Monday, August 16, 2010

The Baffled Mind

Alissa Wilkinson posted this on her blog recently, and I thought it was worth sharing. It's a quote from Wendell Berry. I'm sorry I don't know the original source of the quote, but here it is:

"It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings."

(Note: the picture above is of Wendell Berry, not Alissa Wilkinson)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Top 5: Christian Albums That Have Aged Well

In high school, I was a big fan of Christian music. I was a faithful attender of my church youth group, and I was always up on the new releases of the big Christian artists. I am probably one of the only people to have seen the Newsboys "Airdome" tour, not once, but twice. In fact, if you were to name a Christian band that was popular in the late 90's, the odds are excellent that I have seen them live at least once (go ahead, try me).

Yes, I am a child of the 90's Christian music movement. However, I have been spending a lot of time sorting through my iTunes library (doing a bit of housekeeping and trimming the fat where it is necessary), and I have found that (no surprise here) not much of that old music has held up. Christian music is not like a fine wine; it does not, as a rule, age well. There was certainly a time in our world that songs taunting people in hell by pointing out that they are no longer able to eat breakfast cereal were in high demand, but I think those days may be behind us. In fact, I was once in a conversation with someone who manages a Christian retail store, and they explained to me that most music in their inventory has a fairly short shelf life. It does not take long for a Christian album to go from being a huge hit to becoming fodder for the clearance bin.

I have largely found this to be true in my own aging music collection. I have found a great deal of the music that I once loved has become lame, preachy, and cheesy, none of which are qualities I look for when I shop for new music.

With all that said, I will acknowledge that there are some definite exceptions to the rule. Some of the music from this phase of my life, I have found, still has some life left in it. Against the odds set by their outdated peer group, there are those albums and artists that have been able to transcend the flash-in-the-pan nature of Christian pop art and have left us with some pretty good music. And now, without further ado, my top 5 Christian albums that still hold up...

5) "Great Lengths" (Artist: PFR)
PFR was a great group of musicians. While some of the lyrics from certain albums could certainly be described as "preachy," the music itself holds up. This band currently stands as the only Christian group for whom I'm secretly hoping for another reunion album/tour.

4) "Without Condition" (Artist: Ginny Owens)
There are some truly beautiful songs on this album.

3) "40 Acres" (Artist: Caedmon's Call)
I'm sure some more devoted Caedmon's Call fans than myself would have something to say about my choice of "40 Acres" as their best album, but it really is. This is where we see the range and diversity of Derek Webb, who continues to make good music. Songs like "Somewhere North," "Table for Two," and "Faith My Eyes," are reason enough to keep this one in the playlist.

2) Self-Titled Album by Jars of Clay
This was probably the biggest album used by Christians to convince themselves that our music could be cool, too. The single, "Flood," received a lot of mainstream radio play, and it was a good representation of 90's alt-rock (in fact, if you look closely at the album cover, you'll even see some long hair and a flannel shirt). This album holds up as well as any other that came from this period in music. Gin Blossoms, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and Del Amitri had nothing on Jars of Clay.

1) "Kansas" (Jennifer Knapp)
I still listen to Jennifer Knapp. She actually just released a new album, and it's really good. "Kansas" was her first release, and it holds up quite nicely. She has always been a good songwriter, and one listen to "Kansas" will show this to be true.

I didn't want to make a list of the Top 5 albums I needed to purge from my iTunes, but I probably would have called it the Love Liberty Disco Memorial List.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"Sunday's Coming"

This video has been circulating for a while, but I thought it would be good to post it here.

"Sunday's Coming" Movie Trailer from North Point Media on Vimeo.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Reading List 2010 (or what's left of it)

I just finished all of my course work for graduate school. I haven't quite graduated yet; that won't happen until December. But I am done with commuting, classes, exams, papers, and group projects. To celebrate, I have compiled a list of books that I have been wanting to read for a while and then, after compiling the list, I had to decide which ones would get read sooner than later. That was tough. Inspired by another blog that I read (Alissa Wilkinson), I've decided to make annual reading lists at the beginning of every year. I like to set goals for myself, and I like to read. So, a beginning-of-the-year reading list is a natural fit for me. I realize that it is not January, but as far as I'm concerned the year is just beginning. I don't have to translate anything from Greek or Hebrew, and I'm no longer hip-deep in documents from the early church fathers. So, for me, this is the beginning. And as such, I have my "Back Nine" Reading list for 2010. Here it is. (Audiobooks are excluded from this list)

Big Man - Clarence Clemmons and Don Reo
Intuitive Leadership - Tim Keel
Tribes - Seth Godin
Save the Cat - Blake Snyder
The Artist's Way - Julie Cameron
Understanding Comics - Scott McCloud
Shop Class as Soulcraft - Matthew Crawford
Justice - Michael Sandel

Shakespeare Wrote For Money - Nick Hornby
Killing Yourself to Live - Chuck Klosterman
Assassination Vacation - Sarah Vowell

Secrets in the Dark - Frederick Buechner
Culture Making - Andy Crouch
The Sacred Way - Tony Jones
Invitation to the Journey - Robert Mulholland
This Beautiful Mess - Rick McKinley
In the Beginning - Henry Blocher
Understanding Genesis - Nahum Sarna
The Fidelity of Betrayal - Peter Rollins
Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places - Eugene Peterson
After You Believe - N.T. Wright

High Fidelity - Nick Hornby
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay - Michael Chabon
Glittering Images - Susan Howatch

Ballistic - Billy Collins
Compass of Affection - Scott Cairns
Primitive Mentor - Dean Young

Friday, April 30, 2010

Music: Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings

I love the old Motown style of music. When I am in need of musical revival, I will almost always reach way back into my music collection for a little Stevie Wonder or The Jackson 5 or Sam & Dave or Aretha Franklin or Al Green...etc. So, I was incredibly happy a year or so ago to hear about Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.

In a music industry over-saturated with American Idol winners and runners-up and compressed recordings, you might not expect Sharon Jones and company to make a blip on the radar. First of all, she is 53 years old, which is not a common age for a musical star to arise. Before being a recording artist, Jones worked as an armored car driver for a bank as well as a prison guard at Riker's Island. Without getting into the whole story (which you could probably get either from reading back-issues of Paste Magazine or by visiting her Wikipedia page), suffice to say that she has been able to quit her day job and make amazing music.

As her influences, she cites James Brown, Otis Redding, Tina Turner, and Marva Whitney. Her (and the band's) recording style seeks to bring revival to the funk/soul movement of the late 60's and early 70's. In doing so, they have opted against any modern digital recording methods in the studio. So, their albums have not been digitally compressed or altered. Also, no instrument can be played that was not available into the mid-70's.

I had already owned Jones' previous album, 100 Days, 100 Nights, and it was good. However, I think they are just hitting their stride with the newest album, I Learned the Hard Way, which just released a few weeks ago. Currently, my two favorite songs on the album are, "The Game Gets Old" and "She Ain't a Child No More." While these are my personal favorite tracks, the whole album is well worth a listen.

Here is a video of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings performing "She Ain't a Child No More" on the Colbert Report last week:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings - She Ain't a Child No More
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorFox News

Monday, April 12, 2010

Television As Art?

"In my house, we don't watch television," the man says with pride as he scans the room looking for reactions from our classmates. He is a middle-aged pastor who has decided to return to school for his Master's degree. He is obviously quite proud of his anti-television position.

"You don't own a TV?" I ask.

"No," he corrects me. "We own one, but we don't watch it much. There's nothing on television but garbage." He looks at our professor for validation, but the instructor's body language gives him none. Interestingly, the class discussion revolves around cultural relevance and how Christians would be better served to be more culturally aware. I'm not sure why this is the moment this gentleman has decided to reveal his hostility towards in-home entertainment, but it is.

One of my other classmates asks, "So, why do you own a TV if you don't use it?"

"Well," he replies, "I like to watch the news."

Fair enough.

This gets me thinking. I've heard this accusation quite a bit. The idea that TV is nothing but garbage or a waste of time is something I hear articulated by people who feel superior to those of us who never miss our weekly programs.

I will admit it. I'm a TV watcher. Some may even call me an addict. A few years ago, I gave up television for Lent, and it was the most difficult fast I have ever attempted. When I was a kid, if my dad wanted to really get my attention he would ground me from watching TV. This was my Achilles Heel. In some ways, it still is. I am a man who loves his stories.

But let's return to the original question. Is TV really without value? Is it, as my classmate suggests, "all garbage"? Does it really offer nothing but distraction and opportunity for laziness?

I would argue that TV is none of these things. Not as an absolute rule, at least. Like music, theater, literature, photography, painting, and filmmaking, television is an artistic medium. It is a venue in which art is presented, critiqued, and accepted or rejected by the general public.

I won't go so far as to say all television is good art. In fact, most of it is probably not. But there is no medium in the world in which bad art does not exist. For every Vincent Van Gogh, there is some hack with a paintbrush who only traces bowls of fruit. For every WIlliam Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams, there is a playwright who is going for the cheap laugh. For every John Lennon, there is a Britney Spears. For every Alfred Hitchcock, there is a Steven Seagal.

The same is true with television. Obviously, there are some TV shows for which there is no artistic defense. There are those programs that thrive on the exploitation of human weakness and bad behavior. There are shows that are designed to test people to see if they will cheat on their spouses. There are shows that are designed to do nothing but please focus groups and test audiences. There are shows that are exact replicas of a half-dozen other shows that we have seen before. There are shows that, without cliches and predictable plot points, they would not possibly be able to exist.

However, there are TV shows that reveal the artistic potential of television. There are programs that invite us to see the world from multiple points of view, that offer intelligent social commentary on our culture, and that tell compelling and interesting stories.

I wanted to share the Top 5 TV Shows I Would Consider "Good Art"...

5. The Simpsons

In college, I had a professor who claimed that The Simpsons was the most intelligent and socially aware show on television. I once heard comedy writer Dana Gould in a radio interview state that if you want to gain respect in the comedy world, you need to go work as a writer on The Simpsons. In its 20-plus years on the air, this show has employed more Ivy League graduates than you may think likely. I realize that this is a show that has drawn a great deal of controversy (especially in its earliest seasons) because it was a cartoon that was not for kids. However, if one were to truly watch this show, particularly the first ten seasons (admittedly, I have stopped watching in the past few seasons), you would find a highly informed and intelligent commentary on social trends, subcultures, and pop culture. There have been many books about philosophy and religion as depicted on The Simpsons. Contrary to popular belief, this is not a show that revolves around bathroom humor and cheap laughter (although those things are certainly present), but this is a show that sharply reveals perspective and confronts absurdity all through our culture.

4. Lost

This is storytelling at its finest. I know a lot of people who have given up on Lost, claiming that it is too complicated and confusing. I will admit that it is those things, but is one of the most well thought-out exhibits of narrative I have ever seen. There is intricate symbolism as well as multiple layers that exist in every episode. It is completely original, and it is in no way predictable. I am a movie lover, but I am hard-pressed to think of very many movies that have challenged viewers as much as Lost.

3. The West Wing (Seasons 1-4)

I can't answer for the final few seasons of this show, but the first four years, almost every episode was touched by writer Aaron Sorkin. He has written several other works, and probably his most well-known film was an adaptation of a play he wrote. Perhaps you saw it. It was called A Few Good Men. Nobody writes smart dialogue like Aaron Sorkin. Under his leadership, The West Wing sought to raise questions in the public forum about issues such as capital punishment, terrorism, women in leadership, social justice, education, and foreign aid. Not to mention that the characters were rich with depth and humanity. I have watched my DVDs of the first few seasons of this show several times, and it never gets old.

(Also, if you want to see more of Sorkin's writing, check out Sports Night, Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip,and the Tom Hanks film, Charlie Wilson's War.)

2. The Wire

I have written elsewhere about David Simon and Ed Burns' masterpiece, but I cannot say enough about The Wire. Pulling no punches and sparing nobody's feelings, The Wire revealed the hopelessness of life in inner-city Baltimore as well as the deadly grip of drug addiction on those who suffer under the tyranny of poverty. Each season confronts a different social issue, ranging from how inner-city kids are helplessly drawn to gang life to how the public perception of the status quo is manipulated through the press. Not only was The Wire the most thought-provoking show I have ever seen, it was one of the most well-written. Among the staff writers were crime novelists Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, and Richard Price.

1. Sesame Street

Not only is it educational, it's brilliant. I can't say what it has been like lately, but when I was growing up, nothing was better than Sesame Street. I have seen a lot of the programming on television that is designed for children, and it is often written for the lowest common denominator. Many shows depend on nothing more than loud noises and silly facial expressions to entertain children. Sesame Street (in my experience) would not reduce itself to such amateur antics. I have ordered DVDs of the earliest seasons of the show, and I cannot wait to share them with my son.

*Honorable mentions: Friday Night Lights, Seinfeld, The Colbert Report, Saturday Night Live, Charlie and Lola, Oz, Arrested Development, Mad Men, The Cosby Show, The Office

I'm sure people can think of shows that I have left out. If so, please feel free to post about it in the comments section.

This blog post was brought to you by the letter "T".

Monday, April 5, 2010

Resurrection: Rob Bell

When I heard that Rob Bell was going to be shifting from the Nooma format of short films into something else, I wondered what that could possibly be. This just goes to show that this is a man who thinks and creates on another level than I do.

More than anyone else alive today, Rob Bell gives me hope for the future of the church and the followers of Jesus. This is the kind of thing that makes me excited to see what's next.

*If the video won't fit in the browser, click here to watch it at YouTube.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Well-Written Life

Don't you love it when two pieces of media that you have recently consumed intersect with one another? Several months ago, I read Donald Miller's newest book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, which unpacks and explores the idea that all of us are living within a grand narrative and that our calling is to live a truly great story.

Last week, Caroline and I watched a movie called The Brothers Bloom. The film is about two brothers who are lifelong con artists. Toward the beginning of the film, one of the brothers (Bloom, played by Adrian Brody) tells the other brother (Stephen, played by Mark Ruffalo) that he does not want to be a con artist anymore. It's a pretty typical scene in which one one character asserts that he wants out and the other character coaxes him to join him for just "one more job." Despite the fact that I have witnessed scenes like this one in several other films, the writer (Rian Johnson) keeps it interesting with truly good dialogue. At one point, Bloom says something quite profound. He tells his brother that he wants to live an "unwritten life," which is to say he doesn't want to live as a character in one of their cons anymore. The story becomes a journey in which Bloom wrestles with this notion.

I recently listened to an interview with Rian Johson, and he talked about this piece of dialogue. He pointed out that Bloom desires something that is incorrect. None of us truly live an unwritten life. The true quest of his character was not for his life to be unwritten; it was for his life to be written better. This is also the point of Miller's book. We are seeking to live a life that is well-written.

The reason we respond so well to stories (movies, TV shows, books, etc.), is because this is how we filter all of our experiences. We live our lives and we retell our memories to ourselves in a narrative form. We don't think of our lives as a series of random events (at least most of us don't), we see them as a series of stories and, ultimately, one large story.

To be a follower of Jesus is not only to see our lives as stories with meaning, but also to see them as part of a greater story--God's story.

So the question remains, Who is writing my life? It will not go unwritten, but it may very be poorly written. What does it mean to live a life that is truly well-written?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Reading With Your Ears

For the past five years, I have been gradually working toward my Master's Degree at Baylor University. The reason it has taken so long is that I live north of Fort Worth, and every time I need to go to class it takes a minimum of two hours to get there and another two hours to get back. In that amount of time, my listening tastes have gradually evolved. At first, I listened exclusively to music. After exhausting all of my music radio stations and iTunes playlists, I switched over to talk radio. This was alright for a while, but I grew tired of hearing the same voices every morning. Then, a year ago, I discovered the very best in non-visual entertainment: Audiobooks. I resisted this trend for a while, because I am a purist when it comes to books. I like to hold a book with all of its papery goodness. However, I have given in, and it has made my commute quite the positive experience.

Recently, I listened to a great book by Dennis Lehane (he also wrote Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and Shutter Island). It was called The Given Day, and it is a novel that takes place during and around the Boston Police Strike of 1919. I highly recommend it.

I have gotten into this type of listening because of a service called If you are at all interested in audiobooks, this is the best service out there.

Another new discovery is that I can use my iPhone as a Kindle! This is another medium that I had resisted until recently because of my staunch traditionalism about books. I like the feeling of paper in my hands as I read. In spite of my Fallwellian fundamentalism toward all things literary, I have been won over to the digital book. I am currently reading Nick Hornby's High Fidelity on my phone/Kindle, and it's pretty stinking cool (although it does make my eyes hurt a little if I read for too long).

Anyway, I suppose I'm saying all this to say that it has been quite a liberating experience to overcome my preconceived ideas and prejudices toward various mediums of reading. My fears and trepidation were doing nothing but paralyzing me from experiencing all there was to be experienced. I have found that I have never gained anything from being closed-minded.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Responding to Glenn Beck, part 2

Well, he's done it again. Not Glenn Beck. Donald Miller. He's one of my favorite writers, and he always seems to know what to say and when to say it. He had a perfect response to Pat Robertson's comments on Haiti, and now he has aptly responded to Glenn Beck. If this has been a controversy that has interested you at all, you should absolutely go read Miller's latest blog post entitled, "Jim Wallis Loves His Enemies." As always, when everyone else wants to respond with hate and rage, Miller offers thoughtful grace and empathy.

Also, just for fun, here's a video of Stephen Cobert's response:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Glenn Beck Attacks Social Justice - James Martin
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorHealth Care reform

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Are There Churches That AREN'T Preaching Social Justice?

So, last week Glenn Beck instructed churchgoers who watch his show to leave their churches if they are hearing messages about social justice. Social justice is, of course, what church leaders call the broad scope of discussion in which preachers talk about the importance of caring for the poor, the sick, the orphan, the widow, and the foreigner (I'm not quite sure, but I think I may have read that somewhere before...). So, of course, it has the word "social" in it, so Beck probably thinks we church leaders are secretly advocating a Marxist takeover when we are simply pretending to care about people who are hungry. I wonder if Glenn will close his Twitter account because it is a "social" networking site, just like the kind Hitler used.

I realize this is a topic that has been tirelessly blogged and commented over. I also realize that anyone who knows me or even reads this blog will have no doubt about where I stand on this issue. However, the best response I have read so far has not come from any theologian or church leader. Interestingly enough, it comes from a film critic. The great Roger Ebert wrote on his blog about this, and I thought it was worth sharing. I hope you'll visit the link below and enjoy Ebert's commentary as much as I did.

The title of his post? "Jesus Was a Nazi. So's Your Preacher."

In the meantime, if you're in the mood for some good old fashioned, Nazi/Communist/Socialist activity, go visit some of these great organizations:

International Justice Mission
North Texas Food Bank
Mission Arlington
Save Darfur
Toms Shoes
Free The Children

And don't forget. If you ever start to feel compassion towards other human beings, seek help immediately. That's your inner socialist demon trying to get control over you. It will probably pass eventually. Just tune in to Glenn's show, and it will all fade away.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Fatherhood for Amateurs

I recently started reading a book called Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon (who has become one of my favorite writers). This is a book of essays in which Chabon reflects on his experiences in the various capacities in which we exist as men (sons, husbands, fathers).

In the very first essay, he recalls an encounter at the supermarket. He is holding his small child in the checkout line when a random stranger addresses him and says, "You're a good father. I can tell." Chabon reveals that, in that very moment, he was not doing anything spectacular. In point of fact, he was literally doing nothing at all. He was simply holding his child. He points out that nobody would ever approach a mother under these circumstances and say, "I can tell you're a good mom." The standards for being a good mom are much higher than the standards for being a good dad.

He points out that the good and bad news for fathers is that the bar has been set embarrassingly low. You simply have to avoid physically abusing your child in public, and you very well may be approached by strangers to be commended on your outstanding performance as a paternal figure.

The sad truth is that Chabon is completely correct. We have come to expect so little from fathers that a man could literally be doing nothing and still be praised as a good parent.

So, here is my question for you. What do you think makes someone a genuinely good father? I acknowledge that this is a question that has been the subject of countless books, seminars, workshops, sermon series, and movies-of-the-week, and we could never, in a blog post, encapsulate the width and breadth of this topic. However, I want to try. I want to know how people perceive their own fathers and how that has influenced their perspective on good dads. What would a father have to do in order to raise the bar (or at least pick it up off the floor) for the rest of us?

Another great book that explores this topic is Donald Miller's To Own a Dragon.