a rebellion within one’s own borders considered to be so egregious while others have been passed over in silence? And why should Nicholas Sarkozy, for instance, be trusted to make the call of which case is intervention-worthy?
Second, Michael Walzer offers concrete reasons why the intervention is categorically unjustified:
First, it is radically unclear what the purpose of the intervention is—there is no endgame, as a U.S. official told reporters. [. . .]

Second, the attacks don’t have what we should have insisted on from the very beginning—significant Arab support. [. . .]

Third, opposition in the Security Council didn’t stop with Russia and China. [. . .]

None of this would matter if this were a humanitarian intervention to stop a massacre. But that is not what is happening in Libya today.
Third, The Daily Mirror on the deeper purposes behind the intervention and, as a consequence, its unique character as a war:
The military intervention in Libya has nothing to do with the humanitarian pretexts offered by the conniving Western powers. Innocent civilians are going to die in numbers in the coming days and UN Gen. Sec. Ban-Ki Moon and his cohorts should be pulled up in the War Tribunal to go by the common logic.

After Iraq, this could be the beginning of the war for the resources, may be the third World War by extension.

Military intervention in Libya, whose energy resources have made it the object of imperialist ogling for decades, is used both to secure access to oil and to bring a strong military presence in the region. A military presence in Libya would help the West to intimidate the Arab world -not the rulers of the Arab world whose faith and cultural conscience are more Western than Muslim.

The bombing would not protect human lives, but would transform the country into a battlefield with thousands of innocent victims just like in Iraq . . .

And fourth, Chris Bertram on the result of intervening in a popular uprising:
I’d certainly rather have a no-fly zone (if it works, which is a big if) than the uprising defeated and mass killings by the Gaddafi family in revenge. But a successful popular uprising is no longer a possibility either. Most of the Libyan people have now been cast into the role of passive victims rather than active agents of their own liberation. Some Libyans may rally to the Gaddafi regime out of a sense of wounded national pride at outside interference. And even if Gaddafi falls (which I hope he will) the successor regime will lack the legitimacy it might have had, and will no doubt be resented and undermined by nationalist Gaddafi loyalists biding their time and representing it as the creature of the West.
Feel free to share other helpful or critical articles and pieces in the comments.

Update: The New Republic has three articles up engaging and/or critiquing the intervention (the last of which, as it happens, is the same Walzer piece cited above, and the first of which supports the decision to intervene militarily).

Second update: David Ayres summarizes:
We are using our superior military capabilities to protect our interests against an inferior and aggressive military force who was using its superior military capabilities to protect its interests against an inferior and aggressive military force.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Best Albums and TV Shows of 2010

To continue my recent rash of non-theological posts, I thought I'd round out my picks for 2010. These are less comprehensive than my film list, as I make a concerted effort to watch as many worthwhile or acclaimed movies as I can, whereas I only have so much money and time for television and music. Especially lacking in TV are three shows that I assume would make the list, but which I will have to wait to watch on DVD: Treme, Boardwalk Empire, and Breaking Bad.

Otherwise, enjoy and feel free to discuss below. Theology should be making a belated return sometime later this week.

Top 10 Television Shows of 2010

1. Mad Men (AMC)
2. The Walking Dead (AMC)
3. Rubicon (AMC)
4. Friday Night Lights (NBC)
5. Parks and Recreation (NBC)
6. Community (NBC)
7. Justified (FX)
8. Lost (ABC)
9. Fringe (Fox)
10. Modern Family (ABC)

Top 10 Albums of 2010

1. Sufjan Stevens — The Age of Adz
2. The Arcade Fire — The Suburbs
3. The Tallest Man on Earth — The Wild Hunt
4. Kanye West — My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
5. The National — High Violet
6. Esperanza Spalding — Chamber Music Society
7. Patty Griffin — Downtown Church
8. The Black Keys — Brothers
9. Vampire Weekend — Contra
10. Jónsi — Go

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Good News on the PhD Front

Official as of 11:00 pm last night, and so now public knowledge: I have formally accepted an offer of admission to Yale's Department of Religious Studies to pursue my PhD in theology. My wife and I will be moving up to New Haven at the end of May, and I will begin my studies in the fall. I am looking forward especially to working with Kathryn Tanner, Miroslav Volf, and Christopher Beeley (among the other numerous remarkable scholars there).

Those who have gone through the process before can imagine my surprise, delight, relief, and sheer gratitude. For all the obvious reasons, I could not be happier about this next step. Along with those I note two particularly gratifying reasons: it establishes simultaneously that I will never have to apply for a doctoral program again and furthermore that I will -- by God's grace -- complete a PhD, neither of which facts are promised, much less expectable, aspects of this career path.

Most of all, as I have shared before, this is the fulfillment of a dream I have had for some time; in fact, when I begin my studies in August it will have been exactly eight years since I realized for the first time that I wanted to be trained as a theologian and scholar. What a gift it is to be given the opportunity to fulfill one's vocation in the best possible place, with the most conducive conditions, in the pursuit and practice of something one actually loves. I am profoundly thankful to be in such a unique and happy place.

As it happens, to a large extent this blog has served to chart my way through my Master's degree, linking undergraduate to doctoral studies in what will be a full three years of "in between the times." By way of the blog I have gotten to know (by text, by contact, by meeting) a host of other folks in similar positions on the same career or disciplinary continuum, whether out ahead or somewhere behind.

In that light I thought I would invite any others (some of whom I already know, though it is not my place to share) who are in a similar place, with knowledge of the next step into a graduate program, to feel free to share in the comments where you're headed. Even at this point, I can already testify to how nice it is to know others in the same theological "class," since in a real sense we'll be working our way through together. In any case, I'm sure we'll all be seeing one another soon enough.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Top 10 Films of 2010

It should be admitted up front: 2010 was not a great year for film. It was quite a good year (as is wont to happen nowadays with the sheer bulk of annual releases), but not a great one. The far-and-away front-runner and shoe-in for best film -- Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, completed and set for a November release date -- ended up being delayed six months. American film in particular was hampered by a branding frenzy that resulted in a slack-jawed merry-go-round of sequels, superheroes, and remakes. (And even as I complain, note that each of my top two films belongs to one of these categories.)

Unlike much of the year-end list-making that takes place at the titular year's end, my annual habit is to devote January and February to waiting for critical darlings and international films to arrive on DVD, and then to devour as much as I can in a span that doesn't make another list too damningly distant. In any case, here it is for all to see; as always I welcome feedback in the form of back slaps, proffered replacements, and outraged protestations alike.

(Also: feel free to peruse my Top 10 lists from the last two years. To give you a sense of my leanings, the final tallies for 2009 and 2008 were, respectively: 1. Inglourious Basterds 2. Hunger 3. Up 4. In the Loop 5. Two Lovers 6. 35 Shots of Rum 7. Avatar 8. Fantastic Mr. Fox 9. Julia 10. Coraline; and: 1. Rachel Getting Married 2. The Dark Knight 3. WALL-E 4. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button 5. The Wrestler 6. Man on Wire 7. Let the Right One In 8. Slumdog Millionaire 9. Redbelt 10. Encounters at the End of the World. The placement of a few in the latter list now causes me to wonder what I was thinking, but I'll leave them be.)

- - - - - - -

Sight unseen: Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance); Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos); Enter the Void (Gaspar Noé); Everyone Else (Maren Ade) The Father of My Children (Mia Hansen-Løve); Marwencol (Jeff Malmberg); Please Give (Nicole Holofcener); Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Mitchell); Somewhere (Sofia Coppola); Waiting for Superman (Davis Guggenheim)

Honorable mention: 127 Hours (Danny Boyle); Black Swan (Darren Aranofsky); The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski); Greenberg (Noah Baumbach); I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino); October Country (Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri); A Prophet (Jacques Audiard); Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese); Sweetgrass (Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor); Valhalla Rising (Nicolas Winding Refn)

- - - - - - -

10. Vengeance (Johnny To)

About two thirds of the way through Vengeance, the three hitmen who are trying to help a French man with short-term amnesia exact -- as you might expect -- vengeance for the death of his daughter share a thematically revealing conversation. It goes like this:

"What does revenge mean, when you have forgotten everything?"
"If Costello had a choice, you think he'd choose to forget?"
"He may not remember, but I do."

In Johnny To's expectedly operatic but surprisingly patient film, memory is not merely personal, but communal; injustice perpetrated and unavenged is a lasting scar on one's fellows even as the self slips away. Death itself will not let the unhealed go unaddressed forever. Vengeance thus proves to be much more than a Hong Kong shoot-'em-up: namely, a disciplined meditation on family and loss, injustice and retribution, memory and community, violence and redemption, communicated across boundaries of culture and language. Just so it would make for potent viewing alongside Christopher Nolan's Memento, which explores similar issues in an entirely different idiom.

9. Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy)

Truth and untruth are unsortable in elusive graffiti artist Banksy's controversial documentary. Nor does that question ultimately matter all that much, at least as the story is told. Ostensibly begun by obsessive videographer, one-time clothing dealer, and family man Thierry Guetta about street art and, eventually, the legendary Banksy, the film turns back upon Guetta as he gets into the game himself and, in the process, becomes an overnight sensation as Mr. Brainwash.

Apart from sheer entertainment value -- these are fascinating characters in an unexplored underground scene filled with shadowy identities and unspoken motivations -- what we come to see, whether manipulated or filtered or utterly spontaneous, is an illuminating gaze shone on the meaning of art, media, personality, and populism in the 21st century. Or, as the film might equally lead us to conclude, a disquieting lack thereof.

8. Winter's Bone (Debra Granik)

A simple story, Winter's Bone is carefully told with sensitivity and detail to character and place. From the start, we are made to understand that not everyone is as they seem in this rural Ozark meth noir, nor is our protagonist the insignificance that she is taken to be by those wanting her to quit prying into the details of her father's (rumored) death. In the film's one unbreakable moral code, however, familial loyalty trumps whatever threats others make or represent, and newcomer Jennifer Lawrence ably embodies the kind of believably sturdy resolve that refuses to let these dissuade her from discovering the truth.

The wrenching climactic scene epitomizes all that comes before: led to impenetrably dark waters that may or may not hold her father's remains, that indeed may or be awaiting her own, what she finds, what she learns, and what she earns thereby for her family is at this point beside the point. What matters, in Debra Granik's steady telling, is that she has made it here at all.

7. Inception (Christopher Nolan)

Let us propose the following: When a film does not make claims for itself, whether by its creator or its narrative or its form, we will accordingly not impose our own expectations on said film and walk away disappointed when it does not meet them. Fair?

Christopher Nolan's shrewd head game Inception is no attempt at psychological meditation, no philosophical statement on the unconscious, no exploration of the nature of dreams. It is a heist film, pure and simple. A con, a thriller. And when viewed within its proper genre, one quickly realizes that it is a singularly thrilling and impressively executed entry in a long line of standout predecessors. Perhaps it is something more, but it is certainly nothing less.

6. Carlos (Olivier Assayas)

A nearly six-hour charting of the seductive rise and ambiguous celebrity and ignominious fall of Venezuelan socialist revolutionary and international terrorist Carlos the Jackal, Olivier Assayas' film would seem to have an unfair advantage over others, what with its running time and headline-ripping protagonist. At the same time, these and other aspects pose enormous temptations that have befallen similar tellings: uncritical hagiography (Walter Salles' The Motorcycle Diaries), distant neutrality (Steven Soderbergh's Che), and sprawling incoherence (Oliver Stone's Alexander), to name a few.

Somehow, Assayas manages to walk the perilous biopic tightrope in a story that spans two and a half decades of womanizing, geopolitics, militarism, Marxist ideology, media savvy, and terrorism, never losing sight of his central subject or of the plot. From the full hour devoted to the storming of the OPEC meeting, to the bold cross-cut between Carlos' first bombing and his emboldened virile strutting, to the many flights to and from lands unwilling to host an international celebrity-terrorist, to the final scene of emasculated comeuppance -- the man, the legend, and the headlines are newly remythologized just as they are soundly demythologized, taken and remade in Assayas' confident narrative hands.

5. The Social Network (David Fincher)

Need a film be perfect for it to be great? Fincher's twisted take on Aaron Sorkin's hopped-up A.D.D. dialogue is the reason why films get made: no one could have imagined in advance the alchemy produced by this unlikely combination of talents. Furthermore, rather than some stale commentary on a static moment in technological time, Fincher and Sorkin have something richer and more lasting to say something about the state of human connection, communal relations, and gendered power in the age of the internet. It is no flawless masterpiece, but it also does not need to be. It is only itself: smart, riveting, brutal, timely. I doubt that we should ask for more.

4. Vincere (Marco Bellocchio)

A tale lit by moonlight, shadows, and celluloid, Vincere makes for telling comparison with other historical epics from recent years, such as 2010's celebrated (and now Oscar winner) The King's Speech. The latter is undeniably watchable, well told, well acted, and an interesting story, particularly for those of us with little knowledge of the history. It is also fundamentally and immediately forgettable, almost as if by design.

Marco Bellocchio's remarkable film, on the other hand, is not merely compelling -- to take only the opening scenes, the brilliantly staged introduction of Mussolini (in a theological debate, no less!) and the temporally intercut meetings between Ida and Benito in the midst of the socialist uprising boldly set the thematic stage for all that follows -- it is a tirelessly inventive and irreducibly theatrical presentation of obsession, power, politics, war, love, loyalty, sex, and a nation's descent into madness, as embodied by a single woman bent on the truth but confined to the madhouse. This -- to put it less breathlessly -- is history and cinema done right, precisely because Bellocchio does not avoid but instead appropriates the fact that history and cinema are themselves no more disentangleable today than they were then.

3. Mother (Bong Joon-ho)

After the goofy fun of 2006's The Host, I wasn't sure what to expect from Mother. But Bong Joon-ho, buoyed by Kim Hye-ja's astonishing performance, quickly upended my qualified expectations in this devastating tale of misplaced memory, filial sacrifice, society and disability, and the violence of disordered love. Like other films on this list, Bong asks us to answer honestly how far would we go for the sake of family and truth -- or, as it happens, with which would we side if we had to choose between the two. And given either choice, how would we find a way to live with ourselves?

The furious release and awful sadness of Mother's final, masterful scene encapsulates what Bong suggests to be the unavoidable consequences. Beautiful and tragic in each cascading moment spiraling out to the end, Bong Joon-ho's Shakespearean tale lingers and discomfits even as its gentleness endures in an ambling, staggering, upsetting sunset drive.

2. Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich)

Chuck Klosterman recently complained about adults critically lauding Toy Story 3 (which, as it happens, he has not seen) as one more sign of an already hyper-infantilized culture: kids' movies are for kids, and that's all there is to it. I of course beg to differ, but there are prior questions to be asked.

Why, for example, assume that Toy Story 3 is a kids' movie at all? Because it's animated? But animation is a medium, not content. Or is it because it "stars" children (or childish stuff)? But subject matter isn't a correlate of age or viewership; children and childhood are fine subjects for serious film. Or perhaps because it's made by Disney, and so is marketed to children? But I see no reason to allow the identity of a production company, much less the mindset of a faceless marketing team, to determine in advance the potential of a film's quality or audience.

In short, and more broadly speaking, the only reason Toy Story 3 wasn't on more year-end lists is because it is a sequel and an animated film. What its popularity and marketing resulted in masking is the fact that Toy Story 3 is one of only a handful of wholly satisfying and artistically integral conclusions to a traditional cinematic trilogy ever. (The one other of equal caliber is The Return of the King; on a different level, The Bourne Ultimatum, and in a different realm, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.) There is little else to add, except that the prejudices will wane, Pixar remains historically and unaccountably consistent, and Toy Story 3's status as a classic will solidify sooner rather than later.

1. Let Me In (Matt Reeves)

Who would have thought that an American remake of an internationally acclaimed Swedish horror film from just two years earlier, directed by the (ahem) less-than-acclaimed auteur of the found-doc monster flick Cloverfield, would not only avoid being an immediate DVD dustbin disaster, but would somehow result in an accomplished and impressive improvement on the original?

But that is just what happened with Let Me In, Matt Reeves' extraordinary adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist's 2004 novel Let the Right One In and creative remake of Tomas Alfredson's first adaptation of the same name in 2008. A poignant and affecting exploration of the brutalities of youthful belonging and the power of unconditional loyalty -- consequences be damned -- Let Me In somehow manages to cut the fat from Alfredson's already superlative original and add even further psychological depth and visceral terror. The film announces two notable arrivals: that of Chloe Moretz -- whose work here and in Kick-Ass, (500) Days of Summer, and now 30 Rock marks her as one of the most talented and diverse actresses working today period -- and that of Reeves, who has now proved himself unquestionably worthy of whatever material he decides to take up next.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Pithy Jenson on the Marks of the Church

"[T]he marks of the church can be summed up in this formula: the church is where those promises are made and performed that can be sanely made if and only if the particular man Jesus of Israel is indeed risen from the dead."

--Robert W. Jenson, Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings (with Eric W. Gritsch; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), 135

Monday, March 7, 2011

Streaming: Biblical Conversations from the Missional Frontier

I wanted to pass along information about an upcoming event: for anyone interested and able, you are invited to join Miroslav Volf and Scot McKnight at Rochester College in two months for "Streaming: Biblical Conversations from the Missional Frontier." The conference will be held from Monday, May 16, through Wednesday, May 18, in Rochester Hills, Michigan, and is organized by uber-missional theologian (and blogger) Mark Love.

Mark is a superb theological thinker and committed disciple, and has organized what looks to be an immensely impressive conference, which is presented as "an in-depth exploration about the adventure of ministry. Presented by Rochester College’s Resource Center for Missional Leadership, Streaming will focus on the book of James and will offer ministers and church leaders biblical resources to help them lead God’s people in a missional era."

Find out more at the conference's website, or from Mark himself. Others who have plugged the event (and are planning on attending) include Tony Jones -- who also helped organize it -- and Richard Beck.

Unfortunately, I will not be able to attend as I will be one week removed from having graduated and two weeks ahead of moving out of state. However, I recommend registering and attending as highly as possible, and I hope it is a blessing to all involved.