Monthly Archives: December 2011

2011 in 12 Tweets

Because Twitter increasingly seems to be the medium through which the “now” moments of life are expressed (albeit not remembered or archived for posterity), I thought I’d attempt to summarize the highlights from my year in 12 tweet-style updates  (one for each month) of 140 characters or less.

January: Began ’11 in Kansas. mom’s health crisis. Kansas Jayhawk basketball. Published article for Princeton Theological Review:

February: Valentine’s Day w/@glutenfreebird. Spoke at Risen Church. Helped launch blog for @talbotnews faculty:

March: Trip to NYC for @IntlArtsMvmnt conf, met best friend’s fiance. Spoke in chapel @biolau. Tsunami. Blogging break 4 Lent:

April: Returned to @WheatonCollege to lecture; also spoke @CalvinCollege, enjoyed @TheCivilWars. Sealed deal on book #2. Explosions:

May: The Tree of Life. @LACMA retrospective. Opening night Arclight party & afterparty. Malick month on the blog:

June: Wknd trip to KC. Will’s wedding in Pasadena, Ryan’s wedding in Cleveland. Best man duties. #FridayNightLights ends.

July: Work trip to Boston w/@albertbrios. Trip to Europe (Geneva, Swiss L’Abri, Oxford, Cambridge). Reflections on Christian divisions:

August: Long wkd in Altea, Spain. Swam in Mediterranean, wine-tasted in the countryside. Writing retreat: 1st ch. of book completed! 10 yrs since fresh in college:

September: Speaking engagements at Malone University (Ohio). Ten years since 9/11:

October: Speaking engagement at Covenant College (Georgia). Tree of Life comes to DVD/Blu-Ray. Occupy Wall Street:

November: Moved into new apt. Couch-to-5k running regime. Thanksgiving in Kansas City. Presidential candidate wishlist:

December: 29th bday, celebrated in SD. Technivorm Moccamaster  revolutionizes my at home coffee-making ; ended ’11 in Kansas. Tebow:

Happy New Year to all of my wonderful friends and blog readers!

Best Films of 2011

Perhaps I’m biased (see my #1 pick and they entire month of May in my blog archive), but 2011 was a banner year for cinema. The Tree of Life is one thing, but there was a lot more going on this year to make a cinephile like me excited. There was a lot of artful doomsday (Melancholia, Take Shelter, Tree of Life, Another Earth), some great homages to early, classic and Spielbergian cinema (Hugo, The Artist, War Horse, Super 8), and some truly exceptional films about faith (Of Gods and Men, Higher Ground, The Way, The Mill & the Cross, Tree of Life). There was so much good cinema that my “best of” list actually includes three different top tens: the best 10, the second best 10, and then 10 honorable mentions. Many of them are available now on Netflix Instant, while a few of them have yet to release in most parts of the country. However you can, I hope you get a chance to see them!

10) Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene (T. Sean Durkin): An astonishing, accomplished debut from director T. Sean Durkin, Martha gives the audience more respect than any other film this year. There are a lot of gaps we, the audience, must fill in. But far from a head-scratching frustration, this subtle insinuation and refusal to spoon-feed is one the film’s most thrilling qualities.

9) We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay): By far the scariest film of the year. Not jump-in-your-seat type scary, but horribly unsettling dread and tension scary. Tilda Swinton plays a mother in a worst-nightmare-for-any-parent scenario, as she deals with an evil teenage son, Kevin, who commits a massacre at his high school. But the scariest parts of the film are the things we don’t see and the questions that go unanswered: where does the evil of a kid like Kevin come from? What do parents do wrong to lead to this?

8) Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt): One of the most original and haunting westerns I’ve ever seen. Kelly Reichardt’s minimalist, observational style (see Old Joy and Wendy & Lucy) is perfectly suited to this period costume drama set in the 1840s on the Oregon Trail. And Michelle Williams is mesmerizing as the centerpiece heroine. Like Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene, this film is intentionally ambiguous and invites the interpretations of an active audience, which is something I always applaud.

7) Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols): A jittery, tense, unsettled film for the unsettled world in which we live, Take Shelter is about the fears and anxieties of a modern-day working class man who simply wants to protect his wife and daughter from all manner of peril. Featuring stunning performances by Michael Shannon as a good-at-heart man (possibly) losing his mind and Jessica Chastain as his longsuffering wife, Shelter builds and builds to a finale that will leave you speechless.

6) The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius): One would have reason to approach this film skeptically. A silent film? Really? But what at first glance appears to just be a stunt or gimmick is quickly found to be something remarkably beautiful, charming, nostalgic and yet new. It’s an homage to Hollywood, to storytelling within the bounds of technological limitations; but it’s also about pride, love, adaptation, and the fickleness of fame. Go see it. You won’t find a more pleasant surprise at the movies this year.

5) Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami): Certified Copy is essentially Before Sunset in Italy, which is good because Sunset is one of my all time favorite films. Filmed in glorious Tuscany, featuring the sublime Juliette Binoche, and riffing on notions of originality, inspiration, and cinema itself, Copy is a wonderfully complex modernist experiment in the style of Alain Resnais, and yet it flows breezily and romantically, never too pushy with its philosophical or theoretical notions. Academics should watch this film and take note: academic inquiry doesn’t have to be convoluted, dry and inert. It can be as simple and beautiful as walking and talking in lovely Italian sunlight.

4) Poetry (Lee Chang-dong): It’s a tragedy that only about 30 people saw this masterpiece when it opened in theaters early in 2011. From the masterful Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine), Poetry is a film befitting its title if ever a film was. It’s about poetry literally, in that the protagonist–an elderly woman in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease (Jeong-hie Yun)–is taking poetry classes; but the film itself is poetry: a delicate, quietly observant film that is unsentimental and yet profoundly moving, especially after it’s sat with you for a bit.

3) Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois): A true story about monks in North Africa who risk it all in pursuit of their mission, Gods is one of the most inspiring films about faith, sacrifice, and community that I’ve ever seen. A quiet, austere, but utterly transcendent film, Gods paints a picture of what it means to be faithfully present as Christ’s ambassadors in a world that is beautiful, dynamic, and frequently hostile. At once entirely timely (it deals with terrorism and Christian-Muslim relations) and timeless, Gods is a film I’ll come back to in years to come–for inspiration, encouragement, and instruction for my own journey of faith.

2) Melancholia (Lars von Trier): Though often, and rightly, contrasted with Tree of Life (both films juxtapose the cosmic and intimate, and depict earth’s demise), Melancholia stands on its own two feet as one of the year’s most masterful films. More than just the antithesis of Tree of Life, Lars von Trier’s gorgeous apocalyptic vision contains some of the most striking imagery and sequences you’ll see this year. It may be bleak, nihilistic, and (insert depressing synonym here), but Melancholia is above all authentic. It’s Lars von Trier speaking his auteurist mind and bombarding us with sound (Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde), image (a planet colliding with earth, Kirsten Dunst unhappy in a wedding dress), and mood (sadness, dread) to astonishingly powerful effect.

1) The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick): What can I say about this film that I haven’t already said? It met and exceeded all my expectations and instantly took a place on my list of all time favorites. Critics are right to be universally heralding this as the best film of 2011. It’s one of the best films of all time. It’s a film with the kind of scope, ambition and excellence that we just don’t see anymore. It’s a film that goes after big questions (the biggest) and attempts to be all-encompassing (God, life, death, sin, redemption, creation, apocalypse, everything else in between), but does so as much or more through the inherent strengths of the cinematic form as through traditional narrative exposition. It’s a film that shows us the world in a grain of sand, so to speak. It blows open the possibilities of the medium, or rather–at times–perfects the medium to such an extent that it looks foreign to us, like something altogether new. Malick achieves something with Life that can rarely be claimed by a filmmaker or artist of any kind: He’s given us something that we’ve truly never seen before, and yet something that will undoubtedly endure.

The Next Ten: 11) Hugo 12) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives 13) Midnight in Paris 14) The Way 15) The Descendants 16) Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy 17) The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo 18) Bellflower 19) Another Earth 20) Warrior

Honorable Mention: Coriolanus, The Mill and the Cross, Contagion, Moneyball, The Trip, Hanna, Drive, War Horse, Higher Ground, Margin Call

Best Documentaries of 2011

I love good documentaries–especially the ones that combine artistry and exposition without becoming preachy or didactic. My picks for the top 5 documentaries of the year include films about cowboys, fashion photographers, 9/11 survivors and two films by the venerable Werner Herzog. (Click here for my list of the best overall films of 2011.)

5) Buck (Cindy Meehl):  The log line for Buck is simple: “The story of real-life horse whisperer, Buck  Brannaman.” which would be fascinating enough to watch. But Buck is a story with unexpected depth because there is a lot more to Buck than meets the eye. How does our past, and the pain and ghosts therein, affect our path today? With Buck as its case study, this film explores that question somberly and gracefully, offering a vision for growth and redemption–both for wayward horses and for broken men.  

4) Rebirth (James Whitaker):  10 years after 9/11, how are those who lost loved ones in the World Trade Center coping? This film follows the grief process of 5 people over the course of the last decade, featuring interviews with them once a year during that period. The film is fascinating in the way that it shows us the physical aging as well as the gradual emotional healing of these people, and–juxtaposed with beautiful time-lapse footage of the new Freedom Tower being erected at Ground Zero–offers very tangible examples of hope and renewal coming out of tragedy.

3) Bill Cunningham New York (Richard Press):  There are so many fascinating things about this film, which is at once an inside look at the fashion world, at photography, at New York City, the nature of trends, high society, class, and more. But above all this is a character study of Bill Cunningham, a lovable veteran photographer for the NY Times who rides his bike around Manhattan, snapping photos of whatever street fashion catches his discerning eye. It’s a fascinating portrait of an elderly man who has never married, goes to church every Sunday, and is beloved by everyone who’s anyone in the world of fashion.

2) Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog): Ostensibly a look at the death penalty through the lens of one particularly heinous Texas murder case, Herzog’s 2nd masterful 2011 film, Into the Abyss, is really about so much more. Herzog is chiefly interested in life, not death, and especially the quirky messiness of “you cant write this stuff” real life people. There are plenty of fascinating, tragic characters in this film, and Herzog’s sensitive interviews with them bring out an array of insights about life, love, grief and evil.    

1) Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog):  Werner Herzog has such an ability to explore the curiosities of the natural and human worlds and make them seem even more magnificent and mysterious than we’ve ever considered; and Cave is Herzog at the top of his game. Far more than just a close up look at some of the worlds earliest known cave paintings, Herzog’s film probes the very essence of humanity, creativity, and the way that meaning is made and interpreted. It’s a vast, stirring, beautiful and incredibly thought provoking film.

Honorable Mention: Page One: Inside the New York Times; Transcendent Man; The Arbor; Prohibition; Life in a Day.

Humility and Incarnation

Have you ever seen a baby kick from inside a pregnant mother’s belly? I mean really kick, so that you can see the little foot’s imprint moving rapidly across the belly. It’s like something out of Alien. But it’s also pretty jaw droppingly magnificent. There’s a baby in there… a little human in tight quarters, antsy to get out and stretch.

As I watched a baby kick inside the belly of a pregnant friend a few weeks back, I was awestruck by the thought that came to my mind: Jesus was once doing this inside Mary’s belly. Jesus, the God of the Universe, the creator of all things (including the very ideas of birth, babies, bellies, etc), was once a minute little baby, cramped inside of a belly, unable to do anything much except kick and change positions slightly in a very crammed space. How crazy is that?

The Incarnation. How can it be comprehended?

It seems to me that one of the biggest lessons/realities of the Incarnation is that of humility. Humility seems too soft a word for it, actually: the notion that God himself, the king of the universe, left his throne and came down to earth. But not only that: He took on human form! And not only that: He started as a baby, helpless, crying, unable to survive on his own. And not only that: He was born in a  manger, around farm animals, a baby who grew up to be a carpenter and died at a relatively early age, terribly and embarrassingly on a cross.  And this was God. 

Humility is the theme of Christ’s life. A God who freely subjected himself to the most unfathomable of all degradations. A God who could have done anything he wanted, but didn’t. He limited himself. He humbled himself. He of all Beings whose greatness would warrant self-satisfaction. Why? To show us an example of humanity as it should be. To teach us a lesson we’ve forgotten since Adam and Eve first fell in the Garden. A lesson about humility.

It’s something I know I always need reminding of. It’s a lesson I chronically forget. I forget about it in the dozens of times I check my Facebook or Twitter pages each day, wondering if anyone’s said anything about or in response to me. I forget about it in the regular moments when I care too much about what others write about what I write or say or think about me. I forget about it when I complain about not getting paid enough or when I silently lament not getting enough respect for things I’ve done. I forget about it every day, every hour, every minute pretty much… when my pride insists to me that I’m great, awesome, deserving, eloquent, talented, wise, important.

I am none of those things. Because God is all of those things, and yet he shunned it all, stripped it all away and came as a baby to live humbly and die on a cross.

Gloria in excelsis Deo indeed.

Pride has been the problem all along. Since Adam and onward through me, the pride of thinking I know best, or I deserve better, or I am at least as smart as God, has characterized the sin problem of man. And so it makes sense that perfect, ultimate humility–in the Incarnation of God as a baby and the crucifixion of Christ on the cross–would usher in the solution.

And indeed it also makes sense that those who followed Christ and carried on his kingdom would also be called to humility. For humility is the ultimate affront to and underminer of pride. In this world, pride leads to every bad thing: to politicians destroying nations because they can’t give any ground to their opponents; to people using sex, drugs, violence, food, etc. to feel better about themselves; to relationships gone awry because one or the other party can’t put the other’s interests ahead of their own; to the 1%, the 99% and the 100% of us who in some way believe we deserve better than what we have.

In such a world, humility is revolutionary. Focusing away from the self is countercultural. Denying the self and carrying the burdens of others is the way to change the world.

It’s not about me.  I’m just a speck of dust on a tiny grain of sand on a little planet in a medium sized galaxy, which itself is a speck of dust in the scope of the cosmos. And yet, ironically, this is what Jesus appeared to be too, that dark night in the dirty manger so many years ago. Indeed, humility can do great things for the world.

Best Food of 2011

My year-end listmaking continues today with my recap of the year in food, an area of culture I am particularly fond of. God gave us taste buds and he made food tasty, and enjoying food is just such a blessed thing; something we shouldn’t take for granted. To celebrate the preciousness and artistry of food and the many ways it can be prepared, here is my list of the 15 tastiest things I ate in 2011, followed by a list of the 10 food trends I’m most excited about this year.

Best things I ate:

  • Blueberry crostata with lemon gelato (Gjelina, Venice, CA)
  • Braised Pork Meatballs with Tomato & Grilled Bread (Gjelina, Venice, CA)
  • Ricotta Gnocchi with Brown Butter & Truffle Honey (Gjelina, Venice, CA)
  • Bourbon Pecan Ice Cream Tart with smoked Mexican salt chocolate sauce, bacon pecan crust (Craigie on Main, Cambridge, MA)
  • Short Rib Mac & Cheese (KO Prime, Boston, MA)
  • Gluten-free Strawberry Pie (Gluten Freebird, Fullerton, CA)
  • Grilled truffle and cheddar cheese with arugula (Charlie Palmer’s, Costa Mesa, CA)
  • Fig Bruschetta Pistachio Butter & Red Wine Figs (Barbarella Bar, Los Angeles, CA)
  • Jamon Iberico, Spanish cheeses, bread and olive oil (Cafe Roja in Altea, Spain)
  • Pressed chicken, bacon, brie and carmelized onion sandwhich (Joan’s on Third, Los Angeles, CA)
  • Boeuf Bourguignon Déconstruit: Braised Short Rib, Thumb Nail Carrots, Pork Belly, Candied Garlic, Potato Lace & Chives (Perch, Los Angeles, CA)
  • Bacon-wrapped dates (Lola Gaspar, Santa Ana, CA)
  • Crispy lentils with Serrano ham and balsamic (Phlight, Whittier, CA)
  • Piquillos Rellenos: Stuffed Spanish peppers, Chorizo, Golden raisins, gruyere (Rivera, Los Angeles, CA)
  • Prosciutto di Parma pizza, with rucola, bufala mozzarella and certified organic tomatoes from Los Gatos, CA by Robert DiNapoli and Chris Bianco (Pizzeria Mozza, Los Angeles, CA)

Favorite food trends of 2011:

  • Brussel Sprouts. What were formerly perceived as the nastiest of all nasty vegetables have enjoyed a renaissance in popularity in recent years. I, for one, have become a believer.
  • Good gluten-free. Who says wheat-less food need be dry and bland? The surge in good gluten-free has been a definite blessing for those whose bodies don’t do well with gluten (and those, like me, who have close relationships with those who are g-free :)
  • Fine fried chicken and waffles. The Southern staple is now a fixture on the menus of fine dining establishments in the bluest of states. Think Paula Dean meets Wolfgang Puck.
  • Sunchokes and other obscure new veggies. Do you know what sunchokes are? Neither did I, until they appeared in an arugula salad I had at a restaurant this year. Turns out these sunflower root veggies are pretty tasty.
  • Artisan meatballs. Meatballs are back in a big way. They might be my favorite part of the “neo comfort food” trend.
  • Gourmet mac n’ cheese. My favorite is at Beachwood BBQ in Seal Beach, where the mac n’ cheese comes with bacon, green onion, smoked chilis and Gruyere beer sauce.
  • Whoopie pies. If cupcakes were 2007-2008 and macarons were 2009-10, I think whoopie pies are the guilty-pleasure confection of 2011.
  • Bacon: In chocolate. On donuts. In salads. Wrapping dates. Basically, everywhere. As it should be.
  • Pork belly. No cut of meat was hotter in 2011. Boneless, fatty, flavorful… It’s essentially the closest a meat comes to tasting like candy.
  • Manchego. The Spanish import was everywhere on menus this year, and for good reason. It’s a wonderfully distinct and yet mild sheep’s milk cheese. Perfect stuffed in things or shaved over a salad!
  • Sea salt and other specialty salts. Who knew salt was so versatile? Or that sea salt caramel would take the world by storm in 2011, culminating (as trends usually do) with a Starbucks drink?

Honorable mention trends: Cakepops; Burrata and ricotta mixed with sweet things; Exotic meats and nose-to-tail cooking; Spicyness in cocktails (peppers of all kinds, beef jerky, etc.); Savory sweets (avocado ice cream, maple bacon donuts, scrambled eggs cupcakes, etc); Sour beer; açaí; Gastro-molecular food; Gourmet hamburgers; Kale

Best Albums of 2011

It’s December, which means one thing for a guy like me: list making. I’m starting my “best of the year” series on my blog with my picks for best albums of the year. Here they are: my top ten list and honorable mentions for the best music of 2011. (You can listen to all 15 hours of this music on Spotify here).

10) Panda Bear, Tomboy: In his sophomore solo effort, Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear) simplifies (if that’s the right word) from the sprawling ambitions of Person Pitch and yet creates an album that is equally layered and beautiful and I daresay more cohesive than his groundbreaking debut. Listen now: “Slow Motion,” “Friendship Bracelet.”

9) The Antlers, Burst Apart: Slightly more upbeat than their morose-but-beautiful debut, Hospice, The Antlers’ latest is an eloquent, moody, subtle pop album that sounds like something out of a foggy/jazzy David Lynch nightclub movie scene. Listen now: “French Exit,” “Putting the Dog to Sleep.”

8) M83, Hurry Up We’re Dreaming: This double-disc album from French singer/songwriter Anthony Gonzalez is simply epic. Lush, grand electronic anthems abound, alternately melodic, experimental, upbeat and somber. Listen now: “Midnight City,” “Steve McQueen.”

7) Girls, Father, Son, Holy Ghost: No album surprised me more this year than this one, full of so many pleasant twists and turns that you won’t even mind the few times it goes off the rails. It’s retro, rough-edged beach pop with a lot of soul. Listen now: “Honey Bunny,” “Jamie Marie.”

6) James Blake, James Blake: London-based producer James Blake offers a gorgeously subtle collection of dubstep ballads in this self-titled album, one of the best debuts of the year. Listen now: “Limit to Your Love,” “Measurements.”

5) Radiohead, King of Limbs: Radiohead’s latest didn’t make as big of a splash as their albums usually do, perhaps because we’ve come to expect masterpieces from them and this album feels somewhat less grandiose and significant. But make no mistake: Limbs is an incredibly well made record. Cohesive, relaxed, atmospheric, jazzy, a masterful collection that feels effortless and natural for a band completely at ease in their own skin. Listen now: “Morning Mr. Magpie,” “Codex.”

4) The War on Drugs, Slave Ambient: What is a true American rock sound in 2011?   With their new album, The War on Drugs offer a stunning answer to that question. It’s an album that channels Dylan/Springsteen at the same time that it blends minimalism, electronica, shoegaze and punk in seamless fashion. An album for the road, for skylines of cities and big horizon sunsets, Slave Ambient is a poetic treasure of ambient nostalgia. Listen now: “Your Love is Calling My Name,” “Come to the City.”

3) Washed Out, Within and Without: “Glo-fi” and “Chillwave” may be an ambiguous genre descriptors, but Washed Out embodies it the best of any band, and Within and Without is their crowning achievement. The music is 80s, shoegaze, ambient, and yes, washed out. But mostly it’s just lovely. A dreamy, moody, sometimes danceable record for the morning after. Listen now: “Amor Fati,” “You and I.”

2) Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues: There are no finer melodies anywhere in music this year than on Fleet Foxes’ sophomore effort, Helplessness Blues. Expanding ever so slightly on the anachronistic folk balladry of their stellar debut album, Fleet Foxes offer a collection of songs here that are somber, poetic, nostalgic and just downright wonderful. It’s easy on the ears and soothing for the soul; a gourmet comfort-food album you return to more than most. Listen now: “Helplessness Blues,” “Someone You’d Admire.”

1) Bon Iver, Bon Iver: More daring, more accomplished, more significant in every way than the gorgeous masterpiece For Emma, Forever Ago. This self-titled album floors you on first listen and grows from there. There’s something so raw, elemental and earnest about Bon Iver’s music. Only Justin Vernon (the genius behind Bon Iver) could make a 90s power ballad (complete with a Kenny G-esque saxophone solo) feel like the natural, unironic culmination of his body of work and also, perhaps, the most sensible musical expression of our largely nonsensical musical moment. Listen now: “Holocene,” “Beth/Rest.”

Honorable Mention: Real Estate, Days; St. Vincent, Strange Mercy; Low, C’mon; Destroyer, Kaputt; Wilco, The Whole Love; Feist, Metals; Jay-Z and Kanye West, Watch the Throne;  Viva Voce, The Future Will Destroy You; TW Walsh, Songs of Pain and Leisure; Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What.

We Need More Tebows

By now every pop culture columnist in America has chimed in on the Tim Tebow “controversy,” of which my favorites have been Daniel Foster’s take in National Review and Kevin Craft’s in The Atlantic. Both of these articles point out, rightly, that Tebow’s critics are largely unnerved by his sincerity and unflappably earnest devotion to his beliefs. It’s not his constant talk of God that’s the problem; it’s that he so clearly believes what he’s saying and lives his life accordingly. It’s unironic. It’s no mere lip service. He takes things seriously. As Chuck Klosterman notes in his meandering Tebow treatise, he has a faith that “defies modernity” and “makes people wonder if they should try to believe things they don’t actually believe.”

As a Christian a few years older than Tebow (and, full disclosure: a Broncos fan) I see in this guy an enviable model of what it means to be a Christian in the public square. Tebow didn’t seek to become the flashpoint of discussions of faith in public life, but he has. Tebow has gotten more secular people talking about faith than most pastors ever do. And he’s doing it not from a Pat Robertson-esque bully pulpit but from a vocation he’s been called to, is good at, and publicly gives God glory for.

From the perspective of a Christianity increasingly confused about how and what to be in an increasingly secular world, Tebow is a laudable icon. We need more Tebows.

We need more Tebows because:

  • He’s an incredibly hard worker and is great at what he does. He wouldn’t be in the position he is if he lacked a strong work ethic and valued excellence. If Christians want to make an impact or have a voice in this world, they must first earn that position by being great at something and working hard.
  • He’s vocal about his faith. It’s become popular for Christians to advise other Christians to live quiet lives of steadfast vocation and faithful presence and just kind of bide their time, establishing relationships that might one day lead to a God conversation, etc. without really drawing attention to the fact of their faith. That’s bogus. Tebow reminds us that if we truly believe what we say we believe about Jesus Christ, we can’t be kept silent. We will want to acknowledge him and give him the glory whenever we have the opportunity.
  • He practices what he preaches. Tebow isn’t all talk. If he were, the Jake Plummers of the world would be right to critique his God talk. But Tebow honors God not only in post-game interviews but in his extensive charity work. He helps doctors perform circumcisions in the Philippines, where he is also building a new children’s hospital. He spent most of his $2.5 million signing bonus on various worldwide charity organizations focusing on famine, education and home-building. He hopes to turn his downtown Denver loft into a soup kitchen. He preaches the gospel at all times and has earned the right to use words.
  • He’s upright. He’s the kind of squeaky-clean, trustworthy hero that entire generations of kids have been lacking. Of course there’s plenty of time for all of us to be letdown by him, but right now he comes across as a genuinely good person. This bothers some people, which is a shame. We need models of moral living. In the name of “authenticity” we’ve come to value people who are broken or at best rough around the edges. But is there no value in looking up to the most respectable among us and aspiring to be like them?
  • He’s humble and not self-aware. What a breath of fresh air it is to see someone who thanks God and his teammates after every win rather than tooting his own horn; someone who responds to criticisms about his still-developing skills by agreeing that he could improve. In a sport dominated by larger-than-life egos, Tebow seems hardly to even know he’s an NFL star.
  • He’s sincere. We need desperately to rediscover the spirit of seriousness and sincerity embodied by Tebow. The ubiquity of irony and jadedness is toxic in our culture. Thank you, Tim Tebow for being refreshingly sincere in a world of cynical and silly.

Advent & Malick

Terrence Malick has never made a Christmas film, but I think his films, collectively, have a lot to say to us as we meditate on the meaning of Advent. Before you groan and say, “here McCracken goes about Malick again,” let me explain.

At it’s core, Advent is a season in limbo, in between the first and second comings of Jesus. It’s a season about eschatological longing as much as it is about nostalgic joy for the Incarnation of God as man. It’s about longing for and awaiting the coming kingdom, the restoration of creation to a state of shalom and fully realized glory. A key word is “restoration,” for within the mystery of Advent is a deeply felt longing and remembrance of that original Eden, so long ago lost and yet made possible again in Christ.

In many ways, Advent is about existing in between two paradises. One lost. One still to come. Both are ever present in the believer’s consciousness, as persistent reminders of fallenness intermingle with persistent, grace-filled interjections of hope. And it is here that I think Malick’s cinematic vision has much to offer.

Consider his most recent film, 2011’s Tree of Life, which very literally depicts an original paradise (at least the creation of it) and a eschatological one (which, even if just a reverie or dream, is still very much an eschatological vision of Shalom restored). The Bible begins and ends with the “Tree of Life” (in Eden and in the Revelation 22 New Jerusalem), and in many ways the film echoes this bookended structure, with the middle section being the story of existence–struggling between sin/nature and redemption/grace–writ small in a tiny Texas town. In Tree of Life, Malick’s characters experience that Advent tension between darkness and innocence lost on one hand and a coming reconciliation/restoration of goodness on the other.

Malick’s other films reflect similar themes. In Badlands, Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek play Adam/Eve type characters who “fall” and are banished from Eden, shamed in their fallenness and yet curiously moved by the beauty of life around them, even on the run. Days of Heaven features similar themes of shamed sinners in search of redemptive paradise and a fresh start in the picturesque wheat fields of West Texas. In The Thin Red Line, Witt (Jim Caviezel) opens the film in paradise, on tropical beaches and indigo blue waters in Papau New Guinea. But then the reality of sin sets in, and war and death; everything is changed, and yet Witt still sees a spark of glory. The film ends with images of Witt once again in paradise, and the rest of the soldiers on a boat leaving the horrors of Guadalcanal, heading to some new shores of a better world.

Malick’s next film, The New World, picks up that image by opening with colonists on a boat, landing on the shores of Jamestown, Virginia: the New World. But as with Malick’s other films, the Edenic idealism of this “new beginning” paradise is disrupted soon by famine, war, and a romance between John Smith and Pocahontas that doesn’t last. And yet as the film goes on, something keeps pushing Pocahontas on, in spite of great shame and hardship. Glimpses of glory call her forth, giving her reasons to hope; perhaps the best is indeed still to come.

An inherent aching for Eden persists in each of Malick’s films, as each character instinctively strives for a fresh start in the midst of our brokenness. Indeed, I think every human feels this. Time and time again we fail, and yet some animating spirit of good keeps us on track, keeps us striving for the best, between the two trees.

This is what Advent is about: a hope that keeps us going, keeps us exploring, creating, cultivating, loving, making order out of chaos. It’s the lingering instinct of our created purpose; it’s the impact of the Incarnation: the Divine Creator come down to creation to redeem mankind and succeed where Adam failed, providing an example of humanity as it was created to be.

If Easter is about Jesus’ death and resurrection, Advent is about the curious thing that happened next. Jesus didn’t stay on earth to rule his kingdom. He ascended unto heaven and left his followers–the church, animated by the Holy Spirit–to carry the torch of kingdom work, to long and ache for Jesus’ promised return but in the meantime to strive to be the humans we were meant to be, to spread the good news, to resist evil, to order creation and bring about flourishing.

Like Adam before us, and Noah, and Abraham and Israel, followers of Jesus are called to bring light to the darkness; to spread the illumination like in those candle light Christmas Eve services of our youth; or like that little blue candle and mysterious wispy flame in The Tree of Life. It’s Ruach. The Spirit of God. Reminding us of hope, empowering us to carry on.

My Advent Playlist

It’s December 1st, so therefore officially OK to listen to Christmas music! Below is my Advent playlist for this year’s season. You can listen to the whole thing on Spotify here. Enjoy!

  1. Future of Forestry  – “O Come O Come Emmanuel”
  2. Sufjan Stevens  – “Lo! How a Rose E’er Blooming”
  3. Sara Groves  – “O Holy Night”
  4. Bifrost Arts  – “Messiah”
  5. Over the Rhine – “White Horse”
  6. Dustin Kensrue – “O Come, All Ye Faithful”
  7. Sufjan Stevens – “What Child Is This Anyway?”
  8. Future of Forestry – “The Earth Stood Still”
  9. Phil Wickham – “Messiah”
  10. Sleeping At Last – “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”
  11. Bifrost Arts – “Bring a Torch Jeanette, Isabella”
  12. Ron Sexsmith – “Maybe This Christmas”
  13. Sufjan Stevens – “The Friendly Beasts”
  14. Sara Groves – “To Be With You”
  15. Andrew Peterson – “Long, Long Ago”
  16. Emmylou Harris – “O Little Town of Bethlehem”
  17. Mindy Smith – “Follow the Shepherd Home”
  18. Jars of Clay – “In the Bleak Midwinter”
  19. Sandra McCracken – “I Glory in Christ”
  20. Future of Forestry – “Do You Hear What I Hear?”