Reading Culture Rightly

How should we think about viewing, reading, and participating in the products of contemporary culture? This article by Alex Duke posted at The Gospel Coalition provides a very helpful guide to how we ought to think about and approach this issue. Though it is written with a focus on movies, using a recent documentary film on the life of British singer Amy Winehouse, the principles he outlines can be, and I think should be, applied to other forms as well.

I hope you will read the article and comment.

Review of “Mr. Holmes”

Imagine what it would be like for a man whose whole life had depended on the acuity of his mental faculties, his sharp reason, and his ability to recall minute details from his past to begin to experience the symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease. In the film, Mr. Holmes, we are presented with this scenario. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional character Sherlock Holmes is nearing the end of his life.

Based on Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind written in 2005, this film is set just after the end of World War II. Holmes has returned from a trip to post-war Japan in search of a remedy for his failing memory. He has become obsessed with remembering the details of his last case, and is desperately trying to recall its specifics. His interactions with Roger, the young son of his housekeeper, are the keys that begin to unlock his memory, which returns in spurts throughout the film.

Holmes is wonderfully played by award-winning actor Ian McKellen, recently known for playing Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. His is a different Holmes than the manic version recently interpreted by Benedict Cumberbatch, or the Jeremy Brett version of thirty years ago. McKellen gives us a picture of the decay of the massive intellect and sharp mind of Conan Doyle’s character. McKellen, 76 years old himself, brings this character to life in a way that is honest and completely believable. The nuances of expression give us a sense of the frustration of a man who knows that he once knew something, but is unable to call it to mind on command.

Laura Linney, as the housekeeper Mrs. Munro, brings a realism to a character who has lost a husband to the recent war and is wrestling with her future and that of her young son. While she recognizes the limitations of her lack of education, there is an underlying sense that she is trying to work out how to provide the best opportunities for Roger’s future. She sees Holmes’ decline and is making plans for the next stage in her life.

Roger is a prodigy. The interactions between this brilliant child, wonderfully played by Milo Parker, and Holmes are the best part of the film. The contrast between the two characters at opposite ends of their lives is dramatic, and yet their similarities create a bond between them that strengthens over the course of the story. Roger is the light that helps Holmes break through the fog of his failing memory.

As a long-time fan of the Sherlock Holmes character, I was curious about this film. While there is a detective story at the core of the plot, this is a film about a man wrestling with the value and meaning of his life’s work, with seeing the end of his life just over the horizon, and with coming to terms with the failing faculties on which he has depended. It is a beautiful film, masterfully acted, and well-written.

Although McKellen has been nominated, he has never won an Oscar. This may be the role that finally brings him that recognition. Linney’s performance is also worthy of consideration. Milo Parker’s performance as Roger rivals that of Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense or Mary Badham in To Kill A Mockingbird in maturity and impact. It would not be a surprise to see him among the nominees for Best Supporting Actor.

While it may not be out much longer, it is worth seeing on the big screen if you can.

A Different Perspective

In the course on God’s World Mission I’m taking this semester we have been asked weekly to read a series of web sites to broaden our awareness of world events and thinking beyond our American Christian perspective. One of the sites is a blog authored by Vinoth Ramachandra. According to his blog site, “He serves on the Senior Leadership Team as Secretary for Dialogue & Social Engagement for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES), a global partnership of over 150 autonomous and indigenous university student movements. His multi-faceted role includes giving public lectures and seminars in universities, and helping Christian graduates think and respond as Christians to some of the social, cultural and political challenges they face in their national contexts throughout the world. He has also taught in several theological seminaries and conferences in other parts of the world.”

I have found his perspective on current issues very helpful as a check on my parochial American Christian mindset and in broadening my view of what it means to be a Christian in an increasingly shrinking and connected world. I encourage you to visit his blog regularly. A link to it has been added to the Blogroll list on the right side of this page.

Reading Martin Luther King

Yesterday we celebrated the memory of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Radio talk show host Dennis Prager posted the text of Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” dated April 16, 1963. King had an amazing way with words, both written and spoken, and the whole text of the letter is worth reading, I was particularly struck by the prophetic nature of the excerpt below in light of the first book on our 2011 reading list.

“…In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were ‘a colony of heaven,’ called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.”

This begs the question “Where are we on this?” What do you think?

Some comments on The Shack

Although it has been out for some time now, I have not yet read William Young’s book The Shack.  A friend of mine, Chris Terry, was recently prompted to read it by two different people, one who liked the book and another who did not.  His response to these folks after reading it is, I think, a good example for us of how we as Christians ought to engage with all forms popular culture.  We need to first appreciate the artistic merit of the work, then look at things we speak positively about before we offer criticism.  I hope you will enjoy reading Chris’ reaction to the book and that it will prompt you to want to read it thoughtfully.

“Fluffy” is the word…even for The Shack.

I really enjoyed reading the book, and found myself reading aloud to [my wife] some segments of the author’s thoughts.  BUT…this book, as a whole is not something that I can wholly agree with or wholly disagree with.  We have a big God, and The Shack only shares a limited view of one dimension…unconditional love.  This book downplays important concepts like Sin and Justice, but more importantly, it pulls most of its imagery from the author’s imagination and little of its content from the Bible.  God is simply too big to be crammed in this little book.  Although the author gives Mack new eyes before revealing a small piece of God, and clearly explains that this image is a small and limited picture of what is to come for the faithful, it still seems very presumptuous to put human limitations on Mack’s experience in the presence of God (although it is all the author could possibly have to work with).

There are some parts of this book that I can dismiss entirely, but my fear is that many people will not be able to discern the bad theology from the good message or from the good fiction.  There are also some points made in this book, that speak to having an intimate relationship with God that could help expose a whole new group of people who are seeking…and that is good.  It is also leading people to confront their anger, their fear, and their broken relationships in ways that could lead toward forgiveness and renewal, while steering people away from an Oprah religion that encourages them to look inside themselves for all the answers…and that is also good.  My hope is that people who are seeking answers do not stop searching for answers after reading The Shack, and that their quest for answers takes them beyond other “fluffy” published materials.

People are the reason this book is so popular.  We need to understand, but not be mired in, the crazy society in which we live (this includes our own Church Families).  It is my observation that our society is intellectually lazy and overly emotional about things that have little impact on our lives.  We, as people, are either seeking further skepticism or seeking God, we are seeking fear and anxiety or we are seeking peace and joy, but either way, most of us are not turning to deep or heady reading for our answers because we are lazy…I know because I’ve been there.  Look at the most popular books and media to see where we invest most of our time, and you will see that on a good day some of us are turning to books like Wild Goose Chase, and The Shack because these books, while better than TV shows and movies, will provide some answers, but will never take us deep enough to fully address our laziness and indifference…they won’t hold us accountable…they are just books consumed in the privacy of our living rooms.  They offer us nothing more than a good inspirational message that makes us feel warm and emotionally “fluffy” for a few days before the message fades.  Sadly, most of us will not find the drive or effort in ourselves or in our leaders to work smartly toward questioning, studying, and proving the truths that are evident in the infallible word of God.  We will turn everything upside down and on its head in order to remain in control of what is easy.  We prove to each other every day that most of our valiant efforts are misguided and misused.  That said, at least William P. Young’s valiant efforts resulted in a best-selling and entertaining book that makes you go hmmmmm.  In summary:

  • We need to move people from just reading best-selling books in the privacy of their living rooms and into His Church.    Hebrews 10: 25 – Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
  • William P. Young’s intentions are noble and are leading us into good discussions, questions, and debates for God’s purposes.  Philippians 1: 15-18 – It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill.  The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel.  The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely…   But what does it matter?  The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached.  And because of this I rejoice.
  • We the people…are crazy…and it is worth spending just a little time understanding this…but not judging it.  Ephesians 4: 29 – Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
  • Finally…after reading The Shack…and enjoying many parts of it…I am off to do some heady reading so God can transform and renew my mind for the purposes of discipleship and equipping…a couple of key things on which The Shack will fall short.  Romans 12:2 – Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what  God’s will is – His good, pleasing and perfect will.

A Timely Topic for Christians

Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO is the home of the Francis Schaeffer Institute, a group dedicaed to the study and extension of the late Christian philosopher’s work.  The theme of this year’s Schaeffer Lectures sponsored by the seminary and the Institute and held this past week was Taking Citizenship Seriously: Christian Responsibility in Today’s Political Context.  The primary speaker was Dr. Jim Skillen, President of the Center for Public Justice.  Specific topics were:

  • Part 1: Presidential Politics in a Post-Everything America (with John Hancock)
  • Part 2: McCain vs. Obama: Christian Electoral Tensions
  • Part 3: Cynicism and Idealism: Redeeming Political Structures
  • Part 4: God Bless America and Global Politics: Where Is Jesus?
  • Part 5: Christian Leadership in Poverty and Family Initiative Reform

As we come down to the conclusion of this years very contentious election season, we as Christians need to be thinking carefully about the issues being raised by the two campaigns from a biblical worldview, and material like this can be useful in preparing us to carry on a reasoned and reasonable dialogue with our friends, neighbors, and co-workers.

Audio files are available free for download, or via Podcast here.  Hope you’ll take the time to listen to these.

A Withering, Insightful Assessment

I ran across an entertaining, withering, insightful series of columns about the state of the church in our culture that I wanted to call to our readers’ (all five or six of them) attention.  The author is Doug Giles, a columnist on the website, author, and pastor.  He is also the creator of a radio program called Clash Radio.  You can read his full Bio here.

The columns are a series titled “The Detergent Church,” a word play on “The Emergent Church,” and in stark contrast to it.  Giles pulls no punches, using some pretty creative labels for both the good and the bad versions of the church.  The structure of the series is his elaboration on his ten point “laundry list” he describes as the way “‘the called out ones’ can be the holy hellfire Detergent Church they’re ‘spose to be.”  He suggests putting on a cup.  You guys will understand.  Here’s the list.

  1. Get men who dig being rowdy back in the pulpit.
  2. Could we have some sound doctrine, por favor?
  3. Preach scary sermons (at least every fourth one).
  4. Get rid of 99.9% of “Christian TV and sappy Christian music.
  5. Quit trying to be relevant and instead become prophetic contrarians, I’m talking contra mundus, mama!
  6. Put a 10-year moratorium on “God wants you rich” sermons (yeah, that’s what we need to hear nowadays, you morons, more sermons about money, money money!).
  7. Embrace apologetics and shun shallow faith.
  8. Evangelize like it’s 1999.
  9. Push lazy Christians to get a life or join a Satanic Church.
  10. Demand that if a Christian gets involved in the arts that their “craft” must scream excellence and not excrement.

Yes it’s edgy, but I think right on target.  Read all four installments at the links below.  I suggest that you print or save the pieces when you get to them.  The web site has been down a good bit and I couldn’t always get to these pieces.  Enjoy!

Never More Necessary …

Well, it’s been awhile since anyone has posted anything, so I thought I’d put up a thought-provoking passage I read recently. To be honest, I haven’t been reading all that much lately; this is actually something I read more than a month ago. We’re in the middle of trying to move in to a house that’s been all but completely renovated, but we’re currently staying with my parents-in-law and it’s left us feeling a little displaced (even though her parents are great). I realize I seem to have a penchant for longer quotes, but I promise if you read the whole passage it will make sense why I have to include it all.  🙂

Anyway, the quote is from Aldous Huxley’s Huxley and God: Essays on Religious Experience. I picked it up off the bargain rack in a bookstore across from Yale University (I was only there on business) and although Mr. Huxley is anything but Christian, he is a deep thinker and careful observer. The following was written in 1941:

… it is upon fashions, cars, and gadgets, upon news and the advertising upon which news exists, that our present industrial and economic system depends for its proper functioning. For, as ex-President Hoover pointed out not long ago, this system cannot work unless the demand for non-necessaries is not merely kept up, but continually expanded; and of course it cannot be kept up and expanded except by incessant appeals to greed, competitiveness, and love of aimless stimulation. Men have always been a prey to distractions, which are the original sin of the mind; but never before today has an attempt been made to organize and exploit distractions, to make of them, because of their economic importance, the core and vital center of human life, to idealize them as the highest manifestations of mental activity. Ours is an age of systematized irrelevances, and the imbecile within us has become one of the Titans, upon whose shoulders rests the weight of the social and economic system. Recollectedness, or the overcoming of distractions, has never been more necessary than now; it has also, we may guess, never been so difficult.

Is “informed” the same as “wise”?

Rod Dreher writes:

I am becoming the ideal 21st-century American: a soft-bellied physical slacker who knows everything going on right this very second but understands less and less of it. Information is not the same thing as knowledge, and “data” is not a synonym for “wisdom.”

Well said. Read the whole piece HERE.

(Thanks, Matt, for pointing us to this article!)