Monthly Archives: October 2009

Friday Night Lights Season Four Kicks Off

The fourth season of Friday Night Lights premiers tomorrow night on the 101 channel of DirecTV (for those of us fortunate to have DirecTV… I bought mine solely for FNL). I urge you to watch it if you can! Find someone with DirecTV! Or search for it online. Or wait until 2011 and watch it on NBC. Just don’t miss it!

I still marvel at the number of people I know who have yet to see an episode of this fantastic show. These are people who like Mad Men and Lost and appear to know good TV when they see it. Alas, they’ve somehow missed what is certainly one of the best shows on television.

Well it hasn’t been because of any lack of promotion on my part. Over the years, I’ve written numerous blog posts and articles about this show. Among the things I’ve said:

“Every now and then a network show comes along that redefines the medium’s artistic horizons and proves that cinema has no monopoly on forward-thinking style in the world of moving images. Lights is such a show… Beyond the technical aspects, perhaps the chief appeal of Lights is that it is not condescending to middle America, even while it relishes in pointing out its quirks and contradictions. For those of us who hail from (and adore) the sprawling rural midsection of this country, it’s rare to see a portrayal that gets it so right.” (“Still the Brightest Light on TV“)

“This show—unlike most other hour-long dramas on TV—is not about plot twists and cliffhangers. Its greatness comes from how mundane it is—how it captures subtle beauty in the everyday occurrences of this sleepy little Texas town.” (“Friday Night Lights is Back“)

“When I think about Friday Night Lights, I think about my memories, and I think about my hopes. But I also think of Thomas Hart Benton, the plains, adolescence, Aaron Copland, thunderstorms, Dairy Queen, and struggle. Not many T.V. shows (or anything really) stir up such a complex array of emotions or feel so utterly relatable.” (“Why You Should Watch Friday Night Lights“)

Anyway, in case you remain unconvinced, here is a sampling of some of the endless raves reviews critics have given Friday Night Lights over the past three years:

Tom Shales, Washington Post

“Extraordinary in just about every conceivable way—but especially in the quality of its cast… “Friday Night Lights” is great, heavy-duty, high-impact TV.”

Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times

“With any luck, popular success will follow the critical, because pretty much everyone who sees “Friday Night Lights” falls hard. With its fuzzy lighting and slow-as-a-summer-night cadence, it’s the antithesis of many of the slick hyper-dramas ruling the airways. It attempts to show life for folks who live without a freeway or a subway, complete with ugly violence and choked-back silence.”

Tim Goodman, San Francisco Chronicle

“Friday Night Lights is not good. It’s great… If viewers get over their preconceived notions about what they think this series is about and actually give it a shot, they’ll be as stunned as everyone else.”

Adam Buckman, New York Post

“The best live-action show about contemporary life in America that is currently on the air.”

Robert Bianco, USA Today

“Lights has a rare ability to portray life in small-town America without being condescending or sentimental.”

Bill Simmons, ESPN

“It’s the greatest sports-related show ever made… Every nuance is nailed, every hug seems genuine, every fight makes sense, every sarcastic barb and flustered reaction ring true. If there are better TV actors than Kyle Chandler (Coach) and Connie Britton (Mrs. Coach), I haven’t TiVoed them.”

Matt Roush, TV Guide

“Friday Night Lights moves me like no other show. It reminds me of where I came from and of what it truly means to keep one’s eye on the ball. And yet, as wrenching as the show can be, it’s also terrifically entertaining, with plenty of dry wit, edge-of-the-seat suspense, sexy romance and even the occasional laugh-out-loud moment.”

Maureen Ryan, Chicago Tribune

“I not only think it’s the best show on network television, I also think it’s as good as The Wire… This extraordinary drama lets us peek inside the lives and the minds of people who aren’t any different than we are, who are struggling with the mundane and major problems of real life. And it’s done with such subtlety, surprising wit and grace, that at the end of every hour, I devoutly wish it wasn’t over.”

American Film Institute—Television show of the year (2006):

“FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS is a celebration of America – its hopes and dreams, its heart and its heartland. Rare is the show that presents family and faith in such an authentic way – rich with emotion and illuminated by the pulse-quickening thrill of football. Peter Berg’s small town tale is one with community at its core, but universal in scope – the struggle of winning and losing, the drive to reach for more and the challenge of seeing a future beyond the glare of Friday night’s lights.”

Peabody Award (2006):

“No dramatic series, broadcast or cable, is more grounded in contemporary American reality than this clear eyed serial about the hopes, dreams, livelihoods and egos intertwined with the fate of high-school football in a Texas town.”

If you are still unconvinced to at least give this show a try, then I don’t know what to say. You’re missing out!

A Serious Man

I didn’t think the Coen brothers could top No Country For Old Men, their Oscar-winning masterpiece (which I wrote about here). But A Serious Man comes awfully close. This is a film unlike anything the Coens have ever done, and yet it fits perfectly into their oeuvre. It’s a film about God, man, and the peculiar way that the two relate. And it’s a film that will haunt and provoke you far after you leave the theater.

Stylistically, Man is further proof that the Coens are among the most masterful directors working in Hollywood today. Few other filmmakers are as skillful at the art of employing editing in the service of suggestion and insinuation. As in No Country, the Coens let much go unsaid in Man… and yet so much is implied. So much is clearly hinted at. The Coens’ impressive restraint and pervasive ambiguity only adds to the provocative, head-scratching, deeply unsettling quality of this film.

A Serious Man, as you’ve probably heard by now, is a sort of modern day Job story. It’s a movie about a Jewish physics professor named Larry Gopnik who lives in 1967 suburban Minnesota with his wife, daughter and son. Larry is an upstanding guy—moral, loving, even-keeled. He doesn’t even like hearing people curse. But inexplicably and tragically, things start going very wrong in Larry’s life. Bad things… one after another. His wife divorces him, a student tries to blackmail him, his brother gets in legal trouble, someone tries to sabotage his tenure, his health might be in jeopardy, etc. As the film progresses, the bad stuff keeps coming, and poor Larry doesn’t get a break.

A Serious Man is a funny film (in a darkly humorous, pitiful sort of way), but it’s also full of important, distressing existential questions. Namely: Why does bad stuff happen to good people? If there is a God, why does he seem so cruel and unresponsive sometimes?

These questions are set against a strikingly Jewish backdrop, mixing a sort of Old Testament monotheistic covenant mysticism with Yiddish and American Jewish cultural tropes. The film opens with a curious, comic/horrific prologue that appears to be some sort of old Yiddish folktale. It has nothing directly related to the film proper, aside from establishing the Jewishness and darkly comic tone from the get go. The prologue also, importantly, establishes what seems to be an acceptance of the supernatural—which lends credibility to the ensuing film’s apparent belief in God-ordained calamity.

When the bad stuff starts happening, Larry goes to talk to the local rabbi to get some insight and counsel about why his life is crumbling all around him. But the rabbis (he ends up talking to two of them) offer Larry little in the way of comfort. One of them tells Larry to “look at things with fresh eyes” and the other regales him with a bizarre story about a dentist who sees a Hebrew message in a patient’s teeth. In another scene, Larry’s son goes to see a very old rabbi who manages only to quote Jefferson Airplane and say “be a good boy.” So much for wisdom and insight from the clergy.

Or maybe “be a good boy” is really all we need to hear. Perhaps, at the end of the day, the “why me?!” cry is simply that of a pitiful sinner who just needs to make better choices.

As much as A Serious Man is about the seeming injustice of calamity befalling a blameless, morally upright man (Larry=Job), there are definitely moments when it seems like actions have direct consequences—that the bad things happening are in fact a punishment for wrongdoing.

The Coens have charted this morality territory before. Many of their films (like No Country, Burn After Reading, Fargo) feature characters who are mostly very nice, normal, moral people. But because they make one or two mistakes, or get caught up in the mistakes of others, they have to pay. So it is in Man. Larry only falters a few times in the film. He peers over at a female neighbor sunbathing in the nude; he tries marijuana; and at the end of the film, he does something small that immediately makes him pay in a big way.

It may not seem fair that such minor offenses justify such massive punishment, but this IS God we’re talking about. Yahweh. Hashem (as Larry calls Him in the film). He does what he wants, and his justice will prevail. Even if it doesn’t quite make sense to us.

The film is rooted in this sort of quintessentially Jewish version of God—a God who is in a love/hate relationship with his chosen people (Jews) but has a propensity to be silent, distant, scary and wrathful. He’s a god who demands sacrifices in order to be approached, obedience in order to be appeased.

It’s almost as if God is a negotiator—that He demands something of us in order to bless us, and that if we hold up our end of the bargain he’ll hold up His. Read Torah, live rightly, “be a good boy,” and God will bless you. If not, watch out.

“But God is not a negotiator,” writes Miroslav Volf in his book Free of Charge:

It is true that Scripture portrays God in ways remarkably similar to that image. In the Old Testament we read, for instance, “If you will only obey the Lord your God … all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the Lord your God” (Deut. 28:1-2). Yet before the commandments were given to the people of Israel, God delivered them from slavery in Egypt. But it wasn’t to get something out of them. They were delivered for the simple reason that God heard their cries of affliction, kept the promises made to their ancestor Abraham, and through deliverance and faithfulness wanted to manifest the greatness of God’s love in the world… God’s goods are not for sale; you can’t buy them with money or good deeds. God doesn’t make deals. God gives.

The thought of a loving, free-grace giving God is mostly absent in A Serious Man, but it’s fairly understandable. It’s hard to grasp this sort of God when your life is falling apart at the seams for no just reason.

Larry is a physics professor who believes in cause and effect and preaches Newton’s law of motion (every action has a reaction). He assumes that choices have consequences and that the universe corrects itself in a very logical way. He trusts the math. But there are also things in physics that push the boundaries of our intellect (e.g. Schrödinger’s “cat is dead and alive simultaneously” Paradox and the Heisenberg Principle) and require us to admit uncertainty.

Perhaps this is why Larry, like Job, never curses God even through all his suffering and hardship. God, Hashem, is grander than and beyond our intellect, and his actions sometimes defy our understanding. Larry, the rabbis, and everyone in A Serious Man are pretty stumped about what God is actually doing. But they continue to worship Him, fear Him, and pursue righteousness because of Him. Because He is God. And our ability to understand Him doesn’t change who He is.

Our Inconsolable Secret

In response to my last post about Balloon Boy and our human obsession with being recognized and affirmed, Christianne—a faithful and wise reader of my blog—offered a comment that was a helpful corrective to my admittedly harsh rhetoric about how things like Facebook and Twitter are “silly” attempts to “get the attention of other people who are just as weak and attention-seeking as we are.” Here is part of what Christianne wrote:

But where you look at the behaviors we exhibit en masse on Facebook and Twitter and land at exasperation, I look at those behaviors and land at compassion. Yes, I agree with you that we are broken and need something more than our broken selves to heal one another. But the answer isn’t pasting knowledge on ourselves about Christ’s sufficiency, even though Christ’s sufficiency is real and true. People need to experience real love to counter the false loves they’re finding elsewhere to fill a vacuum. And the love of Christ does not become real by being told it’s sufficient and to just believe. It becomes real, in some ways, through Christ-followers who demonstrate the kind of love and compassion Christ would if he were here, walking among us, today.

I think this is very true. It’s easy to say that Christ’s affirmation and love is sufficient, but in reality it’s a bit of an abstraction and it’s hard to experience in practice. Christianne is right. God’s love can and does manifest itself in humanity—through our mothers and brothers and friends and lovers. Certainly we experience the heavenly ideal of unconditional love in bits and pieces—however imperfect—in our human brethren. It’s right to seek it, to appreciate it when we find it, and to recognize God’s grace in it.

I suppose my vitriolic, exasperated tone with regard to Facebook and Twitter comes from the fact that I see this type of “love seeking” as such a pale substitute for the sorts of “heavenly” connections I know exist. It’s sort of a mudpies-when-we-could-be-at-the-sea sorta thing, to reference “The Weight of Glory.” Sure, social networking websites can provide transcendent, unconditional, life-affirming connection at times. But just as often it seems to be a disappointment and a distraction. Too often I realize that with all the time I spend seeking “friends” and “comments” online, I could be praying or reading God’s word. When I’m feeling the need for connection, it’s easier to pop onto iChat and get some instant conversational attention from a friend. It’s so convenient, in fact (and offers such immediate return), that it becomes harder to justify chatting with God who is silent and mysterious.

On a good day, it’s easy to see God speaking to me in the chats and emails and conversations with the people in my life. It’s wonderful to feel his love in things like the weather, coffee, and a text message. But on bad days—on glass half empty days—it becomes painfully clear that no one can ever live up to the standard of love we are wired to seek. We were made for something more than this earth can satisfy. Everyone, at one point or another, proves to be a disappointment. Everyone we love will, at one point or another, cause us pain. We are all so broken; so inexhaustibly frail.

This doesn’t mean we should hide away from it all, shun human contact and pray all day and night in solitude (though maybe it does… monks seem to think so). On the contrary, I think God wants us to love each other, to experience his love in and through community. And thanks be to God, this world and its inhabitants can frequently offer us glorious glimpses and blips of existential satisfaction that can amount to something very near sustained joy or stasis. Very near… but never all the way there.

As is typically the case, C.S. Lewis expresses it most eloquently, as in this passage from “The Weight of Glory”:

When I attempted a few minutes ago, to describe our spiritual longings, I was omitting one of their most curious characteristics. We usually notice it just as the moment of vision dies away, as the music ends, or as the landscape loses the celestial light… For a few minutes we have had the illusion of belonging to that world. Now we wake to find that it is no such thing. We have been mere spectators. Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face turned in our direction, but not to see us. We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken into the dance. We may go when we please, we may stay if we can, no one cares. Now, a scientist may reply that since most of the things we call beautiful are inanimate it is not very surprising that they take no notice of us. That, of course, is true. It is not the physical objects that I am speaking of, but that indescribable Something of which they become for a moment the messengers. And part of the bitterness which mixes with the sweetness of that message is due to the fact that it so seldom seems to be a message intended for us, but rather something we have overheard. By bitterness I mean pain, not resentment. We should hardly dare to ask that any notice be taken of ourselves. But we pine. The sense that in the universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, the bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret.

I did not intend my balloon boy post to be an invalidation of this very human “inconsolable secret.” Rather, I was simply trying to explore how this pining—this acute awareness of our “stranger” disposition—evinces itself in our contemporary experience: in the news, in technology, in everything.

The “glory” Lewis talks about has everything to do with the human desire for affirmation and recognition—the Platonic notion of thymos. Lewis describes glory as the fact of being “noticed” by God. We want to be known by Him (1 Corinthians 8:3, 1 Corinthians 13:12), and we dread being cast away from Him (“I never knew you. Depart from me…” Matt 7:23).

At the end of the day, it is this deep, unrelenting desire to be fully known that drives everything we do—the loves and satisfactions we seek in both good and bad places. But we can only really be fully known by God. And this is the burden of glory. This is the weight: that we live in a world that teases us with glory, offers us a taste, but never completely satisfies.

It’s not something that should defeat or exasperate us. We should acknowledge the tension and let it enliven us, spurring us on toward hope and future glory.

There’s a Balloon Boy Inside All of Us

Last week the world watched as a homemade balloon carried a helpless little boy named Falcon Henne off into oblivion. Every news channel was following it in real time, as the nation held its breath over the fate of little Falcon. It was as if we were watching Baby Jessica in the well all over again. Everyone was hoping for the best but fearing the worst. Balloon Boy Falcon was lighting up the Twitter trends. For a few hours, the nation was utterly compelled.

Fast forward a week. Turns out the whole thing was a hoax. Little Falcon was hiding in his family’s attic, instructed by his creepy cultish parents to participate in a little something “for the show” (apparently they wanted to add some media manipulation to their resume in hopes of being featured on a reality show). Meanwhile Falcon has forever been saddled with the “balloon boy” albatross and the distinction of being the only six-year-old to vomit live on The Today Show during an interview with Meredith Vieira. All because his parents are so obsessed with becoming famous that they were willing to whore their little son up to the God of live-via-satellite simulacra.

The Balloon Boy incident is simply the latest reminder that our culture is utterly, aggressively, dangerously obsessed with fame.

These days, it seems like everything else one might do with one’s life is nothing next to that most valued of all achievements: notoriety. And increasingly, fame can come without doing much of anything anyway. It has become an end unto itself, a commodity of attention to which nearly everyone compulsively clamors, grabbing for it and gathering it whenever and however they can.

What’s up with this?

Why do we all obsessively check Facebook to see if someone has commented on our status or photo? Why do we measure the success of our existence by how many retweets it gets? Why do we Google ourselves?

It’s because we all want to be recognized; to have our existence affirmed. It’s a very basic human trait, actually. On Abraham Maslow’s famous “hierarchy of needs,” just above meeting basic survival/safety needs is the need to belong, to be loved, to be accepted, etc. And once we find “acceptance,” our next pursuit is usually to be “affirmed,” respected and regarded in a way that builds our self-esteem.

To put it simply, humans act in a large part for the acceptance of their peers. They want to be noticed. Humans are an image-conscious creation. Once our basic needs are met, we become increasingly concerned not just with ourselves, but ourselves through the eyes of others. Our own evaluation of self-worth is inextricably bound up in what others think of us.

“Do people like me?” is not just a question that the Michael Scotts of this world constantly ask. It’s the core existential hangup of nearly every human who has ever lived. I’m not sure we can change this aspect of our self—this insatiable desire for recognition. Plato called it thymos, and it’s been around for a long time.

But even if we can’t totally rid ourselves of the urge for fame and recognition, I think we can—and should—try to keep it under control. It’s healthy to want to be loved, to want to be affirmed. But where is that affirmation coming from? Other people? Tabloids? Google analytics? The number of Twitter followers we have?

I think we have to consider that sometimes it’s just silly to go around trying to get the attention of other people who are just as weak and attention-seeking as we are. If everyone in the world loved me, how much is that actually worth, at the end of the day? Would it really make me happy?

As a Christian I believe that my ultimate value comes not from any earthly thing. I believe that my worth is found in Christ, who had nothing to gain from me and yet gave it all to save me. He sought me out and affirmed me as valuable, even if I don’t understand why or how. To know that, to believe it, is to be at peace with worldly anonymity. It’s freedom to live and create and strive for purposeful things without obsessing over who’s paying attention—to take risks and make mistakes, to be unattractive on occasion, and to take joy in flying in our little homemade balloons… even if there are no cameras around.

Songs for Fall 2009

Because “Autumn” in L.A. is negligible at best, I have to live my seasons vicariously through media. I tend to make music playlists, for example, to play in my car or iPod whenever I want to feel like I’m living in some crisp, fall-like place. I do this for other seasons as well. It works fairly well, I think.

Anyway, the following is my “Autumn 2009″ playlist. Buy these songs!

“Kettering” – The Antlers: If you haven’t heard The Antlers CD, Hospice, I highly recommend it. Gloriously mournful and utterly moving.

“Inside It All Feels the Same” – Explosions in the Sky: Explosions in the Sky makes music that I will always associate with fall, maybe because I’ll always associate them with Friday Night Lights.

“Someone Else’s Life” – Joshua Radin: Achingly romantic song that brings to mind autumn in New York (mostly because of its use in the movie Adam)

“Guilty Cubicles” – Broken Social Scene: Aptly used in the film Half Nelson, this song has one of the most curiously appropriate titles ever.

“Pulling Our Weight” – The Radio Dept: A fall mix would not be complete without some neo-shoegazer lamentation from The Radio Dept!

“Don’t Bother They’re Here” – Stars of the Lid: Minimalist instrumental to pop on the headphones when on a bus driving through the Cascade Mountains on a rainy November day (as I did last year).

“Ohio” – Damien Jurado: Harmonica, acoustic guitar, and Damien Jurado singing about going home. What more could you ask?

“4 Minute Warning” – Radiohead: The best song off of In Rainbows Disc 2. Cryptic, sullen, worn out in all the best ways.

“Constants Are Changing” – Boards of Canada: The title says it all.

“Diamond Heart” – Marissa Nadler: This thoroughly seasonal song is about missing your love through the fall and winter… and scattering a loved one’s ashes in the snow.

“Mexican Blue” – Jolie Holland: Epic, simple love song that gets better and better with every year. Highly suggest checking it out.

“We’re Gonna Pull Through” – Over the Rhine: A song of hope in a season of dark nights and cold days.

“Monoplain” – Susan Enan: A beautiful, quiet, heartbreaking gem from an under-appreciated Irish singer/songwriter.

“Guaranteed” – Eddie Vedder: One of many great songs from Vedder’s spectacular Into the Wild soundtrack.

“The Golden Day is Dying” – Hem: Nearly acapella and full of gorgeous harmonies, this song from Hem is exactly as the title would imply.

“Curse Your Branches” – David Bazan: It’s a song about red, orange, and yellow leaves. Well, not exactly. But it’s still pretty autumnal.

“Happiness” – Riceboy Sleeps: Excellent post-rock minimalism from the Sigur Ros frontman Jonsi.

“Gentle Moon” – Sun Kil Moon: Beautiful song from the classic Sun Kil Moon album Ghosts of the Great Highway, a quintessential coldweather album.

“Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)” – Monsters of Folk: The first and best track on the collaboration album from Conor Oberst, Matt Ward, Jim James and Mike Mogis.

“Search for Delicious” – Panda Bear: My new favorite Panda Bear song. It is so understated and yet so expressive–in a cold, urban sort of way.

Can a Hipster Love Sports?

Someone recently asked me if I had a chapter in my book about hipsters and sports. I don’t, but I think a chapter could definitely be written about it. And I think it would be interesting.

Hipsters like a lot of good things: good food, drink, clothes, music, movies, books, etc. By and large, they have fantastic taste.

But for some reason, hipsters aren’t that wild about sports.

It’s unclear exactly why sports (and I’m mainly talking about popular American sports) are so anathema to the average hipster. Perhaps they perceive sports as some sort of low-culture bourgeois pastime, or a malevolent technocratic tool of the WASP-filled hegemony. Or maybe it’s just that sports (with the exception of horse-racing and maybe golf) are so sporty and gauche. Perhaps it is the outmoded undercurrents of nationalism, traditional gender roles and barbaric competitiveness that turns off the hipster. Perhaps it is the cheerleaders.

Whatever it is, I think it’s hugely unfortunate. I am a hipster who loves sports, and I wish there were more of us out there. I love listening to Animal Collective and being snobby about microbrews, but I also love college basketball and I pretty much put my life on hold for a few weeks in March on account of that. I prefer arugula to iceberg, Manchego to Velveeta, and Terrence Malick to Tony Scott, but I also routinely spend entire Sundays watching NFL games on TV. Does that make me an oxymoronic snob? I don’t think so.

Contrary to popular hipster belief, an amazing baseball game can be just as life affirming as an Arcade Fire concert.

Hipsters these days do enjoy some sports. Bocce ball is hot right now, for example. And biking and mountain climbing have always been hipster-friendly. Some hipsters also can tolerate sailing, especially if it means they can wear Marc Jacobs’ latest sailor-inspired clothes along with Ray-Bans and windswept hair. Most of them appreciate recess lawn games like Red Rover and water balloon toss as well. But unless they are at a Superbowl party with a sardonically enormous amount of beer and homemade guacamole, hipsters could do without most other sports.

And it’s a true shame. I challenge every hipster who reads this to take another look at sports. Start following a team this football season. Root for a college basketball team this winter. Dare to attend a baseball game and actually pay attention!

It might not be as fun as loitering around a record store or reading Goethe, but sports can add something to your life.

Hipster Church Tour: Mosaic

As part of the research for my book, I’ve been visiting churches all over the country over the past year—a tour of “America’s hippest churches,” you might say. The goal is to gain a good bit of qualitative data on the subject I’m writing about and to understand firsthand how various church bodies are fitting in to this whole thing. I have stopped at dozens of churches in many states and talked with countless people, and every now and then on my blog I will describe in depth my various observations about these churches.

The first stop on my tour was Jacob’s Well in Kansas City. Read about that here.

The second stop was Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Click here for that one.

Stop three was Life on the Vine, a “Christian community” in the suburbs of Chicago.

And next up is Mosaic, a local favorite for Christian hipsters here in the Southland. Enjoy!

Church Name: Mosaic

Location: Los Angeles, California

Head Pastor: Erwin McManus

Summary: The multi-site Mosaic Church—led by Erwin McManus—is one of the world’s most looked-to evangelical church bodies. Constantly churning out books, sponsoring conferences and seminars, McManus and company are leading figures in the various movements du jour (“emerging,” “missional,” etc). Mosaic itself is a lively congregation with seven locations and an average Sunday attendance of over 3,000. But what does the name Mosaic mean? When I spoke with executive pastor Eric Bryant, he described Mosaic as “a metaphor for describing the broken and fragmented lives that God brings together to form a beautiful picture,” and the church’s website beckons seekers “regardless of where they are in their spiritual journey” to come to Mosaic “and discover how all the pieces can fit together!” The church is committed to “re-branding” Christianity in fresh and innovative language to bring in the unchurched and burned-by-the-church folks who can’t relate to old school Christianity anymore. Mosaic’s unique branding is evidenced by their “core values/metaphors/environments” which include Wind (commission), Water (community), Wood (connection), Fire (communion), and Earth (character). Though it may sound suspiciously new agey or pantheistic, the theological core of Mosaic is actually solidly in line with the Southern Baptist denomination.

Building: Mosaic has campuses all over Southern California and even one in Berkeley, but the original location at The Mayan nightclub in downtown L.A. remains the most iconic.  Originally built in 1927 as a theater for Gershwin-type musicals, The Mayan was remodeled in the early 90s and is now one of downtown L.A.’s most popular nightclubs. It’s trademark pre Columbian style features hand carved walls, vibrant colors, and a richly decorous “old Los Angeles” vibe. Worshipping in a venue like this—sweaty, dark, with a faint smell of alcohol—can be jarring, but I think that’s the point.

Congregation: The crowd of about 800 at the Mayan service is predictably young (average age about 21). The typical assortment of hipsters, yuppies, surfers and well-dressed Southern California young people populate the service, with all the stylish SoCal accoutrements you’d expect to see: trucker hats, big glasses, v-necks, Element shirts, beards, messenger bags, tank tops and flip flops. In terms of ethnic diversity, it’s above average (at least by evangelical Baptist stands).

Music: On the most recent Sunday I attended, the music at Mosaic consisted of a DJ who—appropriate to the nightclub setting—spun throbbing club music as the congregation filtered in, as well as a traditional five piece band (all guys) who performed about four worship songs throughout the service. On all of my visits to Mosaic I never recognized any of the songs played by the band, so I suspect they write their own music (as is trendy to do these days, if churches are able). In any case, the music was in a pretty standard evangelical rock worship style (i.e. U2 anthemic), with prodigious accompanying light effects and high-tech lyric projection.

Arts: The arts are huge at Mosaic. There is an arts ministry called Artisans that encompasses music, drama, dance, visual arts, poetry, spoken word, film, stage design, and live production, and each service incorporates one or more of these elements. At various points I’ve seen live painting, dancing and dramas performed during a Mosaic service. As part of Artisan, Mosaic also sponsors an annual artists retreat called Terra Nova described on the website as “an explosion of art and creativity that will inspire your soul to create and dream the life that God has uniquely designed you to live.”

Technology: Mosaic is a high-tech church. The service at The Mayan is slickly produced with all the latest in audio visual technology, including three huge screens, rock concert lights, smoke machines, etc. The Mosaic website is remarkably stylish and well-designed—a product, according to Eric Bryant, of the donated services of Mosaic’s talented congregation of tech-savvy designers. There are podcasts, twitter updates, and pastor blogs. Interestingly, however, Mosaic does not employ the popular “video venue” method in its various satellite campuses but opts instead for physically present preaching at each location.

Neighborhood: The Mayan campus is located in downtown Los Angeles, in a mostly abandoned part of town that makes it almost entirely a commuter church. Skid Row is a few blocks to the east, Staples Center and the new L.A. Live development are a few blocks west, along with a smattering of trendy bars and loft areas. The church is big on connecting to the larger soul of L.A., playing up the ethnic diversity, culture making and general idiosyncratic identity of the City of Angels.

Preaching: The preaching at Mosaic is dynamic and frequently incorporates interactive audience participation. Erwin McManus doesn’t preach every Sunday, but when he does he is quite engaging.  On the last Sunday I visited Mosaic, the sermon series was “Dear L.A.” and the topic was “diversity,” one of the four aspects of Los Angeles covered in the monthlong series (the others being “creativity,” “influence,” and “uniqueness”). Marcus “Goodie” Goodlow, who pastors the West L.A. and South Bay gatherings, spoke at The Mayan on diversity day. Preaching out of Jonah 1, Goodlow’s sermon argued that if Christians are to advance the conversation of racial diversity we’ve got to redefine it as a verb, not an inert, immovable noun.

Quote from pulpit: “Courage is not the absence of fear. It’s the absence of self.”

Quote from website: “We cannot wait for change to happen – we must enact it. We cannot simply imagine a new world, we must also labor to see change happen ‘on Earth as it is in Heaven.’ We cannot simply attempt to enact change through our vote – we must enact it through our lives and talents, our generosity and sacrifices.”

Christians Need to Love Each Other More


“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

This is one of the last things Jesus said (John 13:34-35) to his disciples on the night before he was crucified. He told them to love one another in the same way that he had loved them.

This is a verse that gets a lot of play in many churches today. The necessity of love is increasingly heard from pulpits, Christian books, radio shows and so on. Churches and Christians everywhere are scrambling to love the world and serve it selflessly. And that is a wonderful thing. I’m glad to see love making a comeback.

But what about Christians loving one another? Are we as good at this as we are at loving those outside the church? In the Christian world of feuding factions and denominations, theological catfights, and near constant bickering, I sometimes wonder.

Read the words of Jesus again.  He doesn’t say people will know we are Christians because we have so much love for the world. He says people will know we are Christians because we have love for one another.

Perhaps Jesus did mean something more human and universal when he said “one another.” But it almost makes more sense if he was talking specifically about the church loving its own members—his disciples loving each other. Why? Because an unconditional love between people of such diverse backgrounds (Jew, Gentile, poor, rich, black, white) bound only by a common allegiance to Christ IS the most noticeable kind of love. There aren’t many circumstances in this life where people of every sort of class, race, circumstance and struggle are unified and bound by unconditional, unearthly love. But this is what Christianity is supposed to be. And when it IS this way, it is such a powerful witness.

Christianity is about becoming a community of disparate believers who nevertheless fuse together under the auspices of that most binding and barrier-breaking of all sealants: Christ’s all surpassing love. It is only natural that this will look countercultural to a world that more often than not divides itself along whatever lines (ethnic, class, gender, nationality) it can come up with. The Christian church distinguishes itself (ideally) by putting aside these arbitrary dividing lines. As D.A. Carson famously described in Love in Hard Places, we are a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus’ sake:

The church itself is not made up of natural “friends.” It is made up of natural enemies. What binds us together is not common education, common race, common income levels, common politics, common nationality, common accents, common jobs, or anything else of that sort. Christians come together, not because they form a natural collocation, but because they have all been saved by Jesus Christ and owe him a common allegiance.

Christians loving each other may prove to be the most difficult love of all (because heaven knows we are all so broken and annoying and stubborn), but in the end I think it proves to be the best witness.

I’m sort of tired of Christians fighting with each other so much, tearing each other down, etc. If from the outside, Christian communities look as petty and unkind as anyone else in the world (or worse), why should anyone be interested in Christianity? But if Christians love each other with the sort of unconditional, self-effacing altruism that Christ modeled for us, we will live up to our namesake and people will know we are Christians just by looking.

So let’s put aside our differences, look to Christ, and love each other more.

Still Walking

You may not think Still Walking is about very much. It’s a Japanese film about a day in the life of an average Japanese family. Three generations gather at “Grandma’s house” to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the eldest sibling’s accidental death. They eat a lot of meals, take a few walks, take naps, baths, and catch butterflies. Nothing much happens. No sex, violence, or screaming matches. Hardly anyone even raises their voice.

But there is a lot of drama in this film, and its normalcy and universality is exactly what makes it so compelling and, ultimately, heartbreaking (in much the same way as Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours approached quotidian epiphanies earlier this year). This is a film about life, aging, death, and family. Everyone feels all of those things deeply at one point or another.

Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda (After Life), Still Walking is a film that is strongly Japanese. But it is not foreign. It will resonate with anyone with a heartbeat who has ever felt the void of a lost love, lost childhood, or lost hope. Koreeda builds on the minimalist style of Japan’s cinematic master, Yasujiro Ozu, who died the year after Koreeda was born in Tokyo. Still Walking is sort of like Tokyo Story in many ways, a strikingly nondescript glimpse into sublime everydayness. Some of the shots and mise-en-scene so thoroughly evoke Ozu that I almost felt like I was watching a reincarnation of the great director.

In his book The Transcendental Style in Film, Paul Schrader theorizes that Ozu’s filmmaking style was strongly derived from Zen art, for which the most basic principle is mu, the concept of negation, emptiness, and void. “Emptiness, silence, and stillness are positive elements in Zen art and represent presence rather than the absence of something,” noted Schrader.

The structure of Still Walking strikingly recalls Ozu’s zen-like structure, which alternated between “paragraphs” of drama and exposition and “codas” or “pillow shots” of static nature or stillness, in the same way that the space in between the branches of ikebana give form to the overall arrangement, or the vast spaces between the big rocks in a zen rock garden infuses the whole thing with peace and balance.

Likewise, Ozu’s films, wrote Schrader, “are structured between action and emptiness, between indoors and outdoors, between scene and coda:

The conflicts are always explicated indoors, usually in long dispassionate conversations… These indoor discussions are set off by “codas”: still-life scenes of outdoor Japanese life, empty streets and alleys, a passing train or boat, a distant mountain or lake… In Western art one would naturally assume that the codas are inserted to give weight to the paragraphs, but for Ozu, as for Zen, it is precisely the opposite: the dialogue gives meaning to the silence, the action to the still life. Ozu is permeated with mu; it is the single character inscribed on his tomb at Engaku-ji.

In the same way, Still Walking contains long stretches of dialogue and intense interpersonal passive-aggressive dynamics. But between and amid these scenes are shots of flowers, or incense, or trains passing against an ocean backdrop. For every probing shot of an emotion-filled human face, there is an equally probing shot of rice balls or corn being picked off of the cob. Koreeda is not equating humans to corn; He’s simply pointing out that our perception of one is always informed by our experience of the other. All things are bound up in this thing called existence, so that a morning walk to the ocean never exists in a vacuum that is uninformed by the emotions, tensions, and stresses of everyday life.

There is a scene near the end of this film in which three generations of men—grandfather, son, grandson—are walking down the hill from the house to the beach. Though they walk in silence, there is so much being expressed in this passage of time. There is a three-shot of them descending stairs that is particularly evocative: Each man is at a different point in his journey of life, and yet here they are together, still walking, in the same air. When they get to the beach they are standing on the same sand, looking out at the same ocean. And something about the way we see it too—the way this story unfolds cinematically—makes us feel like we are right there with them, so different and yet so much the same.

Pause for Autumn’s Arrival

The weather in L.A. is FINALLY beginning to cool off and the air and sky are feeling a bit more fall-like everyday. This is my favorite time of year. Around this time of year, I like to read a good bit of autumnal literature and/or poetry. Rilke’s “Autumn Day” is one I always come back to, so if you have a moment to read it and reflect on the meaning of the season, I highly recommend it:

“Autumn Day,” Rilke

Lord: it is time. The summer was so immense.
Lay your shadow on the sundials,
and let loose the wind in the fields.

Bid the last fruits to be full,
give them another two more southerly days,
press them to ripeness, and chase
the last sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now will not build one anymore.
Whoever is alone now will remain so for a long time,
will stay up, read, write long letters,
and wander the avenues, up and down,
restlessly, while the leaves are blowing.