Sunday, November 30, 2008

The reason for the coming

On this first Sunday of Advent I've been thinking about 1 John 3:8. Actually, just a fragment of the verse. "The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil." I love that! Succinct and to the point. The Reformation Study Bible connects this to the first glimpse of the gospel in Genesis 3:15, sometimes called the protoevangelion "first gospel."

The opposition between Christ and Satan was foretold as early as Gen. 3:15. Satan used the righteous law of God as a tool to hold sinners captive to the fear of death and condemnation. By accepting in His own Person the penalty due to sinners under the law, Christ took away the foundation of Satan's plan (Heb. 2:14-15).

Satan's "greatest" work is sin, and sin is death. The revolutionary message of Christmas is nothing less than the triumph of life over death. I'm struck anew by the mystery of the Incarnation. The child born to Mary in a smelly backwater of the Roman Empire was the promised Messiah. "Him who is and who was and who is to come...Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth." (Rev. 1:4-5) And he's coming again. There will be a second Advent.

Friday, November 28, 2008

A prayer song

Last Saturday I was blessed to join with the saints of Orthodox Zion Primitive Baptist Church and many other churches in our county for a service of racial reconciliation and unity. One of the blessings of this service was being led in musical worship by the terrific choir at Orthodox Zion. This was the third time I'd heard them and I can say that there isn't a church choir I'd rather listen to than the one from OZPBC. They have a spirit of reverent passion. It's not simply a performance. They sang Glenn Burleigh's "Order My Steps" and the words have been running through my mind all week. "Order my steps in Your Word, dear Lord, lead me, guide me everyday." For the Christian, there's not a better prayer than that. Here are the complete lyrics.

Order my steps in Your word dear Lord,
lead me, guide me everyday,
send Your anointing, Father I pray;
order my steps in Your word,
please, order my steps in Your word.

Humbly, I ask Thee to teach me Your will,
while You are working, help me be still,
Satan is busy, but my God is real;
order my steps in Your word,
please, order my steps in Your word.

Bridle my tongue let my words edify,
let the words of my mouth be acceptable in Thy sight,
take charge of my thoughts both day and night;
please order my steps in Your word,
please order my steps in Your word.

I want to walk worthy,
my calling to fulfill.
Please order my steps Lord,
and I'll do Your blessed will.
The world is ever changing,
but You are still the same;
if You order my steps, I'll praise Your name.

Order my steps in Your word.
Order my tongue in Your word.
Guide my feet in Your word.
Wash my heart in Your word.
Show me how to walk in Your word.
Show me how to talk in Your word.
When I need a brand new song to sing,
show me how to let Your praises ring,
in your word

- Glenn Burleigh

Thanksgiving in New Canaan, CT (circa 1973)

The Ice Storm (Ang Lee, 1997)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Tools of the trade

Shannon snickered when I said I wanted another coffee machine for Christmas. She teases me about all the coffee-related paraphernalia I have (as you can see). I admit it. I love coffee and I'm a bit fetishistic about the process of making it. When I'm at Starbucks I have to resist the urge to look over the barista's shoulder to make sure he's making my tall double-shot latte just so. If I could, I'd grow the beans and roast them myself. The fabulous cups of coffee I've enjoyed stand out as milestones in my mind. There was that perfect café con leche at a lunch counter in Old San Juan that came out of a machine that looked like it could have been there since the Spanish-American War, and the cup of bold joe at Krispy Kreme in Clarks Summit the morning I got married (tasted better for some reason), or those well-crafted lattes from Paris Bakery & Cafe in downtown West Palm best enjoyed on brisk South Florida Saturday mornings accompanied by the bells of First Presbyterian from across the street. I could go on.

Of course, all the technology in the world won't do you any good without quality beans. Lately I've been getting my beans from Impact Coffee Company or Electric City Roasting. You can't beat their product and I have personal reasons for wanting to support them. The first is a micro-enterprise run by kids from Urban Youth Impact, a local ministry that Shannon and I support, and beans from the second are roasted a few blocks from where Shannon grew up in Scranton, PA! In a pinch I'll buy Seattle's Best at the grocery. When it comes to espresso I usually buy Café Pilon, but once in a while I treat myself to this.

Yes, coffee (and the stuff to make it with) is one of God's good gifts.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Calvin on common grace (or all truth comes from God)

Whenever we come upon these matters in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God's excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in such slight esteem, we condemn and reproach the Spirit himself. What then? Shall we deny that the truth shone upon the ancient jurists who established civic order and discipline with such great equity? Shall we say that the philosophers were blind in their fine observation and artful description of nature? Shall we say that those men were devoid of understanding who conceived the art of disputation and taught us to speak reasonably? Shall we say that they are insane who developed medicine, devoting their labor to our benefit? What shall we say of all the mathematical sciences? Shall we consider them the ravings of madmen? No, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without great admiration....Those men whom Scripture calls "natural men" were, indeed, sharp and penetrating in their investigation of inferior things. Let us, accordingly, learn by their example how many gifts the Lord left to human nature even after it was despoiled of its true good.

John Calvin, Institutes 2.2.15 (as cited by Michael Horton, "A Shattered Vase: The Tragedy of Sin in Calvin's Thought" in A Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes, ed. by David W. Hall and Peter A. Lillback)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Why the "verse for the day" is not enough

As a whole the Scriptures are God's revealing Word. Only in the infiniteness of its inner relationships, in the connection of Old and New Testaments, of promise and fulfillment, sacrifice and law, law and gospel, cross and resurrection, faith and obedience, having and hoping, will the full witness to Jesus Christ the Lord be perceived.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Savages (2007)

In his book Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith, Eric Jacobsen argues that "our sprawling car culture" is a contributing factor to the outsourcing of the elderly. "When people get too old to drive...they must be driven to doctor's appointments, on shopping trips or to visit their family. The practice of putting the elderly into retirement homes is a relatively recent phenomenon." In other words, for all the benefits of independence provided by the prevalence of automobiles and suburban sprawl, their rise has coincided with increasing generational segregation and lack of independence for our parents and grandparents. It's no coincidence that "retirement communities" were unheard of before the 1950s. In the old days an elderly person could stay in the neighborhood where essentials of life were within walking distance, and there was a family and/or community to look out for them. Jacobsen notes, "it's ironic that our love for independence has led us to create dependent classes among our citizenry."

I thought about Jacobsen's thesis while watching The Savages, written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, and starring Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as adult siblings forced to deal with the onset of dementia in their father (Philip Bosco). The movie doesn't directly critique the above trends -- though the title must be a wry comment -- but it provocatively yet compassionately portrays the dilemmas faced by so many. At the least, I think it will cause most viewers to conclude that there must be a better way, that community and family mean something more than this.

Jon and Wendy Savage aren't exactly failures, but they're not shining examples of success either. 42-year-old Jon teaches theater in Buffalo and is writing a book about Bertolt Brecht (this leads to the prettiest musical cue in the film -- Lotte Lenya singing "Salomon-Song" from The Threepenny Opera). 39-year-old Wendy works for a temp agency in Manhattan while trying to get funding for her "subversive, semi-autobiographical play" about her childhood "Wake Me When It's Over". She's also having an affair with a married man, Larry (Peter Friedman), who brings his oversized dog along for trysts in Wendy's tiny apartment. Jon is romantically involved with a Polish emigre (played affectingly by the lovely Cara Seymour) but can't find it in his heart to make her his wife and thus spare her from having to return to Kraków when her visa expires. As will become clear, it's a familiar paradigm of relational dysfunction being passed down. Dad is just as complicit as the kids in this unfolding mini-tragedy. Which brings us to Lenny.

Leonard "Lenny" Savage has lost touch with Jon and Wendy (and vice-versa) since moving to Sun Valley, Arizona with his "companion" Doris. They live in a pastel-colored house overlooking the eighth tee, but neither of them is in any shape to be swinging a club anymore. This retirement dream has turned into a tragicomic nightmare. The film begins with Lenny resisting Eduardo, the home health aid, with pranks of a, shall we say, scatalogical nature. He ends up in the hospital, and it's then that this mutual voluntary estrangement of parent and children ends with a phone call (as it often does) from Doris's daughter. Turns out dad may have Parkinson's. Whatever it is, life is about to change for all of them. Shortly after, Doris drops dead while getting her nails done, and Lenny is left homeless since the house goes to Doris's kids. There follows an effectively poignant scene -- as Wendy stuffs her father's belongings into a suitcase, a realtor tempts another group of retirees with the beautiful views of the eighth tee. Ah, vanity! an ancient sage once said.

The Savages is really a road-trip movie. The journey from Sun Valley to Valley View nursing home in Buffalo is full of portent and symbolism. For Lenny, it's the end of the road. For Jon and Wendy its a chance for some hard-won reconciliation. New beginnings? You can decide. Some of what follows may remind viewers of the overrated Little Miss Sunshine, but this is a vastly better and more satisfying film than that one. I wasn't familiar with Tamara Jenkins before, but I'm a big fan now. Of course its hard to go wrong with two actors as talented as Linney and Hoffman. I don't think either is capable of a bad performance. They thoroughly inhabit their characters, so important in a character-driven piece like this one. Usually, a dramatic comedy (or is it a comedic drama) of this size and scope is visually rather pedestrian. There's nothing wrong with that. You don't want the "wow factor" of the camera work to get in the way. The biggest surprise and a bonus of The Savages is how beautifully and inventively it was shot. Kudos to DP Mott Hupfel and Ms. Jenkins. There are many visual moments that linger in my mind, including one sun-drenched shot at Niagara Falls.

Good art should inspire constructive introspection. The Savages does this. How does one "honor thy father and thy mother" in cases like this? Off the top of my head I can think of several friends and co-workers who are heroically trying to care for an elderly or sick parent or grandparent who can't care for themself. And as my wife and I look forward to the birth of our son, I wonder, how will he care for me if the time comes when I can't care for myself? Will he do it out of obligation, or love? Or not at all? I'm guessing that a lot of that depends on the job I do as a father. In the film, it's clear that Leonard Savage was far from a model father. As Jon angrily asserts to Wendy, "we're taking care of the old man a lot better than he ever took care of us!" Jon and Wendy don't come off looking like heroes, but whether motivated by guilt or obligation, they try to do right by the old man. Some might say they treated him better than he deserved. It's complicated. It's a family thing.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Happy birthday Jodie Foster

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

"Postmodernism" we can believe in

R. Scott Clark:

This essay argues that, because of it’s core convictions reflected in its doctrines of revelation, God, man, creation, sin, Christ, imputation (federalism), predestination, and the church, confessional Reformed theology is not only, in some sense, postmodern, but more precisely, it is consistently anti-modernist.

The emerging and emergent movements seek to be “postmodern.” In fact, to the degree that they begin with human autonomy, with versions of rationalism (e.g., in their denial of the atonement), in subjectivism (e.g., in their hermeneutic and quest for the immediate encounter with God) they are not postmodern as much as they are, as Mike Horton likes to say, “most modern.” To be truly postmodern would be to embrace the historic Reformed faith. It would be to become anti-modern, to repudiate the assertion of the sovereignty of human choice or of human experience or of human rationality in favor of the the sovereignty of the mysterious Triune God, of the two-Adams, of unconditional grace, faith, and the church instituted by Christ himself.

As always, I heartily encourage you to read the whole thing.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Ordo Salutis ("the order of salvation") and life beyond judgment

The fact that God has passed judgment upon us once and for all in Christ profoundly changes the character of the moral life. At creation, God gave his law to Adam and commanded him to obey it. If he obeyed, he would live and if he disobeyed, he would die. In short, Adam had to carry out his moral obligations and then God would judge him on the basis of how he did. This is precisely what happened, as Genesis 3 records. After the Fall, God's law still comes to all people. Some people hear the law as proclaimed in the Scriptures, but all people at least know the basics of God's moral requirements through the natural law and the testimony of the conscience (Rom. 2:12-15). That law continues to inform people that God requires (perfect!) obedience and that he will judge them on the basis of their works (e.g., see Luke 10:25-28; Rom. 2:12-15; Gal. 3:10; 5:3). Thus, people who are without Christ continue to have moral obligations and to know that God will either justify or condemn them depending upon their performance.

But this entire reality has been radically transformed for those with faith in Christ. Christians are not called to do good works and then to be judged, but have been judged (that is, justified) in Christ and then called to do good works. The work of Christ has reversed the order. Instead of judgment following the moral life, now the moral life follows judgment. Instead of working so that we may be justified, we are justified so that we may work. To put it somewhat crassly, instead of striving for holiness so that we may get on God's good side, God has graciously placed us on his good side so that we may strive for holiness. The fact that Christians enjoy a judgment-already-rendered rather than face a judgment-yet-to-be-rendered changes the whole character of the moral life. Roman Catholics have often claimed that the Protestant doctrine of justification leads to apathy about leading a holy life, because it kills incentive. Why strive after holiness if God has already justified you? But Protestants should reply by claiming, with Scripture, that we love much because we have been forgiven much (Luke 7:47), that we serve in the newness of the Spirit because we have been released from the law (Rom. 7:6), that we serve one another in love because we have been set free (Gal. 5:13). A person really cannot understand the sanctified Christian moral life, therefore, without the ordo salutis. God judges us and then, in response, we live the Christian life. Justification is prior to sanctification.

David VanDrunen, Life Beyond Judgment (Modern Reformation October/November 2008)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Righteousness -- Christ's or your own?

I've been listening to Tim Keller's RTS class on Preaching Christ (available on iTunes U). He points out that if Christ isn't our "righteousness and sanctification and redemption" (I Cor. 1:30) then something else will be. That's true for the religious person as well as the irreligious person -- and those of us who have a propensity for both at various times in our lives. The religious person may substitute going to church three times a week and having quiet time each morning, while the irreligious person may substitute going to the gym each morning. The environmentally aware person may consider shopping at Whole Foods their "righteousness" -- and I'm someone who enjoys shopping at Whole Foods! One can see how buying organic and "going green" has become a quasi-religion for many. I don't care how secular you think you are, all of us are born hard-wired for religion. Keller's underlying point is that the Christian gospel of justification by faith alone in Christ alone is pitted against both religious works-righteousness and irreligious works-righteousness. At bottom they're both attempts at self-justification. Everyone, whether they've thought about it or not, is striving for some sort of righteousness. The question then becomes, is it the righteousness offered in Christ? or one of your own creation?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Björk and 100 cameras

Dancer in the Dark is a disorienting, even disturbing, experience for the first time viewer. It provoked as many catcalls as hurrahs when it premiered at Cannes. The disturbing aspect is largely on account of one brutally realistic scene of violence, and the starkly tragic dénouement. Those elements may be par for the course in other genres, but this is a musical! -- and a mighty fine one in my humble opinion. With the help of the whirling dervish from Iceland, director Lars von Trier managed to explode the genre while still drawing on the rich tradition of American movie musicals. Incidentally, the Danish filmmaker's evident appreciation for Americana combined with his strong anti-Americanism is a subject worth probing, especially since he's never visited these shores (von Trier has a fear of flying). Perhaps I'll take that up in a future post.

For the dance sequences von Trier and choreographer Vincent Paterson set up 100 to 150 stationary Sony HD cameras around, above and underneath the set. The concept was not unlike how the television networks cover live events like the Super Bowl. They try to get as many camera angles as possible for the guys in the truck to choose from. In this case, the guys in the truck being von Trier and his editors in post-production. It turned out to be a wonderful way to capture Björk's odd physicality and Paterson's seat-of-the-pants choreography. Von Trier originally had in mind conventional tap dancing numbers, but Paterson (according to his commentary on the DVD) talked him out of it. Some tap and classical elements remain (e.g., Joel Grey at 2:42 of this clip), but most of the dancing in Dancer in the Dark owes more to STOMP than Singin' In the Rain. No matter. The joyful exuberance is the same.

Why do I love it so much? What kind of magic is this? How come I can't help adore it? It's just another musical...

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Baby box office

David Bordwell goes where few male film buffs have dared to go:

Ten AM on a Tuesday, and I’m at my local megaplex, Star Cinema. I’m here to not to see a movie, exactly, but to catch a phenomenon I’ve been curious about for some years.

Continue reading

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

King Solomon's mines?

View Larger Map

I defer to the Hebrew experts, but my understanding is that the Hebrew word often translated "bronze" in the Old Testament could also be translated "copper". As in 2 Chronicles 4:16-17 "The pots, the shovels, the forks, and all the equipment for these Huram-abi made of burnished bronze for King Solomon for the house of the Lord. In the plain of the Jordan the king cast them, in the clay ground between Succoth and Zeredah." Recently a team of archaeologists excavated a giant complex of copper mines in present-day southern Jordan -- an area corresponding to the Biblical kingdom of Edom. It covers 24 acres and is clearly visible in this satellite photo because of the black slag left over from smelting copper.

Of interest to those who believe in the historical reliability of the Old Testament narratives, the mining operation can be dated to the 10th century BC when Solomon would have been building the temple in Jerusalem -- an undertaking that would have required a tremendous amount of copper. Team leader Thomas Levy is quoted in this ScienceDaily story: "Now with data from the first large-scale stratified and systematic excavation of a site in the southern Levant to focus specifically on the role of metallurgy in Edom, we have evidence that complex societies were indeed active in 10th and 9th centuries BCE and that brings us back to the debate about the historicity of the Hebrew Bible narratives related to this period." He goes on to say, "We can't believe everything ancient writings tell us, but this research represents a confluence between the archaeological and scientific data and the Bible."

Changing the city, one life at a time...

Monday, November 10, 2008

In response to the Governator, et al.

To promote the legality of gay marriage isn't a neutral issue. It has widespread ramifications (adoption, child-custody laws, public and private school curricula, antidiscrimination laws based on marriage), and the government itself can't remain neutral. It will either continue with the assumed definition of marriage as the one-flesh union between husband and wife -- or it will undo this, giving the message: "Marriage can be defined as we wish." In this case, marriage is based on nothing more than emotional and economic attachments.

Are human beings just individualistic decision makers who live to "actualize" themselves through their preferred sexual expression? Are they just biological organisms? Or is there such a thing as a fixed human nature and so a design or goal for humans to pursue? These questions must be thoughtfully considered about so monumental a subject as marriage. A one-flesh union of husband and wife is more than just a sexual act; it is an expression of a deep interpersonal union that brings with it profound commitments and loyalties. This is not simply a matter of choosing one's own marital arrangements, some of which are better than others. On such an issue as this, the state has historically recognized -- not invented the idea -- that a husband-wife, one-flesh union reflects moral reality and human nature and the sexuality bound up with it...Even to say that "the state ought to be neutral about marriage" involves a moral standard. Lots of people say that government shouldn't take a stand on the definition of marriage. Instead of being "biased" toward heterosexual couples, the state ought to be neutral and unbiased toward couples, including gay couples.

However, those who think the government is morally obligated to be morally neutral about the definition of marriage are misguided. It is in fact a moral position to say the state has a moral responsibility to view the marriage question as nonmoral. As Princeton's Robert George says, "Neutrality between neutrality and non-neutrality is logically impossible." The state will have to take a stand on the nature of marriage and family (e.g., are these just artificial social constructions?) and the basis of marriage (e.g., is it just two consenting adults?).

So if gay marriage is legalized, this won't simply be a neutral change. One can expect that principled disagreement of traditionalists who think gay marriage is a bad idea will lead to denunciations of their "hate speech" and intolerance. In fact, Christian groups (such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship) on various university campuses (e.g., Tufts University) have been "de-funded" by the administration because they didn't allow gays in leadership positions (though the ruling didn't stand). This de-funding had been based on the claim that these Christian groups were bigoted and intolerant. No doubt, if present trends continue, similar pressures could well be applied to "intolerant" churches that do not accept homosexual activity as morally legitimate.

Paul Copan, "What's Wrong with Gay Marriage?," in When God Goes to Starbucks: A Guide to Everyday Apologetics

Elgar on Remembrance Sunday

From the BBC -- yesterday:

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Sensible signs

Shannon has been reading Nine Months to a Miracle by Mari Hanes, a devotional book for expectant mothers. She shared this excerpt with me. Hanes writes:

Many of us have received the Lord's Supper regularly since childhood. This month, allow your Father to open your eyes to a new understanding of communion, for this powerful symbol of Christ's death and resurrection is especially meaningful to the woman in waiting and her developing child.

For every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are representing and signifying and proclaiming the fact of the Lord's death [and resurrection] until he comes [again] (1 Corinthians 11:26 AMP).

The true meaning of communion is the proclamation of the resurrection power! When received with understanding, it can be a dynamic instrument of physical and emotional health for the believer. First Corinthians 11:30 even goes so far as to tell us that some early Christians suffered weakness and illness because they didn't perceive the tremendous significance of communion.

Think of this truth as it applies to your baby. You are already well aware that everything that enters your system travels through the placenta and into the child's system. This is why a balanced diet is so crucial and why you must be cautious of even the mildest medication. When you receive the bread and juice of communion, some of the digested molecules literally become a part of the baby, proclaiming the fact of the Lord's resurrection power, the fact of His wholeness, to the body of the little one!

For the woman who bears a new life within her, the celebration of communion becomes much more than ceremony or tradition. In a very tangible way, you are sharing your faith in the reality of God's love with the little one growing inside you.

I think that's pretty neat, though I wouldn't push the theological implications of that last sentence too far. I'm reminded, though, that when our Savior instituted the Lord's Supper he did it using what the Westminster Catechism calls "sensible signs" -- meaning signs that we can apprehend with our senses. Scripture tells us that the Christian life is a life of faith. "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." (Heb. 12:1) Usually that means walking "by faith, not by sight." (2 Cor. 5:7) But in the sacrament Jesus gives us bread and wine (or juice!) -- sensible signs that we can see, touch and taste to bolster our weak faith. It's the invisible reality made visible, the spiritual made physical. What could be more physical than eating, drinking, chewing, swallowing and digesting? Jesus words in John 6 sound as shocking today as they did to his original hearers: "Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Another birthday of note

Billy Graham isn't the only one with a birthday today. The most important person in my life is turning...well, maybe she wouldn't want me to say on this public forum, though to me she doesn't seem a day older than when we met. For some reason I'm reminded of an old Ronnie Milsap song. This one's for you honey...

Billy Graham is 90

John Piper pays tribute

What would Nick do?

Writer/Director Whit Stillman's 1990 indy gem Metropolitan features some of the sharpest film dialogue ever written. He wrote the screenplay off and on during the 1980s while he worked for a Manhattan ad agency, and supposedly sold his apartment to get the cash to make the thing into a movie. One of the ironies of Metropolitan is that it's a film featuring rich Ivy League kids lounging about in Park Avenue apartments, made on a shoestring budget and a prayer. It's a great example of guerrilla filmmaking. I first read about it in the pages of National Review years before I watched it as Stillman was something of a conservative darling back then. Writing in Slate in 2006 Austin Kelley subtitled it "the movie for the conservative in all of us." It might be more appropriate to call it the movie for the snob in all of us. How then is it such an endearing piece of cinema? Let me try to explain.

The "hero" of Metropolitan (and one of my favorite characters ever) is arch-elitist, arch-cynic Nick Smith, played perfectly by Chris Eigeman. Delivering Stillman's lines with absolute conviction he pulls off the impossible -- making us empathize with a lying snob. In contrast to Nick is the "less fortunate" Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), home for the holidays from Princeton, who first shows up in a rented tux at one of the debutante "deb" parties that are still a rite of passage for the daughters of the Manhattan elite. Rented tux says middle-class, but there's a shortage of escorts for the girls so Nick takes Tom under his wing despite the misgivings of Charlie Black (Taylor Jacobs), the elder statesman of the group. Tom and his socialist ideas are a curiosity to this group of monied prepsters who probably won't have to work a day in their lives. Much hilarity ensues and a burgeoning romance between Tom and sweet, insecure Audrey (Carolyn Farina) provides most of the dramatic impetus. Along the way Tom and self-proclaimed untitled aristocrat Nick (he dismisses the titled aristocracy as "the scum of the earth") prove to have more in common than they thought.

For one thing, as it turns out, they're both dealing with parental break-up. The parents of the Metropolitan kids are mostly an off-screen presence -- much talked about but rarely seen. Nick advises Tom, "The one thing you have to remember about parents is...there's nothing you can do about them." Wealth allows these almost-adults to live in a hermetically sealed world without adult supervision or interference, except for Tom who must share a cramped apartment with his mother. Their relationship is uneasy at best, which makes spending his evenings and early mornings with the upper classes seem more and more appealing. This brat pack moves from party to taxi to posh hotel ballroom and back again. The world is their oyster, but there's a palpable sense that that's about to end. Not only will the season end, and they'll have to go back to Yale or Vassar or wherever, but, they fear, the whole edifice of WASP old-money privilege is about to collapse. Nick worries out loud, "with everything that's going on this is probably the last deb season as we know it." Good thing he wasn't around for the meltdown of '08!

By movie's end facades have been stripped away, secrets revealed, insecurities brought to the surface. Tom comes to realize he isn't the anti-bourgeois revolutionary he fancied himself to be. Nick is just, well, lonely. Rarely has a film dealt so perceptively with the challenges of transitioning into the adult world. I might easily have despised these characters because of their privilege and sense of entitlement, but in Stillman's hands I find them likeable and not so different.

Movies are rightly described as a director's medium, but this is a writer's film. Whit Stillman's script is a bona fide classic. Metropolitan isn't a coherent defense of any political ideology, nor is it an apology for class privilege. What it is instead is an exquisite comedy of manners that conjures up nostalgia for a time and place that the opening title card announces is "not so long ago" -- a time and place that feels timeless irrespective of it's obvious 1980s pedigree -- more Jane Austen than William F. Buckley. At a time when change is in the air, it might be fun to ask "what would Nick do?" He would probably tell you to go to Brooks and buy some decent evening wear. After all, deb season is just around the corner. The nicest thing I can say about Metropolitan? It's a lovely film.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

One last election post

Francis Beckwith writes:

Like many conservatives of my generation (b. 1960), I came of age when there was a vibrancy and excitement for the works of authors such as Bill Buckley, Russell Kirk, Frederick Hayek, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Henry Hazlitt, Hadley Arkes, and George Gilder. Our political heroes included Washington, Lincoln, Churchill, Reagan, and Thatcher.

Sadly, this present generation is rarely put in contact with these leading lights and their works. Instead, young conservatives as well as young liberals are tutored almost exclusively by blogs and bombast, by “stars” whose command of the intellectual roots of conservatism is an inch deep and a mile wide. We’ve come from “Don’t immanentize the eschaton” to “Sean, you’re a great American.”

Even though I firmly opposed Senator Barack Obama, and had hoped that Senator John McCain would have won, I felt a deep sense of patriotic pride welling up inside of me when I fully realized that America had in fact elected a black man. So, unlike 1992, I felt relieved rather than depressed. For something great had happened and I was blessed to have witnessed it.

I'm only 9 years younger than Beckwith. I came of age during the Reagan revolution and still consider Ronald Reagan the greatest President of my lifetime. In high school I was a subscriber to Bill Buckley's National Review and I too eagerly read Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind and Hayek's The Road to Serfdom. Back then (all of 25 years ago) conservatism was defined by ideas not personalities. Beckwith's piece makes me nostalgic for a time before Rush and Drudge and Fox News. I hold my political and ideological views much looser nowadays "It's the gospel, stupid" (preaching to myself) but I'm still a conservative at heart. Hopefully this time in the political wilderness causes some serious reflection on the part of those who've contributed richly to the current mess we're in. Who knows? It may be that the Obama revolution morphs into something quite surprising to all of us. History can take some funny turns. I think the President-elect has a sense of history, but I suspect many of his supporters don't. Be that as it's my last word on this election -- for now -- quoting again from Beckwith:

For conservatives, there is much work to be done. We not only have to be the loyal opposition when bad policies are proposed, we have to present our views respectfully and intelligently. For those of us who are Christians, we have to remember that the City of God is not the City of Man, that the Kingdom of God is established from the inside out and not from the top down. In other words, we cannot immanentize the eschaton.

Having said that, we have a responsibility to love our neighbors as ourselves, which may require that we support and defend policies and positions that we believe advance the common good, and with which some of our fellow citizens surely disagree. For this reason, especially on issues such as marriage and the sanctity of life, we must be artful and thoughtful in our public advocacy, assertive while not being abrasive.

Like so much of life on this side of eternity, politics must be put in perspective. It is not everything, but it is not nothing either. It has its place. For this reason, it is the better part of wisdom to end my brief comments with the oft-quoted, but not often reflected upon, words from the Book of Ecclesiastes:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

Read the whole thing

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The ghost of Mr. Lincoln

I thought both candidates for President performed magnificently last night. John McCain's concession speech was eloquent and struck just the right tone...and his unfortunate running mate was eloquent by her silence. But last night belonged to Barack Obama. Fitting, since he defined and dominated this campaign like few other candidates have done. He gave a marvelous speech. From "hello, Chicago" to "God bless the United States of America" he truly rose to the occasion. As Peggy Noonan said on CBS -- it was "an epic moment." Watching Brian Williams interview an emotional John Lewis brought home what an extraordinarily meaningful event last night was. It was a proud moment. I could sense some of the weight of history being lifted when the Obama family walked onto that stage. The tears were genuine.

The setting and choice of words were perfect. Speaking from the Land of Lincoln, in a park named for Ulysses Grant, the decision by President-elect Obama to invoke the words of Abraham Lincoln was aptly fitting. Hearing him last night I believed he has the potential to be a Lincolnesque type leader. The words he quoted are from the closing paragraph of Lincoln's first inaugural ("Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection"). This was a speech given on the eve of the bloodiest war in American history, when Americans killed each other by the thousands over the issues of union and slavery. The eventual abolition of slavery wouldn't have happened if that young legislator from Illinois had not been willing to challenge the status quo, to say this is evil, and be willing to use the force of moral persuasion and the power of the Federal government to stand up for the voiceless and powerless.

For Barack Obama to be a leader in the mold of Lincoln, he's going to have to stand up and be counted against a great evil and injustice of our time. One that kills over 3,000 white, black and brown human beings every day. He's going to have to stand up and be counted in the fight to defend the voiceless and powerless among us. He's promised to sign the Freedom of Choice Act which is a laundry list of pro-choice measures that would have the effect of sweeping away even the most modest restrictions on abortion. One of its most reprehensible aspects would be to remove legal protections from health care professionals who have moral objections to abortion. With huge majorities in Congress (we now have virtual one-party government for the next two years) there's nothing stopping the Democratic leadership from sending FOCA to our new President's desk in the first days of his administration. Signing it would be to put himself on the wrong side of the defining civil and human rights issue of our time. I hope this is one campaign promise he won't keep. We shall see.

President-elect Obama, be like Lincoln. Appeal to the better angels of our nature. Stand up for the unborn. I'm praying for you.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Rove calls it

The man President Bush refers to as "boy genius" calls it for Obama. The striking thing about Rove's map is that McCain could win Florida and Ohio and still fall well short of 270. On the other hand Rove projects McCain to win West Virginia's five electoral votes, which is significant because since 1916 no Democrat has been elected President without carrying this state. Interesting...

Reflections on a historic day

I didn't wake up thinking about the election. Actually, I woke up thinking about UFO's -- a result of watching one of my perennial favorites last night while Shannon attended her women's Bible study -- Close Encounters of the Third Kind. While she studied the Patriarchs I studied Steven Spielberg's fairy tale of latter-day exodus and apotheosis. It didn't hit me until a few minutes after my feet hit the floor that this was the day (I voted on Saturday).

When I walked outside there seemed to be a sense of something big in the air. This will be a historic day no matter the outcome, but especially if the polls are to be believed and America elects Barack Obama our first black President. I wave hello to my neighbor at the end of the street -- Mister Ed everyone calls him. Mr. Ed and his wife are retired postal workers, and they proudly display a Postal Workers for Obama sign in their yard. My next-door neighbors also have an Obama yard sign, but they've already left for their jobs driving a truck for a construction company and driving a school bus for the county. "Salt of the earth" people and wonderful neighbors are these folks. We went through three hurricanes together. Their daughter returned from a tour in Iraq not too long ago.

Most of my neighbors are African-American and many are old enough to remember when discrimination on account of the color of one's skin was enshrined in the very laws and fabric of this nation. I wonder what they're thinking and feeling today. If Sen. Obama becomes our next President, what a powerful testament to the world of how far we've come in actually living up to our founding ideals. What a powerful statement to a generation of young, black males that you don't have to be a gangster, entertainer or athlete to be somebody. Not only that, the most powerful, respected African-American in the world is by all acounts a model husband and father. Talk about a paradigm shift! A possibility worth celebrating. This is a great day to be an American.

Yet. I can't unreservedly celebrate the possibilities of this Election Day 2008, because there's a tragic irony at the heart of it. Barack Obama, whether he wants to be or not, is a powerful symbol of how far we've come from the evil days when a class of human beings were considered non-persons, unworthy of protection by our laws and Constitution. But Barack Obama, despite all the rhetoric and smoke screens, is on the same side as those who believe unborn children are non-persons unworthy of protection by our laws and Constitution. He's said this issue is "above my pay grade" and has indicated a desire to reduce the number of abortions, but he's promised to sign the Freedom of Choice Act which would erase decades of incremental pro-life progress, supports repealing the Hyde Amendment which would open the door to federal funding of abortion (here and overseas), and believes Roe v. Wade is defensible. I'm sorry, if you want to reduce the incidence of something you don't subsidize it and remove restrictions on it. Bottom line -- he thinks "choice" or a "right to privacy" trumps the fundamental right to life of unborn children in all cases. I say all because he's never seen his way clear to vote for any measure that would indicate he thinks otherwise.

I know there are other sanctity of life issues besides abortion. "The least of these" includes the homeless, the elderly, the disabled, the outcast, but it certainly includes the voiceless unborn child. It doesn't have to be an either/or issue. I've read the "pro-life/pro-Obama" arguments and heard a lot of false equivalence proposed i.e. "this issue trumps this issue, etc." But it's clear to me that on this defining human rights/social justice issue of our time, Barack Obama is AWOL. For that reason, my rejoicing at his election (should it occur) will be mixed with mourning.

This struggle won't ultimately be won or lost in this election. Could a President Obama have a change of heart? Should we pray that happens? Yes and yes! This is going to be a struggle for the long haul. Remember Wilberforce? It may be that standing up for life in our culture is about to get a lot harder. Russell Moore issues a stirring challenge:

The question for us, then, of whether we are truly pro-life or not, has very little to do with how many signs are in our yards or what bumper stickers we put on our cars. Indeed, it may be the case that after this election the abortion debate will be over in this country politically.

But even if that's the case, it's not over. Our churches are to follow in the walk of faith, which means that--like Joseph walking away from stability and comfort--our churches must be different, they must be counter-cultural, the kind of place where the teenage mother is welcomed and loved, where abandoned children are received, and where a culture that is in love with death can come and hear a message saying that life is better than death because there is a man, an ex-corpse, a former-fetus, who is standing as the ruler over all the nations and the universe. And he is not dead anymore.

What we must have is a church in which the gospel we give is the kind of gospel that leads people out of death and despair and toward the kind of life that is found in confessing a name--a name that was first spoken by human lips by a day-laborer in Nazareth, "Jesus is Lord."

If we follow this kind of pure and undefiled religion, it doesn't mean we will be shrill. It doesn't mean we will be culture-warriors. It doesn't mean we'll be belligerent. It will mean that we will have churches that are so strikingly different, that maybe in ten or fifteen years the most odd and counter-cultural thing a lost person may hear in your church is not, "Amen," but is instead the sounds of babies crying in the nursery.

And hearing the oddness of that sound, when they look around at the place in which all of the Lord Jesus' brothers and sisters are welcomed, protected, and loved, the place in which the lies of a murderous and appetite-driven dragon are denied, the lost person might say, "What is the sound of all these cries?" And maybe we'll be able to say with our forefather Joseph, "that's the sound of life. That's the sound of hope. That's the sound of change."

Monday, November 3, 2008

I love songs that lift up the cross...

I need songs that lift up the cross. Like this one.

How deep the Fathers love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give his only Son
To make a wretch His treasure.

How great the pain of searing loss
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the Chosen One
Bring many sons to glory

Behold the Man upon the cross
My sin upon His shoulder
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice
Call out amoung the scoffers

It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished

I will not boast in anything
No gifts no power no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection

Why should I gain from His reward
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

- Stuart Townend

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Imperatives and indicatives

After stating that no one -- not even the holiest among us -- can perfectly obey the Decalogue, Question 115 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks: "Why will God then have the ten commandments so strictly preached, since no man in this life can keep them?"

Answer. First, that all our lifetime we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and thus become the more earnest in seeking the remission of sin, and righteousness in Christ; likewise, that we constantly endeavour and pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we may become more and more conformable to the image of God, till we arrive at the perfection proposed to us, in a life to come.

In Reformed theology this is called the "third use of the law." The Heidelberg Catechism is built around a trajectory of guilt, grace and gratitude -- and it makes clear that the earnest endeavours of the Christian to "become more and more conformable to the image of God" flow out of gratitude. But before we can properly reckon with how the Christian relates to the Law, we must get clear the difference between Law (the imperative) and Gospel (the indicative). Scott Clark has a short Lord's Day meditation on this, including some links to further reading.

Does “Law” = OT and “Gospel” = NT?