Monthly Archives: December 2013

2013: The Year in Food

My wife and I love food. Eating and drinking together and with friends is one of the ways we experience the grandeur of God and the beauty of his creation. It’s the subject (one of them) of my recent book, Gray Matters

Because we’ve been blessed with some amazing dining-out experiences this year, I thought I’d re-live them through two lists: the top ten savory bites of the year, and the top ten sweets. All of these restaurants I heartily recommend!

Savory:

  1. AQ (San Francisco): Pork three ways, with Spring herbs and lettuces, onion caramel, black vinegar and peanut “soil.”
  2. Providence (Los Angeles): Prime New York Steak, German butterball fondant, brussel sprouts and bone marrow
  3. Bestia (Los Angeles): Cavatelli alla Norcina with ricotta dumplings, housemade pork sausage, black truffles and grana padano
  4. Bandolero (Washington D.C.): Crab Taquito crudo: purple potatoes, fresnos, red onions, coconut curry reduction
  5. Alma (Los Angeles): Halibut confit, fermented corn, cherry tomato
  6. Absinthe (San Francisco): Yam & goat cheese ravioli: wonton wrapper, walnuts, brussel sprouts, maitake mushrooms, brown butter sage sauce
  7. Hart and the Hunter (Los Angeles): Smoked Trout, boiled egg, herb salad avocado toast
  8. Banker’s Hill (San Diego): Jidori buttermilk fried chicken with pepperjack mac n’ cheese and chipotle glaze
  9. Hart and the Hunter (Los Angeles): Butter biscuits with honey cinnamon butter and blackberries
  10. Son of a Gun (Los Angeles) Broadbent’s country ham, honey butter, hush puppies

Sweet:

  1. Spago (Los Angeles): Pumpkin souffle with ginger ice cream and pomegranate citrus salad
  2. Alma (Los Angeles): Sunchoke “split” with caramelized sunchokes, “wood” ice cream, roasted marshmallows and “ash” meringue
  3. AQ (San Francisco): Buttermilk panna cotta, lemon verbena, green strawberry, poppyseed
  4. Baked and Wired (Washington D.C.): Ice cream “sammie” with double chocolate cookies and salted caramel ice cream.
  5. Providence (Los Angeles): Sable Breton: Financier, chestnut jam, vanilla mousse
  6. Terrace Restaurant (Parrot Cay, Turks & Caicos): Triple chocolate terrine with orange, hazelnuts and tart berry sorbet).
  7. Bestia (Los Angeles): Valrhona fair trade bittersweet chocolate budino tart with salted caramel, cacao crust, olive oil and sea salt
  8. Ray’s Stark Bar (Los Angeles): Chocolate Four Ways
  9. Sidecar Donuts (Costa Mesa): Oregon huckleberry cake doughnut with huckleberry glaze
  10. Cafe 109 (Fullerton): Chocolate banana “Doissant.”
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Best Books of 2013

I’m continuing my “best of 2013” series today with my picks for the best 2013-released books (see also my music, movies, and movie moments lists). I wish I had more time to read new books (especially fiction); as it is, most of the new books I find time to read are nonfiction. If I read fiction in a given year it is usually a classic I haven’t read, or a critically acclaimed/highly recommended work from years past (this year I read Old School by Tobias Wolff, The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, Atticus by Ron Hansen and A Room With a View by E.M. Forster).  I also wish I had more time to read volumes of poetry (I did enjoy reading Dana Gioia’s Interrogations at Noon and Chris Baron’s Under the Broom Tree this year). In any case, below are my picks (in alphabetical order) of the ten 2013-released nonfiction books I enjoyed the most:

1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War by Charles Emmerson: I love a good, thick history book focused on a narrow or interesting concept. Emmerson’s book is exactly that. It seeks to describe the world as it was on the eve of World War I, not in light of what was to come (as most histories of the period inevitably skew) but on its own terms, as if we don’t have the hindsight now of the world-changing events that would come in 1914. Criss-crossing the globe, with chapters on all the greatest cities of the early twentieth century globalizing world, 1913 is a fascinating and helpful summary of the ways of the world a century ago.

A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor: This collection of journal entries/prayers to God from a period of time when O’Connor was a student at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop is a fascinating and moving look inside the rich faith of the famous writer. Transcribed and also reproduced in facsimile (what a pleasure to read her passionate, conflicted thoughts in her own handwriting!), this slim collection is a must-read for any fan of O’Connor or anyone seeking to reconcile the pursuits of art and faith.

Death by Living: Life is Meant to be Spent by N.D. Wilson: Like Wilson’s well-received Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl (2009), Death by Living is a hybrid of memoir, apologetics, theology, philosophy, and lyrical prose, at once irreverent and worshipful, comical and elegiac. But where Tilt-A-Whirl focused on a way of seeing, Death by Living focuses on “a way of living, a way of receiving life.” Fragmentary, nonlinear, and vignette-driven, Death by Living is a messy montage of sensuous sights, sounds, smells, prayers, eulogies, inner monologues, jokes, and even script-style dialogue. Wilson’s style reinforces his point that the infinite dramas unfolding across the universe at any given moment all point in one direction and share one big theme—that death gives way to life, and dying is the only way to live. (from my review for Christianity Today)

The End of Our Exploring by Matthew Lee Anderson: In a world where “dialogue” and “conversation” are buzzwords but rarely well practiced, and where doubt and questioning seem to be more about a scene than a search for truth, Anderson’s latest, The End of Our Exploring, comes as a breath of fresh air. Clearheaded, personal, witty and wise, the book presents a sensible framework for epistemology that is sorely needed today. How do we doubt, question, probe, debate, discuss and know in a more purposeful and productive manner? Matt’s book–a short, concise, engaging read–reminds us that actually being thoughtful is far greater (and more nuanced) than just looking the part.

God’s Forever Family by Larry Eskridge: One of the most thoroughly researched and well-written histories I’ve read in a long time, Eskridge’s comprehensive chronicle of the Jesus People movement of the late 1960s and 70s is an utterly fascinating book. Eskridge makes a compelling case not only that the Jesus movement was one of the twentieth century’s most important evangelical movements, but that it had importance in youth culture beyond evangelicalism. Eskridge maps the movement’s myriad of characters, locales and sub-groups with both a command of the minute details and the bigger picture themes.

Holy is the Day: Living in the Gift of the Present by Carolyn Weber: I was a big fan of Weber’s conversion memoir, Surprised by Oxford, and though her new memoir doesn’t quite have the drama of that book it certainly has its moments of poetry and spiritual insight. Similar to Death by LivingHoly is the Day is about the beauty of embracing the moment and celebrating the electricity of God’s presence in everyday life. Instead of carpe diem, Weber’s mantra is carpe Deum: seizing God every day, in every triumph, tragedy and episode of one’s narrative.

Imagining the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith: Smith’s follow-up to Desiring the Kingdom continues a provocative and immensely helpful exploration of the meaning of worship and the shaping influence of “cultural liturgies” in the Christian life. The book offers an important corrective for an evangelicalism that has seen worldview and thinking Christianly as the most important elements of Christian formation; Smith argues that the embodied practices of life (he skillfully interacts with Bourdieu’s notion of habitus) are at least as important (or more) in shaping our desires for Christ and his kingdom.

wimanMy Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman: This beautiful, honest, poetic reflection on Christian belief is one of the best attempts I’ve read of someone putting to words the mysteries of God and the honest struggles of faith. Fragmented philosophical and theological observations mingle with personal narrative vignettes and a wide range of poetry, Wiman’s included, to render an appropriately messy portrait of modern belief. This is not feel-good fluff or quaintly offbeat spiritual memoir; it’s urgent, forceful, heartbreaking and profound.

Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now by Douglas Rushkoff: Rushkoff–the media theorist guru behind Frontline documentaries Merchants of Cool and The Persuaders–more or less attempts to connect every zeitgeist-defining thing in our world today (Instagram! Zombies! Tea Partiers!) to shape a unifying theory about how we are both more and less “present” than ever. Obvious at times but mostly quite insightful, Present Shock is the sort of “magnifying glass on your world” book that is important to read every so often because it thinks deeply and critically about contemporary life and, in turn, helps the reader to do the same.

Recovering Classic Evangelicalism by Greg Thornbury: At a time when evangelical culture seems more fragmented and divisive then ever, with ever less confidence not only in our witness but also the foundations of our belief, Thornbury–newly appointed president of The King’s College–calls for a recovery of the winsome, intellectually robust and confident evangelicalism characterized by Carl F.H. Henry. Both a theological biography of sorts (of Henry) and a call for reform (or rather, recovery) within the evangelical movement, Recovering Classic Evangelicalism is a wonderful and important book for those of us who believe the way forward for evangelicals is less about reinventing the wheel as much as recovering the best wisdom from our past.

Best Film Moments of 2013

I’ve found that in most great movies, even the greatest masterpieces, it’s not the film in its entirety that makes it great as much as a handful (or even just one or two) of brilliant moments. These are what we remember: sequences, shots, “holy moments” when a film manages to express the inexpressible. They are the moments where we feel lost in the film, contemplative, arrested. They are cathartic glimpses of transcendence.

Yesterday I posted my list of the best overall films of 2013; today I’m focusing on my picks for the best moments. The following are 15 of the most memorable and compelling moments from the year in cinema, in no particular order:

  • Before Midnight: “Still there, still there, still there … gone.” (watch here)
  • The Spectacular Now: Sutter and Aimee walk in the woods, share their first kiss (watch part of the scene here)
  • Short Term 12: Marcus shares the cathartic rap he’s been working on (Watch bits and pieces of it in this teaser for the film. Warning: graphic language.)
  • Captain Phillips: Tom Hanks gets evaluated by a nurse after the harrowing climax
  • 12 Years a Slave: Singing the spiritual, “Roll, Jordan, Roll”
  • Gravity: The opening (17 minutes long) uninterrupted shot
  • Post Tenebras Lux: Opening scene (watch here)
  • Hannah Arendt: Barbara Sukowa’s final speech in the lecture hall
  • To the Wonder: From Paris to the plains (watch here)
  • Her: The final scene on the roof with Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams
  • Inside Llewyn Davis: Llewyn plays “Shoals of Herring” for his estranged, dementia-plagued father (listen to the song here).
  • To the Wonder: Javier Bardem recites St. Patrick’s Lorica (watch here)
  • Museum Hours: Mary Margaret O’Hara sings “Dear, Dark Heart” to her cousin who is in a coma
  • The Bling Ring: Long take of Audrina Partridge’s house being robbed (watch here)
  • Frances Ha: “What I want out of a relationship” monologue (watch here)

What moments from 2013 films have been your favorite?

Best Films of 2013

Dislocation. When I consider the films that I loved the most in 2013, this is the word I think of. The theme of dislocation–uprootedness, geographical and emotional lostness, unstable notions of “home”‘–was present in various forms in many films this year. Characters were lost in space (Gravity) and at sea (All is Lost); they slept on couches to get by (Frances Ha, Inside Llewyn Davis) and dwelled in all manor of temporary residences: group homes (Short Term 12), slave quarters (Short Term 12), tents in a burned-out forests (Prince Avalanche),   and so on. Several films were about characters in foreign lands, whether Greece (Before Midnight), Vienna (Museum Hours), or Europeans in America (Philomena, To the Wonder). Other films were set in part or in whole on transportation vessels at sea: Captain Phillips, Kon-tiki, even the Huck Finn river drama Mud. Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, meanwhilewas a classic road movie about how a place we’ve lived can feel both alien and familiar when we return.

I don’t know why this theme kept showing up–perhaps we’re all just nostalgic for a sense of rootedness and home in the midst of so much cultural and technological change. But I’m glad it did because it’s a theme that lends itself well to powerful cinematic storytelling.

Below are my picks for the best ten films of the year, plus ten honorable mentions. What were your favorites this year?

10) Short Term 12: Destin Cretton’s film about life inside a short-term foster care facility is a beautifully made, tender film about weary, broken, love-hungry kids trying to beat the odds stacked so heavily against them. Almost every character in this movie is under the age of 30 (including Brie Larson in a career-making role) and each has their own sort of baggage. The film suggests that what these kids need is a deep, unconditional, relentless love–which is to say a love that models Christ.

9) All is Lost: Who knew a film with only one actor (Robert Redford) and no dialogue could be so compelling? Yet J.C. Chandor’s lost-at-sea adventure story is breathtaking from start to finish. We don’t know much about Redford’s character, but we sympathize with him. In its tableaus and archetypes the film becomes a symbol for all human struggle: between being and nothingness, man and nature and, yes, man and God.

8) 12 Years a Slave: One of the most indelible images of Steve McQueen’s unflinching slavery epic is a prolonged, agonizing scene in which Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hangs by a noose from a tree, his toes just barely touching the ground, enough to shift his weight around slightly but not enough to relieve the suffocating pull at his neck. McQueen’s camera stays on this painful scene for what seems like an eternity. It’s hard to watch, yet McQueen forces us to watch, contemplating the horrifying humiliation and degradation of a human body in the midst of the beauty of a genteel plantation and cathedrals of Spanish moss. It’s a powerful film, radical in its straightforwardness and almost documentary gaze.

7) Frances Ha: Shot in black and white with an airy, guerilla feel, Noah Baumbach’s NYC-set film is a clear homage to the French New Wave. Yet as throwback as it may feel, Frances Ha is also thoroughly modern, exploring (among other things) contemporary hipsterdom, the economic crisis and the relational disconnection of our hyper-connected age. Greta Gerwig delivers one of the year’s best performances in a film that is funny, whipsmart and yet refreshingly uncynical. (my review)

6) Museum Hours: Ten years ago I meandered around Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, taking in the vast array of masterpieces from Rembrandt, Rubens, Caravaggio, Bruegel and the like. This is more or less what Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours (set in the Kunsthistorisches) is about: looking at life’s aesthetic wonders, taking it all in, learning about ourselves and each other in the process. I don’t think I’ve seen a film that has made art come alive as much as this film, save perhaps The Mill and the Cross (another Bruegel-centric film). Yet Museum Hours is about more than just fine art; it’s about taking the “museum” posture of respectful, attentive observance outside and applying it to everything else.  

5) Inside Llewyn Davis: The Coen brothers have already established themselves as among the most important American auteurs, and their latest is perhaps their most mature, subtle and somber film yet. Set in the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene, Inside is both a period piece and a universal reflection on the seemingly arbitrary disbursement of luck, a common Coen theme. What kind of God divvies out favor, and blesses his “elect,” so inconsistently? Why do good guys so often get beat up and left in the cold, dark alleys of this world? Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is the latest Coen character to be the unfortunate object of this existential lesson.

4) Gravity: Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is an awe-inspiring experience. With its never-seen-anything-like-this-before cinematography, its heart-pumping tension and its uncanny ability to convey the feeling of actually being in space, Gravity achieves something all too rare in cinema today: it utterly transports the audience. It draws us in so thoroughly (especially with the aid of 3D and IMAX screens) that for 90 minutes one truly does feel like they are floating and tumbling around in space. It’s dizzying, intense, wonderful, and new. But it’s not all flash and dazzle. Gravity is a film with much on its mind. From where it sits above the world, humbled by the fragility of life and the grandeur of creation, how could it not? (my review)

3) To the Wonder: Far from the “minor Malick” some have labeled it (or at best: “a B-side to The Tree of Life“), Wonder is a characteristically ambitious, boundary-pushing film that builds upon the stylistic and thematic trajectories of its predecessors in the Malick oeuvre. As such, it’s seen as elusive and difficult for many viewers. As Roger Ebert noted in his review (the last review he ever wrote),  Wonder is a film that “would rather evoke than supply.” Like Museum HoursWonder is a film about seeing: perceiving the beauty in the pretty and the ugly, the thrilling and the mundane, the personal and universal. It’s a film about seeing ourselves rightly within the cosmos and loving others, and God, more than we love ourselves. “Show us how to seek you,” prays the melancholic priest (Javier Bardem) at the film’s conclusion. “We were made to see you.” (my review)

2) Her: Like To the Wonder, Spike Jonze’s masterful film is about the pain of relationships and yet the lessons they teach us about loving and seeing well, waking up to the incarnational glory all around us. The whole “man falls in love with an OS” plot is fascinating, and the not-so-unlikely future depicted in the film is provocative and instructive in all sorts of ways. But at its heart this is a film about being present in one’s own life; being aware and compelled by the miracle of daily living. (my review)

1) Before Midnight: To me the best overall film of a year is not only a film of near-perfect quality but also one I know I’ll return to decades from now. Before Midnight, small and largely overlooked as it has been, is for me that film. The third in Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s exquisite “Before” series (see also 1995’s Before Sunrise and 2004’s Before Sunset), Midnight is an existential pleasure. Set in a sumptuous, sun-bathed Greece, the film is deceptively simple–mostly a man and a woman talking and arguing, working through the complexities of their relationship. Yet it’s more profound, more punch-you-in-the-gut tragic, than any film I’ve seen in years. Why? Partially it’s because the writing and acting are so real. But it’s also because the film captures better than most the beauty and pain of time going by, of our own temporary presence in this world. Like the late summer sun that drops ever so gradually below the horizon, “We appear, and we disappear. We are just passing through.” (my review)

Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order): The Bling Ring, Blue Jasmine, Captain Phillips, Mud, Nebraska, This is Martin Bonner, Prince Avalanche, Room 237, The Spectacular Now, Stories We Tell.

Best Music of 2013

I have to admit that, in the midst of such a busy year (getting married, launching a new book, new home, etc.), I didn’t stay up on new music as much as I’d like to. I’ve realized in recent years that it’s probably a good thing to not care as much about “staying up” on every genre of media. It can be exhausting. (Side note: I’ve also fallen hopelessly behind on prestige television; it was all I could do to squeeze in Breaking Bad in 2013).

Movies are my biggest passion, so I’m content to focus my increasingly scant free time on “staying up” on those (watch for my “best films” list to post next week). That said, I did enjoy many songs and albums this year. For old time’s sake I’ll share my favorites here, in hopes that you’ll check out the music or share with me something great I haven’t discovered.

My Top 10 Albums:

  1. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City
  2. Arcade Fire, Reflektor
  3. Over the Rhine, Meet Me At the Edge of the World
  4. The National, Trouble Will Find Me
  5. Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience (Part One)
  6. James Blake, Overgrown
  7. Jessie Ware, Devotion
  8. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories
  9. Pusha T, My Name is My Name
  10. Phosphorescent, Muchacho

Honorable Mention: Disclosure, Settle; Chvrches, The Bones of What You Believe; Drake, Nothing Was the Same; Laura Veirs, Warp & Weft; The Civil Wars, The Civil Wars; Polyenso, One Big Particular Loop; Kanye West, Yeezus; Volcano Choir, Repave; Bifrost Arts, He Will Not Cry Out: Anthology of Hymns & Spiritual Songs, Vol. 2.

My Top 100 Songs of 2013: Spotify playlist here.

Oh Gracious Light

Advent is a season of light and dark. As much as the media and the prevailing spirit of the season tries to frame Christmastime as an endless array of cheer and merriment, there’s no getting around the reality of our dark, treacherous, weary world. But it’s better that way. The light shines brighter in the dark.

Advent celebrates the moment when true light entered into our dark world. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is. 9:2).

The baby in Bethlehem was hope, redemption, God with us. Present in the midst of our suffering; familiar with our struggle. Emmanuel.

The baby was a flicker of light that became a flame that swept across the world, illuminating the dark in all corners of creation.

But the darkness persists. The weary world rejoices at Christ our hope. But the world is still weary. The beauty of Advent is that it accepts weariness, even embraces it. It is joy in the midst of weariness. Joy mixed with stress, struggle, pain, lament.

Last Thursday’s Advent devotional from the Biola Advent Project illustrates it well. The reflection, “The True Light,” was written by art professor Loren Baker, who wrote, “As we journey towards Bethlehem, our joyful anticipation of Christmas is best described by the words of the Reverend Phillip Brooks (1835-1903). May all of our ‘hopes and fears’ be met in Him tonight.” Maja Lisa Engelhardt’s painting, “I Am the Light of the World” accompanied Loren’s reflection, as did the song “O Gracious Light” by The Brilliance:

O Gracious Light, so pure and bright
Dispel the darkness of our hearts
That by Your brightness we may know the light

Less than two weeks before his devotional published on the Advent Project website, Loren Baker took his own life.

The Biola community is still in mourning. It’s hard to fathom what led such a beloved professor to such a dark place, especially as we read his words about the “joyful anticipation of Christmas” and the “True Light.” As president Barry H. Corey wrote in an e-mail to Biola students, staff and faculty following Loren’s passing, “While we may never know what prompted [Loren] to make this decision, we know he loved the Lord and are confident of the mercy and grace of God.”

Kira and I have been listening to the song “Oh Gracious Light” regularly this week, struggling to reconcile the light and darkness of Loren’s final weeks, as we listen to the The Brilliance sing so passionately in petition for the Gracious Light to “dispel the darkness of our hearts.” The song is healing; it’s more a prayer than a carol, and a prayer that is simultaneously mournful and hopeful, a lament and a thanksgiving.

Such is the nature of Advent. Such is the nature of our “now and not yet” existence. Darkness is all around us, even in our hearts. Sometimes the darkness gets the best of us. Sometimes the light fills our hearts so fully that we feel like we may burst.

Entering into Advent is accepting both realities and posturing ourselves in an expectant mode: waiting for the dark night to give way to dawn’s light; for shootings and sickness and suicide to give way to Shalom; for the restless groaning of our hearts to finally find rest.

Advent is about longing, tension, the meantime of life. We light candles, we look at Christmas lights, we carry on… Looking with hope to the Bethlehem star, begging the Gracious Light to rid this world of darkness, once and for all.

Biola’s Advent Project

I love Advent. It’s a topic I frequently write about on this blog, and it’s a season I always enjoy. It’s the season of the year that embraces joy, lament, tension and mystery in exactly the right measure. Now if only it also weren’t the busiest season of the year!

This year I have been proud to be a part of the Biola Advent Project, which is a like a traditional Advent calendar for the digital age, with an artsy twist. Each day throughout Advent the website will unveil a new devotional, consisting of written reflection, visual art and musical selections. Each day features a different contributor’s reflection (I wrote one for Dec. 30) as well as a different artist’s Advent-themed art and a different musician’s song. The whole thing is (I think) a brilliant  application of technology to the Christian calendar.

Check it out at http://ccca.biola.edu/advent/ and share it with anyone who you think would enjoy this invitation to reflect on the beauty and mystery of this season.