Monthly Archives: September 2010


This upcoming weekend, I’m attending my 5-year reunion at Wheaton College, as part of their Homecoming. It feels weird that half a decade has already passed, but so it goes with time. Its relentless pace never ceases to surprise.

Returning to Wheaton this weekend will be a celebration of time gone by, of blessings given, and of the immense joy both before and behind me. And it will also be a time to celebrate the life of my dear grandmother Marilyn McCracken, who died today. She was my last living grandparent, and she also went to Wheaton. This week is a different sort of homecoming for her.

Grandma McCracken was the most generous-spirited person I knew. I never left her presence without some sort of gift. No one really encountered her without experiencing her generosity. She lived in Wheaton when I was in college, and on a pretty regular basis I would come back to my dorm and there would be a bag of goodies from Grandma left at the front desk for me. My roommates and I had a never ending supply of Pepperidge Farm cookies and Cracker Jacks, thanks to her. She was always so interested in listening to people and caring for them in her sweet, hospitable way. Every time I would visit her apartment, she would insist on putting together a plate of cookies and crackers for me, while we sat together and talked.

My grandmother was a godly, giving, genteel woman, as classy a person as I ever knew. Whenever I saw her, she was always dressed to the nines and adorned with her trademark massive jewelry. But her classiness went way beyond her outward appearance. She was exceptionally tactful, wise, quick to listen and slow to speak. She never liked to dwell on the negative, and in almost everything it seemed like she tried to look on the bright side.

Now she’s gone on to the ultimate “bright side,” and I know she’s experiencing unspeakable joy. But I will miss her so much. I will miss all of my grandparents.

It’s an odd stage in life to have no grandparents left–to realize that your parents are now the oldest generation. Where did the time go? I have such great memories of each of my four grandparents, but it’s strange to think that I will never make more memories with them.

I will never wake up on Christmas morning at Grandma McCracken’s house, and look forward to the “Scottish song singalong,” wherein Grandma would sit at the piano and lead the whole family in songs like “These are my Mountains” and “The Scottish Soldier” (she was really proud of our Scottish heritage). I will never again receive another chain e-mail forward from her, or sit in her TV room with her to watch cable news and eat orange slices. I will never again meet her at Red Apple for lunch, or hear her tell tales of the lanky, high-water-pants country boy she remembered from her days at Wheaton (Billy Graham).

Unfortunately life is full of these “never agains.” I’ll never again be a freshman in college, and I’ll never again be a teenager. I’ll probably never play capture the flag at camp in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, and I’m sure I’ll never play in a marching band again. But that’s okay.

The joys and relationships we experience in life, fleeting as they are, seem always to be pointing to something other. They are the “faint, far-off results of those energies which God’s creative rapture implanted in matter when He made the world,” as Lewis says (The Weight of Glory). Now imagine what it will be like to taste at the fountainhead of the stream “of which even these lower reaches prove so intoxicating.”

I want to thank my beloved grandmother for offering me such refreshing tastes of the lower reaches of glory. With every bag of goodies, with every tender kiss on the cheek, with every box of Cracker Jacks or word of warmth or wisdom, she imparted a reliable goodness–the type of goodness that feels mostly like being at home, known and loved, settled and restless on the favorite old couch that never exhausts the presence of the good ole days.

The Challenge of Belief

When Casey Affleck announced last week that the film he made about Joaquin Phoenix was a complete fiction–that, indeed, the whole “character” of meltdown/I’m-quitting-actor Phoenix was just the latest convincing performance for the acclaimed actor–I think some of us were genuinely surprised. As much as we all have built-in mechanisms for fakery-detection these days (because we’ve been duped so many times in our lives, growing up as we did in the advertising age), there are still bits and pieces of us that long to believe. But it’s increasingly hard to keep this capacity alive.

In a world where an actor can pull the leg of the media for two years, and get us to believe (however suspiciously) that he is legitimately losing his mind, why should we believe anything we see actors do in their “real lives”? Is Lindsay Lohan really failing drug tests? Is that really meat Lady Gaga is wearing? Does Bill O’Reilly actually believe half the things he says? It’s hard to take anything at face value.

I saw the film Catfish this weekend–a documentary about a Facebook relationship. The film observes photographer Nev Schulman during his online romance with “Megan,” who he gets to know on Facebook (along with her whole family). As the film progresses, however, Nev begins to have doubts about who Megan actually is. Is she a real person? What would happen if he tried to meet her in person?

The film (which you should see) demonstrates our contemporary longing for connection in a world that is increasingly surreal, virtual, and subject to doubt. It underscores how prone we are to trust what we feel to be real, even though experience increasingly proves our skepticism warranted. Should we believe anything anymore? What can be trusted?

We used to trust authority. Presidents, politicians, pastors…  Not so much anymore. It’s hard when the media constantly feeds us stories of the scandals, dishonesty, and hypocrisy of these formerly heroic, respectable officials.

What about parents? Family? Friends? Can we have faith in them either? One hopes we can. But the pervasive paranoia and understandable skepticism of our era does make even this a challenge. Parents disappoint. Friend betray. We have many reasons to be cautious about trusting even those closest to us. But trust we must. How else could we live?

What in life can be believed without faith? I’m not sure there is much. Maybe the fact that 2+2=4? Maybe gravity?

Some would suggest that science provides the ultimate provable, “faith is not necessary” framework wherein reality becomes comfortably, reliably knowable. But it seems to me that even science–glorious human endeavor though it may be–is as subject to doubt as anything else.

In her recent book, Absence of Mind (which you should read), the brilliant Marilynne Robinson takes on the science-faith dichotomy, and challenges the scientific bias against the metaphysical. Can our endlessly complicated, ever surprising humanity really be understood by a “few simple formulae,” or explained fully in terms of “optimization” through natural processes? Does the data of science help us understand our self? Certainly. But data should be thoughts of as “gifts,” not “givens,” suggests Robinson. We must recognize that science is limited and insufficient to give account of all the mysteries of existence, and that we must maintain “an appropriate humility in the face of what we think we know.”

In the end, very little knowledge in this world is ironclad. Very little is absolutely proved or exhaustively understood. Vast mystery inheres in every moment of our lives, in all the minutia. But that doesn’t debilitate us; we have faith in the functioning of the world. Faith is inescapable, even if we don’t often recognize it as such.

The world may seem more dubious, confusing, and uncertain than it used to. Belief may seem increasingly unwise. But the reality is: The world has always been a rather unbelievable, mysterious place. And belief has always been a challenge. But it’s a good sort of challenge–the kind that both enthralls and exhausts us, expands our human capacity and helps us realize more fully what we were meant to be.

Never Let Me Go

I have not read Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Never Let Me Go. But I’ve heard good things, and after seeing the film version, I’m pretty certain the novel’s wide acclaim is well-deserved. If the book is at all as haunting, poetic, and profound as the film, I can definitely see what all the hype was about.

Never Let Me Go is a film that sticks with you, packing a punch perhaps more in remembrance than in the actual experience of watching it. It’s a startling, unexpected film, mostly in the matter-of-fact manner of its genre-bending exposition. It’s a love story set against a sci-fi backdrop, with the elegance of an Austen novel and the quietly somber mood of an Ozu film. It’s a jarring experience, and a profoundly moving one.

I reviewed the film for Christianity Today, which you can read in full here. Here’s how my review starts:

Never Let Me Go is one of those films that feels deceptively simple or perhaps too abrupt on first viewing, but which broadens and deepens and sticks around in memory long after you leave the theater. The film, directed by Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) and based on the highly acclaimed novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day), is a genre-bending, tender, and provocative gem that should provide plenty of discussion fodder for thoughtful filmgoers.

The story begins at Hailsham, a boarding school somewhere in rural England, full of beautiful, cheerful children who paint pictures in classrooms, play cricket in the field, and sing songs about how great Hailsham is. It’s an idyllic community, but something feels off. The students don’t seem quite normal (and why no mention of any parents?). One day a rogue teacher, Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), speaks up and gravely informs the students in her class that none of them will grow up to be actors, artists, teachers, or anything. None of them will live past adulthood. Miss Lucy is immediately fired, but the secrets of Hailsham can’t be hid forever. As the students grow older, they learn the truth of what Miss Lucy alluded to.

(Read the rest of the review here)

I’m Still Here

Casey Affleck’s new documentary, I’m Still Here, purportedly documents the unraveling of actor Joaquin Phoenix–who in 2008 announced he was quitting acting to begin a rap career, and proceeded to act like a very media-starved crazy person for about a year. You probably remember it: His Letterman appearance, his various horrible rap performances,  his Hassidic/mountain-man/street-person look.  It was a mess. And this film provides an even messier (in every sense of the word), up-close-and-personal look inside Joaquin’s world during that period.

But is any of it real? Or is the whole thing–the media shenanigans, the “rap career,” the documentary by Joaquin’s brother-in-law Casey–all just some elaborate performance art experiment? It’s a testament to our highly skeptical, “nothing we see can be trusted,” post-mockumentary culture that these questions have from the outset framed this Joaquin/documentary discussion. And indeed, these are the questions I’m Still Here wants us to be asking as we leave the theater.

After watching the film, the evidence seems to point resoundingly to the “performance art / it’s-all-an-act” option, for several reasons:

  • The documentary was “written and produced” by Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix. Why would a truly mess-ed up, having-a-meltdown actor be so complicit in the creation of a film documenting (in very unflattering light) his own self-destruction? And why would a brother-in-law continue to roll the camera rather than intervene and help his wife Summer’s brother out?
  • For the entire duration of the documentary’s filming, Joaquin Phoenix was constantly in the public eye, and in very strategic ways (all of which show up in the film as very compelling plot points). In mid-2009, however, where the film’s chronology ends, Phoenix disappeared from the public eye and has not been seen or heard from since. Affleck’s camera seems to have been there for a very specifically segmented period in Phoenix’s life, but why didn’t it cover anything before the meltdown or after?
  • The film ends in a very cinematic way, with an homage to Gus Van Sant (a director both Affleck and Phoenix have worked with, and a director fascinated by experimenting with the inherent real/fake blurriness of cinema). The final sequence/shot of the film seems to say, “this is just an art film, an experiment, meant to make you ponder.”
  • The film’s production company is “They Are Going to Kill Us Productions” … which is perhaps a prophetic statement if and when Affleck/Phoenix publicly admit that the whole thing was a ruse.

There are a myriad of other reasons to doubt the veracity of this film, though even if we agree that it is mostly a performance art experiment, there are still the questions of what motivated Phoenix to do this, what the point is, and whether or not there are some core truths guiding the mayhem.

To the last point, I recommend David Edelstein’s take for New York Magazine, where he suggests that yes, the film is an act, but not entirely:

Phoenix’s metamorphosis looks less like a scam than a go-for-broke art project, an outlandish psychodrama with a nucleus of truth. A onetime alcoholic who’s known for being alternately un- and over-defended, whose beloved brother was a casualty of celebrity excess, who had fled show business before, who had lost himself in the role of Johnny Cash, country music’s quintessential self-created “outlaw” (winning acclaim but losing the ultimate prize, the Oscar), Phoenix would be a natural for one of those actorish existential breakdowns—the ones that turn on the old conundrum, “Where does my mask end and my true self begin?” To dismiss his latest role (and the film that charts its evolution) because it’s not “real” is to miss out on the charge of watching an actor play footsy with his own, barely corralled dementia.

(HT to Laurel for pointing me to this review).

Though I can’t get inside Phoenix’s head, I suspect that this “playing footsy with his own dementia” is a pretty apt description of what’s going on here. Acting–good acting, that is–always has a little bit of this going on. Phoenix here is simply playing with identity, experimenting with being a different version of himself, because that’s what his whole life has been anyway (the film takes care to remind us that Joaquin has been a performer basically since birth).

The film’s title seems like a not-so-subtle nod to Todd Haynes’ excellent Bob Dylan experiment, I’m Not There, a film very much about identity, masks, and the ways in which celebrity confuses or fragments notions of the self. Early in the film, Phoenix indicates that he “doesn’t want to play the character of Joaquin anymore,” a statement the likes of which most celebrities probably express, or feel, at one point or another.

It’s doubtless a strange thing to routinely bear witness to an external version of yourself in the media–watching yourself on YouTube, seeing yourself on Access Hollywood or in tabloids. Throughout I’m Still Here we see Phoenix watching himself on his laptop–glued to the screen like Narcissus looking into the pond. But is what he sees a familiar self? Or is it something as foreign as Commodus or Johnny Cash? Or is it ultimately all the same?

If the film is ultimately a treatise on the complexity of celebrity and the identity confusion of our postmodern world (where Googling oneself is common practice and the “self” seems ever more externalized and mediated), that’s fine. It’s interesting to think about such things. But I couldn’t help but wonder about the insensitivity of a “joke” like this, given that so many celebrities really are having public meltdowns and truly suffering from the confusions of public identity/performance/notoriety. Are the real-life troubles of the Britneys and Lindsays mere fodder for some high-minded meta critique of celebrity culture? Is there anything we as a culture, as consumers, can do to actually help heal these wounds?

Real or not, I’m Still Here is a rather somber film, full of depraved, reckless behavior on full, gratuitous display. The film is meant to make us laugh, and cringe, and maybe cry–because if it isn’t real for Phoenix it is certainly real for some people, and the experience of watching it all unfold is certainly a real one for us–the consumers. But then maybe that’s what it’s all about anyway. Maybe the joke is on us–the people ever less certain about the truth of that which we are fed, or rather that which we willingly consume.

10 Albums That Shaped My Youth

I came home to Kansas City for the long weekend, to visit my family and to attend a high school friend’s wedding.  On the plane flight(s) to get here from L.A., I read an advanced reader copy of Sects, Love and Rock & Roll: A Memoir by Joel Heng Hartse, which is coming out soon and which I highly recommend. It’s a book all about Joel’s personal journey of musical discovery, as an evangelical kid who came of age in the 90s and loved Michael W. Smith, Five Iron Frenzy, Smashing Pumpkins and Starflyer 59, among many others. Reading the book felt like reading a chronology of my own musical past, and thus inspired me to think about which albums and musical experiences most shaped my own youth.

So last night, I rummaged through my stacks of old CDs in the room I grew up in–a room more or less preserved since I last occupied it about a decade ago. I pulled out 10 CDs that were either my most treasured or most listened-to recordings of the period from about 1995-2000 (more or less my high school years).  They are the albums that comforted me most in the tumultuous adolescent years, the albums that taught me how to truly love music.

Radiohead, Kid A (2000): I’m sure I’m not the only person of my generation for which this is true, but Kid A really did change my life. My life pre-Kid A was great, but post-Kid A was  a much bigger world. “Art” meant something deep, tangible, and exciting from that moment on. For all that followed, the bar was raised.  I think Kid A was also the album that put one of the first real nails in the coffin of CCM, at least for me. Why listen to more Third Day albums if Radiohead could provide me with something even more holy and transcendent?

Sixpence None the Richer, Sixpence None the Richer (1998): I remember seeing this album on the shelves in our local mall’s Christian bookstore and buying it because a) the album cover was cool looking, and b) I listened to it on one of those in-store CD players to sample it, and liked it. Little did I know at that time how important this album would later become for me personally, as well as for CCM at large (“Kiss Me” crossover success!).

OC Supertones, Supertones Strike Back (1997): Like most evangelicals of a certain age, I was once a huge ska fan. For some reason, Christians latched on to this genre and really made it their own. Having adored No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom, I was thrilled when I discovered a Christian Orange County-themed ska band. I loved this album. Almost every song. And man were they amazing live. I think the numerous Supertones concerts I went to offered the friendliest mosh pits I’ve ever experienced.

R.E.M. Up (1998): A cool kid in band at my high school (I think he played trombone but loved the band Drums & Tuba, go figure) told me to get this CD, so I did. Previously my only exposure to R.E.M. had been “Losing My Religion” on the radio, but this album forever endeared me to them. Something about this deeply atmospheric, subdued album (especially the song “Walk Unafraid”) really resonated with my 16-year-old self.

Audio Adrenaline, Bloom (1996): I discovered Audio Adrenaline from my 7th grade English teacher (public school) who made no apologies for leaving copies of CCM magazine conspicuously lying around the classroom. We bonded over Christian music. AA’s Bloom remains one of the first CCM rock albums I truly held dear.Though most of this band’s other work seems in retrospect either totally corny (“Big House”) or just subpar (the entire post-Underdog catalog), Bloom was a gem of 90s CCM. A great rock record.

Will Smith, Big Willie Style (1997): The first hip hop album I ever bought. I was secretely listening to Biggie, Puffy, Tupac and The Fugees (thank you Napster!) in junior high, but I wasn’t about to purchase an album with a parental advisory sticker (shudder the thought!) Thankfully the Fresh Prince was not a real rapper and was suitably “safe.” And oh did I unabashadly love this album. I once sang “Gettin Jiggy With It” at karaoke and knew all the words without even looking at the screen. I still know all the words.

DC Talk, Jesus Freak (1995): So many memories of this record–arguably the best Christian album of the CCM heyday. I remember a DJ putting on “Jesus Freak” at a school dance once, and feeling awesome about jumping around with my secular public school friends, rocking out to Jesus (my Muslim friends too!). Then there was the time I auditioned to sing in a band by performing “In the Light” (still my favorite song on the album). That album was the pinnacle of the better parts of the CCM juggernaut.

The Wallflowers, Bringing Down the Horse (1996): I remember the first time I heard “One Headlight.” We were in the family suburban, on a roadtrip to Lake Tahoe. I think we were somewhere outside of Reno and we had (for some reason) a music radio station on that was not Rush Limbaugh. The song was “One Headlight,” and the lyric about it being cold and feeling like Independence Day stuck with me. I bought the album when we got home and listened to it more than anything else my freshman year in high school.

Switchfoot, New Way to be Human (1999): Before A Walk to Remember made them huge stars, Switchfoot were just a humble, quality San Diego trio. This album was the best of their work–and a record that got me through many stressful nights in high school. The album’s strongest songs are its ballads–“Sooner or Later,” “Let That Be Enough,” “One Hope,” and “Amy’s Song.” These are songs I still go back to.

Jars of Clay, Much Afraid (1997): I remember how excited I was the day this album came out. There’s nothing like going to the record store to pick up the sophomore album of a band you love. Luckily, I was not disappointed. I remember lying down on my bed in high school listening to songs like “Frail” and “Hymn” in my headphones, being tremendously comforted by them. What a fantastic album. One of the few 90s CCM albums I still listen to regularly.