Monthly Archives: March 2009

The N.T. Wright Stuff

Things feel rather hopeless these days for a lot of people. The economy is horrific, many are out of work, the weight of existence bears down in customary fashion… And yet in this period of Lent–as Christians quietly prepare themselves for the remembrances that are Good Friday and Easter, hope seems to break through the bleak landscape. Christ is hope; Christianity is, if it is anything, a belief in hope. So often we Christians get sidetracked and come across as dour, judgmental, “get me out of this earth and take me to heaven” downers… which is why more and more people (especially young people) just tune it all out. Why believe in a religion that forsakes this world and looks forward to its demise and an otherworldly heaven? Is not this world worth anything? Why was it even created?

Thankfully, more and more Christians are realizing, preaching, and speaking a Bible-based theology about a more hopeful, Gospel-is-good-news-for-the-world Christianity. And the charge is being led by people like N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham, author of countless books, and all around brilliant man of God.

I recently decided that N.T. Wright is my favorite living preacher/theologian. I had held Bishop Wright in high regard for several years, read several of his books, even remixed some of his sermons with Thom Yorke songs. But until a few Saturdays ago, I had not heard N.T. preach in person. Wow. After seeing him speak off-the-cuff about Paul for three hours at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, seeing the energy of the packed-out congregation of a diverse array of Christians, and busily nodding in agreement at nearly every turn, I became convinced that no other contemporary voice of Christianity speaks as much truth as eloquently and humbly and purposefully as this man does.

One of the most refreshing things about N.T. Wright–and perhaps his biggest, most revolutionary contribution to Baptist-bred evangelicals like myself–is his emphasis on the fact that the final end toward which Christianity points is not heaven but actually the new earth–the new creation which rights all the wrongs and injustices of the fallen creation and brings God’s plans for the world to final, perfect culmination. Heaven exists, and is important, but it is not the end of the world. As Wright points out, the Bible doesn’t really talk much about “going to heaven when we die,” but spends plenty of time talking about the kingdom of God and his designs on renewal and restoration which the resurrection of Christ foretells.

Wright believes the resurrection of Christ is the beginning, end, and everything of the Christian faith. He talks about this beautifully in his book, Surprised by Hope, which I highly recommend (and which he plugged on The Colbert Report last year). The New Testament (particularly Paul’s stuff) outlines clearly a theology of resurrection (passages like I Corinthians 15) which Wright believes has been somewhat lost on many contemporary evangelicals.

Another thing I like about Wright is his insistence that this whole great story is not primarily about us. It’s about God’s world and his purposes for it (of which we are a part, but not the center). Christianity is not about our individual “decisions” to do this or that, or to be “saved” as one individual hoping to escape hell. Rather, it is about how we participate as the church FOR the world, reflecting like mirrors the goodness and glory of God’s future kingdom (which is both “now and not yet”). God saves us so that he can use us to bring the world to rights; he wants us to be his image-bearers in the world, for his glory. Thus, as noted in I Cor. 15:58, we can’t just sit back and relax in the hope we have in Christ. We have to labor in the work of the Lord, and it will not be in vain.

I also like how N.T. Wright emphasizes the relationship between earth and heaven. So often Christians err on emphasizing one over the other. But Wright takes very seriously the Lord’s Prayer when it says “Thy kingdom come, on earth as in heaven.” Not “in heaven as it is in heaven.” Heaven and earth are not poles apart, some sort of Gnostic separation in which the physical and spiritual, earth and heaven are forever fated to be in conflict and war. Heaven and earth are different, says Wright, but they are made for each other in the way that male and female are made for each other. “And when they finally come together, that will be cause for rejoicing in the same way that a wedding is: a creational sign that God’s project is going forward; that opposite poles within creation are made for union, not competition; that love and not hate have the last word in the universe; that fruitfulness and not sterility is God’s will for creation.” God’s sovereignty in the world, Wright suggests, is that of a creator reclaiming his creation. He is going to return to set the world to rights–a job already begun in the resurrection and continued by us, the church, who have work to do to embody this future hope which the resurrection has already exclaimed to all creation.

It’s all about hope. It’s all about Easter. The church must take up the task of fostering hope at any and every level, born out of the reality of the resurrection and the “surprising hope of the gospel, the hope for life after life after death.”

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The Christian Waiting for Guffman…

…Is called Jesus People: The Movie, and I saw it for the second time tonight, and laughed as much as the first time I saw it. It’s a film that makes fun of how ridiculous evangelicals can be, but does so in a way that is respectful.

The film is a feature-length version of a six-episode online series that debuted early in 2008 on Independent Comedy Network (ICN), sort of a “minor league” for shows hoping to make the jump to the bigs—traditional TV or, in this case, film. It’s currently on the 2009 festival circuit; it will screen at the Gospel Music Association’s annual celebration week in April, and will likely be released on DVD in the late summer or fall.

The film tells the satirical story of Cross My Heart, a Christian dance-pop band-in-the-making. The four-person, coed group—an homage to Christian dance-pop classics like Jump 5—includes an aging CCM pop star trying to resuscitate her career after a sex scandal (played by Edi Patterson), a newbie Christian party girl with a wild streak (Lindsay Stidham), a goody-goody fundamentalist with a fondness for God’s wrath (Damon Pfaff), and a token minority member who plays the sympathetic everyman (Rich Pierrelouis). The film also stars Joel McCrary (AMERICAN BEAUTY, SEINFELD), Wendi McLendon (RENO 911), Laura Silverman (THE SARAH SILVERMAN PROGRAM), Tim Bagley (KNOCKED UP), Octavia Spencer (BAD SANTA), and Jennifer Elise Cox (THE BRADY BUNCH MOVIE).

Jesus People skewers the evangelical subculture in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, poking fun at everything from Left Behind eschatology to promise rings to the familiar “prayer as gossip” trope. Its closest cousin might be 2004’s Saved!, though that film did not contain the underlying empathy for Christian culture that Jesus People contains

In any case, it’s worth checking out the web series, if you haven’t already. I haven’t seen a lot of successful web series like this (except for last year’s Quarterlife, which was horrible) but I have to say that this one is done pretty well. And the feature-length film version is even better. Refreshing to see a cinematic treatment of Christianity that is legitimately funny, piercing, fair, and true.

Trailer here:

Why I Am Writing This Book

Before I say another word about hipsters, let me just say a few words about what I’m trying to accomplish with the book I am writing.

It has become clear as I have blogged about the phenomenon of Christian hipsters that this topic is polarizing. Whether through the conversations I’ve had at the various churches I’ve visited throughout the country, on the blog boards that deal with my book topic, or just with my friends who I’ve talked through these issues alongside, I have become more and more aware that the things I’m looking at are extremely complicated and deserve a fair, thoughtful, thorough treatment.

Yes, that’s right. This is a serious exploration. It’s not a joke, and though it is humorous at times and occasionally ironic, it is by no means an exercise in sarcasm (as in, say, Robert Lanham’s Hipster Handbook).

And this book is not just about hipsters; it’s not just about Christian hipsters. It’s about the whole concept of cool as it pertains to Christianity. It’s about the way that—since the 1970s—contemporary Christianity has prioritized ideas like “cool,” “relevant,” and “countercultural,” largely failing on an institutional level to achieve those things and yet succeeding in pockets and parts via individuals and otherwise organic incarnations of what you might call “hip Christianity.”

The book is not an advertisement or rallying cry for hip Christianity; nor is it an outright chastisement. It’s a critical analysis. It’s about the contradictions inherent in “cool Christianity,” and the questions Christians should be asking of themselves if they find themselves within this milieu. Are the purposes and/or effects of cool compatible with those of Christianity? If we assume that “cool” necessarily connotes the notion of being elite, privileged, and somehow better than the masses, how can we reconcile the idea of “cool” with the idea of Christianity, which seems to beckon us away from self-aggrandizement or pride of any and all kind?

Whatever criticism I end up putting forward in the book, I hope that readers recognize that it is all for the ultimate refinement of the church and its mission in the world.

It has been very cool in recent years for Christians to bash on other Christians, to criticize the church and basically engage in a sort of “the church is totally f****d up and we know it” self-flagellation. A litany of books by Christian authors with titles like Death by Church and They Like Jesus But Not the Church have emphasized this point: it’s en vogue for Christians to hate on Christianity in all of its “mainstream” forms.

But I love Christians, and I love the church. I even love hipsters, and recognize why some of them might be offended by the label.

I’m writing the book not to position myself as some sort of expert on any of this or to make some audacious claim about anything, but because I love Christianity and the church. I want to see her thrive, expand, and be all that she can be for the world. I want to see the cause of Christ advanced and not muddled up. And this topic—the relationship of the church to the notion of “cool”—strikes me as a vitally important thing that needs to be addressed with tenderness, nuance, and—when appropriate—constructive rebuke. When the book is published by Baker Books sometime within the next year, I hope it sparks some necessary conversations, discourse, and soul-searching. And I don’t care if it’s all hopelessly uncool, strikingly pretentious, or devastatingly passé. It’s something I am passionate about writing, and it’s a conversation that needs to be had.

Notes on a Postmodern Weekend

(Told in “Twitter” style)

I had a very disparate, fragmented, over-mediated, maybe-a-bit-too-breakneck weekend. In L.A., these seem to be the norm rather than the exception, but this weekend struck me as a particularly postmodern pastiche of way too much that any one mind should encounter in a 60-hour period. To my horror, one of the ways I coped with the weekend was to think in status updates. But since I don’t Twitter and only occasionally update my Facebook status via my phone, I could not publicize my disjointed weekend narrative to the world.

The only reason I am doing it now (and believe me: this is something I generally oppose) is because, here in the remaining hours of Sunday night, my mind needs to process the weekend in some way—even if it is a bastardized, truncated Twitter-esque form.

Friday

Lunch at the North Woods Inn in La Mirada. There are peanut shells and sawdust on the floor, and for some reason I ordered a Shirley Temple for my drink. – 1:07pm

Just found out N.T. Wright is speaking tomorrow (Saturday) morning at St. Andrews Presbyterian in Newport. I decide I’m going, and tell my coworker Jason about it. He’s coming too. – 4:59pm

Driving in horrible rush hour to Hollywood for the opening reception of the City of Angels Film Festival. Listening to Kanye West remixes. – 5:45pm

Gas light is on. Emergency stop at Valero gas on Melrose. Bon Iver: “The business of sadness…” – 6:22pm

Just saw an amazing documentary – The Garden – about the South Central garden controversy in L.A. Thought: Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is quite the opportunist. – 9pm

Delighted by the chance to meet “Gilliebean,” an avid reader/commenter on my blog, during a break between films. – 9:14pm

Thrilled at the chance to see a recently restored print of the 1962 film The Exiles on the big screen. Love films about L.A. – 11:02pm

Driving back to Whittier to sleep. – 11:46pm

Facebook update: Brett is haunted by the past of the city he lives in (Los Angeles). – 12:21am

Saturday

Six hours of sleep. Picking up Jason in Brea. No time for breakfast. – 8:04am

St. Andrews Presbyterian, listening to the brilliant N.T. Wright wow a packed sanctuary. I make note: there are lots of seminary-style hipsters here. – 9:27am

Vintage N.T. – “The point of the resurrection is that God’s new creation has begun! And we have a job to do…” – 10:17am

Driving back from Newport, trying to process more than 2 hours of N.T. Wright’s stunning discussion of “Paul for tomorrow’s world.” Thinking about how it all relates to art. – 12:40pm

Picked up Chick Fil A for quick lunch at home. Just enough time to update my blog “quote of the week” with something N.T. Wright said. – 1:34pm

Thought about taking a nap instead of heading back to L.A. for more film festival. Little sleep is catching up with me. Decide against it. – 2:00pm

Driving to L.A. again. Animal Collective: “No more running…” Air conditioner in February. Traffic makes me want to die. – 2:50pm

Just screened Fatih Akin’s The Edge of Heaven but dozed through parts. Probably should have stayed home to sleep. – 5:30pm

Between films. Coffee Bean on Sunset across from the DGA. Free wifi. Enough time to write most of a blog post before my thoughts on The Garden and The Exiles fade into mushy memory. Blog ends up being about how film helps us avoid mushy memory. Drinking ice tea and eating fruit salad. – 6:24pm

Just screened the impressive Munyurangabo, which played at Cannes last year and won the AFI Fest Grand Jury prize. Debut feature of Christian filmmaker, Lee Isaac Chung. Definitely the highlight of the festival. Chatted with Chung after the screening about our mutual affection for Hou Hsiao-Hsien. – 9:48pm

Met some friends at a bar in Whittier. Reassured a hipster friend that “I will be kind to hipsters in my book.” Two more stops before the night is through and I collapse in bed. – 11:55pm

Sunday

Up early again. Driving to Long Beach on a lovely Sunday morning. Andrew Bird. – 8:50am

Enjoyed the hipster-friendly 9:30am service at Grace Brethren Church in Long Beach. Perhaps I’ll mention this church in my book.

Listening to Lost expert and EW.com columnist Jeff Jensen give engaging talk on the spiritual aspects of Lost to a crowd at Grace Brethren. He’s a member here. He thinks “Jack’s Grandpa” is actually Jack himself! OMG! – 11:45pm

Eating carne asada tacos and fried ice cream on the grass in Long Beach, post-church, with some hipster friends. – 1:18pm

Driving from Long Beach to Los Angeles. Horrific traffic for a Sunday. All because there is a disaster film being shot downtown and everyone slows down to see whether the piled up cars on the overpass are real or a movie. L.A. is such a Baudrillardian fantasyland. – 2:50pm

Took a wrong turn and ended up in Chinatown. 20 minutes later I’m back on the right track. – 3:12pm

Super late to the next screening at the festival—Silent Light—but manage to get there in time to see the epic opening shot. Love this movie. – 3:40pm

Panel discussion after Silent Light includes Bresson and Dreyer references, and a lot of numbing analysis which kind of ruins a film that is meant to just “be.” – 6:36pm

Back at Coffee Bean, hour-long chat about theological film criticism with the director of the Los Angeles Film Studies Center. I’m invited to lecture to students on Tuesday. – 7:15pm

Driving home. Animal Collective: “Am I really all the things that are outside of me?” – 8:20pm

Still driving. Thinking of my weekend, lamenting not having had any time to work on my book, in awe that I put 400 miles on my car since Friday, and never even left greater L.A. Thinking of blogging the weekend Twitter-style, sort of ironically but also as therapy. – 8:42pm

Finally home. Dinner. Writing blog post while watching the DVR replay of this afternoon’s Kansas-Missouri b-ball game. Rock Chalk Jayhawk! – 9:25pm

Facebook update: Brett is exhausted after a strenuously postmodern weekend. – 9:34pm

Took a break from writing to eat a brownie and watch a screener of the upcoming NBC show, Kings. I enjoy both the brownie and the show. – 10:40pm

Finished proof-reading blog post, typing the final few sentences. – 11:11pm.

Picking out image for blog post. Dead but soon-to-be resurrected John Locke from Lost seems somehow appropriate. Resurrection seemed a thematic constant over this, the first Lenten weekend, from N.T. Wright to Silent Light and so forth… – 11:22pm

One final note before I publish this thing: Check out my article in Relevant magazine, “The Problem of Pride in the Age of Twitter,” by clicking here. It’s on page 26. – 11:34pm.

Documenting Los Angeles

Los Angeles is without a doubt the most visually documented city in the world. But it is also one of the least known or truly understood. What is this place we call L.A.? Besides all the Hollywood stuff, what is its history and culture? How do we make sense of it amidst all the glittered sidewalks, scientologists, palm trees, car chases, sunset strips and skid rows?

This is one of the questions raised each year at the City of Angels Film Festival, held in Hollywood’s Director’s Guild theater and hosted by various Christian universities and organizations in the Los Angeles area. The festival, which got its start after the Rodney King riots brought the city to its knees in 1992, is a distinctly L.A. festival that has always focused on films with spiritual vitality and in recent years has also probed deeper into the heart of the place of L.A.

This was evidenced last night at the opening night of this year’s festival. The films screened—The Garden (a 2008 best documentary Oscar nominee) and The Exiles (Kent Mackenzie’s recently restored, largely forgotten classic from 1962)—are both very vivid documents of the city of L.A. They are not just films set in this city, but films about this city; and watching them reminded me of why I love living here so much, and why I love cinema.

The Garden
documents the struggle of immigrant farmers in South Central L.A., whose community garden was repossessed by the city a few years ago, setting off a firestorm of controversy and protest that (among other things) brought out celeb activists like Daryl Hannah and Zack de la Rocha. The film is a raw and unpretentious documentary (though not without clear political allegiances) that presents us with the oft-unseen plight of the immigrant communities of urban Los Angeles. Say what you will about the politics of the film, but as a thoroughly “L.A.” time capsule of a specific episode in this city’s storied history, the film is a treasure.

The Exiles is even more of a treasure. This 1962 film—unseen by all but the luckiest few filmgoers—has recently been resurrected, restored, and will soon be released on DVD. A classic of the American New Wave, with strongly neo-realist tendencies, The Exiles brings us back to a time and place (a community of Native Americans in the Bunker Hill neighborhood of downtown L.A. circa 1960) that is now completely vanished from this city’s history. Few remember this place, and watching this film it’s hard to imagine that this world ever really existed in the first place. It’s haunting, gripping, visceral. The black and white photography of “urban exile” Native Americans living one 12-hour, frolicsome night in beatnik bars, expressionist streets and dizzying neon capitalism is a singular gem of cinematic historical documentation.

These films reminded me that, of all its other merits, cinema at its best can offer us unparalleled archival access to the concrete people, places, and circumstances of an always-moving, forever changing world. The “taking in of truth” that the camera provides us, organized by the curator hands of filmmakers with vision, opens up the reality and objective thing-ness of what otherwise are only abstract memory mirages or arbitrary imaginings of “how things were.”