Thursday, December 31, 2009

Top 10 Movies of the Decade

When I came out here to interview for my job, I met with the the-campus/singles minister. He asked if I liked movies, since that's about all there is to do out here. I love movies, and I can't count the number of movies I've seen in that time. My wife and I have practically worn out a DVD player, and I'm sure Netflix hates us for taking such advantage of unlimited movies.

Inspired by this compilation at Slate (with some help from these lists from Entertainment Weekly) here's my stab at the top 10 movies of the decade:

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Seldom have I finished a movie feeling so satisfied, like I just finished a good meal.

2. Moulin Rouge! (2001). An odd choice, but I loved this movie so much when I saw it in the theater. It was so original, so layered in its storytelling. And it doesn't hurt that it was my future wife's favorite movie. Yes, Come What May was sung at our wedding, what's it to you?

3. Casino Royale/Star Trek (2006/2009). Two reboots of legacy franchises with high expectations. Both exceeded expectations and surprised die-hards by taking new directions with established characters. Absolutely loved both movies.

4. The Blair Witch Project (1999). Ok, this is a cheat, but October '99 is close enough to 2000 to count. Plus it has to be noted how important this movie was for not only how it was made, but how it was hyped. It was the first "viral" marketing campaign. Lost wouldn't be the same without it. So/so movie, but played to great effect.

5. American Beauty (1999). My second cheat but also included because of the trend it started: the hyper-realistic story telling without any true protagonists. 'Reality TV' without the c-list celebrities. This is what you'd see if you put a camera on an average American family in suburbia, and it's not pretty. I've never spent so much time in the parking lot afterwards taking about the movie I just saw as I did with this one.

6. The Passion of the Christ (2004). Demonstrated that christians (intentional little c) are a viable niche market. Good or bad thing?

7. Gangs of New York (2002). A movie that completely overwhelms you. Between the stellar acting, the portrayal of the grittiness of the time period, and the brutal violence of it all, this movie makes me very grateful I didn't live then. It also ushered in the trend of the 'histo-drama', released during the Oscar push that includes movies like There Will Be Blood, which top many lists, but wouldn't even have been made if not for GoNY.

8. 25th Hour (2002). New York post 9/11 plus Spike Lee. Add a little Ed Norton and you get one of my favorite movies.

9. Gladiator (2000). Never has a movie inspired so many sermons. But revolutionary in it's combination of the special effects of a summer popcorn flick and the depth of a period drama. Yeah, it's still just a popcorn flick. But a darn good one.

10. Amelie (2001). Cute. Quirky. Foreign. A movie I loved even though it doesn't fit in any of my usual favorite molds.

Honorable mentions (maybe not top 10 worthy, but worth a watch if you haven't seen them):

-Requiem for a Dream (2000). I had a tough time leaving this off. Soderbergh-ish cut-editing. Realistic portrayal of addiction. Don't watch on a date (ahem, Jim).

-Once/Bella (2007/2006). Little indies that could. Great feel-good movies.

-Friday Night Lights (2004). I needed to include a sports movie. Not sure if this was the best of the decade, but it's close. Also the first that came to mind.

-Narc (2002). In my opinion better than Mystic River, The Departed, We Own the Night and every other police drama that came out in the last decade.

-WALL-E (2008). This needs to be in the list above, but there's no room. Hardly any dialogue, but incredibly deep satire for an animated kids' movie.

-The Prestige/The Illusionist (2006/2006). In the tradition of Armageddon/Deep Impact and other duo/copy-cats, come these two period pieces about magicians couldn't be more different. And unlike Armageddon/Deep Impact, both were good. Very good.

I'm sure there are others. So help me out what makes your top 10?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

12 Days

You may think Christmas is behind us, but we're now in the traditional 12 Days of Christmas, marking the time between Christ's birth and the theophany, when Jesus was later baptized. Advent, leading up to Christmas, is a tradition to prepare believers for the second-coming of Jesus. The Nativity is obviously the celebration of Jesus' birth, the long-awaited Messiah. And the Theophany is when God audibly confirmed Jesus as his son.

One of the most profound tenants of Christianity is Jesus' part in the Trinity. Not as the Son of God, but as the Word of God. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:1, 14)

So it is appropriate to celebrate these 12 days by reflecting on Jesus as the Word by studying in depth David's celebration of God's Word in Psalm 119. Anne Lang Bundy has been blogging on the 12 different Hebrew words translated as 'word' in Psalm 119. Start here on Day One and catch up here.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What Christmas Means to Me

Candles burnin' low,
Lot's of mistle toe.
Lot'sof snow and ice,
Eveywhere we go.
Choirs singin' carols,
Right outside my door.

All these things and more
That's what Christmas means to me my love

-Stevie Wonder, What Christmas Means to Me

One of the motivations for the "keeping Christ in Christmas" campaign is the increased secularization of this holiday. And that's my common defense against the secular backlash against it. Most Christmas carols are about snowfall, reindeer, Santa, presents or family. A few classic carols are actually about the baby Jesus. If I were to walk up to you in the middle of summer and I mention Christmas, what would be the first thing to pop in your mind? For me it would likely be vacation, family, shopping, what I want, etc. I'm not sure if the birth of Jesus would come as quickly.

And I don't think I'm alone. But the statistics prove otherwise. In a Rasmussen poll released a week ago, 66% of Americans claim to celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. The cynic in me thinks this means that most of those feel that way because it's one of the two times a year they actually attend church. But the numbers suggest there's more to it. 81% believe Jesus is the Son of God and died for our sins and 82% believe that Jesus Christ is an actual historic figure. These are interesting numbers and consistent with the roughly 80% of Americans who claim to be Christians. The flipside of these numbers show that 20% of Americans celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday (meaning 14% don't celebrate it at all), and only 3% don't believe that Jesus Christ is an historical figure.

So don't be afraid to wish someone a Merry Christmas! The odds are good you're not going to offend anyone.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Power of a Word

You might think all the hullabaloo about the 'War on Christmas' is limited to the United States but you'd be wrong. It's been reported that a principal in Australia was forced to apologize to atheist parents of a child for saying "Christmas" too many times in a school newsletter. Disclaimer: I heard this on the radio but have not seen any credible source online, even while googling the parties involved directly. While this is being widely reported across the blogosphere, the best news link I could find was from 2005. So I have a hunch this is a spam email going around. Even if this is four-year-old news, it still illustrates how sensitive we can be to a single word. The so-called War on Christmas isn't about singing carols, putting up lights, or buying presents for your children. It is about the word Christmas implying the birth of Christ and therefore endorsing or even proselytizing the Christian faith.

Let's pretend that the secularists have their way and the word Christmas is abolished because of its religious roots. What other offensive words should we eliminate from our vernacular?

Don't use 'Hail Mary' when describing the last play of a football game. (Luke 1:28)

Don't use 'prayer' when describing a last minute or clutch shot in any sport.

Speaking of sports, I noticed there's no real "David versus Goliath" match up in any of the BCS bowls this year. (1 Samuel 17)

Don't use 'the writing on the wall' to describe something ominous. (Daniel 5) Or "signs of the times" either. (Luke 12:56)

Don't use the word excruciating to describe pain. That word was invented to describe the unique pain suffered from crucifixion and if a secularized/commercialized word like Christmas instantly implies Jesus, then any reference to crucifixion should as well.

Don't say "inspired" or "enthused" which mean spirit-filled and god-filled respectively.

Don't say 'baptism by fire' to describe going through trials. (Matthew 3:11) Actually, better not say 'baptism' at all since it's a specific religious term that's not derived from any translation (transliteration).

Don't say 'holy ---' as a cuss word or otherwise.

Don't say 'damn' as a curse or otherwise.

And you better not say "Jesus Christ" even if you're using his name in vain.

I'm sure there are others you could think of, but you get the point. Most of these examples are common phrases used independent from religion but that doesn't change their meaning or implication. Just like Christmas has become far removed from religion, that does not change its obviously offensive meaning.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

What was Old is New Again

"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

We're at the heart of the Christmas season, which means we're in the thick of the "War on Christmas" and are inundated by the overreaction to this "war". For some reason we think our circumstances are unique. We look around and think our culture's morals are worse than they have ever been. And we are hyper-sensitive to criticism or even just contrary opinions. And for some reason, the image we often portray is that of the 1950's white picket fence America where 'Christians were Christians, and non-Christians were too." But not long after this utopia was the upheaval of the 1960's. Darn hippies.

Tuesday night ABC aired A Charlie Brown Christmas, the second-longest running Christmas special on Network Television (beat out by only a year by Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer) which first aired in 1965. I'm not ashamed to admit we bought the box set of Charlie Brown holiday specials a year ago and we've already practically worn them out. My children are quick to run up and press play after any movie finishes, but sometime the menu screen isn't the 'top menu' but is the menu for Special Features. These Charlie Brown DVDs are an example of this. So they come running in wanting me to fix it, because what 4 and 2 year old wants to watch a "making of..."?

The first time this happened I was surprised as they were talking about the negative backlash they received for having the nerve to quote scripture (Linus' famous reading of Luke 2). Producer/director/and snoopy actor Bill Melendez tried to talk Peanuts creator Charles Schulz out of including the scripture. CBS executives were hesitant to air it. And the public response was as expected.

This was in 1965. It could be argued we have much greater freedom today when we televangelists can be found on multiple channels, political pundits on both sides of the aisle who aren't afraid to reference their religion, and movies such as The Passion of the Christ being commercial successes. Yet we still feel this insecurity whenever anyone has a different opinion than what we consider "mainstream Christianity" which some of us believe should dominate our culture and every facet of society.

For those of you fighting in the latest go-around of the War on Christmas, hearken back to 1965 (or 1968) and remember than "nothing is new under the sun."

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tool Shed

It is that time of year to dust off your Sunday best, wake up a little earlier, and go to church for maybe the second time of the year (the first being Easter). You go to hear Christmas carols, watch a performance, or to satisfy your parents that you're home visiting. You wish people Marry Christmas and probably have your house decorated with a tree up. You may even be done shopping using the guise of Santa. Why do you go? What do you hope to get from it?

That may sound cynical, but in a country where roughly 80% of Americans call themselves Christians "only 3 out of 10 twentysomethings (31%) attend church in a typical week, compared to 4 out of 10 of those in their 30s (42%) and nearly half of all adults age 40 and older (49%)." (from a 2003 Barna survey) A more frightening way of looking at it is that Barna considers those who only attend church at "Christmas or Easter, or for special events such as a wedding or a funeral" unchurched. This number of adults is a striking 34%. (from a 2004 survey)

So I don't buy the label "Christian". Which makes it hard to define "church" in a traditional way. We often define our religion based on how we were raised, and not necessarily our personal doctrine. In fact, doctrine is often secondary as we become a culture where "church shopping" is becoming more and more prevalent. So what is your church and why there? Is it the people you meet (look at how homogeneous your congregation likely is- income level, race, age)? Is it the worship (how relevant are you)? Is it the dynamic preaching (aren't Jesus' words the "same yesterday and today and tomorrow")? Is it the parachurch ministries/activities (are you salt and light)?

But it is usually one of the above that motivates us to attend the church that we do. It should be all the above. But we need to check our expectations at the door. Perhaps you've heard the cliche "church isn't about what you get out of it but what you give to it." Instead of doctrine, theology, or polity; worship, relevance, or relatability; church is not what it looks like or what it does, but what we do as Christians in its name. For me, church is not a place of worship, it is a tool shed. Full of different tools to suit our different talents for us to use to the glory of God.

It's too easy to rely on church leaders and think only of what we get out of church. But the Bible does not call us to just show up every weekend (or when it's convenient). Instead we are called to use the talents we've been given to grow Christ's Church. "Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his[b]faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully." (Romans 12:4-8) and "It was [Jesus] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ." (Ephesians 4:11-13)

Note the ends and the means. God gives us talents and Christ appoints us to roles so that the Church may be united and mature. The goal is not church attendance, spirit-filled worship, or dynamic leadership. It is attaining the fullness of Christ.

You can read a diversity of definitions of church through this week's blog carnival. To each who post, they are using the tools they get through their church to use the internet to bring unity to the Church. Let this motivate you to rummage through the shed and find the tool that fits you.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

War on Christmas

With two weeks to go before Christmas, the infamous 'War on Christmas' is heating up. This probably won't be my only post on the subject, though I find following this subject in the media tiresome. I even tried to tackle this last year, but got derailed by Newsweek taking advantage of the holiday season to pontificate about gay-marriage. You can check those posts out here if you so desire.

I read this article the other day and I agree with most of it. It's hard to argue about "keeping Christ in Christmas" when our biggest concern is having the best decorations on the block or making sure our kids have the latest-greatest toys (or is it we who want the latest-greatest gadget?). At the same time our culture does us no favors and the politics that have worked their way into this debate are frustrating.

So if you really want to keep Christ in Christmas, wear a t-shirt. That's all it takes!

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Does it Matter Where our Taxes Go?

The big political debate yesterday was over restricting federal funds for abortions in the latest iteration of the Health Care overhaul. Never mind that there is already a statute that prohibits federal funds from paying for abortions, though I agree with the argument that it's only a shell game of moving lines on a ledger.

This morning coincidentally, I read Matthew 22:15-22 where the Pharisees and Herodians try to trap Jesus by asking him about taxes. The question seemed to be a slam dunk for the Pharisees since any good Jew would agree that the Romans were oppressors and that these taxes went to a government that supported infanticide, homosexuality, and pagan worship. Jesus replied channeling Lee Corso, "not so fast, my friends! Who does this coin belong to? Then that's who has a say of where it goes." In other words, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." (Mt 22:21)

We let ourselves get into such a fuss over what our government does with our money, but we'll gladly accept grants for our abstinence-only education program. Relating the two, the onus to reduce the number of abortions is not on the federal government, but on the individuals who choose to be irresponsible sexually. In our hyper-sexualized culture, we need to fight this front of the culture war not through politics, but by our own example of purity. The coin bore the image of Caesar, so it was his. We bear the image of God Almighty, and we are his.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Not The Smallest Letter

The title is taken from Matthew 5:18 which reads, "I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." (The smallest letter is a translation of "not one iota", which is a figure in Hebrew that looks like an accent or apostrophe.) A lot of people point to wars, famine, natural disasters, and our increasing wickedness to claim that we are in the "end times". I'm not one of those, but you could add all the hand-wringing over Bible translations to push personal agendas. I read about this before, but showing up in the headlines yesterday motivated me to write about it today: there is an effort to re-translate the Bible to remove "liberal bias". As if the Main Stream Media wasn't enough of a strawman enemy of the Right, you can now add "professors [who] are the most liberal group of people in the world, and... who are doing the popular modern translations of the Bible." Riiight.

They want to remove, or at least re-translate such controversial passages as "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" from Luke 23:34 even though my Bible contains the footnote that "some early manuscripts do not have this sentence." There's no mention if they also want to take out the last several versus of Mark or the story of the woman caught in adultery which are also not found in the earliest manuscripts. If we're not smart enough to make note of these footnotes, then maybe they should call this translation "The Bible for Dummies." Oh wait, nevermind, that's already taken.

There's more to this though than trying to reflect the original intent of the Biblical authors. There is an admitted political agenda."The phrase 'theological conservative' does not mean that someone is politically conservative," says Andy Schlafy, the person behind this. I hate to break it to Andy, but Christian does not mean Republican either.

This is nothing new. There was a big fuss a while back over translations trying to make references to God more gender neutral. The Jesus Seminar color-codes quotes of Jesus by how likely they think it was he actually said it. Thomas Jefferson re-wrote his own version of the Gospels taking out anything "supernatural" like all of his miracles and the resurrection. And Martin Luther wanted to remove the entire book of James because it didn't agree with his theology.

So I don't take offense to this, but I would advise Mr. Schlafy and everyone else contributing to this (they're editing it like a wiki) to consider the following passages (pick your favorite translation if you must, these are all NIV):

"I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book." (Revelation 22:18-19) While this specifically applies to John's personal vision recorded in Revelation, it shows how serious God takes his Word.

"This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true." (John 21:24) A "testimony" is more than just writing a biography and is even more than being a witness in a legal case. The author, in this case John, was admitting here that if anything he wrote wasn't true he should be put to death by being stoned. I wonder if Mr. Schlafy would take a similar stand for his truth?

"As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,

so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it."
(Isaiah 55:10-11)

God's Word has a purpose and I've already demonstrated how seriously he takes it. I would not want to be one who stands in the way of God's Word not accomplishing what he desires.

"All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." (2 Tim 3:16-17) The Bible is used for "teaching" making translators therefore "teachers." And there's specific warning against aspiring to teach: "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness." Ironically, taken from the book of James.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Grief... and Hope

I’ve written before regarding the tragic loss of Steven Curtis Chapman’s daughter. Here’s a recent article on how he’s been doing since, and on his most recent album.

This is an area where I cannot relate. I lost my dad before my 21st birthday and have lost grandparents, aunts and uncles, but never anyone so “premature” as a sibling or a child. Yet I am still moved to tears when I read or hear about parents having to bury one of their own children.

Recently a brother was out visiting our church. He used to live here, but moved away before I moved in. But he kept in regular contact with the congregation, so we were all up to speed on the goings on of his life. Specifically, he shared about the health of his daughter. Regrettably, I don’t remember all the specifics, but she was diagnosed with a rare condition that gave her an expected life span of less than five years. I’ve lived here for nine years, so she made it to at least 8. He shared with us about his daughter’s joy despite her affliction, about the times they treasured together as a family not knowing if it would be their last. And as he fought back tears, he shared how he held her as she took her last breath earlier this year.

I cannot imagine. Tears well up watching Finding Nemo when I think about losing my son and not knowing where he is or how he is doing. The fear of not knowing is what breaks my heart most. But this brother shared that he found encouragement in knowing where his daughter was and how she was doing. It feels like a cliché, “they’re with Jesus in heaven,” and it almost sounds too good to be true. But we have reason for such faith:

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. (1 Corinthians 15:12-19)
If the empty tomb is a lie, a cliché, too good to be true, then we should be pitied above anyone. Our faith is useless and our lives meaningless. So the resurrection of Christ is what we need to turn to in time of grief.

Oh, the name of this brother’s daughter, chosen before she was even born?