Monthly Archives: June 2010

I Am Love

I Am Love features a jaw-dropping performance by one of the world’s best living actresses–the strange and wonderful Tilda Swinton. That should be reason enough to see it. But the film as a whole is a spectacular artistic achievement–overflowing with life, depth, beauty, elegance, and originality. It’s a true film for the senses, and a must-see for any lover of the cinema.

If you haven’t seen the trailer, take a moment to watch it here:

The film, directed by Luca Guadagnino, is set in Italy in contemporary times, yet has a decidedly retro feel to it–somewhere between The Godfather and Fellini. The narrative centers upon the Recchi family–a wealthy Milanese family representative of the old haute bourgeoisie–as they are forced to adjust to a changing world. Matriarch Emma (Swinton), who married in to the family, never quite feels at home in her role as Italian aristocrat and society hostess. The film is largely about her self-discovery as she encounters a lower-class chef who awakens her passion and emboldens her to transcend her circumstances.

The film’s plot and themes — breaking free from repression, discovering the beauty of life via unbridled passion and transgressive behavior — are at first quite familiar, and disappointingly amoral. Woman breaks free of highly structured, corseted life by eschewing obligation and shacking up with a vibrant young artist (in this case, an artist of food). Seen it many times before. But as I Am Love concludes–in a spectacular cacophony of sound, montage, and story resolution–it becomes clear that this is not just another “yeah! Infidelity is so freeing!” sort of film. It’s about much more than that.

Most of the “more” this film has to offer is in its generous attention to detail, beauty, and sensual existence — whether in a gorgeous closeup of a bee pollinating a flower or a macaron from Laduree, or a sprawling shot of cathedral, or the elegantly intense music from composer John Adams. Embodying a style critic Manohla Dargis called “postclassical Hollywood baroque,” I Am Love is one of those films that reminds us why we love movies so much. It puts the beauty of the world under a microscope in a way that feels both familiar and foreign, real and imaginary. It universalizes the foreign and makes the mundane transcendent. I Am Love is not without its faults, but it certainly achieves one of those rare levels of cinematic ambition that makes one think of Coppola or Kubrick or Malick.

Soccer: It’s Not Our Game

I am an American. I grew up on sports like football, baseball and basketball. Friday night lights. Little League. March Madness. Soccer was something we played in P.E., but never something we watched on TV. It just wasn’t a big deal.

For most of my life, I assumed soccer was just a game for fourth graders. It wasn’t until the summer after my first year of college–when I went to Asia during the 2002 World Cup–that I realized soccer was, as Stephen Colbert says, “the sport for fourth graders that foreign people take seriously.”

While I was in Malaysia that summer, everyone was bananas for the World Cup. It was on every TV everywhere, and all the restaurants were crowded with people glued to the matches. The guy who drove my rickshaw in Malacca asked me who I wanted to win. I didn’t have an opinion. But suddenly I knew just how big of a deal soccer is in every other part of the world. Subsequent trips in years hence to Europe and other parts of Asia have confirmed it.

It’s not a big deal in America. And that’s ok. I find it funny that whenever the World Cup happens, there is a new push to increase the sport’s popularity in America. Then it ends, and soccer returns to its status as a healthy, widespread youth team sport (and nothing more).

Most every kid in America plays soccer in their youth, but–as Dave Eggers notes in his brilliant recent essay about soccer–the majority of us quickly grow out of it:

At about age 10, something happens to the children of the United States. Soccer is dropped, quickly and unceremoniously, by approximately 88 percent of all young people. The same kids who played at 5, 6, 7, move on to baseball, football, basketball, hockey, field hockey, and, sadly, golf. Shortly thereafter, they stop playing these sports, too, and begin watching these sports on television, including, sadly, golf.

I was rooting for team USA in this World Cup (though I didn’t watch more than a few minutes of any of the matches), and I was glad they went pretty far. But when they lost to Ghana, I was neither surprised nor disappointed. This is not our sport. It belongs to the non-American world. Every person in Ghana was doubtless overjoyed to see their nation defeat America. A win like that for a small, poor nation like Ghana–especially when the World Cup is happening in Africa for the first time–might even be the sort of nationalist morale-booster that could legitimately change Ghana for the better. Had the U.S. prevailed in the match, many Americans would have been thrilled, but certainly not all of them. It would have lit up Facebook and Twitter for a few hours, and then faded away. Bill Clinton might have parlayed the excitement of America’s good showing in the Cup into a convincing case for the Cup’s return to America in 2018. But alas, it didn’t happen.

Just as well.

I don’t mean to say soccer isn’t a good sport or that Americans shouldn’t pay attention to it. I personally don’t find it all that exciting, and clearly most other Americans agree with me. But the rest of the world finds it VERY exciting, and I’m happy for them. America doesn’t have to win at everything. And we don’t need to be upset that in the case of soccer, America is not like the rest of the world. For too long, America has made the rest of the world too much like itself. We’ve colonized too much already: taken things that other nations invented, made them our own, did them better, claimed credit. I say we keep our hands off of soccer.

I love Chuck Klosterman’s essay on soccer in Sex, Drugs & Cocoa Puffs. I’ll conclude with a fun (and a bit ridiculous) excerpt from it:

“Soccer fanatics love to tell you that soccer is the most popular game on earth and that it’s played by 500 million people every day, as if that somehow proves its value. Actually, the opposite is true. Why should I care that every single citizen of Chile and Iran and Gibraltar thoughtlessly adores “futball”? Do the people making this argument also assume Coca-Cola is ambrosia? Real Sports aren’t for everyone. And don’t accuse me of being the Ugly American for degrading soccer. That has nothing to do with it. It’s not xenophobic to hate soccer; it’s socially reprehensible to support it. To say you love soccer is to say you believe in enforced equality more than you believe in the value of competition and the capacity of the human spirit. It should surprise no one that Benito Mussolini loved being photographed with Italian soccer stars during the 1930s; they were undoubtedly kindred spirits. I would sooner have my kid deal crystal meth than play soccer. Every time I pull up behind a Ford Aerostar with a “#1 Soccer Mom” bumper sticker, I feel like I’m marching in the wake of the Khmer Rouge.”

Christian Hipster Bookshelf

One of the best ways to learn about the type of person someone is is by looking at the books that populate their bookshelves. Books, I’ve found, play a large role in shaping how any of us understand and inhabit our worlds–so naturally they are a good place to go when seeking to understand a subculture. For example, the following is a list of the types of books that define the Christian hipster subculture.

How many of these 50 books have you read? If you’ve read more than 20 of them, there is a good chance that you are a Christian with artistic or intellectual tendencies. If you’ve read more than 30 of them, you are most likely a Christian hipster. If you’ve read more than 40 of them, let me know. You could probably write the sequel to Hipster Christianity.

Augustine – Confessions
C.S. Lewis – Till We Have Faces
Walker Percy – The Moviegoer
Dorothy Sayers – The Mind of the Maker
G.K. Chesterton – Orthodoxy
George MacDonald – Phantastes
Evelyn Underhill – Mysticism
Terry Eagleton – After Theory
Jean-Paul Sarte – Being and Nothingness
Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings
Annie Dillard – Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Donald Miller – Blue Like Jazz
Kathleen Norris – Acedia & Me
Marilynne Robinson – Gilead
Shushako Endo- Silence
George Steiner – Real Presences
William Shakespeare- King Lear
Anne Lamott – Traveling Mercies
Plato – The Republic
Jacques Ellul – The Technological Society
Flannery O’Connor – Wise Blood
Chuck Klosterman – Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs
Dave Eggers – A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Martin Buber – I and Thou
Neil Postman – Amusing Ourselves to Death
Lauren Winner – Real Sex
Douglas Coupland – Life After God
Tim Keller – The Reason For God
N.T. Wright – Surprised by Hope
Fyodor Dostoyevsky – Crime and Punishment
A.W. Tozer – The Knowledge of the Holy
Henri Nouwen – The Return of the Prodigal Son
Dietrich Bonhoeffer – The Cost of Discipleship
Jack Kerouac – On the Road
John Steinbeck – East of Eden
Jean Baudrillard – Simulacra and Simulation
Rob Bell – Velvet Elvis
William P. Young – The Shack
Shane Claiborne – The Irresistible Revolution
Thomas a Kempis – The Imitation of Christ
Dallas Willard – The Divine Conspiracy
Eugene Peterson – The Message
Paul Tillich – The Courage To Be
Francis Collins – The Language of God
J.I. Packer – Knowing God
Andy Crouch – Culture Making
Madeline L’Engle – Walking on Water
Mark Noll – The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind
Jim Wallis – God’s Politics
William Faulkner – As I Lay Dying

Toy Story 3

Despite the fact that it’s another joyous, action-packed, endlessly entertaining and laugh-out-loud Pixar spectacle, there’s something immediately melancholy about Toy Story 3. Perhaps it’s the fact that this is the third and likely last in a trilogy that we’ve all grown so fond of. Perhaps its because Pixar just knows how to do sadness (see Up, Wall E, etc). But mostly I think it’s because Toy Story reminds all of us of our own childhoods–of those whimsical, carefree worlds of make believe that occupied the free time we now fill with work and stress. Oh for the days of youth! The Toy Story trilogy captures it so well, and the third installment beautifully, affectingly evokes one of its most bittersweet aspects: Growing up.

From the outset of Toy Story 3–where we discover that Andy is going off to college and must either give away, throw away, or relegate his toys to the attic–there is a profound and universal sense of loss. Things change. Nothing is permanent. Everyone grows up and must leave their childhood behind, once and for all. I teared up during the opening sequence of the film, anticipating how it would end. And sure enough, I was a weeping mess by the end. I don’t think I’ve cried more in a movie since maybe A.I.

Which is interesting, because A.I. is also a film about toys with feelings. What it is about this that is so heartbreaking? Maybe it’s because in our consumer culture our toys and collected possessions really do take on personal, relational–even spiritual–significance for us. Maybe it has something to do with the recognition that, while the world changes and we grow up, change, and eventually die, the objects and artifacts that lend meaning to our lives at various stages do not change or age or die. They are just discarded. So, when we anthropomorphize something like a cowboy doll or robot, and imagine that there truly is a two-way reciprocal love going on between it and the human, of course we are going to feel devastated when someone like Andy doesn’t find it too difficult to move on and leave Woody behind. Woody is just a toy. But from Woody’s anthropomorphic point of view, it’s like the worst sort of rejection: The one person who you’ve always loved and who it has been your life’s purpose to love unconditionally does not entirely reciprocate those feelings. It’s the same tragic scenario Hayley Joel Osment’s robot character faces in A.I. And in both movies, it’s utterly devastating.

Another film I thought of as I watched Toy Story 3 was Summer Hours–the critically acclaimed French film from 2009 starring Juliette Binoche. Like Toy Story 3, Summer Hours is about what impermanence means both for humans and for the objects humans acquire. It’s about people dying and their possessions being disbursed to the next generation, where new meaning and significance will undoubtedly be ascribed to them. In both films, the reality of “what happens to my stuff”–when I leave, or move, or die–is of central concern.

But it’s not really about the stuff. Toy Story is not really about toys. It’s about the reality of the passing of time–a painful, relentless, unnatural phenomenon that–for creatures like us who were made to be eternal–always feels a bit like an ill-fitting coat.

Scratching Where They Itch?

One of the most troubling things I see when I look at contemporary Christianity is the mentality that the church should fashion itself according to the needs and wants of the “audience.” It’s an idea that grew out of the evangelical church growth and seeker movements and is practically an epidemic today. Almost every evangelical church these days is to some extent thinking in terms of what the audience wants and how churches can provide them with a desirable product. It’s unseemly, to be sure, but it’s just a symptom of the consumerist culture we live in. Presumably, it’s how things must be done. Whatever else you might say about a product you’re trying to sell, the one thing you know for sure is this: the audience is sovereign.

But of course, the question the church must reckon with is this: is Christianity a “product” we must sell? Looking at the language many pastors and Christian leaders use today, it certainly sounds like it. In Pop Goes the Church, Tim Stevens argues that effective churches are those that identify the needs of their audience, speak their language and “scratch where they itch.” In Branding Faith, Phil Cooke says that the church needs to “start thinking in reverse,” by focusing on the audience rather than the message and realizing that “it’s not the message you send, it’s the message that’s received that counts.”

Cooke also says this: “Pastors, Christian leaders and broadcasters always thought they had the answers to what their audience wanted and, more important, the audience would listen. Today the audience is in charge. In a virtually unlimited channel universe, the audience has more choices than ever before, and for us to justify their attention, we need to get on their wavelength.”

Indeed, it may be true that people have more choices than ever before and that Christianity is competing for increasingly depleted pockets of attention, but I hardly think the answer to this dilemma is to start with the conceit that “the audience is in charge.” Especially for Christians, it should be clear that the audience is not and should not be sovereign! The audience consists of broken, depraved, n’er do well sinners. God is sovereign. He comes first, not the audience’s idea of what they want God to be or what they want from religion.

The problem with the “audience is sovereign” approach is that audiences rarely want what is really in their best interest. Giving audiences what they want might make a company money, but it rarely satisfies the audience in the long run. And it hardly ever edifies their soul. Furthermore, in terms of Christianity, what the audience “wants” has very little bearing on what Christianity actually is. In a market economy, consumer needs are those that consumers identify for themselves. But as David Wells points out in The Courage to be Protestant, “the needs sinners have are needs God identifies for us, and the way we see our needs is rather different from the way he sees them… The product we will seek naturally will not be the gospel.”

To “scratch were they itch,” then, seems like a futile pursuit for a church trying to win converts to the Gospel. People are itching for a lot of things, and some of them might actually add up to what the gospel of Christ offers, but at the end of the day the gospel is defined outside of and with little regard to whatever it is people think Christianity is or should be.

The logic of consumerism is that people want what they want and get what they want, for a price. It’s all about ME—the brands I buy, the products I consume, the “gimme more” mindset of never having to wait long to have any desire fulfilled.

I’m not sure there are any circumstances under which Christianity fits comfortably into this paradigm.

To position the Gospel within this consumerist framework is to open the door to all sorts of distortions, mutations, and “to each his own” cockamamie variations. If it’s all about selling a message that scratches a pluralism of itches, how in the world will a cohesive, orthodox, unified gospel survive?

In his article “Jesus is not a Brand” in Christianity Today, Tyler Wigg-Stevenson raises the warning that by adopting a marketing mindset, the church “will subtly contort the gospel into mere personal fulfillment,” focusing only on the benefits of becoming a Christian and presenting a message “not fundamentally different from commercial advertising about the existential benefits of this car or that soap.” And this sort of “what can the church do for me?” mindset is completely contrary to living a God-centered, neighbor-focused life.

To conceive of Christian identity in terms of consumer satisfaction is the wrong way for the church. We cannot let ourselves—or our message—be form-fit to the fickle demands and fluctuating interests of the market.

As Wells puts it: “Relevance is not about incorporating something else as definitive in the life of the church, be it the hottest marketing trend, the latest demographic, the newest study on depression, what a younger generation thinks, Starbucks, or contemporary music. None of these is definitive. None should be allowed a defining role in how the church is strengthened and nourished.”

There are a lot of things that scratch were the average person itches. Things like aspirin, coffee, reality TV, cookies, cigarettes, sleep, sex, and orange juice. To place Christianity in that category of just “one among many” desires that people might have is to do it a monumental injustice. Christianity transcends all that. It is much bigger and above all earthly whims, fads, desires and emotional cravings. If we think we can “sell” it best on the terms of the consumer, we are gravely mistaken.

A Sports Lament

Note: If you don’t like sports, you should probably not spend your time reading this post.

As the rest of the world focuses its sports attention on the World Cup (sorry, I just can’t get into it… blame my inexplicably anti-soccer American upbringing), a Midwestern-born-and-bred sports fan like me is lamenting what appears to be the swift and complete dissolution of the once mighty Big 12 conference. For someone like me, who grew up in the heart of Big 12 country and at various times rooted for teams like Colorado, Oklahoma, and Kansas, it’s sad to see everything changing. It’s sad to see old rivalries like Colorado-Nebraska thrown to the wind in the span of 2 days (with Colorado going west to join the Pac-10 and Nebraska joining the Big-10). It’s sad to see money/TV-deals/power-play motivations taking precedence over the formerly innocent/tradition-steeped ethos of loyalty-rivalry-fight song collegiate athletics.

Most of all, it’s sad to see a powerhouse school like Kansas–with one of the best basketball programs in the nation–get left behind and (possibly) forced to join a demoralizing mid-major, non-BCS conference. But basketball sadly matters little in the high-stakes corporate landscape of contemporary college sports. It’s all about football.

All of this feels a little bit like going back to the small Oklahoma town where I was born and wondering why so many of my old favorite restaurants had been boarded up or bulldozed to make room for a new Walgreen’s or Applebees. It’s like that feeling of coming home after many years away, expecting everything to be the same but finding it drastically changed and unknown.

The (usually sad) reality is that things change. I don’t know why it continues to surprise us that alliances/conferences/traditions don’t last forever.

But as inescapable as change is, so too is that deep, nostalgia-drenched longing for the way things were. Back in the days when people like Tiger Woods were heroes and baseball had a purity to it. Back when the summer meant community festivals like Rooster Days or Old Shawnee Days, cul-de-sac barbecues, and summer reading programs at the local library. Oh, the good ole days. We always look back on the joys of the past with rose-colored glasses, bestowing old memories with perhaps undue sublimity.

But skewed visions of the past notwithstanding, I think it’s good and right to lament the endings of things. The dissolution of the Big 12 was inevitable. All things fall apart sooner or later. I guess it just caught many of us by surprise that–in the span of a week–it all unraveled so quickly and unexpectedly. But so it goes in life. Impermanence is a constant.

What Would You Call Your Hipster Church?

What’s in a name? A lot, if you’re a hipster church. Last week it was announced that Ted Haggard was starting a new church in Colorado Springs that would meet at his family’s home and would welcome any and everyone: “Democrat, Republican, gay, straight, bi, addicts, tall, short.” The church’s name? Saint James. “Because faith without works is dead,” says Haggard. The church’s slogan is “Doing our Faith.”

These days, if you want to start a cool church, it must have a name that either a) has a “deep” meaning, b) has only the obscurest connection to Christianity, c) is shocking in its unorthodox originality, or d) could easily be the name of a Las Vegas nightclub.

It must also have a somewhat explanatory slogan or motto (i.e. Saint James… “Doing our Faith”). In the olden days (the 90s), a church might have had a name like “Riverside Baptist Church” with a motto like “A Place for Families to Grow in Christ.”  These days, a church might have a gloriously esoteric name like “Saint Cyprian’s” with a motto like “Mysterium Fidei.”

If I were starting a hipster church, I might go with one of the following name/motto combos:

Phil Love is the greatest commandment.
Blank We don’t believe in labels.
CorpusWe are the Body of Christ.
TresIn the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
GammaIt’s another cool way to say three.
ParabolaJesus also taught using math.
St. Nothing’s No one is righteous. No not one.
The MorgueFor Sinners Dead in Their Trespasses
Leper ColonyA church for outcasts and sick people.
Viscous Spirit-molded, malleable and not as nerdy as “Liquid.”
BleuIt’s a primary color (and sounds cool).
SehnsuchtIt almost sounds like “sin-sick.”

If you had to come up with a “cool church” name and motto, what would it be? Post your ideas here, or on the book’s Facebook page.