Monthly Archives: February 2010

Wheaton’s New President: A Good Pick

On Saturday, Wheaton College—my alma mater and a sort of flagship of Christian higher education—announced that it had selected its eighth president, Philip Ryken, to replace retiring president Duane Litfin beginning July 1. Dr. Ryken is son of Wheaton professor Leland Ryken, and has been senior pastor at the historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia since 2000. He’s a name I was familiar with and yet hadn’t thought about as a potential Wheaton president. But it totally makes sense. I’m extremely pleased with this choice.

Here are some reasons why I’m encouraged by Wheaton’s selection:

He’s a good preacher and pastor: Some find it a fault, but I find it a major asset. For a Christian college like Wheaton—especially for one that is regarded as the bellwether for Christian education and culture at large, I think it’s entirely appropriate that the figurehead/leader should assume something akin to a pastoral role. There are administrators to do the administrating. There is the provost to handle faculty. The president of a Christian college should have roles in these areas, to be sure, but he should also inspire and keep the spiritual moorings in place. He should be someone that students, faculty, staff, and alumni can respect and learn from as both a leader, teacher and brother in Christ. And I think Philip Ryken commands a huge amount of respect.

He’s theologically conservative: Yes, I admit to being relieved (though not surprised) that Wheaton skewed conservative with this pick. The church is undergoing a major time of flux right now, with lots of shoddy and speculative theology being bandied about in the name of “progress/emergence/postmodernism, etc”… It’s good to let the conversations and debates happen, and at a place like Wheaton they most definitely should… but at the end of the day it’s good to have a president in place who is grounded in historical and orthodox theology and won’t haphazardly adopt or throw up his arms in the face of whatever new trend comes down the pike.

He’s smart: Got his D.Phil. at Oxford. Has published 30 books, with titles like Art for God’s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts.

He knows Wheaton: Ryken grew up in Wheaton, attended Wheaton, sat on Wheaton’s Board of Trustees, and his father, Dr. Leland Ryken, taught in the Wheaton College English department for 42 years. There will be no extended learning curve required for Ryken to understand the culture and unique challenges of Wheaton.

He has good taste: Ryken counts Marilynne Robinson and Shusaku Endo as among his favorite authors.

He will be good for fundraising: Like it or not, Ryken is a pretty “safe” pick. But in terms of fundraising, “safe” is good. And colleges cannot survive without fundraising. Duane Litfin was a great fundraiser for Wheaton and helped build the endowment, and so will Ryken. A more out-of-the-box choice for Wheaton’s next president might have been a risky move for fundraising. The reality is: Most of Wheaton’s money is still coming in from older, wealthy, largely white conservatives. There may be leftward shifts in the demographics of younger alumni, but to cater to them at this point in Wheaton’s history would be a huge financial blunder.

Bravo to Wheaton for a very wise pick. I look forward to seeing the growth and maturity of Wheaton College under the tenure of Dr. Ryken, and I have confidence that the school will thrive and make a positive impact for Christ and His Kingdom as much or more in its next few decades than it has in its first fifteen.

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Shutter Island

I love Martin Scorsese. And I loved his latest film, Shutter Island. My full review of the film–in which I focus on its noir treatment of post-war American anxiety and quote Emily Dickinson–can be found on Christianity Today.

But here’s a little excerpt:

With Shutter Island, Scorsese takes a leap into an unfamiliar genre—vintage film noir—though it’s not altogether a departure from his larger oeuvre. As a filmmaker, he is first and foremost an interpreter of America. That is, the gritty, violent, darker-than-we-seem nation still trying to reconcile its religious commitment to order and its baser, instinctual urges to dominate and “take what’s ours.” His films—particularly Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and The Departed—can be seen as statements about unresolved American tensions and anxieties (particularly through the eyes of men), and the noir explorations in Shutter Island fit squarely into this theme….

DiCaprio’s character, Teddy, is a WWII veteran who was among the troops who liberated the Dachau concentration camp. In war he saw unimaginable horrors and encountered all sorts of evil, the most unsettling of which was found in his own heart. Back home, in the white-picket fence perfection of post-war Waltons America, Teddy had a lovely wife (Michelle Williams), three beautiful children, and a job in federal law enforcement—protecting “the good and the right” values that ensured America would never fall victim to the depraved temptations of other 20th century superpowers.

Alas, the post-war dream was marred by an insistent, unsettling anxiety—a Cold War/technocratic/Freud-era fear that the good vs. evil binary might in the end betray those who wholeheartedly subscribed to it. As a genre, noir was always about throwing such binaries into question, and asking the probing, frightful question of what might lurk inside the human heart—inside the “corridors surpassing material place.” (read more here)

Lent, Self-Denial, Life, Bonhoeffer

Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. One of my favorite days on the liturgical calendar. I plan to attend a wonderfully solemn church service Wednesday night, receive the ash cross on my forehead, and kick off my as-yet-determined Lenten “give up” fast.

Lent is a great, ancient Christian tradition, and a favorite of any Christian who likes to dabble in the monastic custom of “going without” for the sake of Christ.

But as much as self-denial and ascetic commitment can be good, virtuous endeavors, they can easily become just another way to puff oneself up, to proudly show the world just how capably you have given up certain pleasures in pursuit of Christ. “Look what I’m giving up for Lent! … Look at what a martyr I am! Aren’t I great?”

One of the central Biblical passages championing self-denial is found in Mark 8:34-38, when Jesus informs his disciples that whoever intends to follow him must deny himself and take up his cross, unashamedly confessing Christ and being willing to forfeit his life in the process.

This “self-denial / taking-up-your-cross” idea has sometimes been interpreted–particularly in the monastic tradition–as being an ascetic denial of all worldly pleasures.

Consider the words of Thomas a Kempis, a monk who wrote, in The Imitation of Christ:

“Learn to die to the world now, that then you may begin to live with Christ. Learn to spurn all things now, that then you may freely go to Him. Chastise your body in penance now, that then you may have the confidence born of certainty.”

Kempis and other medieval theologians often interpreted self-denial in this “spurning the world” sense, arguing that the call of Christ is away from attachment to all earthly things, and that a good Christ-follower should “keep yourself as a stranger here on earth, a pilgrim whom its affairs do not concern at all.”

But is Christ’s call to “deny” ourselves really a directive to shun all things in this world? In the verse that follows (8:35), Christ says, “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Essentially he is saying that whoever prioritizes his own happiness in this world (“would save his life”) will not find it, while the person who abandons the self-centered pursuit and puts Christ first will find happiness in abundance (“will save it”).

There is nothing in there about loathing all the things in the world. There is nothing about denying oneself all pleasures. It’s simply a matter of priorities and obedience. Self-denial doesn’t mean being imprisoned by pathological self-abasement; rather, it is freedom to let go of narcissism and replace the primacy of our own will with that of obedience and dependence on Christ.

This is not to say that the Christian life is easy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is correct when he points out in The Cost of Discipleship that there are demands to discipleship; that grace is not cheap, but rather costly:

“Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light.'”

Bonhoeffer is perhaps the best model we have for how self-denial and “costly discipleship” can be framed in ways other than the somewhat negative, world-avoiding, hyper-ascetic monastic tone of people like Thomas a Kempis.

For all his trials and struggles (being imprisoned and ultimately executed by the SS in Nazi Germany), Bonhoeffer never had an isolationist or escapist view of the world. On the contrary, he loved the world, and felt that the ragged imperfectness of the world was essential for the real experience of grace and God’s redemptive work in the world.

In a letter to a friend, Bonhoeffer wrote this:

“…it is only completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman ( a so-called priestly type!), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world—watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a man and a Christian.”

In her essay on Bonhoeffer in The Death of Adam, Marilynne Robinson postulates that there are two ideas essential to Bonhoeffer’s thought: “First, that the sacred can be inferred from the world in the experience of goodness, beauty, and love; and second, that these things, and, more generally, the immanence of God, are a real presence, not a symbol or foreshadowing. They are fulfillment as well as promise, like the sacrament, or the church. The mystery of the world for Bonhoeffer comes with the belief that immanence is pervasive, no less so where it cannot be discovered.”

Even in the darkest places–a Nazi prison cell in the age of the Holocaust, for example–Bonhoeffer was convinced that the world was full of Christ’s immanent grace. His positive view of the world came from his understanding that suffering is not just about “my own personal experience” but rather the larger groaning of the world to be made right. When framed in this light–this “taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world”–we begin to shift “self-denial” away from being anything remotely self-centered but rather a participatory act in concert with the cross, the resurrection, and all that that means for the world. Self-denial is not an inward action; Rather, it’s an outward motion of God’s grace, and it overcomes all darkness.

In the Cost of Discipleship Bonhoeffer wrote: “Jesus does not promise that when we bless our enemies and do good to them they will not use and persecute us. They certainly will. But not even that can hurt or overcome us, as long as we pray for them. For if we pray for them, we are taking their distress and poverty, their guilt and perdition, upon ourselves, and pleading to God for them. We are doing vicariously what they cannot do for themselves. Every insult that they mutter only binds us more closer to God and them.  Their persecution of us only serves to bring them nearer to reconciliation with God and further the triumphs of love.”

“This is the power of Christ that is the weakness of Christ,” observes Robinson. “He is present even where he is forgotten and efficacious even where he is despised. Such things could not be known about him except in a world like this one…. Watching with Christ in Gethsemane, Bonhoeffer worked at loving the world. In a letter to Bethge he wrote: “It is only when one loves life and the world so much that without them everything would be gone, that one can believe in the resurrection and a new world. It is only when one submits to the law that one can speak of grace, and only when one sees the anger and the wrath of God hanging like grim realities over the head of one’s enemies that one can know something of what it means to love them and forgive them.”

And so I think, this Lenten season, we should join with Bonhoeffer in recognizing that the spirit of self-denial–so crucial to our Christian identity–isn’t so much about our own valiant efforts to avoid things or “go without” as much as it is a call to passionately place ourselves in Christ, finding our identity in him and letting him work through us for the sake of our neighbor and for the world.

As we put ashes on our foreheads on Wednesday and go about the 40 days of Lent, let us not once praise ourselves for the effort. It’s not about us. It’s about living our lives for another–for the sake of Christ and the Gospel, and gaining true life in the process.

“Jesus Was a Rebel”

“Jesus was a rebel” is a favorite slogan of Christian pastors and authors trying to “reach twentysomethings,” as they say. The logic? 1) Young people think Christianity is tired, boring, stale. 2) Young people are naturally rebellious and contrarian. THEREFORE… 3) Maybe Christianity will be fresh and exciting to them if it is framed in the context of subversion and rebellion.

But I’m not so sure that’s a sound syllogism.

It’s not a stretch to say that Jesus was a rebel. He was. He was bucking the system, turning over tables, and saying all sorts of subversive things in the days when he was walking the earth. It is perfectly appropriate, then, for Christians to call Jesus a rebel or a subversive. And it certainly fits neatly into any sort of a “Christianity is hip” PR ambition a church might be undertaking. Hipsters love rebels, and even if they loathe church or Christians, most of them still think Jesus is pretty dang cool.

When I asked Eric Bryant, a pastor at Mosaic in L.A., why Jesus is still considered cool in the eyes of young people, he said this:

They’re intrigued by Jesus. They look to him. He is real, authentic, relevant. He spoke with honesty. He was a man on a mission. He was a radical, a revolutionary, yet tender and kind and loving. He was doing things completely against the rules of the day. He was a mix of justice, kindness, judgment and grace.

But one’s man’s rebel is another man’s square. The phrase “Jesus was a rebel” means different things to different people. Some tend to play up the “judgment” side of things, imagining a warrior Jesus in the vein of Mark Driscoll’s infamous “Jesus is a prizefighter with a tattoo down His leg” portrait. Others, like the Shane Claibornes of the world, emphasize the “turn the other cheek” peace-love-and-harmony Jesus. Both types are subversive; both are rebellious. Thankfully, Jesus is dynamic enough of a figure to be an icon of rebellion/activism/subversion for pretty much any type of person or cause—whether you’re a hippie, a CEO, or an immigrant farmworker.

But there are dangers in getting too much mileage out of this rebel talk. Sure, Jesus was a rebel. Yes, Christianity is subversive. But that should not be the end goal of our faith. We shouldn’t be enlisting young hipsters to join the cause because they think Jesus is a Che-Guevera-esque revolutionary. They should be joining the cause because they need God’s grace, not because they want to take down some system or join some romantic revolutionary cause. A faith built upon rebellion is, at the end of the day, not going to be very sustainable. We can’t be a church primarily organized around fighting against things.

This is an idea that Donald Miller expressed in an article in the New York Times: that we have to be devoted followers of Christ first, and “rebels” second:

If you’re a Christian, you need to obey God. And if you obey God, you’re going to be seen as a rebel, both within American church culture and popular culture. But that’s not the point. The point is to obey God.

Indeed, of all the marketing tactics wannabe hip churches might be engaged in, “Jesus was a rebel” is one of the more legitimate, but it also can backfire in the worst ways. I’m not sure that making Jesus into the world’s most badass rebel is the best way to advance the cause of Christ. Will it really benefit the church to have an army of anarchists and anti-institutional young revolutionaries running around tipping over the tables of the world? Perhaps. But I’m certain that it will not benefit Christianity to make it primarily an exercise in rebellion. Especially since the reality of the situation is that Christ came to right the rebellion of man. All else but the Gospel is rebellion. The cause of Christ is the one obedient cause.

Fish Tank

Fish Tank is the first great film of 2010. Directed by Andrea Arnold, this British film (which won the Jury Prize at Cannes 2009) is a gritty—though stylishly realized—social realist film that adds a rich new entry to the impressive cinematic pantheon of explorations of the British underclass (refined by the likes of Ken Loach, Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh).

Arnold’s film—which centers upon the harrowing coming-of-age confusion of a teenage girl named Mia (Katie Jarvis) in a working class neighborhood—is full of shock and awe (and a little despair), but it’s also shockingly full of hope, beauty, and not a little absolute truth about the adolescent experience. And that’s what makes this film much more than just another grim expose.

In addition to its immediate situation within the aforementioned tradition of social realist filmmakers (Loach, et al), Fish Tank reminded me of two specific recent films: Shane Meadows’ This Is England (2006) and Lone Scherfig’s An Education (2009), a best-picture nominee in this year’s Academy Awards. As it turns out, the latter—though bearing little visual resemblance—has quite a bit in common with Fish Tank. Both are directed by women and focus on a teenage girl desperately trying to understand her emerging identity. Both feature uneasy relationships between the younger girls and men twice their age. Both are set in England, etc.

But whereas Education was a more literary, cerebral treatment of the “coming of age” idea, Fish Tank holds any sort of academic idea at arm’s length. It’s more of a visceral film–less interested in rigorous thematic consistency or psychological revelation than it is with simply showing what growing up and discovering the self (chaotic as this discovery may be) looks like.

There are a lot of memorable images in Fish Tank, and most of them reflect the tension within young Mia between feeling enclosed and isolated (to herself and to others) and desiring connection and freedom (to know and be known). There are some gorgeous recurring shots of Mia in an empty apartment, dancing alone with her headphones on. In these solitary moments—cut off from the world and in her own zone of freely expressed movement and rhythm—Mia seems to at least momentarily assuage the relentless contradictions and radioactive angst of her existence, which in most other cases manifests itself in the form of violence (head-butting a girl she doesn’t like), theft, drinking, or foul language (she loves the c-word).

When she is around people, Mia is much more unstable, angry, and (with good reason) defensive. People have always failed her (dad is completely absent, mom is an uncaring alcoholic), so of course she isn’t going to easily trust or love others. She feels closer to a horse she finds locked up in a vacant lot than she does to any other human in her life.

But in spite of her circumstance, Mia finds moments of connection where she lets herself be touched (sometimes for good and sometimes for ill) by another.  The person who most ably finds a way “in” to Mia’s enclosed teenage fortress is Conner (Michael Fassbender, impressive again after great work in Inglourious Basterds and Hunger), her mother’s new boyfriend who is charming, handsome, financially stable and has cool taste in music. To Mia, Conner is the father/brother/boyfriend she never had, and the confusion that results as she tries to make sense of this trifecta of complex relational affections proves to be the film’s biggest conflict.

In the midst of the never-ceasing tension and anxiety in the film (expressed visually through quick-paced tracking shots, constant movement and jittery handheld camerawork), there are moments of intense beauty and serenity, such as a scene in a pond where Conner teaches Mia how to catch a fish bare-handed. A striking two-shot of the man and the girl, wading knee-deep in the water with the sunlight bearing down and reflecting around their shadows, embodying the tenuous disposition of wretched man amidst a nature so beautiful that it might cover all transgressions—seemed to me the quintessential shot of the film. A latter shot which also involves two characters amidst nature/water (in significantly more unnerving circumstances) compliments this shot, and ends with a physical embrace so real and elemental that it makes all else in the film seem suddenly trite.

But Fish Tank is exactly this sort of film. It seems to be about one thing but then suddenly, jarringly will assert another sort of truth—something as simple as an extended shot of a skyline at dusk, or a spontaneous dance between mother and daughters—that offers both a respite from and a completion of the larger narrative. It’s a film full of surprising encounters, discordant emotions and unexpected epiphany, all couched in the wobbly tumult of an adolescent female point of view.

In its treatment of existence through the eyes of adolescence, Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank is as elegantly pulsating as Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides and as psychologically subtle as Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park. But make no mistake: Arnold has a vision all her own, unique and assured, and exciting in its promise.

The Only Day We All Talk About Ads

The Super Bowl just happened. This is really the only time of the year when we all collectively talk, however briefly, about commercials. So let’s get to that task. Here are my quick thoughts after watching the game and all of its advertising extravagance.

Best Overall Ad: Google — “Parisian Love.” Google is an outsider to TV advertising, but they showed everyone else how it’s done with this beautiful ad. It was simple, told a great story, and reinforced why Google is probably the most important brand of my generation. We literally live our lives by it.

Worst Overall Ad: Anything by GoDaddy.com. I almost regret that I have registered domain names with them.

Most Needlessly Controversial Ad: Tebow/Focus on the Family. There was no mention of abortion, pro-life, or anything remotely controversial (unless you think “Celebrate Family. Celebrate Life.” is an offensive sentiment).

Worst Attempt to Capitalize on Zeitgeist: Bud Light autotune / T-Pain spot. But a close second goes to the Bridgestone “Now that was a bachelor party” ad with the whale, which clearly originated from some suggestion to “Do something Hangover-esque. That movie was HUGE!”

Best Movie Trailer: Shutter Island or Robin Hood.

Worst Movie Trailer: Alice in Wonderland or that horrible M. Night Shyamalan kids movie.

Best Ad for a Product I’ve Never Heard of: Flo TV – “My Generation.” I loved this ad. Utilized a song by The Who, tons of great archival footage, and made a good point: Live TV can be unforgettable and no one wants to miss out on the “Where were you then?” type moments. So get a mobile TV!

Worst Ad for CBS Show: That NCIS head slapping one.

Best (i.e. the Only Good) Ad for CBS Show: The Dave Letterman / Oprah / Leno spot.

Best Car Ad: Audi – “Green Police.” Mainly for how well it knows the Super Bowl audience (largely skeptical of the overzealous “green” proponents), while staying true to the Audi brand (yuppie, clean, eco-friendly).

Most Unexpected Ad: The Best in Show actors doing an ad for the Census Bureau.

Best Attempt to Capture the Sentiment of the Iconic Late 90s Monster.com ad “When I Grow Up”: Cars.com – “Timothy Richman.”

Worst Micro-Trend: Pantless men. As seen in the back-to-back Careerbuilder and Dockers ads.

Best Micro-Trend: Indie bands lending music to ads. It’s ok to sell out! I hope Arcade Fire and Grizzly Bear pocketed plenty of money for their respective ads (NFL and VW).

Best Use of Zoom: Dodge Charger – “Man’s Last Stand.” (0:30-0:47). They also get points for the “Vampire TV Shows” line. Brilliant.

Why Christians Should Travel

Traveling changes one’s life. I’m sure anyone who has done much of it–especially abroad–would agree. There’s something about the displacement and discomfort of being in an alien place, coupled with the awesomeness of seeing things you’ve never seen before and blowing open the doors of any prior conceptions of “what this world is.” Travel enlarges one’s view of existence.

When I traveled to Southeast Asia the summer after my first year of college (my first experience overseas), I first encountered the life-changing potential of the experience of being abroad. Subsequent trips to Europe and Japan confirmed what I suspected–that there is an unmistakably spiritual aspect to travel.  It’s good for the soul. It brings you closer to God. In my case, it enhanced my faith.

I recently got the chance to explore this aspect of travel in depth in a feature article in Biola Magazine. In the article (“Dispatches From Abroad: How a Change of Scenery Can Enliven Our Faith”), I explore the various meanings of travel in the Christian experience, situating our contemporary perceptions of the spirituality of travel in the larger Christian tradition which goes back to the origins of our our faith:

Movement and travel have always been part of the Christian experience. So many of the giants of the faith have been travelers — from Abraham (whom God called to “leave your country” … Gen. 12:1) to Paul to the itinerate evangelists of the 19th century. And, of course, there is also Jesus himself, who from birth was a bit of a roving exile, frequently homeless and dependent on the hospitality of others on the routes he traveled.

Why is it that the journeying, nomadic lifestyle been such a hallmark of the Christian experience?

In his famous essay, “The Philosophy of Travel,” George Santayana wrote, “There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice, and it fosters humor.”

A Christian might add that it enriches our identification with Christ and draws us closer to his presence by removing status quo comforts.

In some ways travel can be a sort of “monasticism on the move,” writes Iyer. “On the road, we often live more simply … with no more possessions than we can carry, and surrendering ourselves to chance.” …

And perhaps this is the greatest thing we can learn from travel — that the Christian experience is not meant to be one of cushy comforts, self reliance and satisfaction with the way things are, but rather an experience of dependence on God and seeking out the sometimes-overwhelming grandeur and complexity of God’s kingdom.

Travel is a way to meet Christ on the road and to feel the reality of his redeeming work in the world — not just by reading about it in a book, but by experiencing it in the flesh.

In his article on pilgrimage (“He Talked to Us on the Road,” April 2009) in Christianity Today, Ted Olsen points to the story of the Road to Emmaus as an example of how travel — what we encounter in person on “the road” — can transform our understanding of a thing. The men on the road to Emmaus knew about the Resurrection, but they didn’t know it in a transformative way until Christ appeared to them and they eventually realized who he was.

“It goes deeper than just grasping an event’s historicity,” writes Olsen. “It goes to its happenedness. We are not just minds created to soak up knowledge. We are bodies that stand in one place at a time, seeing and feeling our surroundings.”

Travel is about more than just knowing God’s goodness in our minds. It’s about seeing and tasting and feeling it in his created world, and in our fellow man. And though strangers we may be in this world, the reality is that God is here, working in remarkable ways.

To travel is to meditate on God’s blessings and his rich creation; it is to experience his faithfulness and  trust him in ways you just can’t do in the comforts of your own culture and comfort zone. At times it can even be an act of worship.

In Travels With Charley, John Steinbeck memorably writes about “the urge to be someplace else,”contending that, “When the virus of restlessness begins to take possession of a wayward man, and the road away from Here seems broad and straight and sweet, the victim must first find in himself a good and sufficient reason for going.”

I would suggest that for a Christian, a “good and sufficient reason for going” is simply this: We are God’s creatures, commanded to take joy and pleasure in the multi-facetedness of his goodness (“taste and see…” Psalm 34:8). When there is so much of that to experience in the world, why would we want to stay home?