Monthly Archives: August 2007

Donkey Kong Nation


“Always, after he was in bed, there were voices—indefinite, fading, enchanting—just outside his window, and before he fell asleep he would dream one of his favorite waking dreams: the one about becoming a great half-back or the one about the Japanese invasion when he was rewarded by being made the youngest general in the world. It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise

Note: This is the first of a three-part post series on competition in the American psyche. Coming on Sept. 10 is part two: “The Battle of 9/11.”

A documentary film was recently released in L.A. called The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. If it comes to a theater anywhere near you, please go see it. The film’s subject matter at first appears rather frivolous: competitive videogaming, specifically the battle for world records in “classic” arcade games from the early eighties like Donkey Kong. Indeed, for much of the first third of the film, you’ll wonder if it’s a mockumentary (in the vein of Christopher Guest). All the talking head stars of the film are about as nerdy as stereotypical gamers get.

But the film isn’t chiefly about making fun of pasty, aging slackers with mullets and fingerless gloves who play arcade games all day. It is extremely funny, don’t get me wrong—one of the funniest films I’ve seen all year. But beneath the ironic 80s soundtrack (everything from The Cure to Animotion) and geeky earnestness of the whole competitive gaming world, Kong is a rather profound—and deeply moving—film.

It’s all about competition—and how obsessive, ingrained, and life-consuming it is. Especially in America. Especially for men. There is this drive within us to be the best at something. Whether it’s winning a gold medal, becoming a successful sauce salesman, being the world’s “foremost military superpower,” or simply holding the world record Pac-Man score, we all desire that glory; that “top dog” status.

The King of Kong follows two men—Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe—and their vicious rivalry to see who will ultimately hold the world’s top score in Donkey Kong. Mitchell, a hot sauce salesman from Hollywood, Florida, held the top score from 1982 to 2006, when Wiebe—a 7th grade science teacher and family man from Washington State—came out of nowhere to take the title away. On one level the film is a classic tale of good (Wiebe) vs. evil (Mitchell), but really it is an examination of the pride of victory and the sting of second place, and the ultimate dissatisfaction that comes from both positions.

billy-mitchell1999.jpgWhen we win at anything it is definitely a good feeling, but after reaching any summit, there’s always some other mountain to climb, something else to go after. Being in second place is perhaps preferable: at least there is a definite goal to work toward, an end to focus upon, a definition to our life’s pursuit.

As we see in the Fitzgerald quote above, the becoming of something great—not the being of it—is where the glory lies.

Kong is a beautiful little microcosm of American life. We are a country founded upon competition and an always optimistic ethic of tomorrow: what we don’t have is within reach, what isn’t here today might come tomorrow, who you are today is not who you will always be, etc. It’s a glistening sentiment that makes the patriotic heart beat stronger, but beneath it lies the sad reality of human nature and earthly existence: there will always be someone better, glory is fleeting, legacies are tenuous, and the greatest of the great is still just a candle in the wind.

Even so, competition is a good thing, and certainly no more pointless or temporal than anything else in this life. Competition pushes us forward, and Hegelian progress is made (through the friction of dialectics), even if there are casualties along the way. Competition is innate to humanity, and people like Plato recognized that from very early on. Plato had a term called thymos, which is the essential part the soul wherein man desires recognition, demands respect of his dignity, and feels pride. It is this part of the human soul that allows us to act in contrary (e.g. sacrificing ourselves for some greater purpose) to our reason and other instincts. It is in thymos that our innate sense of justice exists, and—as contemporary scholar Francis Fukuyama argues—where noble virtues of selflessness, idealism, self-sacrifice, courage, and honorability originate.

Thus, while competition can be painful and the fruits of winning rather unsatisfying, it is still the engine that drives a successful society. It is the chief means by which man can begin to understand his identity and see glimpses of his self-worth—and in the process realize that any worth he might have cannot come from anything he can ever do (because even the greatest achievements in the world leave us ultimately unworthy before the vastness of sin and mortality), but rather from some grace-giving Other.

The Tragedy of (Most) Modern Worship Music


I’ve been thinking a lot about “worship music” these days. I’m very suspicious of the term. I’ve been suspicious of it for a long time, so much so that at a point during my time at Wheaton College, whenever I’d get a “worship” CD in the mail (I was A&E editor of the newspaper; I got lots of free CDs), I’d rarely even open it.

Here are just some of the reasons why I’ve become so jaded with what modern evangelicals have come to call worship music:

  • It’s 90% crappy, knock-off Keane or secondhand U2 (i.e. it is usually very predictable and unoriginal)
  • It’s an industry. How bizarre and kind of disgusting that branding your music as “worship” and selling it as an “experience” earns the most money in CCM.
  • It’s a very fickle, trendy industry. Every month there’s a new “it” song that eventually filters down to every evangelical church across the world… only to be replaced by a new “it” song a month later. No more standards, no more canons.
  • It turns its nose up at good writing. Most worship music wallows in bad water imagery, fire metaphor, or pseudo-sexual verbiage (“Jesus your love is ravishing, intoxicating, orgasmic, etc).
  • It’s more about creating an emotional response than eliciting a profound spiritual reflection. The measure of a good worship leader is often how many in the audience stand up or raise their hands out of their own volition.
  • It’s much too happy and self-satisfied. “Make a joyful noise” does not mean “don’t worry, be happy.” Some of the most beautiful (and yes, joyful) hymns have come from places of sorrow and brokenness (e.g. “It is Well With My Soul”)
  • It’s much too focused on the words. Can’t the music be worshipful on its own? Could not an all-instrumental song be just as worshipful as one with lyrics?

So, as you can see, I have issues with modern worship music. It really pains me, because I want to like it; I want to think that God is pleased by it. But I can’t get over the fact that it is mostly just mediocre, conservative, and stuck in a box. Worship is so much broader than just a “genre” of music that can be “entered in to” as a corporate, religious activity. Worship is much bigger than that—so much so that perhaps the question we should be asking is what isn’t worship?

Here is my non-traditional definition of what we might call worship: Any music, art, or experience that moves us in a transcendent way.

This includes things made by Christians and things made by secular hedonists.
This includes wordless music, formless painting, and R rated movies.
This includes books, poetry, and just talking. Yes, just chatting with friends.
This includes silence—the simple, still, do-nothing, unmediated experience of God.

All that said, this article is about worship music, so to get back on track: Worship music should be first and foremost honest music, and excellent music (artistically). It should come from the same place any musician goes to when writing a song. If that place is dark and has only a glimmer of hope, then that is your worship, and God rejoices in it (see Pedro the Lion sing “Be Thou My Vision”). If that place is effervescent and giddy about life, and that is honestly where you’re at, sing about it. Don’t force your music into formulas. Let it come out organically, creatively. There is nothing more worshipful than using our creative minds and talents to create the best and most creative thing we possibly can. Not the most commercial—not what is easy listening or reductive. No, our worship music should not be made for the masses.

Even as I’ve been ranting and raving about worship music and how bad it is, there are signs that it is beginning to get better. Thankfully there are Christian musicians out there beginning to realize that God is also honored by music that doesn’t have His name in it! Music can be about so much and still, in the end, be about God.

Here is a sampling of artists who you might not have heard of, but who consistently make artful, forward-thinking music that is also rather worshipful. Some are more obviously “worship” artists, while others are just Christians making beautiful music. But most importantly, all are good.

Derek Webb
This Holiday Life
Future of Forestry
Sandra McCracken
Jimmy Robeson
Thomas Torrey
Mark Mathis
Half-handed Cloud
Liz Janes
Joshua Stamper
Jason Harrod
Jake Armerding
Edison Glass
Mars Hill Church music

The West(ern)


So I just saw a press screening of 3:10 to Yuma, which comes out in a couple weeks. It’s really good, and reminded me just how much I love the western genre. I love the “West” in general—the vast, dirty, sagebrush majesty of it all. Ansel Adams, Indian reservations, turquoise bolo ties, duststorms, Lewis and Clark, stretches of highway with “no services for 80 miles” signs. Since moving out to California I’ve had the luxury of being able to occasionally drive the 2000 or so miles back home every now and then—which for most people probably sounds horrific. But for me, the West is like this infinite, untouched wonderland, full of myth and mystery and thrilling uncertainty. “Going west” is the ultimate American mythos. You gotta love manifest destiny.

Anyway, as a tribute to the West, and because I’ll be in Billings, Montana and Jackson Hole, Wyoming next week, here’s a brief list of some films (both proper “westerns” and films that are just about the west) that I think capture the roughshod beauty and scalawag history of the American West (by no means is this any sort of authoritative top ten):

Dances With Wolves (1990): Say what you want about this Kevin Costner epic, but you can’t deny that it’s pretty stunning on several artistic fronts—namely the cinematography (shot in the beautiful Badlands National Park) and the unforgettable score by John Barry.

Don’t Come Knocking (2005): Wim Wenders’ little-seen 2005 film was probably more “road-movie” than traditional western, but Sam Shepherd’s character plays an aging Hollywood western star, so there’s some interesting genre reflexivity going on.

Fort Apache (1948): This John Wayne / John Ford classic was loosely inspired by Custer and the Battle of Little Bighorn, which is the historical high-water mark of “wild west” lore. Featuring trademark shots of Monument Valley and the great Ford horizons, as well as a teenage Shirley Temple, Apache is a very satisfying western.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940):
John Ford is the western genre, and his adaptation of John Steinbeck (the literary voice of the west, in my opinion), is pretty wonderful. The story of the Okie family Joad and their precarious journey west during the Depression is both quintessentially American and stridently western.

High Noon (1952): Gary Cooper exudes boot n’ spur cowboy vigilance as the lone defender of a pansy town awaiting the arrival of a revenge-seeking outlaw on the noon train. The recurrent theme song, “Do Not Forsake Me” is unforgettable, as is the famous four-count rhythmic editing sequence at the film’s climax.

The Proposition (2006): Even though it’s technically about the Australian frontier and not the American West, this film wins a spot by sheer fact that it is an incredible, unsettling and unrepentantly stark portrayal of the unruly Australian outback. Plus Nick Cave does the music, which is wonderfully dark and droning.

Ride With the Devil (1999): This is Ang Lee’s other (and better) western, which is really a Civil War film about the border skirmishes on the western frontier (Missouri-Kansas). Tobey Maguire shines, as does Jeffrey Wright and Jonathan Rhys Meyers (as the despicable bushwhacker villain). Oh, and Jewel (yeah, the singer) is the female lead.

A River Runs Through It (1992): Robert Redford loves the American west (Sundance, Utah is a testament to that), and River is his best cinematic homage to the frontier. Based on a classic book by Norman Maclean, the film tells a simple story about family and fly-fishing in the pristine mountain rivers of Montana. Not really a “western” proper, but for capturing the spirit of the West, this film is hard to beat.

Unforgiven (1992): Films don’t get much better than Clint Eastwood’s classic revisionist western—which re-frames the genre’s mythos in terms of probing psychological and spiritual questions about human nature. Truly a masterpiece.

The Wild Bunch (1969): Sam Peckinpah’s crowning achievement, Bunch is an uber-violent tale of a grizzled band of aging outlaws during one last “score” as the wild west gives way to a more modernized, tamer society. See if you can spot all the things that influenced later Tarantino films!

Over the Rhine Releases The Trumpet Child


Today is a rare day. It is an album release day from Over the Rhine, the world’s best band you’ve never heard of. I know that’s clichéd, but it’s really true. You must give Over the Rhine a listen… they’ve been at it for fifteen+ years, and have created some of the best American music of the last decade (seriously).

Anyway, you can read my review of their new album, The Trumpet Child, here.

Listening to a new album from Over the Rhine is like coming home after a long vacation—or remembering some old, long-forgotten joy. Perhaps it’s because I have so many memories associated with the band and their music, among them:

  • Being introduced to their music in college by my friend and roommate Ryan Hamm (whose incessant play of Good Dog Bad Dog won me over).
  • Declaring March ’03 “Over the Rhine month” in the Wheaton College school newspaper, The Record (I was entertainment editor at the time, and evidently had license to declare random “months” such as this), and letting Ryan review the major albums of OTR’s oeuvre for four weeks straight.
  • Having dinner with Linford before an Over the Rhine concert at Wheaton. He spoke with such poetry.
  • Seeing OTR perform the perfect concert at Schubas (an intimate tavern-like venue in Chicago) in October of 2003. To this day, it is not only the best concert I’ve seen them play (and I’ve seen them live six times), but also the best concert I’ve ever seen anybody play (and I had just seen Simon and Garfunkel and Radiohead the month before).
  • Walking out from a January OTR concert at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, into a fluffy white snowstorm, the lyrics of Snow Angel still lingering in the air.

For me, Over the Rhine represents a specific time in my life, and I suppose all good music does this to us—it brings to mind a memory, a song or a sound that is forever replayable in our mind. Perhaps Linford says it best in the liner notes of Trumpet:

And me, my first memory, the sound of a trumpet at a tent meeting revival, I was sitting on my mother’s lap, I remember that bright brass bell, that eggtooth blast waking me up, snapping the world into focus, piercing the womb of distant muffled things, stirring my conscious mind, the sound of a trumpet! And I remember the small wooden stage at the front of the tent, strings of bare lightbulbs, my sister Grace’s braids, and me forming my first real thought: I need to be where the sound is coming from.

For me, Over the Rhine’s music does just this: it snaps the world into focus. I need to be where the sound is coming from, and so do you.

Stasis and Catharsis in Ten Contemporary Films


In Paul Schrader’s 1972 book, Transcendental Style in Film, the renowned filmmaker/theorist (with a Christian background… he went to Calvin) outlined his theory for how transcendence is achieved stylistically in cinema. The ultimate embodiment of the transcendent, he thinks, is in something called stasis: “a frozen view of life which does not resolve the disparity but transcends it.” Stasis often occurs at the end of a film, and often in the final shot—when the conflict or “disparity” is not completely resolved, but “frozen” into stasis. “To the transcending mind,” Schrader writes, “man and nature may be perpetually locked in conflict, but they are paradoxically one and the same.”

This “Oneness” is a sort of resolution of the unresolved—an arrival at peace in spite of and because of a deep unsettledness within the soul. I think the concept has echoes of G.K. Chesterton’s notion of “divine discontent”—the idea that we should feel ill at ease with our human situation, and as such more aware of the divine other that will one day right every wrong. Discontent can be divine—and transcendent—when we view it as a sign of the perfect Source (God), apart from which all else is unresolved tension.

Thus, Schrader keenly points out (and I agree), that films exposing glimpses of the transcendent are often those that end on a note that is at once satisfying (catharsis) and whole (stasis), but also still in want. “The static view,” Schrader writes, represents a world “in which the spiritual and physical can coexist, still in tension and unresolved, but as part of a larger scheme in which all phenomena are more or less expressive of a larger reality—the Transcendent.”

Some examples Schrader uses to flesh out this idea include the final, lengthy shot of the vase at the end of Ozu’s Late Spring (1949), or the shadow of the cross that becomes the final shot of Diary of a Country Priest (1950).

I’ve been thinking about current films (films of the last six or seven years) that Schrader might point to as pictures that exemplify stasis—that encapsulate a oneness or transcendence that leaves the viewer wholly affected and frozen in time. These are the films that, upon fading or cutting to black, leave you utterly breathless and emotionally (perhaps spiritually) wrecked. I’m not talking about tearjerkers or films that have shocking trick endings where everything changes in the final shot (don’t get me wrong, I love M. Night Shyamalan). I’m talking about films that leave you both devastated and satisfied, with a final image that is burned into your mind’s eye. Here are a few that are still burning in my mind (warning: spoiler city!):

A.I. (2001): The ending of this film was widely criticized by many for being both too drawn out and too sappy. But for me, it was the perfect, haunting ending to a film that remains remarkably affecting each time I watch it. It is devastating to witness Haley Joel Osment’s sentient little robot boy being forced to live for thousands of years without the human love from which he has come to derive his meaning. In the last scene, he gets to live one last day with his reincarnated mother, before they both cease to exist forever. I’m not sure what it is about this ending (perhaps the immense weight of time, mortality, and existence, which we are forced to consider), but as the camera pans back from the two going to “sleep,” something aches in the pit of my stomach.


Before Sunset (2004): Not all evocative, stasis endings have to be downers. In Richard Linklater’s marvelous Before Sunset (the sequel to 1995’s Before Sunrise), the ending—while certainly not providing “Hollywood” closure—offers a breezy, life-affirming catharsis that is both ambiguous and perfectly settled. As Ethan Hawke sits on a couch in Julie Delpy’s Paris apartment, we watch as she playfully mimics a flirty Nina Simone. Then the scene just joyfully fades to black. I can’t recall a film that left me so wholly satisfied, despite not knowing exactly how the story ended up.

Capote (2005): Sometimes the stasis of a film is reinforced by some postscript that comes onscreen after the film’s final image. In Capote, an already wrenching final image (of Philip Seymour Hoffman in a plane, looking forlornly out a window) is enhanced by the words that follow as the screen goes black: “In Cold Blood made Truman Capote the most famous writer in America. He never finished another book. The epigraph he chose for his last, unfinished work reads: ‘More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.’”

Children of Men (2006): In the case of Children of Men, the most affecting stasis comes from the aural denouement—the voices and sounds of children playing which bookend the film. As Kee and Theo drift out to sea, quietly and away from the chaos of the previous two hours, all appears lost. Theo is bleeding, and soon succumbs. Kee is alone with her newborn baby. Suddenly the rescue boat (“The Tomorrow”) appears, and our hopes are renewed. But instead of providing a full resolution, the images stop there. “CHILDREN OF MEN” flashes against a black screen, with the children’s laughter heard faintly in the background. It’s ambiguous. It’s disturbing. It’s uneasy peace.

L’Enfant (2006): Many of the films by Belgian directors the Dardenne Brothers contain endings in which some sort of cathartic resolution is achieved, but quickly halted (as in, the screen goes black in the middle of some intense, penultimate scene). This is the case in L’Enfant, a film about a man (Jeremy Renier) who does unspeakable things in order to make financial ends meet. The power of this film’s ending is in its juxtaposition to the emotional distance of everything preceding it. Not until the final few minutes does Renier—having been completely broken down—show any emotion at all. This scene provides a stunning catharsis, but very little resolution. And as the screen abruptly goes black, the unifying power of that final image is left for the awestruck viewer to mull over.


Lost In Translation (2003): Sofia Coppola really leaves us hanging at the end of this film. The two main characters (Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray) share an intimate few whispers as they say farewell, and we don’t have a clue what they say to each other! Oddly, though, this unanswered question gives the film’s somber ending a wonderful sense of uncertain hope. Maybe they’ll meet again, maybe not. One never knows with these sorts of evanescenent encounters. As the Jesus and Mary Chain song (“Just Like Honey”) plays over a montage of the empty streets of Tokyo at dawn, and the characters go their separate ways, a morning-after mix of bittersweet joy and existential ache abides. Another day. Life goes on.

The New World (2005): “Life goes on” is a good way to look at the theme of this amazing film from director Terrence Malick. In the film, Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher) is put through the ringer, being relentlessly battered by love, change, regret, and ultimately death. Through it all, though, Malick reminds us of new life—of nature, and trees which grow always ever upwards, even when branches fall off. The final shot of the film, then, is a profound encapsulation of this theme. After a stunning closing montage (to the music of Wagner’s swelling Das Rheingold), the final shot looks upwards at a tree, stately and shining in the sunlight. The music stops, a single leaf falls to the ground, and the screen goes to black. Amazingly, the credits roll over silence (initially), which amplifies the meditation over stasis even more.

Nine Lives (2005): This little-seen, remarkably conceived film is really a collection of nine short films—each shot in solitary, 12 minute camera takes, and each with its own stasis ending. Each story is a snippet of one woman’s life, and as such we know neither where they’ve come from nor where they’re going. Because of top-notch writing, directing and acting, however, we invest in these characters enough to be jarred when their segment flashes to black and the next one begins. A couple of the episodes end on especially moving notes (the episode with Robin Wright Penn in a supermarket, for example), but the final one with Glenn Close and Dakota Fanning takes the stasis cake.

The Pianist (2002): The ending of this film is pure catharsis. After two and a half hours of death and horror, our protagonist (Adrian Brody) is finally redeemed, and over the end titles, he performs Chopin’s magnificent Grande Polonaise for piano & orchestra with the Warsaw Philharmonic in a concert hall. Like the beautiful music played throughout the film, it is both sad and triumphant—equal parts emotional release and spiritual requiem for lost beauty and innocence. Very few films’ end titles are so riveting that not a single audience member leaves for five+ minutes. But this was the case when I saw The Pianist.


United 93 (2006): This was the best film of 2006 for a number of reasons, not least of which is its incredibly intense climax and subsequent catharsis ending. After 100 minutes of heart-pumping, visceral filmmaking (the soundtrack is literally rhythmic heart-pumping) we are brought to final ten minutes—a stretch which affected me physically (as in, sweaty palms, rapid heartbeat) more than any film I can remember. Then, when the plane finally crashes and the music reaches its haunting home chord, the chaos is silenced and a numb sense of shock and lamentation takes over. I found it hard to move in my chair during the credits.

These are just ten examples that I thought of off the top of my head, but doubtless there are many more. What films do you think of when you think about powerful stasis or catharsis endings?

Billy G and the Pride of Evangelicals


The other day I saw this 20/20 special called “Pastor to Power: Billy Graham and the Presidents.” The hour-long special coincided with the release of the new book, The Preacher and the Presidents, authored by Time magazine reporters Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy. Both the book and the special take an in-depth look at Rev. Billy Graham’s unprecedented connection to every U.S. president since Harry Truman. No one else in American history could claim the confidence and intimate friendship of over ten U.S. presidents.

During the television special, Charles Gibson interviews all the living ex-presidents (Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, the two Bushes), as well as their wives (most prominently—and tellingly—Hillary Clinton). They all tell the same story: Graham had unprecedented access to the most powerful office in the world, but he was never there for any other reason but to pastor, comfort, love, and minister. He had no interest in wielding political power or using his unique position for personal gain, and even when he brushed up against corruption (Nixon and Watergate), he managed to take the high road and escape largely unscathed.

I often think about Billy Graham, and about how he embodied all the best things about the evangelical boom in the twentieth century. He graduated from the college I went to (Wheaton), and immediately jumped into a life fully driven by Wheaton’s motto: Christo et Regno Ejus (For Christ and His Kingdom). He packed out stadiums all over the world because he was someone people would listen to—not because he was a stellar speaker or mind-blowing theologian (he was a lanky backwoods hillbilly), but because he had authority. He spoke the truth and people knew it. Something about him was indescribably sincere.

When Billy Graham dies, I think a phase of evangelical Christianity will die with him. Not that Christianity will no longer evangelize, but perhaps it will just not ever do so in the way that Graham did. And perhaps this a good thing. Billy Graham has led countless thousands (millions?) of people to Christ throughout his 60+ year career of preaching, but what is he being honored for (and gushed over) on primetime news specials? His personal, one-on-one ministry. It is telling that this, more than anything we might praise Graham for, seems the most remarkable. He loved people, unconditionally. This was his authority. It was both the end and the means of his ministry.

I was talking to someone the other day about evangelism today, and this person suggested that “evangelical” as a word was so prohibitive to the actual process (because of all the baggage it carries in culture) that perhaps it’d be best to just rid ourselves of the label. I’m not sure if this is necessary or even possible, but I understand the reasoning. Whatever “evangelical” was when Graham started his amazing ministry has since become a four-letter word in culture—commonly associated with bigotry, political conservatism, anti-intellectualism, narrow-mindedness, and other rather negative “isms.” People like Ted Haggard, Jim Bakker, and Pat Robertson have brought “evangelical” down into the dirt of corruption, scandal, and hate, and it’s time to draw a line in the sand.

From no fault of his own, Graham’s way of spreading the gospel has become a casualty to the overriding suspicion now held against mass-scale proselytizing. And it’s a shame. Though the culture (and the media, surprisingly) still treat Graham with the utmost deference, it feels as though they are simply waiting for his death—and the subsequent death-knell for old school, evangelical Christianity. As the “old guard” is dying off in rapid fashion (Jerry Falwell, Tammy Faye, Ruth Graham), it seems the secular world waits with bated breath to see if evangelicalism survives in its present state. And I, for one, certainly hope not. That’s right, you heard correct: evangelicalism has got to change.

The 20/20 special, while ostensibly an ode to Billy Graham (and a PR piece for the Clintons: “yes, we are Christians too!”), contained a pervasive unease about the pastor’s brushes with political power. Images of him in the White House no doubt sent shivers up liberal spines: the pictures represent the power of evangelicals in politics. And even though they have no reason to fear (because Graham was never a Ted Haggard, power-seeking opportunist), these liberal reactionaries are the reason Billy Graham will soon be a relic. They are the reason evangelicalism must change.

As long as evangelicals are feared, we will be ineffective. Evangelicals became a massive political force in the twentieth century, and as a result, we became known less for being followers of Christ and more for being a political interest group. THE political interest group. The demographic of all demographics.

Our authority is tarnished, because “evangelical” no longer has anything to do with love, goodness, joy, peace, humility, or Jesus (at least in the minds of most people you try to evangelize). It has to do with power and provincial thinking—trying to convert the neighbor, the nation, and eventually the world, to a monolithic, cult-like exclusivist religion. Sounds very Nazi-esque. Sounds like 1984.

We must change this. We must lose any pretense of power-seeking or political posturing and get back to the heart of following Jesus: denying ourselves and loving others. This was Billy Graham. God used him for great things because above all, he was a man of love. He was self-effacing when most people in his position would be self-congratulatory. He was rigorously bent on remaining marginal in Washington, even though he could have easily been a major player. He was a simple man with a singular purpose: spread the Gospel to every nation.

His life has been purposefully the opposite of what the world expects of a talented young man. And that is how we should live. We must purge all the baggage, drop the ambition, lose the ulterior motives, and just live out Christ’s love.

Top Ten Most Flattering Portrayals of Christians in Film

As a part two bookend to last week’s “Unflattering” list, I’ve been thinking this week about the films that contain the most flattering portrayals of Christians. This was, predictably, much more challenging a list to come up with. Thankfully, however, I could come up with about twenty worthy candidates, ten of which are listed here. Interestingly, only one of the listed films (#7) was directed by an American.

One important thing to remember is that these films by no means represent the most Christian or the most spiritual films (that list would be longer, and different)—only the ones that feature characters who are motivated or defined, in some favorable way, by their Christian faith. These are films that portray Christians as passionate, thoughtful, loving, and (in a lot of cases) sacrificial. Here’s my list. Let me know what you think.

10) Land of Plenty (2004):10m.jpg
This little-seen, 9/11-inspired film by Christian director Wim Wenders features Michelle Williams in a rare role—a progressive young Christian working among L.A.’s homeless at a skid-row mission because Jesus would’ve done it.

9) Babette’s Feast (1987):32m.jpg
Rob Bell is always saying Christians should re-discover the joy of “the long meal.” This film revels in it, as an effervescent group of aging Christians in Denmark prove that God’s grace is never more evident than in a long night of good food and fellowship.

51w21g2rsal_aa240_.jpg8) Tender Mercies (1983):
It was between this Horton Foote-penned film and The Apostle for the Robert Duvall spot on this list. Both films present imperfect people who find redemption through the loving community of the church. Yes, recovering alcoholic country music stars can (and often do) become Christians!

51j98b2tn2l_aa240_.jpg7) Dead Man Walking (1995):
I had to include a nun movie in here, and Sound of Music seemed a bit frivolous! Seriously, though, Susan Sarandon’s portrayal of Sister Helen Prejean—a deeply compassionate woman who ministers to a death row inmate (Sean Penn) is a beautiful picture of Christ-like love.

10m1.jpg6) Amazing Grace (2007):
It’s too bad this film wasn’t just called Wilberforce or something, because it’s really just a biopic about the amazing Christian abolitionist who inspires Christian activism today. And as that, it’s more than enough to relay immense and beautiful truths about God’s guidance, strength, and grace.

5) Becket (1964):51futkdrxml_aa240_.jpg
Richard Burton’s stellar portrayal of the unwaveringly pious Thomas à Becket (opposite Peter O’Toole’s Henry II in the famous church-state struggle of 12th Century England) offers one of cinema’s most principled and empathetic Christian characters.

41grzjil5rl_aa240_.jpg4) Into Great Silence (2007):
Not for the easily bored (but endlessly rewarding if you can sit through it), this nearly silent documentary probes the psyche of the uber-ascetic monks who live—and love living—lives of worship and solitude in a French Carthusian monastery.

3) Diary of a Country Priest (1951):417kvdtytql_aa240_.jpg
French director Robert Bresson’s masterpiece of transcendent cinema, Priest charts the everyday struggles of a young priest trying his best to follow God’s will in shepherding a small parish in rural France. The ending will take your breath away.

51nvtxhzgtl_aa240_.jpg2) Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005):
This Oscar-nominated German-language film portrays the quiet subversion of Sophie Scholl, leader of a student resistance group during Hitler’s reign in Nazi Germany. Her profound faith drives her brave activism and strengthens her when faced with unspeakable horrors.

4154h8kt15l_aa240_.jpg1) The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928):
One of the best films of all time, this silent masterpiece from Danish director Carl Dreyer provides an amazingly artful and moving account of one of Christianity’s most inspiring figures. Shot almost entirely in close-up, the film’s striking images—especially Joan’s face—are imbued with the Holy.

Trivial Pursuit


When you get on the Internet, what are you there for? To find some piece of information, perhaps: movie times, train schedules, store hours, etc? Or maybe you are there because it is habit: every day when you wake up, and sporadically throughout the day, you must go through your cycle of websites (for me it is, then my three primary email accounts, then, then occasionally I’ll make a stop at my fourth email account). Or perhaps you go online simply because there is nothing else to do—and there is EVERYTHING to do on the web.

It is this last motivation that I’m the most interested in. The Internet, beyond being the most useful information-getting resource ever to be at mankind’s fingertips, is also the largest and most wonderful playground we’ve ever had. You can go anywhere, watch or listen to anything, buy whatever your heart desires, and do scores of other things that may or may not be acceptable in the “real” world.

With all of this at our disposal, it’s no wonder so many of us go online when we have a spare moment. It’s no wonder we can easily drop 3 hours online when we only intended to check our email. It’s like going to a massive and wonderful amusement park with the ostensible motivation of trying out the new rollercoaster. Of COURSE you’re going to stay all day and ride everything you can, while you’re there!

So it is with the Internet. It’s built on links and ads and things to push and pull us in new, alluring directions. It’s all about movement, dissatisfaction, keeping you wanting more.

Because there is EVERYTHING on the web, it is almost impossible—if you don’t have a utilitarian reason to be there—to choose where to go. Thus we rely on links and pop-ups and “if you liked this, you’ll like…” recommendations to guide us along the way. Thus, a typical session online is a hyperscattered, nonsensical web of aimless wandering, dead-ends, backtracking, and rabbit trails. But I think we like it this way. How nice to not be looking for something, but to be finding wonders and pleasures by the boatload, so easily! The search bar is our pilgrim guide online. Give it any clue as to what you desire, and it’ll lead you the rest of the way. Hit the google button and get your surf on.

But what is it we’re pursuing? The vast terrain of the web is an amusement park in which information is the diversion. Collecting more useless knowledge and facts is the name of the game. Whether we are there to check sports stats, see what we can download for free, or watch the latest goofy clip on YouTube, it’s all a passing trifle. It draws our attention for a second, but only until the next interesting link pops up.

For all the great and valuable things the Internet provides us, I wonder if it has done irreparable damage to our ability to think critically—to really mull over questions (that don’t have easily-Googled answers), seek out the big questions and not be at the mercy of a marketplace that prefers to ask and answer the questions for you. We should live our lives in a state of search, I think, but the Internet all too often makes “searching” a trivial pursuit.

Top Ten Most Unflattering Portrayals of Christians in Film

Because top ten lists are fun, and because I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how Christians are perceived in culture, I thought it would be interesting to comprise a list of the most unflattering portrayals of Christians in cinema. On a future post I will probably do the same for the most flattering portrayals.

Keep in mind that I am not slamming these films; several of them are actually very well made. I’m only pointing out that, for secular audiences watching these films, Christians come across as crazy, annoying, dangerous, stupid, or some combination therein. Thankfully most of these films were not seen by very many people. But even so, I think it’s important to be mindful that they exist—that for some people, this is the only picture of Christianity they have.

51zm1nsnknl_ss500_.jpg10) Why Should the Devil Have all the Good Music? (2004)
Though less hostile than most documentaries about Christians, this incoherent exploration of a much-too-broad topic leaves the viewer as confused and cynical as the disparate talking heads that sound off in the film.

71q4wy4rxwl_aa240_.jpg9) Night of the Hunter (1955)
This classic kicked off the “fundamentalist Christian as psychopath” trend that has been a favorite in cinema ever since. “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms” has never sounded as disturbing as when Robert Mitchum sings it.

51dc5nhyssl_aa240_.jpg8) My Summer of Love (2004)
More tragic than comical, this indie film portrays a group of British evangelicals as positively bonkers and dangerous to family dynamics, as one of the church’s leaders (Paddy Considine) pays more attention to prayer meetings than he does his own struggling family.

519yjscqqyl_aa240_.jpg7) The Virgin Suicides (1999)
Repressive Christian parents (James Woods and Kathleen Turner) in suburbia drive their innocent daughters to suicide. Because not being able to go to prom just does that to you…

41vya0s7ksl_aa240_.jpg6) Citizen Ruth (1996)
It’s pretty gutsy to satirize abortion, but Alexander Payne did it successfully in this film, which lampoons both the firebrand evangelical pro-lifers and the equally insane pro-choice feminazis.

41f8bashpl_aa240_.jpg5) Facing the Giants (2006)
Oops! I thought this was made by Christians!? Indeed, but this horrendous film (which we have Georgia’s Sherwood Baptist Church to thank for) is as embarrassing to Christians as anything Pat Robertson ever said.

5193nba10cl_aa240_.jpg4) Saved! (2004)
This film relentlessly points out evangelical absurdities, featuring a command performance from Mandy Moore as the Christian school queen bee who spreads Jesus’ love by throwing bibles at people.

51rkjjzs12l_aa240_.jpg3) Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple (2006)
To the uninitiated, People’s Temple appears to be just one more crazy sect of fundamentalist Christianity. Which makes this true story of delusion and mass suicide one of the most damaging witnesses to American Christianity in the twentieth century.

31rnwfmchml_aa240_.jpg2) Hell House (2001)
A truly scary documentary about a Pentecostal church in Texas that uses Halloween, buckets of fake blood, and scenes of abortion, suicide, and AIDS to scare hordes of lost kids into accepting Jesus.

510jrnqd6dl_aa240_.jpg1) Jesus Camp (2006)
In addition to its portrayal of six year olds speaking in tongues and praying over a cardboard George W. Bush, this film boasts the honor of having grade-A ironic footage of Ted Haggard talking smack about gays just months before his own admission of having solicited a male prostitute.

The Search Circa 1992


I just finished Jon Krakauer’s fantastic book Into the Wild, which I wanted to read before the film version (directed by Sean Penn) comes out this September. The book tells the story of Chris McCandless, who graduated college in 1990 and went on a two year trek across North America in search of raw, transcendent experience. Tired of a predictable, bourgeois existence in suburban D.C., McCandless decided to “escape” from the real world that frustrated him. He drove his car out into the Mojave desert, abandoned it, burned all his money, and proceeded to live as a wayfaring tramp and hobo for the next two years (see movie trailer below).

Into the Wild is a fascinating account of McCandless’ adventures as he travels throughout the American West—from South Dakota to the Salton Sea, Las Vegas to Astoria, Oregon, and finally to the Alaskan wilderness, where his Jack London-inspired quest came to a tragic end.

McCandless wrote in letters of his desire to break from “a life of security, conformity, and conservatism” in favor of “unconventional living.” As he writes:

“Nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future… The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”

McCandless longed for a richer, more natural and grounded existence than what his middle-class lot had outlined for him. I can’t help but compare him to another tragic, alienated soul of his generation—Kurt Cobain—who famously rebelled against the comfortable establishment he was born into.

bus.jpg McCandless kurt_cobain_narrowweb__200x301.jpg Cobain

Whereas Cobain vented his frustrations through drugs and music, and McCandless through communion with nature, both men epitomized the “grunge” rebellion and disillusionment of Generation X in the early 1990s. Call them slackers, or neo-hippies, or whatever—but they made explicit the “search” that haunts all generations.

Writer Douglas Coupland, who has come to be the literary voice of Generation X, described in 1995 the mindset of “X-ers” as being the desire “to hop off the merry-go-round of status, money, and social climbing that so often frames modern existence.”

I think we all can relate to this desire at some points in our lives—when the weight of success and the expectations of family, society, and self become too heavy a burden. Whether McCandless and Cobain are to be respected or pitied (for their searches both ended in solitary deaths, in 1992 and 1994, respectively), I’ll leave to you to decide.

But regardless of their failures and ultimately tragic ends, McCandless and Cobain were earnest in their longings—and through culture (music, movies, books, etc) their rupturing of the status quo lives on for future wanderers to ponder.