Monthly Archives: December 2008

Best Movies of 2008


Here are my top ten favorite movies of 2008, with an additional 15 honorable mentions that could easily have made the best ten as well. This list has gone through many variations in recent weeks, as I’ve seen a few films more than once or some for the first time. But I’m quite satisfied with the final ten I’ve narrowed it down to. These are the films that thrilled me the most in 2008.

10) Ballast (dir. Lance Hammer): Ballast is a simple, life-affirming (in the true sense) film about how we pull our lives together after tragedy. It’s about resurfacing, destabilizing, and regaining our balance (hence the title). A small, lyrical, beautifully photographed film.

9) Synecdoche, New York (dir. Charlie Kaufman): This is a crazy, brainy movie, loved and loathed by many. Similar in spirit and style to the films he’s written (especially Being John Malkovich and Adaptation), Synecdoche is truly Kauffman’s magnum opus.

8) Wendy and Lucy (dir. Kelly Reichardt): This is a short, quick, devastating film. Reichardt follows Old Joy in theme and style, peering in on a life of quiet despair and world-weariness. It’s a wise, loving, heartbreaking film about what we must do just to survive in an increasingly menacing world.

7) Vicky Cristina Barcelona (dir. Woody Allen): The second really great film from Allen in 2008 (the other being Cassandra’s Dream), Barcelona is a sumptuous feast of elegant, polished, on-point filmmaking. Allen is a master of the craft, and this film is gorgeous, rewarding evidence of that fact.

6) Australia (dir. Baz Luhrmann):
I’m confounded by the paltry critical and popular response to this movie. I simply adored it. It’s a remarkably fun, beautiful, lush film with no pretensions of importance but a keen command of the craft. That is: the craft of outrageous, epic, old school Hollywood artifice that birthed everything from Gone With the Wind to Titanic. A joy to watch.

5) Flight of the Red Balloon (dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien): Not for those who hate slow movies, because this is a very slow movie. But that is why I love it. It rushes for no one or no thing, and treats its subjects with the sort of delicate, curious gaze that is rarely seen in the post-Tony Scott era of attention-deprived cinema.

4) Rachel Getting Married (dir. Jonathan Demme):
A highly compelling, superbly acted assemblage of intimate, interpersonal moments. Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Debra Winger, and the whole cast offer a smorgasbord of stylish, humane acting. I think it might be my favorite wedding movie ever.

3) The Dark Knight (dir. Christopher Nolan): Not only the best comic book movie ever, but one of the best action/blockbuster films ever as well. Heath Ledger is one thing (a big thing), but this movie is impressive on so many levels. It’s reassuring that films like this can still get made—super smart films that can still make $700 million.

2) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (dir. David Fincher):
This is an exquisitely rendered, peculiar mediation on the fact that our lives—whether lived forward or backward—are lived in time. The freshest and best parts of them are only temporary. It’s a film that touched me deeply, perhaps more than any film this year, bringing to the fore those sometimes dormant emotions and deeply rooted recognitions of life’s impermanence that are at once heartbreaking and galvanizing. Props to David Fincher for two years and two films (this along with last year’s Zodiac) that rank among the best and most defining of the decade.

1) Paranoid Park (dir. Gus Van Sant):
This film has stuck with me more than any that I have seen this year. Something about it moved me very deeply; it’s one of those films that had me silent and stunned for the entire duration of the closing credits. Though it is highly sensory and aggressively artistic, Paranoid also has a plot—a simple, devastating plot that will grab you and shake you and make you think about the deep interiors of your life that rarely get glimpsed. It’s a totally unique, thoroughly American masterpiece of the cinematic form that demands to be seen in HD and surround sound.

Honorable Mention: Gran Torino, Happy-Go-Lucky, Cassandra’s Dream, Slumdog Millionaire, Shotgun Stories, The Wrestler, Wall-E, Chop Shop, Burn After Reading, Hunger, Man on Wire, Encounters at the End of the World, Tell No One, Snow Angels, Iron Man.

Best Albums of 2008

Here are my picks for the best albums released in 2008. It pains me to agree with Pitchfork on #1, but alas… there can really be no other at the top spot.

10) Mates of State, Re-Arrange Us: This husband-wife hipster duo have been making catchy electro pop for a while now, but this album is perhaps their most consistently good. A great, cheerful album for sunny afternoons. Download now: “Help Help,” “Get Better.”

9) Sigur Ros, Me Su í Eyrum Vi Spilum Endalaust:
It’s not as grandiose as some of their previous albums, but the latest from Iceland’s biggest cultural export is their most subtle, quietly complicated work yet. Download now: “Festival,” “Gobbledigook.”

8) Santogold, Santogold: The debut album from Brooklyn’s Santogold (aka Santi White) is one of the most interesting, musically diverse records of the year. Some rock, rap, dance, reggae and overall indie audacity make this one exciting party album. Download now: “Lights Out,” “I’m a Lady.”

7) Welcome Wagon, Welcome to the Welcome Wagon: The second husband-wife hipster duo to make this list, Welcome Wagon (made up of the Rev. and Mrs. Aiuto), have produced, with a lot of help from Sufjan Stevens, a brilliant, homespun album of folk hymns and Sunday school nostalgia. And the album art/packaging is not-to-be-missed! Download now: “Up on a Mountain,” “He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word.”

6) Kanye West, 808s and Heartbreak:
This is Kanye’s Sea Change. That is, it’s his against-type, melancholy masterpiece. This album is impressively cohesive and so different from anything he’s ever done. Download now: “Streetlights,” “Paranoid.”

5) M83, Saturdays=Youth:
No album title better captures the mood of a record as this one does. Saturdays=Youth is an album of breezy, sun-drenched euphoria and 80s shoegazer nostalgia. It’s French, it’s fresh, and it’s fun. Download now: “Graveyard Girl,” “We Own the Sky.”

4) Coldplay, Viva la Vida: Hate them all you want (and I admit: Chris Martin has been on an annoying streak of late), but it’s hard to dispute the merits of this, their fourth album. The songs are just so epic, so sing-along-able. Download now: “Strawberry Swing,” “Lovers in Japan.”

3) Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend:
This is one buzz band that proved to be worth the hype. This album of afro-tinged indie rock is endlessly interesting, sharply produced, and encouragingly happy. Still memorable, nearly a year after it came out. Download now: “Oxford Comma,” “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance.”

2) The Walkmen, You & Me: I’ve always had a mild fondness for The Walkmen, but never a love. Until now. This album is a breakthrough for them—an atmospheric lament for simpler times and soon-to-be forgotten dreams. Simply stunning. Download now: “In the New Year,” “If Only It Were True.”

1) Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes: Seattle’s Fleet Foxes is the latest in a long line of trendy Sub Pop sensations, but their self-titled debut—full of wise, poetic, aged material—feels more Olde World than flavor-of-the-week. The band’s self-described sound (“baroque harmonic pop jams”) weaves together various threads of musical and cultural nostalgia—Beach Boys pop, Appalachia fireside folk, Romantic painting, Gothic literature, etc.—to effect a musical mood that is both classic (albeit anachronistic) and stunningly fresh. Download now: “White Winter Hymnal,” “Ragged Wood.”

Honorable Mention: Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago, Claire Holley, Hush, T.V. on the Radio, Dear Science, Flying Lotus, Los Angeles, Scarlett Johansson, Anywhere I Lay My Head, Ron Sexsmith, Exit Strategy of the Soul, Portishead, Third, Damien Jurado, Caught in Trees, Rachel Yamagata, Elephants… Teeth Sinking Into Heart, Grand Archives, The Grand Archives.

Best Books of 2008


I read a ton of books in 2008, but most of them did not come out this year. However, I did read a few that were released since January, and the following is a list of my top five favorite books of 2008.

5) The Reason for God, Tim Keller
I love Tim Keller. The Manhattan-based pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian has a strong but compassionate way about him, and his writing voice demonstrates this. He commands a very high level of respect. This book is a pretty straightforward apologetic for Christianity, but it’s one that feels more humane and less didactic/argumentative than some of the others (though no less rigorous). It’s a compelling, smart argument for belief in an age of skepticism, for meaning in a meaningless age.

4) Culture Making, Andy Crouch
In the midst of a glut of “Christians and culture” type books, this one stands out because it takes a step back and forces us to contend with the very word, “culture.” What is it? How do we “make it”? Andy Crouch offers a thoughtful, extremely helpful reality-check of a book for anyone with an inkling to “change the culture” in any way. It goes beyond all the usual clichés and offers a back-to-basics, from-the-Bible justification for why Christians should be thinking about but also participating in culture making. It’s a rare book that challenges Christians to do more than just criticize or boycott culture but to make and remake it ourselves.

3) Hot, Flat & Crowded, Thomas Friedman
I don’t know if there is a more urgent, more sharply written call-to-arms nonfiction book out there right now. Friedman’s epic, well-researched new book is a diagnosis of the challenges facing our world as it gets hotter, flatter (i.e. more developed), and more crowded, as well as a set of specific plans for how America can lead the way in the necessary “green revolution.” Regardless of your politics, you will find Friedman’s arguments compelling, scary, and inspiring. Our world is facing a crisis, and it goes beyond global warming. There are simply too many people, and resources are running out. We have to start thinking about sustainability, and this book is a huge step in the right direction.

2) Home, Marilynne Robinson
I have to admit: it’s hard for me to find time to read new fiction. But Marilynne Robinson is someone I always make an exception for. The Harper Lee-esque writer has offered us some of the most lyrical fiction of recent decades with books like Housekeeping and Gilead, and her new book, Home (a sequel to Gilead) does not disappoint. It’s a calm, solemn, subtle work that puts us firmly in the Iowa town of Gilead and the lives of a trio of characters—a father, a daughter, and a prodigal son. Not much happens, per se, but the book is about so much. It’s a profound, elegant treasure of American prose.

1) Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright
The latest from British theologian N.T. Wright is a stunning, paradigm re-alignment of a book that challenges Christians to re-think their faith in light of a fuller understanding of the Resurrection. Is the purpose of Christianity being able to go to heaven when we die? Wright convincingly argues that no, in light of the Resurrection, there is much more to life than the afterlife. We are living the Resurrection on Earth now, as the Church, a body of renewal and restoration for an aching, needy world. This is an important, challenging book, and essential reading for any Christian serious about understanding the meaning of what they believe and why they believe it.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

I saw this film on the day my new niece, Clara, was born, and it could not have been a better capstone to an already joyous day. Before seeing the film, I’d been thinking of the significance of this newborn life—that today was its first day, the first of many days and years and moments (by the grace of God) that will constitute her life. Like the many thousands of other babies born that day, she sucked in the earth’s air for the first time, just as, simultaneously, hundreds of other humans did it for the last time.

And so as I watched David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, I couldn’t help but reflect: what is life, indeed what is time, if not a series of entrances and exits and movements and moments? It all happens so quickly, and yet it is so vast.

This is a film about life. A life’s span. In this case, it’s about the life of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), a New Orleans-born-and-bred golden boy who was born on Armistice Day in 1918, worked on a tugboat, survived WWII, traveled the world, married his lifelong sweetheart, had a baby, and eventually died. He has your average “greatest generation” biography—except for the fact that he ages backwards. At birth he has the body and ailments of an 80 year old, and at age 80 he looks like your average toddler/infant. But this is not a film about a freak sideshow or a sci-fi anomaly. The aging-backward conceit is merely the entry point for a larger appraisal of life: the things we do, the nature of time, the impermanence of it all. “Nothing lasts,” says Benjamin repeatedly in the film. It’s not a statement of joy or mourning. Simply an acknowledgment of a fact.

Quite suitably, Button is structured episodically, running through Benjamin’s entire life from birth to death. We see him meet and befriend a diverse array of people who come in and out of his life, and very few of these encounters have any major “plot” significance apart from just being there, a part of this guy’s story. But that feels true. In real life, we all go through little periods here and segments there, loving someone in some place and another person somewhere else. Little is constant in life, save the fact that we are always the center of our own story.

For Benjamin, the closest thing to constancy is his childhood friend Daisy, a red-haired, blue-eyed dancer (Cate Blanchett) who, despite aging in the opposite direction, becomes Benjamin’s soul mate. Their love is the centerpiece of the film, and comprises much of its second half. As the two of them grow older in age, only Daisy begins to deteriorate. Benjamin loses his wrinkles and becomes more youthful by the day. For a time—a brief, glorious time—they are both about the same “age” physically. But “nothing lasts,” as they say.

The film is loosely based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, which I have read. Aside from the basic concept of a child being born old and aging backward, the film and story have very little in common. But I actually found the film to be very much in the F. Scott Fitzgerald mold—a very American, up-from-your-bootstraps tale of life and longing told with lyrical, elegant language and a bittersweet mix of warm nostalgia and quiet despair. That the object of Benjamin’s life-long love is “Daisy” is fitting, I think. It’s not that Benjamin has much in common with Gatsby, but certain elements and themes in Gatsby are also in Button. I think of this line—one of my favorites—from Gatsby:

“He stretched out his hand desperately as if to snatch only a wisp of air, to save a fragment of the spot that she had made lovely for him. But it was all going by too fast now for his blurred eyes and he knew that he had lost that part of it, the freshest and the best, forever.”

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an exquisitely rendered, peculiar mediation on the fact that our lives—whether lived forward or backward—are lived in time. The freshest and best parts of them are only temporary. The fact that we age and time presses on—that things are lost and gained and never the same—is life’s only constant. (Incidentally, this is a theme also at play in David Fincher’s last film, Zodiac, which was one of the best films of 2007.)

This is a film that touched me deeply, bringing to the fore those sometimes dormant emotions and deeply rooted recognitions of life’s impermanence that are at once heartbreaking and galvanizing.

It’s a perfect film for Christmas day, for even as it reminds us that humanity is bound by the shackles of time and aging, it also believes deeply in the sacredness of a life, however imperfect. We are all coming and going on this planet as quickly as the wind. We’ll be gone before we know it… But our lives still matter.

These Advent Days

It’s a cold December night, less than a week from Christmas. The third Friday of Advent, to be exact. In two days, I’m going home. Home to Kansas for the holidays.

This is a season that swings from joy to sadness rather quickly and unexpectedly, but I’m on the joy side of it these days. I’ve been seeing depressing movies like they’re going out of style, reading depressing books, and watching the news (more depressing than usual it seems). But in spite of my best efforts to wallow in midwinter moodiness, I’ve been overwhelmed with happiness and cheer. Overwhelmed to the point of tears (of joy).

Joy to the world. The Lord is come. Let every heart prepare him room.

It’s a joy, I think, of recognizing the smallness of oneself, while at the same time noticing the ways in which God seems to pay attention to you. That’s when the joy weighs heaviest, when we see that it has absolutely nothing to do with what we’ve done, but everything to do with who we are. That is: who God is making us and shaping us to be.

This realization typically happens around this time of year for me, when I survey the year, write my little Christmas update letter (yeah, I still do that), and think about what I’ve done, who I’ve met, where I’ve gone, etc. As I was driving into L.A. last night for a Christmas party with some church friends, I had one of those “wow, I have been so blessed,” moments when all the faces of the people I’d shared my year with came parading into my head, not in a random montage of unrelated images, but in a sort of kaleidoscope of linkage and interconnectedness. It was one of those moments when I could vaguely, powerfully glimpse a little of the divine orchestration that is at work behind all of this mad, beautiful mess.

Because I do believe that this is the case. I’m convinced that this all makes sense—my part in it, your part in it, the fires and snow and cherry pies. It makes sense on a level of sense-making that is only graspable in the way that the universe is graspable through telescopes. We can see parts of it, and in that we can infer the greatness of the whole and feel the surrogate wonder.

So it was in my car, driving on the 10 through downtown L.A., listening to my “80s heroin shoegazer” Christmas mix. I was overwhelmed by the realization that so much was so clearly happening for a reason. My job, my house, my friends, my car, the things I hear and say, write and read, fear and love… It all fits into the stories and people and places that precede it. It is all very messy and imperfect and frequently painful, but it ultimately isn’t about me or my comfort.

As a Christian, I believe that I am part of God’s church—that is, his extension of himself (via the Holy Spirit) on earth, a mission-minded body of humans that are the hands and feet of a much larger force, working in and for the world. I also believe that this happens largely in spite of ourselves, and that left to our own devices we would probably just constantly be f-ing things up.

God sent Jesus to earth to start something new. And start something new he did. But the new world that began with baby Jesus in a manger is now a world that a wider body of mortals is asked to participate in, to develop more fully and to expand, looking towards the time when all will be redeemed, made right, and reconciled. It will be God who brings this about. Only he can make things as they should be. But he asks his people—the church—to live in such a way that aspires to and expects this glory.

And in that, we sometimes see glimpses of things we can barely understand. We taste the powers of the age to come (Hebrews 6:5). I think we all can experience this. I think it’s what I’ve been experiencing these Advent days.

My Favorite Things of 2008

Following in the footsteps of Fraulein Maria (and Oprah too, I suppose), here are a few of the things that have been my favorites in 2008:

The buildup and payoff of The Dark Knight: The anticipation of this film, especially following the passing of Heath Ledger, was astronomically huge. No film could ever live up to hype like this. But The Dark Knight did. It more than earns the “best comic book movie ever” moniker. Seeing this film on opening night was one of the joys of my summer (and seeing it later on IMAX was also a thrill).

Almond croissants: My love affair with almond croissants goes back longer than this year, but I think it reached some sort of major turning point in 2008. It got to the point that no matter where I was—coffee shop, bakery, hotel—I would order an almond croissant. When I was in England this summer I think I had at least one a day. Really, they are quite amazing.

Friday Night Lights on DirecTV:
Season 3 of Friday Night Lights premiered and has aired exclusively on DirecTV this fall, and it has been my Wednesday night mainstay. What an amazing show this is. I am continually surprised from week to week at how it sustains its high quality. Truly one of the best things on TV. It will air on NBC starting on January 16. Get into it! You’ll not be sorry.

“The Shot”: This, of course, referring to Mario Chalmers’ epic 3-point buzzer-beater that propelled my beloved Kansas Jayhawks into overtime—and ultimately victory—in the NCAA national championship against Memphis last March. The joy of that moment (after coming back from what appeared to be a hopeless 9-point deficit with 2 minutes left) is best expressed, I think, in the clip below. It shows the reaction inside Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas as diehard fans watch the game and the historic shot:

Arugula: For some reason the wonders of this exceptionally tasty leafy green never made a mark on my taste buds until this year. But in 2008, arugula rocked my world (and the world in general: it made the cover of Newsweek). I had it on pizzas, in salads, on sandwiches, and ordered it at many a bourgeois restaurant. For the last five months I’ve bought it in bulk at Trader Joe’s every time I shop there. Credit must go to Pitfire Pizza in Westwood for my newfound favorite leaf. Their “Burratta Pizza” (organic arugula, caramelized onions, hazelnuts and pesto) is shockingly addictive and a yuppie dream!

Kristen Wiig: Aside from Tina “Sarah Palin” Fey, Kristen Wiig is and was the best thing on Saturday Night Live this year. She’s unfailingly funny in every skit she’s in, and I love her reoccurring characters (Target lady, Penelope, Sue “I’m way too excited”) as well as her impersonations, like the Crazy McCain Lady, Suze Orman, or Jamie Lee Curtis.

Fresh & Easy: This chain of so-called “neighborhood markets” started popping up in my neighborhood this summer, and I’m pretty sure the handful of times I’ve been there this fall have been among the best grocery shopping experiences of my life. It’s like Trader Joes without the crowds, Whole Foods without the pretension, all with pretty low prices (20-30% lower than your average grocer) and a wonderfully European feel (probably because Fresh & Easy is part of the British Tesco grocery empire). And the best part: self-checkout is the only checkout option! And it’s easy!

N.T. Wright: You might have seen this guy on The Colbert Report earlier this year, promoting his amazing new book, Surprised by Hope. He’s the Bishop of Durham, and one of the sharpest theological minds writing today. I’ve read a lot of his stuff this year, and I’m consistently challenged and provoked by his work, but not in a “wow you have a lot of nerve!” sort of way. He’s crazy smart and yet fairly easy to read, and his sometimes-controversial (but hard to disprove or discredit) ideas about Christianity are definitely worth talking about.

The resurgence of Reformed theology: People might be shocked that I am a fan of N.T. Wright AND the resurgence of Reformed theology, but I’m convinced that the dichotomies and battle lines that have been drawn are false. In any case, I think it’s great that Calvinism is making a comeback among young Christian hipsters. I highly recommend Collin Hansen’s book, Young, Restless, Reformed, if you want to explore this trend.

Woody Allen: This guy is crazy prolific. He’s like 74 and released two amazing movies this year: Cassandra’s Dream and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed both of these movies. Also, in 2008 I rediscovered The Purple Rose of Cairo, which is a truly marvelous little movie.

Wendy and Lucy

Wendy and Lucy is an unexpected tour-de-force. It’s probably the simplest, cheapest, and shortest film to be receiving accolades this awards season (AFI just named it one of the top ten movies of the year), but it’s also one of the most surprisingly affecting.

The film is directed by Kelly Reichardt, whose Old Joy remains one of my favorite films of the last five years—a subtle, mostly silent but deeply profound examination of growing up and learning to live past one’s regrets. Wendy and Lucy is much in the same vein as Old Joy. Both are set in the Pacific Northwest, are very organic in style and content, and feature little-to-no dialogue. Both are about hippie-ish young idealists who must reckon with a world that is harder than they’d hoped it would be. Both are shot largely outdoors. Both feature dogs.

In Wendy and Lucy, Wendy is portrayed by Michelle Williams, in one of the most quietly devastating performances of the year. Lucy is a cute golden Labrador Retriever. The film is about their journey together, meandering somewhere in Oregon on a slow quest up north. Wendy, channeling Chris McCandless, is a live-off-the-land type girl, determined to make it to Alaska where she might get a job in a fish hatchery. She looks like hipster, albeit a ragged, world-weary one without the usual tongue-in-cheek accoutrements. She has little in the world other than her car and her dog, and she loses both during the course of the film (but finds one of them).

My first reaction after seeing this film was, “wow, that was remarkably sad.” I almost resented it for how much it punched me in the gut. But upon further reflection I see that as much as it is a film about deep human despair, it is also a film about love—a simple, beautiful love between a young woman and her dog. It’s also about resiliency, and how we push ourselves to keep going, even when we’ve lost everything. It’s a hard, somber film, told with a soft, reassuring touch.

The film is not directly about anything political, but it is as much about America in 2008 as Old Joy was about America in 2006. Which is to say it is very much a comment on the current state of things in America. But also like Old Joy, Wendy has a timeless quality to it, addressing existential issues through a very current lens. Wendy is a film about being poor—struggling to make ends meet and never being able to get ahead. Like other, similarly eloquent independent films about being poor in America that have come out in 2008 (Ballast, Chop Shop, The Wrestler), Wendy doesn’t offer simple answers. It grieves and suffers with its subject without wallowing in pity, while also affirming life and hope and love.

It’s a film I highly suggest you all see before you make your best of 2008 lists.

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


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.