Yesterday Mark Dever delivered the best sermon on gender I've ever heard. It's also a fine example of a topical sermon that begins and ends with the gospel.
Monday, March 31, 2008
Here and there people flee from public altercation into the sanctuary of private virtuousness. But anyone who does this must shut his mouth and his eyes to the injustice around him. Only at the cost of self-deception can he keep himself pure from the contamination arising from responsible action. In spite of all that he does, what he leaves undone will rob him of his peace of mind. He will either go to pieces because of this disquiet, or become the most hypocritical of Pharisees.
Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God--the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God. Where are these responsible people?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an excerpt from After Ten Years (31 March 1943)
Bonhoeffer wrote this letter (more of an essay actually) to his family, Confessing Church colleagues and co-conspirators in the plots against Hitler. I believe he answered the challenge to be a "responsible man" in the time and place he found himself. As the title "After Ten Years" alludes, one of the important turning points for Bonhoeffer came in 1933 as this clip shows:
Sunday, March 30, 2008
Joshua begins with the Israelites poised to cross the Jordan and unleash hell on the inhabitants of Canaan. But before the carnage begins there's this story of amazing grace. The story of Rahab and the spies is a vivid picture of God's grace and mercy, just as the events that follow are a vivid picture of his judgment. Our predicament is much like Rahab's, and her deliverance points toward "Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come." (1 Thess. 1:10) The RSB comments:
2:1-24 Before the expected sequel to ch. 1 (namely, 3:1) there is the surprising story of the spies who return to Joshua proclaiming the promise of God (v. 24; cf. 1:2-5). Although the Book of Joshua describes in graphic detail the destruction of the Canaanites (chs. 6-12), it gives a prominent place to Rahab, a Canaanite harlot, (Lev. 18:24 in context). It is from her lips that the spies hear testimony to the promise and the power of God (vv. 9-11), in the light of which she seeks and finds kindness (v. 12). She will be spared from the coming judgment (6:22, 23) and find a place among the people of God (6:25). The chapter testifies to the grace of God in bringing such a woman to seek and find His mercy. The story of Rahab supplies an important perspective on the judgments of God that will occupy much of this book.
Saturday, March 29, 2008
If suffering is an essential part of the clerical calling, then Robert Bresson's 1950 film Diary of a Country Priest is it's most eloquent expression. I've been watching it again. It tells the story of a young priest sent to the provincial French town of Ambricourt -- a spiritual wasteland if ever there was one. Beset by a wasting disease (which turns out to be cancer), apathetic parishioners and outright hostility, the film meticulously documents his physical and spiritual anguish through the voice of his diary. Bresson claimed the many close-ups of the priest's hand writing in the diary to be the most important shots of the film. Essayist Frédéric Bonnaud gives a particularly pessimistic postmodern synopsis of the film:
Diary of a Country Priest is a film about imprisonment. As he carries out the duties of his ministry, the priest tries to act as a link between his parish and the local population. But he ends up just another body, a dark blotch on the landscape, a mere spectator who quickly becomes transparent in the eyes of his flock. So Robert Bresson’s film is above all the story of a failure, of a man who is completely incapable of leaving an impression on the world. It is the story of defeat, of a faint trace of spirit left behind and then erased all too quickly. It is a story about someone who tries his best to throw things off balance, and whose best efforts are finally squelched by the weighty order of things.
I suppose that's one way to look at it. The Priest of Ambricourt cuts a pathetic figure compared to his more wordly clerical superiors and the aristocratic family he becomes entangled with. He's even mocked by a Lolita-esque peasant girl. But I find his story a more hopeful one. One French critic quipped that to understand Diary of a Country Priest one must have "a belief either in Heaven or in the cinema." I believe in both. To me, this is a portrait of strength in weakness pointing toward the foolishness of the cross. And if one accepts that the saving of one soul is worth more than the whole world, then this is far from a story of defeat. But I also believe in "the cinema" and this is a film that transcends the subjective reading of any one viewer. Some see in the priest a "portrait of the artist as disturber of the peace." Others simply see a film where the tools of cinema have been honed to their sharpest edge. All true. To quote the last words of the film and the last words of the young Father -- whose Christian name is never given as best I can recall -- "What does it matter? All is grace."
Friday, March 28, 2008
To outsiders the word Christian has more in common with a brand than a faith. This shift of meaning in recent decades has been magnified by an increasing use of the term Christian to label music, clothes, schools, political action groups, and more. And sadly, it is a bad brand in the minds of tens of millions of people. In the middle of a culture where Christianity has come to represent hypocrisy, judgmentalism, anti-intellectualism, insensitivity, and bigotry. It's easy to see why the next generation wants nothing to do with it. (p. 223)
That's my favorite paragraph of the book unChristian. It's in an afterword by Gabe Lyons. Lyons was the one who commissioned the research the book is based on, and he's listed as a co-author (although I get the sense that Kinnaman was the primary writer). It points to a major problem with American Christianity, and I would add, the seeker-sensitive model of church growth that's been dominant the last 20 years or so. It's also a caution of how not to respond to this book. It would be easy to think that the answer is more of the same: better marketing of our "brand". After all, if Starbucks starts losing esteem they come up with a new marketing strategy, but the church is supposed to think in entirely different categories than the Fortune 500. God's ways are counterintuitive to wordly thinking.
Lyons suggests that Christians should "consider how much your faith has become entangled with Western values that are at odds with the heart of Christianity, such as consumerism and materialism" and that the church needs to disciple believers to have "a fully orbed view of Christian thinking and its relationship to all things throughout culture." Also, we need to recover an understanding of common grace. Chuck Colson, who's featured prominently in the book, is doing good work in this area. I agree with Lyons that "losing the theology and practice of common grace" has had disastrous effects. This is part and parcel of recovering the centrality of the gospel. It's not a panacea, but it's a good place to start.
Many modern-day Christians have lost touch with the all-encompassing gospel that goes beyond personal salvation and reaches every corner of society. When conversion growth is the single measure of success, the hard work of discipleship gets ignored. When Christian faith is relegated to a personal, spiritual decision about where you will spend the afterlife, the here and now matters less. When being a Christian can be determined by whether you "prayed the prayer," the focus shifts easily to who is in and who is out. As a result, Christians can be found primarily on the edges of society, pointing their fingers at outsiders, judging and condemning them. Subsequently, the lifestyle of being Christian shifts from being winsome and engaging to pessimistic and manipulative. (p. 224)
Previous posts here, here and here
Thursday, March 27, 2008
Last month I wrote about unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons (here and here). We've been reading this book in our adult Sunday School class which ranges from college students to retirees. It's sparked some interesting, and at times, heated discussion among the group. Here are some thoughts on (and excerpts from) the final chapters which discuss the overwhelming perception of young outsiders* that American Christianity is too political and judgmental.
Perception #5: Christians are too political
More precisely, three-quarters of young outsiders and half of young churchgoers believe Christians are motivated mainly by promoting a right-wing political agenda. That shouldn't be surprising to anyone. Interestingly, it's not so much the agenda itself, but the way we pursue it that turns people off. The increasing evangelical engagement in the political sphere of the last 20-30 years has brought mixed blessings. The increased visibility of our "spokesmen" has often turned people off. In this media-saturated age, one unChristlike remark can have wide repercussions. In the heat of the political moment it's easy to forget who we're really representing. More wisdom and discernment is sorely needed in this area!
Our lives should reflect Jesus, which includes not just how we vote, but every element of our political engagement-our conversations about politics as well as our attitudes about idealogical opponents. This may seem obvious, but based on our research on this subject, we must realize that our political activism, if expressed in an unChristian manner, prevents a new generation from seeing Christ. (p. 155)
And even if you are not in church work, as a Christian, your co-workers and your neighbors are watching and listening to you. How do you represent what it means to be a Christ follower when it comes to your political choices and preferences? (p. 162)
The authors also point out our propensity to go along with the media's attempts to carve up the electorate into tidy boxes. "Red states" and "blue states" anyone? They point out that California, which is considered a blue state because it goes Democratic, contains more "red voters" than any other state in the nation. They remind us that "the Christian electorate is incredibly diverse" as is the electorate at large. I was surprised by their finding that 59 percent of evangelicals (as defined by several precise theological criteria) are registered Republicans. I would have guessed that number was much higher. The church mustn't let itself become overly identified with any political party (for more on this I recommend Tim Keller's excellent book Ministries of Mercy) and Christians shouldn't adopt an "us-versus-them" mentality because:
Just as the Christian audience is diverse, we have to understand that a similar reality holds true for the opposite side of the fence. Outsiders have far less political unity, consistency, and commonality than Christians might assume. They are not uniformly antagonistic toward Christians. Their political views are not neat and simple. This has an important implication for Christians: political activism on the part of outsiders is not dead set against Christianity. (p. 160)
Perception #6: Christians are judgmental
According to Kinnaman and Lyons this was one of the big three, along with hypocritical and antihomosexual. 87 percent of young outsiders more or less believe "Christians are prideful and quick to find faults in others." If the church faithfully holds to absolute truth and the exclusive claims of Jesus then it's inevitable that some will find us "judgmental." However, I agree with the authors that some of the criticism is legitimate and our own fault. Pointing out sin with shouting and bumper-sticker slogans is a lot easier than pointing out sin with broken-hearted humility. If our attitudes and motivations are out of whack, then anything we say is going to alienate people. Often our judgmental-sounding rhetoric is motivated by a desire to impress "insiders" instead of a desire to see people repent and be saved. Our we talking at people or to them?
Should Christians talk about the moral appropriateness of things like homosexuality and divorce? Of course. Yet in our efforts to point out sin, we often fail to do anything for the people who are affected by sin. Think of it this way. The perception is that Christians are known more for talking about these issues than doing anything about them. (p. 184)
Like the too political perception, the judgmental perception sometimes stems from a lack of wisdom. Often it's a matter of timing. Scripture is full of admonitions about knowing when to speak and when to stay silent.
When to say something and when to stay silent is a tough call for many Christians. Some Christians, though, make virtually no distinction, feeling they should always express themselves in every situation. We must, however, ask ourselves about the person we are seeking to help. Is this person a Christ follower? I was surprised to find in 1 Corinthians that Paul informs the Christian community that they have no responsibility to judge outsiders, but he said, "It certainly is your job to judge those inside the church who are sinning" (1 Cor. 5:12). (p. 188)
More discipline within the church and less denunciation outside the church will make for a less unChristian witness.
I'll wrap up tomorrow with a few closing thoughts and my favorite paragraph from the book.
*Those individuals who look at Christianity "from the outside in." This group includes atheists and agnostics; those affiliated with a faith other than Christianity (such as Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Mormonism, and so on), and other unchurched adults who are not born again Christians.
Here are a couple of things worth reading:
Justin Taylor interviews New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg on the historical reliability of the gospels, Bart Ehrman and current evangelical scholarship. I recently learned that Blomberg was once a professor at our own Palm Beach Atlantic University.
John Piper succinctly reminds us that excommunication is not as draconian as it sounds to modern ears.
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
This is Dietrich Bonhoeffer writing from his cell at Tegel Prison (pictured at left) to his closest friend Eberhard Bethge:
My thoughts and feelings seem to be getting more and more like those in the Old Testament, and in recent months I have been reading the Old Testament much more than the New. It is only when one knows the unutterability of the name of God that one can utter the name of Jesus Christ; it is only when one loves life and the earth so much that without them everything seems to be over that one may believe in the resurrection and a new world; it is only when one submits to God's law that one may speak of grace; and it is only when God's wrath and vengeance are hanging as grim realities over the heads of one's enemies that something of what it means to love and forgive them can touch our hearts. In my opinion it is not Christian to want to take our thoughts and feelings too quickly and too directly from the New Testament...Why is it that in the Old Testament men tell lies vigorously and often to the glory of God (I've now collected the passages), kill, deceive, rob, divorce, and even fornicate (see the genealogy of Jesus), doubt, blaspheme, and curse, whereas in the New Testament there is nothing of all this? 'An earlier stage' of religion? That is a very naïve way out; it is one and the same God. But more of this later when we meet.
Meanwhile evening has come. The NCO who has just brought me from the sick-bay to my quarters said to me as he left, with an embarrassed smile but quite seriously, 'Pray for us, Pastor, that we may have no alert tonight.'
Letters and Papers from Prison (Touchstone, 1997)
When this was written Bonhoeffer had been in prison for about 8 months awaiting trial. Although his letters continue to speak hopefully of being released, one can sense a darker note starting to creep in. The mention of collecting passages from the OT on lying hints at Bonhoeffer's working out of the theological and ethical implications of his own activity during this period. Bonhoeffer was far more deeply involved in the anti-Nazi resistance than his interrogators first suspected, and this necessitated almost constant deceit. Even his personal letters were sometimes written with an eye toward deceiving the authorities. What a strain it must have been! This excerpt also gives us a glimpse of Bonhoeffer the pastor. His fellow prisoners gravitated to him and even the prison guards recognized something of Christ in the young pastor.
I'm reading Letters and Papers from Prison for the first time. It's a gripping and emotional read -- emotional because I know how the story will end. The letters are arranged chronologically and there's a terrible dramatic impetus as the months go by. These writings allow such an imtimate entrée into Bonhoeffer's life and thought, that it's as if we're somehow accompanying him on a 2-year-long march to the gallows. I'll be sharing more from this book in the days leading up to the anniversary of Bonhoeffer's final witness on 9 April 1945.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Last week fellow blogger and Hobe Sound alum Jason Miller posted a sermon by John Wesley on "The Duty of Constant Communion." In it Wesley convincingly shows "that it is the duty of every Christian to receive the Lord's Supper as often as he can" and successfully answers some common objections to this view. I printed it out and read it over the weekend. It's excellent! This was the first significant chunk of Wesley I'd read and I found his style similar to the Puritans of the generation immediately before (especially John Owen) and to his contemporary Jonathan Edwards. These men tended to examine a problem from all possible angles, stating and restating things in every conceivable way. There's something to be said for brevity, but one is in awe of the ability to write long treatises on a single, short phrase of Scripture. What a striking contrast to the shallow fare that fills the shelves of Christian bookstores! “If you rake, you get leaves; but if you dig, you get gold." (John Piper)
Wesley believed that the ministry of Word and sacrament were both essential to the church's health and mission. There are a lot of churches who do a good job of emphasizing and practicing one, but not the other. This is like trying to run a marathon with only one shoe. Recently I gave a short exhortation at our church and told how I'd been a beneficiary of many different church traditions (i.e. Wesleyan, Methodist, Baptist and non-denominational), but that I didn't understand and appreciate the importance of the sacraments until coming to the Presbyterian church several years ago. Although far from perfect (as every church is) I think we do a pretty good job of keeping a balance between the two primary means of grace that Christ has given to his church.
The Westminster Confession of Faith (27.1) defines the sacraments (baptism and the Lord's Supper) this way:
Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ, and his benefits; and to confirm our interest in him: as also, to put a visible difference between those that belong unto the church, and the rest of the world; and solemnly to engage them to the service of God in Christ, according to his Word.
Most Protestants would agree with that, but what exactly is meant by "signs and seals" and how the benefits are communicated have been matters of dispute and probably will be until the Lord returns. If Calvin and Luther couldn't agree then I doubt we will. No doubt there's an element of mystery here (as there is in other Christian doctrines), but I like this elaboration from The Reformation Study Bible:
The sacraments are means of grace, for God uses them to strengthen faith's confidence in His promises and to call forth acts of faith for receiving the good gifts signified. The efficacy of the sacraments is not from the faith or virtue of the minister, but from the faithfulness of God, who, having given the signs, is now pleased to use them. Christ and the apostles speak of the sign as if it were the thing signified, and as if receiving the former is the same as receiving the latter (Matt. 26:26-28; 1 Cor. 10:15-21; 1 Pet. 3:21, 22). As the preaching of the Word makes the gospel audible, so the sacraments make it visible.
"The sacrament of baptism is but once to be administered unto any person" (WCF 28.7), but how often should the church receive communion? I believe it should be a weekly occurrence. I doubt if anyone would disagree that the preaching of the gospel through the Word should happen every week. Then why shouldn't the preaching of the gospel through the sacraments happen every Sunday? In any case, it should be often, which means more frequently than it happens in most churches. I have to wonder if the reluctance of some churches to observe the Lord's Supper more often is because of logistical or pragmatic considerations. I mean, how do you efficiently serve communion to several thousand people without taking valuable time away from the praise and worship? Wesley gets the last word. I admire his bluntness.
It has been shown, First, that if we consider the Lord's Supper as a command of Christ, no man can have any pretence to Christian piety, who does not receive it (not once a month, but) as often as he can. Secondly, that if we consider the institution of it, as a mercy to ourselves, no man who does not receive it as often as he can has any pretence to Christian prudence. Thirdly, that none of the objections usually made, can be any excuse for that man who does not, at every opportunity obey this command and accept this mercy.
Saturday, March 22, 2008
And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.
1 Corinthians 15:14
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
John Updike, Seven Stanzas at Easter
Friday, March 21, 2008
As I drove the same route I drive every Friday afternoon I was struck by how unremarkable today seemed. It didn't feel right. This sense of normalcy. Shouldn't we all be on our knees mourning? There were the same angry aggressive drivers. The same cool cats hungrily eyeing luxury cars at the Jaguar dealership. The homeless man panhandling in the intersection of Palm Beach Lakes and Australian. Hard-hat workers pouring concrete. Mothers with strollers waiting at the bus stop. All seemingly heedless of the fact that today is incomparable. Perhaps aware that today is some kind of religious day, but dead to the fact that their eternal destinies are bound up with the event remembered. Today is Good Friday, but so is every day. It's no more tragic that millions pay scant attention to the Crucified and Risen Christ on this day as any other. I'm reminded of Peter's words in chapter 3 of his second epistle, "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance."
By this time tomorrow another Good Friday will have come and gone (unless verse 10 happens) and he will be patient still.
Thursday, March 20, 2008
Allegory? Not exactly. Nevertheless, the symbolism of Au hasard Balthazar is pregnant with meaning. Multiple layers of meaning, actually.
Here are the final frames of Robert Bresson's parable about the life and death of a donkey:
An essay by Ron Reed
I knew Mark Noll was a distinguished historian, but didn't know he was a poet until I stumbled across the following poem in this anthology. What a beautiful picture it is of the Lord's table! A place where forgiven sinners come -- united by their desperate need for grace -- to be served by Christ.
Scots Form in the Suburbs
The sedentary Presbyterians
awoke, arose, and filed to tables spread
with white, to humble bits that showed how God
Almighty had decided to embrace
humanity, and why these clean, well-fed,
well-dressed suburbanites might need his grace.
The pious cruel, the petty gossipers
and callous climbers on the make, the wives
with icy tongues and husbands with their hearts
of stone, the ones who battle drink and do
not always win, the power lawyers mute
before this awful bar of mercy, boys
uncertain of themselves and girls not sure
of where they fit, the poor and rich hemmed in
alike by cash, physicians waiting to
be healed, two women side by side—the one
with unrequited longing for a child,
the other terrified by signs within
of life, the saintly weary weary in
pursuit of good, the academics (soft
and cossetted) who posture with their words,
the travelers coming home from chasing wealth
or power or wantonness, the mothers choked
by dual duties, parents nearly crushed
by children died or lost, and some
with cancer-ridden bodies, some with spikes
of pain in chest or back or knee or mind
or heart. They come, O Christ, they come
They came, they sat, they listened to the words,
"for you my body broken." Then they ate
and turned away—the spent unspent, the dead
recalled, a hint of color on the psychic
cheek—from tables groaning under weight
of tiny cups and little crumbs of bread.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Our insistence that according to the gospel the cross of Christ is the only ground on which God forgives sin bewilders many people. "Why should our forgiveness depend on Christ's death?" they ask. "Why does God not simply forgive us, without the necessity of the cross?...It sounds like a primitive superstition that modern people should long since have discarded."
The crucial question we should ask, therefore, is a different one. It is not why God finds it difficult to forgive, but how he finds it possible at all. As Emil Brunner put it, "Forgiveness is the very opposite of anything which can be taken for granted. Nothing is less obvious than forgiveness." Or, in the words of Carnegie Simpson, "forgiveness is to man the plainest of duties; to God it is the profoundest of problems."
The problem of forgiveness is constituted by the inevitable collision between divine perfection and human rebellion, between God as he is and us as we are. The obstacle to forgiveness is neither our sin alone nor our guilt alone, but the divine reaction in love and wrath toward guilty sinners. For, although indeed "God is love", yet we have to remember that his love is "holy love", love which yearns over sinners while at the same time refusing to condone their sin.
These notions are foreign to modern-day people. The kind of God who appeals to most people today would be easygoing in his tolerance of our offenses. He would be gentle, kind, accommodating, and would have no violent reactions. Unhappily, even in the church we seem to have lost the vision of the majesty of God. There is much shallowness and levity among us. Prophets and psalmists would probably say of us that "there is no fear of God before their eyes."
All inadequate doctrines of the atonement are due to inadequate doctrines of God and humanity. If we bring God down to our level and raise ourselves to his, then of course we see no need for a radical salvation, let alone for a radical atonement to secure it. When, on the other hand, we have glimpsed the blinding glory of the holiness of God and have been so convicted of our sin by the Holy Spirit that we tremble before God and acknowledge that we are, namely "hell-deserving sinners," then and only then does the necessity of the cross appear so obvious that we are astonished we never saw it before.
John R.W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (InterVarsity Press, 1986)
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Politics aside, I think Barack Obama hit a home run this morning. I didn't watch his speech on race in America, but did have the chance to read it. Here are some excerpts that particularly stood out. You can access the full text below. It didn't hurt that he quoted my favorite novelist:
The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.
Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
I thought his speech struck the right balance between acknowledging legitimate anger and realizing the need to move beyond that anger toward constructive action. Contrary to some commentary I've read recently, he didn't come off as someone who sees himself as a messiah, but instead displayed a good deal of humility and realism. As someone who lives in a predominantly black neighborhood, but works and worships in a predominantly white setting, his description of the way things are (and how they got that way) has the ring of truth. People tend to hide their resentments and true feelings from members of another race.
A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families – a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods – parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement – all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.
This is the reality in which Reverend Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up. They came of age in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted. What’s remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them.
But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn’t make it – those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations – those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.
And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.
In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.
This is where we are right now. It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy – particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.
But I have asserted a firm conviction – a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people – that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.
Read the full text.
One of my favorite filmmakers is dead at 54. British writer/director Anthony Minghella brought consummate craftsmanship and a literary sensibility to films like The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Breaking and Entering. He considered himself first and foremost a writer, even as he brought locales as diverse as the North African desert, postwar Italy and 21st century London to vivid life on the screen. Last month Minghella discussed his life in pictures at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
Monday, March 17, 2008
Some of the best Barack Obama commentary on the web has come from Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile. Something he wrote back in January (in a post celebrating Obama's victory in Iowa) seems prescient today:
One great irony would be if it were finally the weakness of the African-American church that effectively destroyed the first viable presidential bid of an African American. So many people tout the African-American church for its historic role in promoting justice, but few have seen the connection between sound theology and any true effort at justice. In a sad turn of events, it may be by God's hand the Sen. Obama campaign that forces global light on the damnable heresies and errors, the counterfeit Christianity present in so many churches.
Could this be happening in the controversy over Obama's former pastor and spiritual mentor Rev. Jeremiah Wright? Despite Obama's efforts to distance himself from Rev. Wright, his poll numbers have dropped significantly since the story broke last week. Time will tell if this story "has legs." I think it does.
UPDATE: blogger Jake Hunt on the real problem with Jeremiah Wright.
Sunday, March 16, 2008
Abraham Piper gives a Palm Sunday sermon in twenty-two words (I'm guessing his dad's was a bit longer).
And then there was the little boy at our church this morning who came down the aisle with his palm branch clenched between his teeth. There's always an individualist in the bunch!
Saturday, March 15, 2008
Romans 8:28 is so familiar that it's easy to miss the mindboggling implications of it's message. It's also easy to take it out of it's context as one link in Paul's chain of thought that begins with, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." There's that phrase again: "in Christ." If you're not in Christ then you're in Adam, and Adam's race is doomed.
Yes, 8:28 is a glorious verse, but so is 8:27! Notice the trinitarian implications i.e. "he who searches hearts", "the Spirit" and "God". This is made even more explicit later on in 8:34, when Paul writes that it's no less than the risen and reigning Christ who is interceding for us. Does God's will seem mysterious? Having trouble knowing how or what to pray? Be encouraged that the triune God is doing it for you according to His perfect will. As The Reformation Study Bible notes:
Perplexity as to how to pray for oneself is a universal Christian experience. Our inarticulate longings to pray properly are an indication to us that the indwelling Spirit is already helping up by interceding for us in our hearts, making requests that the Father will certainly answer.
Friday, March 14, 2008
Julius Kim, dean of students at Westminster Seminary California, writes in the January/February issue of Modern Reformation on the unique challenges of being a second-generation Korean-American pastor. He shares a couple of painfully funny stories.
During my last year in seminary, I contacted some representatives from a denomination that was recruiting potential pastors. After spending a few minutes asking about my testimony and seminary experience, the representative proceeded to ask me what I would like to do after graduating. I told him quite simply that I wanted to be a minister of Word and sacrament in order to proclaim the gospel faithfully to God's people in the church and in the world. After a few awkward moments of silence, he thoughtfully said, "Hmmm, I don't think there's a multicultural church in my denomination looking for a pastor right now." Did I hear that right? I tried again with some uncertainty in my voice, "I'm not looking for a position in a multicultural context; I just want to be a pastor." Unfortunately, he hadn't heard me in the midst of what appeared to be a genuine state of reflection as he attempted to locate a church that fit me. After a few more awkward moments of silence, he came out of his meditative state and exclaimed with a palpable display of excitement, "Oh yes, there is a church on the East Coast that is half African American!" He paused. Oh no, I thought, here it comes. "The problem is," he stated, "they're not looking for anyone right now."
Not too long ago I was invited to preach at a church populated predominantly by Caucasians. Having now lived and worked in primarily racially white contexts for over 20 years, I felt quite at ease preaching in this setting. What surprised me, however, was a comment after the service was over. One parishioner approached me as I stood by the coffee pot and, after the initial pleasantries were exchanged, suddenly looked at me and exclaimed, "My, your English is quite good!" Stunned, I took a sip of my coffee, wondering whether or not I should cry out, "It should be since I was born here and have lived here for over 30 years!" But I quietly said, "Thank you." What else could I say? I knew deep down that the comment did not precipitate from any malicious intent. At times like this, I must breathe grace.
In his book, The Peacemaker, Ken Sande issues the call to breathe grace upon people with whom you are in conflict. He writes that as beneficiaries of the grace of God, breathed out to us in Christ, we are called upon to breathe out words and deeds of grace. As I reflect upon the future of the Korean-American church and her pastors, this is where we must fundamentally begin--with the gospel of grace. It is the gospel that can transform our characters and our cultures.
Julius J. Kim, A Journey on the Margins: Reflections of a Korean-American Presbyterian
Thursday, March 13, 2008
It's time to elect a new president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Tim Brister responds to the latest variation on a familiar theme from one of the candidates. Honestly, sometimes I wonder if it's even worth responding to this stuff. I'd wager the vast majority of Southern Baptist pastors coming out of seminary are more influenced by Al Mohler and Mark Dever (or non-SBCers like John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Tim Keller) than they are by whoever gets elected convention president.
The comeback continues.
I'd been thinking of doing some sort of tribute to Saul Bass, when a friend sent me this clever parody/homage. If Star Wars had been made circa late 1950's and Saul Bass had done the opening title sequence, it might have looked something like this. Sometimes imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!
OK, here's the real Saul Bass with some of his best known work -- the opening titles to Anatomy of a Murder (1959). This is a great film, by the way, ahead of it's time, and noteworthy for the jazz score by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.
Now you get the idea. Saul Bass worked well into the 1990's -- his last film was Casino in 1995 -- and his style evolved without losing his singular look. Perhaps my favorite Bass title sequence, is the one that opens Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence. I well remember the emotion I felt back in 1993 as this gorgeous sequence rolled accompanied by music from Gounod's opera Faust. Watching this puts me right back into the world of the film.
Saul Bass also designed scores of movie posters. In fact, if you come to our house you'll see a framed full-size reproduction of this one in our second bedroom/office. Bass worked on a lot of Hitchcock films, but Vertigo is my favorite.
Saul Bass on the web
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
From Salon this paragraph reminds me why Camille Paglia is one of the few truly iconoclastic voices on the American scene.
Would I want Hillary answering the red phone in the middle of the night? No, bloody not. The White House first responder should be a person of steady, consistent character and mood -- which describes Obama more than Hillary. And that scare ad was produced with amazing ineptitude. If it's 3 a.m., why is the male-seeming mother fully dressed as she comes in to check on her sleeping children? Is she a bar crawler or insomniac? An obsessive-compulsive housecleaner, like Joan Crawford in "Mommie Dearest"? And why is Hillary sitting at her desk in full drag and jewelry at that ungodly hour? A president should not be a monomaniac incapable of rest and perched on guard all night like Poe's baleful raven. People at the top need a relaxed perspective, which gives judgment and balance. Workaholism is an introspection-killing disease, the anxious disability of tunnel-vision middle managers.
Camille Paglia, Hillary's race against time (March 12, 2008)
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Several years ago I joined the ranks of those obssessed with the movie Blade Runner. But my friend William Andreassen has been part of the club for going on 26 years! It's a club with a vast membership. How vast? Google "blade runner" and see how many fansites come up devoted to the characters, themes or just plain minutiae related to the film. Like other movies with a passionate following, Blade Runner ends with a riddle. Like Citizen Kane's "rosebud", the final lines of Blade Runner continue to inspire debate and speculation. Andreassen doesn't wade into those questions, but he's been watching the new 5-disc collector's package and offers this appreciation.
Why do I continue to be alarmingly obsessed with the 1982 seminal sci-fi classic Blade Runner? Nearly twenty-six years have passed since that wide-eyed, celluloid mad thirteen year-old sat in the dark with his father and experienced something positively otherworldly, something unlike any previous movie I’d ever seen (or since, honestly). Even at that still somewhat impressionable age, I believe that I was aware that I was witnessing something special, something to endure, something which would be relevant to future viewers. Any one element—the jaw-dropping production design, the thought-provoking screenplay, the evocative score by Vangelis-made it unique, but there was a cumulative effect working, an amalgamation of qualities that certified its place in a Class of One among science fiction. The only other sci-fi film I can recall which sets itself apart to the same degree would be Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.
Based on Philip K. Dick’s wonderfully titled “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, Blade Runner follows one Rick Deckard, a retired cop, or “blade runner” who in the bleak future of Los Angeles in 2019 is coerced into another, final mission: track down six renegade androids who have illegally escaped from another locale in the solar system, “an off-world colony,” where citizens have the “chance to begin again.” At the service of these citizens are the said androids, or REPLICANTS. These are no standard issue cyborgs; replicants have been intricately designed by the Tyrell Corporation, a megacorporation which produces slave labor which are more “more human than human.”
Hampton Fancher’s and David Webb People’s screenplay introduces us to these doomed replicants, these, dare I say it? Souls? Perhaps. Naturally, these are not men of flesh and blood, but rather microchips and miles of fiber optic nerves, coiled in a housing that indeed appears to be quite human. These androids reason, have perspectives, have memories. Droids aren’t supposed to think, right? That’s the user’s job. But the Tyrell Corporation designed a model that eclipses anything we’ve ever seen. But why? These machines are meant to be of service to the humans, to do their bidding. Users have more important things to do, like purchasing things. And moving to the off-world colonies for the promise of a better life. Who could blame them? The L.A. we see in director Ridley Scott’s (The Duellists, Legend) vision is a perpetual nighttime of rain and blurred neon. The sort of landscape Deckard inhabits with weary ease.
Scott, having already broken new ground with the horror sci-fi Alien in 1979, threw down the gauntlet yet again for what a science fiction film should look and sound like. As numerous sources attest, Scott’s unstinting perfectionism set an almost impossibly high bar, a measure against every f/x film thereafter would be measured. And with any trailblazer, scores of imitators will follow. And they did. Even other action-type films, end-of-world sagas, superhero adventures, they all bore the influence. But Blade Runner was also about the “how”, just how every great film absolutely is, in my opinion. Yes, Scott also set the standard for “how” a sci-fi film should be. How it lives and breathes. Multiple viewings reveal not just layers of the screenplay, an endlessly fascinating essay on who we think we really are, but also the embedded themes of imagery, things not easily put into words. It has been said that film is primarily a medium of emotion; Blade Runner is one to cite for the defense of that notion, in spades.
Even though I’m a pretty rabid film nut (as the author of this blog could attest), I rarely purchase DVDs. I love many, many movies, but there are relatively few I need to have at the ready to study, to revisit and enjoy at a moment’s notice. While I could easily add hundreds if I had the disposable income (and a lack of conscience as to far better use of the fundage), the ones I do own include bona-fide gems such as Being John Malkovich, Brazil, Dazed & Confused, and Fargo. Blade Runner is a very select specimen, a film that meets the aforementioned criteria and far more. The old no-frills Warner Brothers single disc of the Director’s Cut never made my collection, because I knew that a movie this special would someday get a royal treatment. And boy, did it!
To summarize: first you have the 2 disc set: it contains the recently minted “Final Cut” of the movie (with varying separate commentaries) and a superior 3 + hour documentary on the rather tumultuous production of the film. You could alternatively purchase the 4-disc set, which includes the above, plus the original 1982 theatrical version (with voiceover), a longer European version, the 1992 “Director’s Cut”, and the “Enhancement Archive,” which contains a litany of featurettes chronicling production, as well as interviews with the source material’s author. Also included is an elegant, heartfelt tribute to the film’s cinematographer, Jordan Cronenweth, who also lensed another favorite of mine, Stop Making Sense. His breathtaking, inventive work is largely responsible for why Blade Runner is so stunning.
I bought none of the above collections. Nope, I went for the ultimate fanatic’s package, The Five-Disc Limited Edition Gift Set which includes, of course, all of the above, PLUS, a workprint version of the film (which is assembled prior to complete color correction, f/x tweaks, voiceover and sound effects edits, and scoring cues) with commentary, and another featurette. A toy replica of Deckard’s spinner vehicle, an origami unicorn, an impressive art folio, and a lenticular (3-D hologram thingy) of a film clip accompanies the set, all contained in a spiffy plastic briefcase modeled after Deckard’s own. Yeah, I know, but this was a once-in-a-lifetime purchase. Now you get the notion that this film is important to me.
Like any seminal work I’ve encountered, Blade Runner has so infused itself into my cerebrum that I find myself recalling bits when Life seems to imitate Art. During Orientation Week as I was beginning doctoral studies in audiology some years ago, a Myers-Briggs personality test was administered. As I replied to the manipulative inquiries, I was reminded of the Voight-Kampf test, which viewers may recall is the oral questionnaire the blade runners use to determine if their subject is a replicant. As I creatively answered each question, it occurred to me- what sort of personality makes the best audiologist? Or is it the other way around? Do they want replicants? My mind reeled, and I was being ridiculous. My twenty classmates and I were later subjected to a lengthy explanation by one of the university’s psych profs, a session where the aggregate results were expounded upon at great length. He explained that we were Thinking Introverts, or so went that classification dichotomies, as they’re known. Ideal for audiologists! he cried. Hmmmm.
So, now it’s twenty-six years after Blade Runner was originally screened. We are now eleven years away from the year in which the film is set. It seemed so impossibly far away in ’82. Yes, such a future would be characterized by post-modern architecture and gravity-defying vehicles. A few years before I saw the film, I was on the monkey bars chatting with classmates as to what the future would be like. We imagined that even in the 1990s we’d be flying in souped up astro-vehicles over our former terrestrial thoroughfares and routinely traveling through outer space. But as the lyrics went in that They Might Be Giants song:
I’m trapped in a world before later on
Where’s my hovercraft?
Where’s my jet pack?
Where’s the font of acquired wisdom
That eludes me now?
Where’s all the complication
We won’t see around?
OK, so perhaps that’s not entirely accurate. But that is what is so disturbing. Blade Runner, so embodied by its observations about human nature, culture, technology, metaphysics, and emotion, is so very relevant now. I guess Dick called it, for every ten paces forged ahead with technology, we take several more into the dark abyss of regression, a very sad place, indeed. Author and compadre Christian film buff Jeffrey Overstreet lists Blade Runner as a film “For Ambitious Discussion Groups” in his excellent Through a Screen Darkly book. I would’ve loved to have had the opportunity to have chatted with Msr. Dick about the antidote to the darkness of which he wrote, the Great Hope mankind most certainly has.
*Title absconded from a Waitresses album, circa Blade Runner’s original release.
I have the privilege of serving on a pastor search committee, so I've spent some time thinking about questions I want to ask candidates. Matt Schmucker turns it around and suggests some questions a potential pastor should ask of a church. I'd be very impressed if a candidate came to us asking these questions.
Monday, March 10, 2008
To the Apostle Paul there are only two categories of people that really matter: in Adam or in Christ. This is a major theme of the first six chapters of Romans (especially 5 & 6). Being in Adam means being a slave of sin, but one who is in Christ is a slave of God. Paul's metaphor of slavery doesn't negate human freedom, but the freedom that comes from being in Adam ultimately proves illusory and leads to death. True freedom, that leads to life, only comes through being in Christ. Romans 6:23 is a concise summary statement of this dichotomy. The Reformation Study Bible notes that:
The triple contrast of wages, sin and death, with gift, God, and eternal life, brings Paul's argument to a memorable focus.
Here's another way to picture it:
I am receiving: wages or a free gift
I am serving: sin or God
My destiny is: death or eternal life
Sunday, March 9, 2008
Thursday, March 6, 2008
This note on Romans 3:18 (where Paul is quoting from Psalm 36) in The Reformation Study Bible hit me right between the eyes.
3:18 no fear of God. In the Old Testament, the essence of a proper attitude to God is "fear", the absence of which is practical atheism.
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
Readers may recall that I had mixed feelings about Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood. Paul Edwards has watched it three times (!) and offers a thoughtful appraisal that makes a lot of sense. Edwards writes:
The Passion of the Christ exceeded all expectations at the box office and since it did, evangelical Christians have come to expect “socially redeeming” films to overtly, explicitly, and clearly spell out the Christian gospel almost “verse by verse.” The gospel is present in There Will Be Blood more in the form of a photographic negative than as a detailed Technicolor® print.
and writing on TWBB's problematic (for me) final sequence:
Even family ties are no match for the unrestrained depravity that overtakes this man by the end of the film, resulting in his truly being abandoned by everyone, including his own conscience, which is the ultimate end of sin. Daniel Plainview’s closing line in the film is nothing more than a paraphrase of James 1:15: “Sin, when it is finished, brings forth death.”
Thanks to Mike Huckabee for running a campaign largely characterized by decency and plain speaking. Despite the open contempt of conservative establishment mouthpieces like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, he made it to March, and pointed a way forward for constructive evangelical engagement with national politics in the future.
Joe Carter has some thoughts on yesterday's results.
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
Keith Drury likes old-fashioned holiness people. So do I. They are an indelible, providential part of my heritage. I wouldn't be surprised if one of the folks in the photo is a distant relative! And though I'm one of those "Calvinist friends" that Professor Drury mentions in point #3 -- I hope they still like me. Actually, one of the things I appreciate about genuine Reformed/Calvinist practice and piety is that it does have a strong emphasis on holiness and holy living. And you won't find too many Reformed folks (that I know of) chasing after Rick Warren, Donald Miller and Rob Bell. Hmmm, maybe we have more in common than we think?
HT: W2WKB's Bog Splot
By way of clarification, I would say: In an Arminian institution, Arminians should be allowed to teach. But in institutions that regard Arminianism as defective view of God’s grace, they should not be allowed to teach. Or, more broadly, in an institution that thinks the truth is better served by having advocates of Arminianism and Calvinism, both should be allowed to teach.BUT,
In my 22 years of formal education from age 6 to 28 (Summit Drive Elementary School, Greenville Junior High School, Wade Hampton High School, Wheaton College, Fuller Seminary, University of Munich) it became increasingly clear to me that diverse theological positions on the same faculty of a Christian institution diminished the importance of those differences.
For some issues, that is good. For others it is not. Which those are is one of the great challenges of every generation.
John Piper, Calvinism, Arminianism, & Education
Monday, March 3, 2008
We live in an area heavily populated by first and second-generation Hispanic immigrants. I've noticed that if they go to church at all, it's to a Catholic church, Pentecostal church or (sadly) the Jehovah's Witness Hall. Our own church (which is at least nominally Reformed) rarely has a single Hispanic individual or family in Sunday worship. Granted, we're a fairly traditional "white bread" church, but still we have a good number of African-American families. Why no Hispanics? Part of it is that we don't do any Spanish-language outreach to this growing community, but there's also a huge cultural barrier. In the January/February Modern Reformation OPC church planter C.A. Sandoval provides some historical context and shares a possible point of contact with our Hispanic neighbors.
Historically, the Roman Catholic Church (by way of the Spanish Inquisition) did an amazing job of preventing the Reformation from making any significant or lasting impact upon Spanish subjects in Spain or the New World. As such, a virtually impenetrable fortress was erected around Spain and its colonies, and to this day the Reformation and its return to biblical Christianity form no real part of the Hispanic culture or religious background. More recently, after more than 450 years of Roman Catholic dominance and very little Protestant influence, the charismatic movement has swept through Latin America with its supernatural gifts. The movement claims to provide hundreds of thousands of Hispanics with a closer, more immediate, and more intimate relationship with God, which is missing in Roman Catholicism. Charismaticism, however, ultimately fails to ground itself in all of God's Word, and ignores not only the Reformation but most of the last 2,000 years of Christianity as well. Lastly, although pockets of historic Protestantism do exist in Latin America, many Protestant Hispanic churches and denominations have increasingly absorbed charismatic practices and doctrines.
While the history of Hispanic Christianity in Latin America is of course much more complicated, the majority of first- and second-generation Hispanics in the U.S. who call themselves Christian tend to be either Roman Catholic or charismatic in one way or another. Explaining what Reformed Christians and churches are, therefore, requires something other than a crash course in European or Protestant history. It requires an explanation that is both relevant to the Hispanic context and fundamental to our Reformed doctrines. And that explanation is simply this: that a Reformed Christian is one who takes all of God's Word seriously, and that a Reformed church is one that preaches, teaches, and does everything according to only the Bible.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the Roman Catholic and charismatic influences upon Hispanic Christianity and the Hispanic culture in general, many Hispanics still have some form of respect for the Bible. In the minds of many Hispanics, the Bible may not be the final and only authority on religious and spiritual matters, but it remains authoritative nonetheless and is still viewed as containing some level of supernatural or mystical power. Of course, respect for the Bible doesn't always translate into obedience to it; but in most of my interactions with Hispanics, I don't have to spend much time (if any) convincing them that the Bible is the Word of God. They may not have any clue what the Bible contains (again, due in part to the Roman Catholic and charismatic influences), but Hispanics still revere it on some level, either for religious convictions and traditions or superstitious motivations. And this remnant of reverence and respect for the Bible is precisely the point of contact and context that I make most use of when explaining what it means to be Reformed.
C.A. Sandoval, The Hispanic Challenge: Explaining What It Means To Be Reformed
Sunday, March 2, 2008
In today's Palm Beach Post:
Quest for something to believe in moves beyond church walls
"It's not really a church," says Nelson, a retired restaurateur who grew up Lutheran and gave up religion nearly 50 years ago. "They call themselves a congregation. They don't have a creed there, and you can be anything you want there."
Saturday, March 1, 2008
Let's do some word association. Say Iran and you probably envision bearded mullahs and "axis of evil", but say Persia and much different associations come to mind. This tension forms the backdrop to Persepolis, the animated film based on Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical comics about her coming of age in Teheran and Vienna, a return to Iran, and then her final leavetaking for Paris in 1992. As Marjane's voiceover tells us, this was the last time she saw her beloved grandmother--"freedom comes with a price", she says. Marjane's story begins in the closing days of the Shah's regime, followed by a brief period of hope before the oppressive nightmare of the Islamic revolution. We see the tragic history of 20th-century Iran through her eyes, as she reminisces. We experience her rage, determination and humorous take on things. Satrapi is a clever satirist, and it's not surprising that the film was condemned by the Iranian government as "Islamaphobic".
The Satrapi family are resisters, first resisting the Shah and then the Ayatollah. And it's not just the men. The black headscarves that Iranian women are required to wear comes to signify the subtle tug-of-war between the Satrapi women and the authorities. Another means of resistance (and source of escape) comes through music and there are times when Persepolis seems like a rock musical. Marjane haggles with shady characters for tapes of banned Western bands, and Marjane and her friends debate who's better: Abba or the Bee Gees? In one tragicomic scene Iron Maiden becomes the soundtrack to the Iran/Iraq war raging outside the Satrapi family's window. There's also a hilarious sequence featuring Marjane and a group of her friends dancing (Rocky-like) to "Eye of the Tiger". In addition to this music, the film features an outstanding caberet-like score by Olivier Bernet which provides much of the dramatic impetus. The voices are well done and feature Catherine Deneuve as the voice of Marjane's mother.
The animation is deceptively simple. It's sometimes starkly minimalist and other times downright baroque. Satrapi and her collaborator Vincent Paronnaud do a wonderful job of conveying a great deal of information with small, whimsical touches. Animation is limiting, but watching this I was reminded of things that animation can do that live action can't -- by the use of caricature and skewed perspective. During the Vienna section -- where adolescent Marjane experiences a series of unfortunate relationships -- her Germanic boyfriend Markus's face morphs into a disco ball. This clever touch shows Marjane's perception of her new beau, and clues us in that her perspective may be an illusion.
Persepolis is certainly a classic coming of age story, but it's also a tribute to Marjane Satrapi's family. While she is voluntarily exiled to Vienna, she can't understand the disgust that her nihilistic European friends have for their families. They complain about having to spend Christmas with the family, while she longs to be back home. Many scenes convey nostalgia for happier times in Iran and for family members who lost their lives. In an early scene, little Marjane's father explains how the Shah first came to power (oil had something to do with it) and why members of their family had been imprisoned or executed. There is an important subplot involving a Communist uncle -- Uncle Anoush. He takes a special shine to Marjane, and she's allowed to visit him in prison the night before he's executed. This encounter seems to haunt Marjane's life thereafter. Persepolis reminds us that idealogies come and go, but the bonds of family endure.