Monthly Archives: December 2008

Top Ten Music Videos of 2008

Though there is no cultural center of music video exhibition anymore (MTV’s venerable Total Request Live closed up shop this year), the music video as a form is alive and well. You just have to seek them out on YouTube. The following are my favorites from the last year:

10) Justice, “Stress”: It’s a manic song from French dance genius Justice, and it’s a suitably manic video.

9) Radiohead, “House of Cards”: This video was made not with lights, but lasers!

8) Britney Spears, “Circus”: After a string of misfire videos, Brit Brit returns to form with this stylistically cohesive, energetic video.

7) Bjork, “Wanderlust”: Bjork is crazy. Nothing new there. But this Where the Wild Things Are-esque video is her strangest video yet.

6) Vampire Weekend, “Oxford Comma”: It’s a total Wes Anderson knockoff, but I’m okay with that!

5) M83, “Kim and Jessie”: Not to be confused with that abysmal sitcom “Kath and Kim”…

4) Weezer, “Pork and Beans”: A fitting homage to the short history of viral video sensations.

3) Kanye West, “Heartless”: Kanye sure does love his Pop Art!

2) Beyonce, “Single Ladies”: This is how dance videos should look. And that metallic hand!

1) Sam Amidon, “Saro”: Repurposed archival and vintage American footage creates the perfect visual landscape to this deeply evocative song.

I Understand Very Little (Some Advent Thoughts)

Yesterday I read this Newsweek article that attempts to debunk the apparently misguided biblical argument against gay marriage. I will say nothing more about it, except that the article hammered home one major point: Christianity and the Bible are frightfully misunderstood.

For the past several weeks, I’ve been researching an article that I am writing on the “missional” movement in Christianity. I’ve been interviewing dozens of professors, theologians, pastors, and church historians in efforts to understand what “missional” is saying about the purpose of the Christian church in the world. I will say nothing more about it, except that it reminded me of one thing: even Christians have trouble agreeing upon what Christianity really means.

These two instances, in combination with scores of other things (including but not limited to the plane crash that killed four people in San Diego, Oprah getting fat, and Handel’s Messiah), have reinforced to me the deep and abiding mystery that is Christianity. I mean, the word and the religion are not all that mysterious, but how it all works—the birth of Jesus, the death, the resurrection, and all the fancy words we use to make sense of it all (incarnation, justification, salvation, atonement)—is utterly and unavailingly mystifying.

But really, could it be any other way? We’re talking about God here, the eternal, omni-everything Being of beings, the Ultimate Concern (as Tillich would say) who created all things… and he condescended to our little planet in the form of an infant? And as this human, the person that history recorded as Jesus Christ, God made himself fathomable. This is how I look at Jesus: as the form through which God revealed the knowable part of himself to his creation.

It makes sense that Jesus was the complicated, counterintuitive, controversial figure that he was. He was God in a man’s body—fully human and fully God. No wonder we’re still talking about, wrestling with, trying to make sense of this guy. No wonder people still argue about what he meant by this or that, or “what he would do” in this or that scenario. No wonder we pray to him and sing songs about him, and go crazy every December in commemorate his birth.

God (aka Yahweh) was pretty complicated and mysterious before Jesus happened (i.e. in the Old Testament), but his mystery increased exponentially when he became a human. I mean, who does that??? I’ve read the Bible many times, I’ve heard Paul and the others when they talk about why God sent Jesus to earth and to the cross. And I still can’t fully understand what is going on. I mean, I understand enough. I understand that it was all out of love, for me, for a divine purpose, and that it was God moving to rescue his creation from self-destruction and sin. I understand the creeds, the theology, and I believe it wholeheartedly. But so much of it is still totally over my head.

And that is why Advent and Christmas are so wonderful. They are blatantly, audaciously inexplicable. They embrace mystery. They are about the mystery of God and Jesus. It’s comforting to know that all these thousands of years later, with centuries of intellect and science and progress and theology, we are just as awed and brought to our knees by the mystery as we ever were. The phenomenon is just clear enough that it has survived millennia and will survive forever onward, and mysterious enough to be worthy of worship.

And so we’ll press on, continuing in faith to be the church that God founded through Christ for the world. We don’t have to understand it all to be useful or meaningful. God is using his people in ways they scarcely can imagine. Our cognizant compliance is irrelevant.

But thanks be to God that we can understand some things. In the Christmas star, the cold winds, the nostalgic reverie of tinseled trees and warm rum and spiced cakes.

We can understand some things.

Best Documentaries of 2008

americanteenpic4

This is sort of my pre-emptive excuse for not including any documentaries on my “best films of 2008” list (coming later in the month). Plus, I have such respect for the documentary form (i.e. “nonfiction film”) that I think it deserves its own best-of-the-year list. So, without further ado, here are my picks for the five best documentaries of 2008.

5) The Unforeseen: This film—the debut by director Laura Dunn—starts out as an unassuming, no-frills documentary about real-estate development in Austin, TX. But it soon takes on a much larger importance, as a provocative and sobering meditation on larger issues—urban sprawl, unbridled capitalism, the environmental hazards that accompany American “manifest destiny,” etc. It’s not a didactic film, but a sort of poetic cautionary tale, featuring stunning photography by Lee Daniel of a natural world at risk in the path of unstoppable human ambition.

4) Standard Operating Procedure: Documentarian extraordinaire Errol Morris is known for his reflexive approach to the form: his films feature self-conscious melding of fiction and fact, examinations of the very nature of “truth” as seen in photograph, film image, or memory. He is in top form here, in his controversial and highly disturbing documentary of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. It’s a film that truly floored me—not only because of the images or Morris’ trademark psychologically rich interviews—but because of the unexplained amorality and everyday evil that the film exposes. It’s a film Hannah Arendt would have a lot to say about, I imagine.

3) Man on Wire: This British film from director James Marsh is a striking, powerful look into the life of Frenchman Philippe Petit—the acrobat daredevil who famously walked between the two World Trade Center towers on a high wire in 1974. Aided in no small part by the exuberance of its subject (Petit’s wild-eyed wonder and love of risky beauty is utterly contagious), Man on Wire is a truly gripping, enthralling adventure of a film. Stylishly told with interviews, archival footage and reenactments, this is a story you do not want to miss. It’s a concise film with broad, life-affirming reach, though it doesn’t hammer you over the head with its significance.

2) Encounters at the End of the World:
Werner Herzog’s epic “Antarctica film” ends up being less a documentary about Antarctica as it is about the humans who—for some reason or another—are living on the world’s most uninhabitable continent. Always the eccentric and aggressively curious filmmaker, Herzog and his cameras take us to unexpected, awe-inspiring places in and around McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Herzog’s off-the-wall voiceovers—combined with some truly fascinating images and interviews—make this film one of the truly singular documentaries in the modern history of the form. It’s complicated, beautiful, confounding, funny, with a refreshing dearth of answers or arguments but an unbridled and joyous sense of cinematic wonder.

1) American Teen: I don’t know that this was necessarily the “best” documentary of the year, but I think it touched me the most. There were moments of it that touched me deeply, and many moments that felt utterly, devastatingly honest. I think part of it is that the film—about a handful of high school seniors in Indiana—came down so close to my own Midwestern high school experience. For good or ill, it brought back a flood of memories. The film, from director Nanette Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture), also does some interesting things with the documentary form: playing with fact and fiction, drama and cliché in the way that The Hills treats its “real” subjects: as characters in an archetypal world where we are all living out roles that are in some sense prescribed for us.

Top Twenty Songs of 2008

It’s December, which on this blog means one thing: end-of-year lists! There will be lists for every variety of media in the weeks to come, culminating on December 29 and 31 with my top ten albums and movies, respectively. I’m kicking it off today with my pick for the 20 best songs of 2008.

This list is not a collection of obvious singles or hits, but simply the best individual songs (in my opinion) that have come out in 2008. They include flashy pop dance songs, eccentric indie rock, and at least two songs from Kanye West. They were the most-played songs on my iPod in 2008, and they are all available to buy ala carte on iTunes (well worth the 99 cents). This is the ultimate 08 playlist!

20) T.I. “Whatever You Like” – It’s on some radio station somewhere at every second of the day. But aside from that, it’s an awesome song.

19) Welcome Wagon, “Sold! To the Nice Rich Man” – It sounds like Sufjan Stevens, which is b/c it’s produced by him. A lovely song from a promising new band from Asthmatic Kitty.

18) The Walkmen, “In the New Year” – I will be playing this song on repeat on January 1st. The explosion of hopeful emotion at the 0:40 mark is truly a highlight of the year in music.

17) The National, “You’ve Done it Again, Virginia” – A wonderfully slothful, “Sufjan piano” dirge from The National’s 2008 release, The Virginia EP.

16) Antony & the Johnsons, “Another World” – One of the most delicate, truly tragic ballads of the year. Antony expresses a universal sentiment here that resonates deeply.

15) Vampire Weekend, “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance” – The closing song on Vampire Weekend’s stellar debut, this song features a mesmerizing coda of beautifully orchestrated, “fading out slowly” instrumentation.

14) Kanye West, “Paranoid” – This song is immaculately produced and one of the few fun, 80s dancefloor tracks on Kanye’s 808s and Heatbreak.

13) Rihanna, “Disturbia” – Just when you thought Rihanna couldn’t top the catchiness of “Umbrella,” she came out with this song, a truly bizarre pop anthem.

12) Weezer, “Greatest Man That Ever Lived” – This is an epic rock opera song of Queen-sized proportions.

11) Quiet Village, “Victoria’s Secret” – This largely instrumental track has a wonderfully schmaltzy 80s nighttime soap quality to it.

10) Britney Spears, “Mannequin”– Her new album is literally full of pop gems, but this song stands out for the sheer audacity of its out-in-space bizarro soundscapes.

9) TV On The Radio, “Family Tree” – This standout track on the formidable new TV On The Radio album (Dear Science) is subdued, charming, and memorable.

8) M83, “Skin of the Night”– There are a lot of songs from the new M83 album that could have made this list, but this one is my favorite. The production is pristine, complicated, airy and thoroughly modern.

7) Fleet Foxes, “Ragged Wood” – A wonderful song to get up to in the morning, waking to the woodsy world of rivers and valleys and Appalachian springs.

6) Cut Copy, “Hearts on Fire” – These Aussies know how to party, and this crazy high-energy dance track is the best of their 2008 release, In Ghost Colours.

5) Madonna and Justin Timberlake, “4 Minutes” – Though Madonna is the third most important person in this song (behind Timbaland and JT), her ostentatious presence is felt, to great effect. This song has an insane beat and an appropriately bizarre message (“We only got 4 minutes to save the world?”).

4) Mates of State, “Help Help” – The new Mates of State album was one of my favorites this year, and this song got the most play in my car. A great, bass-driven beat carries a super-cool, addictive chorus by this husband-wife electro-pop duo.

3) The Killers, “Human” – I first saw this song when they performed it on SNL, and it had me at hello. The synths, the melody, the postmodern-gibberish chorus (“Are we human? Or are we dancer?”)… it all adds up to one of the best songs of the year.

2) Coldplay, “Strawberry Swing” – If you haven’t heard this song, download it now! It’s so out-of-nowhere creative from a band like Coldplay, and sounds like nothing else in the musical spectrum right now. Plus, it just makes me feel happy. I find myself listening to it over and over when I want to feel better about life.

1) Kanye West, “Street Lights” – This is such a rich, textured, meaningful song, simple and yet vast. When Kanye sings, “I know my destination but I’m just not there,” to a throbbing, haunting beat, we can all relate.

Advent: A Beautiful and Sad Time of Year

Though Thanksgiving is not a part of the liturgical season of Advent, I think it fits perfectly as segue or entry point into this period of the church calendar.

Advent, after all, is about anticipating and reflecting upon the mystery that is the Incarnation: the nearly incomprehensible moment when God entered human history by becoming a baby on earth. Thanksgiving is an appropriate predecessor, as a day that we set aside to take stock of what we have, what God has done for us, the bounties and blessings and loves he’s bestowed us. Thanksgiving gets us in the mode of self-effacing gratitude, but it doesn’t end there. It prepares our hearts and minds for the bigger, more solemn, more awesome experience of meditating upon God’s greatest and most mind-blowing gift ever: himself.

It puts everything into perspective. On Thanksgiving, I was amazed and shamed at all the things I have. I was thankful for all the usual stuff (family, friends, a house, my health) as well as some unusual stuff (walnuts, synthesizers, Japanese people, aging), but mostly I was just overwhelmed by the fact that I was even alive: that I existed when I just as well might not have existed, and that God orchestrated it for some spectacularly unfathomable reason.

It made me reflect on the preciousness of life, and how newborn babies often make us say things like “isn’t life a miracle” or some variation of “that’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” Which is weird, because babies are really not all that beautiful, in the way we typically conceive of beauty. They are actually a bit deformed and unseemly, what with their frog-like appendages flailing around and their crinkly, crying faces, etc. But we nevertheless are floored by the miracle and beauty of them. And I think it is our response to the very idea of life: of an existence that starts at a defined point, a someone that holds the promise of the world and an unknowing affirmation of everything in its gradually opening eyes. Above all, it’s a sense of wonder. How and where does this little person come into being? Why do we love it and it us? What is its purpose? It’s the supreme mystery of existence.

It’s fitting, then, that God chose to enter our human world as a newborn baby. He could have appeared out of thin air as a 21 year old, or as a 30-year-old prophet ready for some serious ministry. But he chose to start where everyone else starts: in the womb. His incarnation was always about working through—not outside of—creation to reveal himself to us in ways we could understand. And a baby who is born and grows up and dies is something we can understand. It was God coming down to our level to bless our unfortunate little existence by becoming part of it. And his name was Emmanuel—“God With Us.”

Speaking of that, I highly recommend the advent devotional book, God With Us, featuring essays and meditations by the likes of Scott Cairns, Kathleen Norris, and Luci Shaw. In the introduction to the book, which I read last night (Day 1 of Advent), Eugene Peterson captures so much of what I have been feeling about Advent. He writes:

There can’t be very many of us for whom the sheer fact of existence hasn’t rocked us back on our heels. We take off our sandals before the burning bush. We catch our breath at the sight of a plummeting hawk. “Thank you, God.” We find ourselves in a lavish existence in which we feel a deep sense of kinship—we belong here; we say thanks with our lives to Life. And not just “Thanks” or “Thank It,” but “Thank You.” Most of the people who have lived on this planet Earth have identified this You with God or gods. This is not just a matter of learning our manners, the way children are taught to say thank you as a social grace. It is the cultivation of adequateness within ourselves to the nature of reality, developing the capacity to sustain an adequate response to the overwhelming gift and goodness of life.

Wonder is the only adequate launching pad for exploring this fullness, this wholeness, of human life. Once a year, each Christmas, for a few days at least, we and millions of our neighbors turn aside from our preoccupations with life reduced to biology or economics or psychology and join together in a community of wonder. The wonder keeps us open-eyed, expectant, alive to life that is always more than we can account for, that always exceeds our calculations, that is always beyond anything we can make.

I love that Advent simultaneously forces us away from ourselves and our petty problems while also, in a way, affirming them. It’s a season of denying our self and our possibility in the face of the wholly Other that is the mysterious, Incarnate Emmanuel. But it’s also a chance for us to focus, to synthesize our various desires, issues, concerns, and identities into a cohesive oneness with the bewildering fact that we are here, and so is God. There’s a reason why we sing “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.” We share a planet—the dirt, air, water, DNA—with the creator of the universe. This is the most empowering and humbling fact of history, and the weight of it is immense. It is the reason Advent is historically a very solemn season: because the Incarnation cannot be taken lightly.

As I enter into Advent this year, I’m burdened by just as many hopes and fears as the next guy. There is pain and regret in my heart, love and confusion, physical and emotional imperfection, and immense exhaustion. I sometimes just want to drink eggnog or mulled wine and listen to Over the Rhine’s Darkest Night of the Year (for the record, probably the best Christmas album of all time) while languishing in self-pity and world weariness as stocks and bombs carry the torch of history’s tumultuous march.

And Advent accepts all that. It thrives on unsettledness, uncertainty, and despair. Which is kind of bleak for a holiday season that is typically thought of as the merriest season of all. Until we recognize that our pain makes Advent all the more meaningful—to look forward, expectantly, longingly, to the moment when all the pieces (of our lives, of history, of heaven and earth) come together in a monstrous cymbal crash that reverberates in every corner and cranny of the concert hall.