I am deeply concerned that there are many church members in America and beyond who think they are saved when they are not. Part of the reason for this nominalism is a failure to teach and understand the true meaning of the new birth.
You must be born again. It is a miracle. Many, I fear, don’t even want to think in terms of “being saved” as being in the category of a miracle that only God can perform. They want it to be a decision based wholly on human power involving no necessary miracle. That is deadly.
- John Piper
Friday, January 30, 2009
In a cinema, preferably a good one, a great deal of trickery is used to enable the audience to watch or experience the film. One of them is turning off the lights. Otherwise you wouldn't see anything. Noise is kept out. So you're in this dark room, looking at the screen, where nothing much happens except some shadows moving about. But people really want to believe. Not just in God, they also want -- the mind wants to turn the shadows into actions, reality and people. It's all trickery because they are just images with a lot of darkness in between. What happens in a cinema is a kind of hypnosis.
- Lars Trier a/k/a Lars von Trier, Danish filmmaker & provocateur
Thursday, January 29, 2009
I listened to a talk Thomas Friedman gave late last year at the London School of Economics on his new book Hot, Flat, and Crowded. It's thought-provoking stuff. Friedman predicts that energy and natural resources supply and demand will be the defining issue of the 21st century. He believes the nation that first succeeds in effecting an ET (energy technology) revolution will be well positioned geopolitically and economically. He hopes that nation will be the good ol' USA. In his view we've gotten tunnel vision in the wake of 9/11. We've become the United States of Fighting Terrorism. As he puts it, he's willing to walk through 20 metal detectors at Dulles Airport if on the other side of the last metal detector is a great project worthy of American inspiration and ingenuity.
Friedman told the following statistical anecdote to illustrate the coming energy crunch. There will be one billion additional people on the planet by 2020. Let's imagine we give each new person a 60-watt incandescent light bulb. Each bulb weighs .7 ounces. Put them all together and they weigh a total of 20,000 metric tons, or about the same as 15,000 Toyota Prius's. Let's assume that each person burns their light bulb an average of four hours a day. That will use 10,000 megawatts of electricity at any given moment. So in order for the next billion people to burn their single light bulb for only four hours a day will require somewhere around 20 new 500-megawatt coal burning power plants.
One of Friedman's think tank friends has come up with a new unit of measure -- the Americom. An Americom is any 300 million people who consume at the same rate as the typical American. In the 1950s there were two and a half Americoms (USA, Western Europe and Japan). Today there are nine Americoms (USA, Western Europe, Japan & East Asia, Latin America, Russia, two in India, and two in China). Friedman doesn't think the planet can sustain this many Americoms without a "Code Green" mobilization that rivals the response to the Soviet threat. Not the trendy "green revolution" of today in which no one gets hurt, as he describes it, but a real revolution. He quotes the mantra of the IT revolution -- "change or die." In that case, major corporations that couldn't adapt simply ceased to exist. Is Friedman being too apocalyptic? Most of us will live long enough to find out.
Remember Ross Perot? He intended to launch a third party revolution that would permanently dislodge the two party monopoly of American politics. Despite his efforts the Democrat/Republican hegemony is as strong as ever. R. Scott Clark argues in Recovering the Reformed Confession (see previous posts here and here) that there's a third party option available to those dissatisfied with American evangelicalism. One with staying power. It's been around for almost five centuries now. This third party is largely ignored or unknown, but Clark sees good and appealing reasons why "postevangelicals" should consider embracing the Reformed confession instead of making a beeline for Rome or the Emergent Village.
Professor Clark states at the outset that this book was written primarily for the "sideline" churches of NAPARC (North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council). If you've never heard of NAPARC don't feel bad. I'd never heard of it even though I spent two years in its largest denomination -- the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Why Clark refers to these churches as the sideline quickly becomes apparent. Broadly defined, American evangelicals number 70 to 100 million souls (depending on who you ask), while the total membership of the NAPARC churches is around 500,000.
In Chapter 6 "The Joy of Being Confessional" Clark tailors his appeal to a broader audience and argues that rejecting American evangelicalism -- strongly influenced as it is by fundamentalism and revivalism -- doesn't have to mean rejecting the Reformation. In recent years we've seen prominent Protestant evangelicals leaving for Rome (e.g., Thomas Howard, Francis Beckwith) or Eastern Orthodoxy (e.g., Frank Schaeffer) often accompanied by an eloquent memoir of their journey. I can relate, having flirted with joining the Catholic Church at one time. But ironically, if I had taken that step I would have been embracing another version of what I was leaving. Clark explains:
Once one overcomes the predominating ignorance of and bigotry against Rome that permeate North American fundamentalism, once one discovers that Roman Catholics love Jesus and read the Bible, it is not a great step to trade the authoritarianism of fundamentalism for the magisterial authority of the Roman communion. In other words, though they occur in a different setting, Rome, Constantinople, and the Emergent Village each offer to fundamentalism and evangelicalism a more ancient and better-looking version of what already animates them.
It seems clear from at least some of the testimony of the evangelical pilgrims, especially from the proponents of the emerging church, that it is simply assumed that Calvinism or the Reformed faith is synonymous with American fundamentalism or revivalism. The pilgrims from evangelicalism seem to assume that, in rejecting fundamentalism and revivalism, they must also reject the Reformation. It is true that, in modernity, the Reformed churches have not always been good witnesses to their own tradition. We have too often looked and sounded and acted as though we were revivalists or fundamentalists. Nevertheless, if the adjective "Reformed" is defined by the Reformed confession, then we are not simply another version of those things evangelicals and postevangelicals are fleeing. (p. 196)
The heart of this chapter is taken up with five theological and ecclesiological virtues of the Reformed faith as it's described in the book. I'll simply list them and encourage you to read the case Clark makes for yourself. The Reformed faith is Biblical, catholic, vital, evangelical -- "To say that confessional Reformed theology is evangelical is to say that it is vitally concerned about the evangel or the good news that God the Son has come, taken on humanity in history, bringing with him God's kingdom, grace, salvation, and righteousness (Matt. 4:23; 9:35; 24:14)" -- and it is churchly. I suspect that anyone who takes a serious look will find tremendous appeal in these virtues. I suspect also that many who think they know what this book is going to say (and are sure they'll disagree with it!) may be surprised.
These days many younger Christians are looking for a radical, new way to do church. They've grown weary of the pragmatism, shallowness and boomer aesthetic that all too often characterizes the churches of their parents. Perhaps they're enthusiastic about the books of Robert Webber or Rob Bell or others who offer up various ideas of what the church should look like in the 21st century. Maybe they've been dismayed by the anti-intellectualism described in books such as Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. I've read some of those same books and they resonate with me too, but I hope some of my peers will check out Recovering the Reformed Confession. What it offers isn't exactly new, but it is radical. For those evangelicals looking for another alternative to lowest common denominator faith, this book offers a clear one. It would be a shame to relocate without investigating all the options.
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
This week's White Horse Inn program is on Creation, Fall & Redemption. This is basic stuff, but so essential to understanding the storyline of the Bible, the greatness of the gospel, and the nature of the Kingdom of God.
Monday, January 26, 2009
For a more in-depth look at Frost/Nixon I highly recommend my friend redeyespy's review. I agree with his assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of this film. What got me thinking was a line from James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell). Director Ron Howard uses a documentary-like device throughout the film in which several of the main actors reminisce on their participation in the events dramatized. Reston's post-mortem includes this phrase "the reductive power of the close-up." Meaning the way television can reduce a long and varied career into a single moment. Here a buffoonish British talk show host was able to do what legions of investigative reporters and Congressional committees could not -- force Richard Nixon to betray self-doubt and remorse before millions of viewers. Not because he was the President's intellectual equal, but because he understood the power of television. Remarkable.
This wasn't the first time Nixon had fallen victim to the new monster. It's widely assumed that the first ever televised Presidential debate between Nixon and JFK cost Nixon the 1960 election due to the sickly pallor and presence of sweat on the Vice President's upper lip. Radio listeners thought Nixon had won the debate, but they hadn't seen the close-ups. "Never let them see you sweat." Watergate was before my time, but there have been a few such defining television moments in my lifetime. "There you go again." -- Ronald Reagan debating Carter in '80, George Bush Senior's bewilderment in a supermarket check-out line, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky on the rope line and "I did not have sex with that woman," Bush Jr. on the deck of the carrier "Mission Accomplished", etc. Is it fair? Probably not. What's for sure is that television is a carnivore that must be fed. What it builds up it eventually tears down. It will be interesting to see how the reductive power of the close-up plays out in the Obama era.
Saturday, January 24, 2009
My mother is a subscriber to God's Revivalist magazine, and so recently gave me a stack of back issues to read. Maybe she's hoping by reading them I'll see the error of my Calvinist ways. Just kidding, mom (if you're reading this). Actually, her view is that on many of these issues there isn't much daylight between the Calvinist and Arminian (or Wesleyan) position. In any case God's Revivalist is an excellent publication for anyone, Wesleyan or otherwise, interested in learning more about Wesleyan/Methodist theology and practice. I like the fact that they're not afraid to emphasize Wesleyan distinctives and take on opposing (e.g., Calvinist) positions. As I've written before, I don't think the church is necessarily well served by obliterating doctrinal distinctives and papering over differences. I prefer vivid colors to grey.
Each issue of GR has a feature called "We Believe: Catechism and Confession in Wesleyan Perspective." The November "We Believe" focuses on the Wesleyan doctrine of entire sanctification a/k/a Christian perfection. This, along with unlimited atonement, the Wesley's thought were two essential doctrines of the gospel. John Wesley said that entire sanctification "is the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists." Here is how GR editor Larry Smith describes sanctification.
In broad perspective, sanctification is the process of a lifetime, though it is marked by decisive moments of spiritual realization. Negatively, sanctification deals powerfully with sin, delivering believers not only from its guilt but also from its power and pollution. Positively it transforms them with "ever-increasing splendor" into Christ's own likeness (2 Cor. 3:18, Phillips), maturing them in holiness and deepening them in love. In conversion, they are initially sanctified--cleansed from "acquired depravity," the moral filth acquired through repeated acts of sin. In their lives thereafter they are progressively sanctified, growing in sensitivity to the Spirit and in fulness of Christian character.
In this advancing work of the Spirit, He also confronts believers with the corruption entrenched within their nature--"inbred sin," as the theologians call it, which is the legacy of Adam's original transgression. As they "walk in the light," using the means of grace and hungering and thirsting "after righteousness," they plead for deliverance from Him whose blood of atonement "cleanseth us from all sin" (1 John 1:7).
Upon reading that I immediately reached for my copy of the Westminster Confession of Faith and looked up Chapter 13 "On Sanctification." Here is the Presbyterian/Reformed understanding of sanctification as expressed in the WCF.
1. They, who are once effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ's death and resurrection, by his Word and Spirit dwelling in them: the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified; and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.
2. This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part; whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.
3. In which war, although the remaining corruption, for a time, may much prevail; yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome; and so, the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.
I think that's very similar to the Wesleyan understanding expressed above. My mom has a point. But the "We Believe" article goes on to describe entire sanctification, and it's here that we would part ways.
In gracious response to their consecration to His purpose and their faith in His promise, He sends His Spirit to cleanse and empower them; and in that instant, as Wesley assures us, "the heart is cleansed from all sin and filled with the pure love of God and man." This is entire sanctification, and it has brought peace and release to multitudes of earnest Christians in every age and from every orthodox tradition. They have used different terms to describe it, but for them all it is the Spirit's gift to deliver them from sin and to make them holy and loving like Our Lord.
I think the Calvinist would respond that at no instant in the Christian life is a believer "filled with the pure love of God and man." Yes!, the blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin and the means of grace work by the Spirit to conform us more and more to Christlikeness, but even our most spiritually exalted moments are tinged with "remnants of corruption." I think he would go on to point Wesley to the Law/Gospel distinction which is at the heart of Reformed (esp. Lutheran) theology. The "ought" of the Law doesn't imply "can", even for the regenerate man or woman.
Wesley was right to emphasize the yearning that every believer should have to become "holy and loving like Our Lord" (i.e., entire sanctification/Christian perfection), but I believe that entire sanctification -- though accomplished at the moment of justification (Romans 8:30) -- will not become a full reality until that glorious moment described by the Apostle John. "Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure."
Friday, January 23, 2009
There weren't any celebrities or network talking heads on the Mall yesterday. Just thousands of average Americans of every race, religion and walk of life rallying on behalf of human rights for the most helpless among us. There were even some Florida Gators (see 3:21 of the video)! Tuesday was an exciting and historic day in our nation's capital, but honestly, I'd rather have been in D.C. yesterday with these folks.
In this clip from Donnie Brasco (1997) FBI agent Joseph Pistone (Johnny Depp) explains the nuances of a venerable piece of slang to two of his colleagues played by Paul Giamatti and Tim Blake Nelson.
How long can I keep coming up with ideas for these Friday posts?
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Warning: I'm about to sound like a cranky traditionalist.
Yesterday's inauguration drove home the abiding and useful place of custom and ritual. In societies both primitive and advanced it has always been, and will remain the case, that human beings prefer established ceremony rather than spontaneity to mark our momentous occasions. Yet the average person today has (or is supposed to have) a negative reaction to ceremony while venerating the spontaneous. "Get real!" "Be yourself!" Now I'm all for celebrating diversity and the improvisational aspect of life -- for one thing, I love jazz! -- but even Miles Davis did his best improvising within set parameters. Paradoxically, artificial restraints (i.e., ceremony and ritual) enable us to attain the genuine. This is the argument made by Professor Thomas Howard in his essay The Power of Wise Custom from which I'm going to quote.
Howard writes that the late twentieth century prejudice in favor of impromptu self-expression and against anything that looks like ritual has resulted in "an impoverishment of human life so tragic that famine itself is not too strong a word to bring into play." This impulse has played out in society, but oddly enough has found its most fervent advocates within the church. The idea that public worship of the Triune God should be governed by custom, and even ritual, was a given for most of history, but not any more. I thought it was a brilliant idea for Rick Warren to end his invocation yesterday with the Lord's Prayer. I recall wishing that Donald Miller would have done the same in his much publicized prayer at the Democratic Convention. Leaving aside for now the differences between a Presidential inauguration and a public service of Christian worship (or whether we should even have an invocation at a civil ceremony), that moment reminded millions of viewers that the Our Father has been a normative part of corporate prayer across the centuries. I'm guessing, though, that at Pastor Warren's Saddleback Church, the Lord's Prayer and other "relics" of liturgical worship, are ordinarily not part of Sunday services.
Professor Howard argues that, no matter how hard we try, form and ritual in worship are impossible to avoid. Even the most freewheeling service or revival meeting has a predictable form and phraseology recognized by those in attendance. I can remember as a child being in meetings where one could almost predict the exact moment when Brother or Sister so-and-so would get up and run laps around the church. It wasn't written in an Order of Worship, but it might as well have been. The question is which forms of worship point us toward God and away from the subjective self. Howard also points out the distinction (often lost) between private and public piety. "The private (my own prayers and praises and devotional exercises) may take any of a hundred forms, depending on what I like, or want, or need. But, from the beginning, public worship has been ordered." Thomas Howard is Roman Catholic, I'm Presbyterian -- so we would disagree on the specifics of the ordering -- and so probably would you, but let's at least agree that our corporate worship loses something essential when "wise custom" is ignored. Coming before God can never be a casual or haphazard affair. It never was in Scripture. Toward the end of the essay Howard enlists C.S. Lewis to help make his case for the value of ritual. I love this quote from Lewis!
C.S. Lewis felt rather strongly in this matter (though he considered himself a man who did not naturally like ritual; it embarrassed him). Speaking of ritual, he wrote, in Preface to Paradise Lost, "those who dislike ritual in general--ritual in any and every department of life--may be asked most earnestly to reconsider the question. It is a pattern imposed on the mere flux of our feelings by reason and will, which renders pleasures less fugitive and griefs more endurable, which hands over to the power of wise custom the task (to which the individual and his moods are so inadequate) of being festive or sober, gay or reverent, when we choose to be, and not at the bidding of chance."
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Monday, January 19, 2009
Every MLK day I like to read King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail. It's one of the great documents of American history and bears the marks of someone who was animated by the gospel. Here are some highlights.
ON CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE:
Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.
We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country's antireligious laws.
ON BEING CALLED AN EXTREMIST:
But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . ." So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
ON THE CHURCH:
In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.
There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.
Saturday, January 17, 2009
While the Gators were beating the Sooners 24-14, John 3:16 became the most searched topic of the day on Google - far ahead of "Oprah,'' "Obama speech,'' "Chris Leak" (the ex-Gators quarterback spotted on the sideline by Fox cameras) and "What is a Sooner?"
The next day, John 3:16 remained in the Top 10.
Tebow achieved his goal of capturing the public's curiousity, and in doing so he resurrected a religious reference synonymous with major sporting events in the 1980s.
Continue reading @ palmbeachpost.com
Friday, January 16, 2009
They're calling it the "Miracle on the Hudson." I call it an example of providence.
God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.
Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.
Westminster Confession of Faith (5.1-2)
In this case the "second causes" were the skill of Pilot Chesley Sullenberger, III and the first responders. According to the New York Daily News: "It appeared to be the first time in 45 years that a major aircraft crash-landed in the water - and every passenger on board made it out alive."
This week I had the opportunity to watch the 2002 Wilco documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart (thanks, Bill). It's must viewing for any Wilco fan, and an artful piece of filmmaking in its own right. Among the nice things in it is this opening title sequence featuring shots of the Chicago skyline. On the DVD commentary director Sam Jones said he was trying to capture the experience he had the first time Wilco lead singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy took him for a drive along Lake Shore Drive. Jones shot most of this sequence by simply holding his camera out the window into the frigid Chicago air. And yes, that's SpongeBob dangling from Tweedy's rear view mirror.
The opening of IATTBYH reminded me of the famous opening sequence to The 400 Blows, François Truffaut's love letter to Paris. He also shot it from a moving car, and the similarities in style and mood are striking. I have no idea if Jones was paying homage to Truffaut. Maybe he'll write in and let us know.
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
A couple of times Mark uses the Greek word paidia (lit. infant) which is usually translated as "children" as in the case of Mark 10:13-16. This morning I started to ponder how this incident might relate to the practice of welcoming infants of believing parents into the covenant community by the sign and seal of baptism. Coincidentally, I just came across this quote from Richard Muller that alludes to the same passage.
There is an inescapable irony in refusing baptism to children, offering it only to adults, and then telling the adults that they must become as little children in order to inherit the kingdom of heaven.
Richard Muller, How Many Points?
Monday, January 12, 2009
Gentle now the tender breeze blows
whispers through my Gran Torino
whistling another tired song
engine hums and bitter dreams grow
heart locked in a Gran Torino
It beats a lonely rhythm all night long...
- Michael Stevens and Kyle Eastwood
"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him." Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."
- Luke 10:36-37 (NIV)
A public figure caught in adultery can, if he plays his cards right, be on the road to rehabilitation in no time. But that same public figure, if caught on tape uttering a racial slur or telling a racist joke, is headed to the PR graveyard. I say that to illustrate how the sins society considers unforgiveable are ever shifting, not to say that one is worse than the other. They are both deserving of censure. Just one of the thoughts I've had in the wake of seeing Clint Eastwood's latest, Gran Torino. Eastwood has said this will be his swan song as an actor. I'm not convinced, but if it is, this is a fine way to go out. Clint last directed himself in Million Dollar Baby -- and his character here bears some resemblance to the regretful boxing trainer Frankie Dunn -- but more apt would be comparisons to a pair of legendary Eastwood screen personas: Harry Callahan and Will Munny of Unforgiven. Yes, on the surface Walt Kowalski is two parts Dirty Harry and one part Will, but surfaces can be deceiving.
Walt Kowalski -- Polish-American, Korean War vet, and retired autoworker -- is an angry bigot. That his recently deceased wife managed to live with him all those years should have qualified her for sainthood. Walt is one of the few white people left in his working-class Detroit neighborhood now being taken over by "the gooks." He's as stubborn as he is ornery. Move to the suburbs? Retirement community? "That'll be the day!" Oops, that was another macho-movie-man's line. Actually, as Walt later learns, his new neighbors are Hmong people from the hills of Southeast Asia, and they aren't in the frigid Upper Midwest by choice. You see, the Hmong fought on the side of the Americans in the Vietnam War, which made them targets for extermination once the GI's left. Ironically, it was Lutherans that first brought them to Walt's Polish Catholic neighborhood and other neighborhoods in places like St. Paul and Detroit. "The Lutherans get blamed for everything," Walt growls.
Many of the things Walt says I wouldn't repeat, even in writing. They make me cringe. We laugh at some of it, but wouldn't if it was our neighbor or father saying those things. Yet, Walt is not the only one in the neighborhood tossing off slurs like Fourth of July firecrackers. The Mexican punks hurl epithets at the Hmong punks (and vice-versa), and the black gangbangers on the corner have their own brand of dehumanizing jargon. It seems everyone is gripped by the need to tear down and label those not of their own tribe. There's also Martin the Italian barber and Kennedy the Irish construction foreman. When Walt gets together with Marty and Kennedy, they trade stereotypical insults in a way that's positively virtuosic. But with them it's more in the way of good-natured joshing. There isn't the hostile undercurrent that accompanies other encounters. They're "real" Americans, right? I suppose they are if that means they've been here for a couple of generations. These scenes recalled similar rants in Spike Lee's brilliant polemic on race Do the Right Thing. Eastwood and Lee had a well publicized feud a while back, and I couldn't help but wonder if this film was Eastwood's reply. It would be a fascinating exercise to launch a discussion on race in America by watching Gran Torino back to back with Lee's film.
I'm only introducing Walt. It would be misleading, and to miss the main point of the film I think, if you concluded that his obvious sins are the final word on the man. What is the measure of a man? Walt is crippled. He's crippled by regret. This emerges in the confrontations with the babyfaced priest (Christopher Carley) who's promised Walt's wife to make him go to confession, and in a surprising relationship with the Hmong boy (Bee Vang) and girl (Ahney Her) next door. Walt is astonished to realize he has more in common with these people than his own flesh and blood. The redeeming power of this film comes in the journey Walt takes toward making peace with that regret and trying to put things right. Nick Schenck's screenplay pushes the envelope, but succeeds in my opinion. As does the film, in spades, in some ways the most surprising thing Eastwood has ever done...and that's saying a lot for someone who told the story of Iwo Jima in two epic films, one from the American perspective and one from the Japanese.
And then there's that car. A 1972 Ford Gran Torino fastback, handpicked by Walt off the assembly line back in the day when the Big Three ruled and buying American was a given. A real beauty. Just looking at it gives Walt pleasure. It's the one thing everybody wants -- from the neighborhood gangsters who try to steal it to the estranged granddaughter who hopes to inherit it because it's "retro cool." That car stands for something. An idea of America perhaps? An idea of what she once was, or still could be? It hints at some bigger ideas at play, though I decided to focus in this piece on the story of the man, rather than the story of the country.
Clint Eastwood the man, and the director, has quietly made a string of films that qualify as genuine classics. There have been a few misfires, but the overall body of work is beyond impressive. Malpaso, the name of Clint's production company, might as well be a synonym for movie excellence. Gran Torino might be Eastwood the actor's crowning achievement, but thankfully it won't be for Eastwood the director. He's already at work on the next project. No doubt bringing each take to a close with his trademark "okay" instead of the usual "cut". There's no fuss on an Eastwood set.
I don't like to read other reviews before writing my own, but I happened to see where Manohla Dargis described Gran Torino as a requiem. I can't do any better than that at describing the emotional impact it had on me, and apparently on my fellow audience members -- I can't recall a more hushed exit from a theater. The finale of this requiem is begun by Eastwood himself, singing in a gravelly whisper. As the credits rolled I found myself thinking about my grandfather, Edward Ley (1908-1998). Don't get me wrong. He never said the hateful things this fictional character says, but he shared some of the characteristic faults and virtues of his generation. Like Walt, he had his share of regrets. He was a good man, and I miss him. He would have admired that car too. Grandpa was a Ford man.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
Sometimes, Lord, one is tempted to say that if you wanted us to behave like the lilies of the field you might have given us an organization more like theirs. But that, I suppose, is just your grand experiment. Or no; not an experiment, for you have no need to find things out. Rather your grand enterprise. To make an organism which is also a spirit; to make that terrible oxymoron, a 'spiritual animal.' To take a poor primate, a beast with nerve-endings all over it, a creature with a stomach that wants to be filled, a breeding animal that wants its mate, and say, 'Now get on with it. Become a god.'
When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of 'No answer.' It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, 'Peace, child; you don't understand.'
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
Saturday, January 10, 2009
Wow! I wouldn't know where to begin in dissecting this New York Times piece by Molly Worthen on Mark Driscoll and the resurgence of Calvinistic theology that he's often identified with, but suffice to say Ms. Worthen's characterizations should be taken with a huge grain of salt.
Scott Clark comments here.
The Gospel of Mark has a dramatic momentum unique among the synoptic Gospels. The word "immediately" -- "straightway" in the old King James English -- is a favorite word for Mark. He would have been a good action-film screenwriter. He plunges right in to the narrative by connecting Jesus to the the Hebrew Scriptures which would have been unfamiliar to his Greek audience (Mark 1:1-3). That's why Mark often pauses to explain the meaning of a Jewish custom or Aramaic word. This is not meant to be read as myth or legend, nor is it written like that, it's meant to be read as a factual account.
The account of Jesus walking on the water in Mark 6:45-52 has the characteristics of an Old Testament theophany, or visible manifestation of God. There's a supernatural disturbance of the natural order ("he came to them, walking on the sea"), divine self-identification ("Take heart; it is I" -- literally "I am") and intense fear ("they all saw him and were terrified.") But then a surprising thing happens. If you blink you might miss it. Instead of disappearing into the cloud or the whirlwind, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, the same in substance and equal in power and glory with God the Father and God the Spirit, got into the boat with them. This was indeed Immanuel "God with us!" No wonder Mark tells us "they were utterly astounded."
Friday, January 9, 2009
Robert Duvall turned 78 this week. He's still going strong so don't mistake this for a final retrospective! But I think it will be hard for him to top the achievement of The Apostle, his 1997 film about the fall from grace and struggle for redemption of a Pentecostal evangelist. The subject had been in the back of Duvall's mind for years before he finally wrote, produced, directed and starred as Rev. Sonny Dewey. It's a totally convincing performance without a hint of patronization. Duvall managed to master the cadences and mannerisms of a Deep South Holiness preacher in such a way that the line between actor and non-actor is hard to discern. Watch this clip and see if you don't agree.
Further reading: Interview with Robert Duvall @ Journal of Religion & Film
Thursday, January 8, 2009
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
I know my Hobe Sound readers will be interested to know that Philip Brown and his labor of love -- A Reader's Hebrew Bible (co-edited with Bryan W. Smith) -- got a mention at Justin Taylor's wildly popular BTW blog. He'll get some hits now!
Hebrew Glossary: Words Occurring over 100 Times
Amy Royster blogs in our local newspaper on a sensitive issue that's been in the news lately.
Warning: Amy takes the high road, but some of the commenters do not.
UPDATE: In the interest of full disclosure I should mention that Amy is a friend of ours.
We live in the age between the promise of the new heavens and the new earth -- where perfect peace, righteousness and justice will reign -- and the fulfillment of that promise. Glass-is-half-empty guy that I am I tend to focus on the injustice, or justice delayed, that we see all around us. But there's a principal of justice at work even now. You see it at work when the terrorist's bomb prematurely detonates, killing the terrorist instead of the innocents he's targeting. It's what we might call "poetic justice." Why things like this don't happen all the time is part of the mystery and tension that goes with living in this in-between age, but I think it happens more often than we/I might think.
You run into this principal of justice a lot in the Hebrew poetry of the Old Testament. I love these two examples from David.
Behold, the wicked man conceives evil
and is pregnant with mischief
and gives birth to lies.
He makes a pit, digging it out,
and falls into the hole that he has made.
His mischief returns upon his own head,
and on his own skull his violence descends.
The nations have sunk in the pit that they made;
in the net that they hid, their own foot has been caught.
The Lord has made himself known; he has executed judgment;
the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands.
Monday, January 5, 2009
In Lawrence of Arabia screenwriter David Bolt neatly expressed a clash of worldviews beween Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) and Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif). You may recall that Lawrence manages to convince the reluctant Ali and a small band of Arabs to join him in an attempt to do the impossible, cross the Nefud Desert and attack Aqaba from the landward side. As they reach the halfway point Lawrence notices that his servant, Gasim, is missing and wants to turn around to search for him. This seems like a sure death sentence since the water is almost gone, and to Ali and the Arabs it's madness and blasphemy. They plead with Lawrence not to turn back -- "Gasim's time has come. It is written!" But Lawrence disagrees with their version of destiny with the famous line, "Nothing is written!" Later, after Gasim has been rescued and Aqaba taken, Ali admits that "for some men nothing is written unless they write it."
In Danny Boyle's new film Slumdog Millionaire, in fact, it is written. It is written that Jamal Malik, member of a despised caste, a Mumbai slumdog, will be one question away from winning undreamt of riches on India's version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. Jamal has none of the will-to-power and bravado of T.E. Lawrence, no captain of his destiny he. Most of the time contestant Jamal (Dev Patel) has a bemused "I can't believe this is happening to me" expression. Jamal is driven though. He's driven by a quest to find the girl he fell in love with in childhood. Will Jamal get the girl? Will he win the twenty million rupees? That's as much as I'll say about the plot of this remarkable film, one that's on just about everybody's ten best list, and may well walk away with Best Picture for 2008.
There's a lot to like about this Slumdog. Not least the way it melds Western cinematic sensibilities with the energy and color of Bollywood. Scanning the cast and credit list confirms that this was an international affair. I feel like I've been to Mumbai after following Boyle's hyper-active camera through the densely packed streets and alleyways accompanied by the kinetic score from A.R. Rahman (I will be purchasing this soundtrack). There are images I won't soon forget, many of them from the early reels as we follow Jamal, his brother Salim and orphaned Latika through the slums of (then) Bombay as they live the life of street children. Boyle has shown a knack for directing kids (e.g., Millions), and here depicts the indominability of youth better than any film I can recall. The game show sequences are spot-on, and feature a standout performance by veteran Indian actor Anil Kapoor as the slippery host.
Culture, religion and demographics have contributed to create some of the most horrific living conditions in the world for millions in India. Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy give us glimpses into the poverty and sickening exploitation of entire classes of human beings. Later, we see the slums of Bombay giving way to the gleaming skyscrapers of Mumbai. This opens up new opportunities, both legit and otherwise. Is the poverty and exploitation less now, or just not as visible? Slumdog Millionaire is calculated to send moviegoers heading toward the exits feeling good. The audience I saw it with applauded loudly at the end. I can see why. It's an exhilarating ride with a big payoff, albeit one I can't fully embrace when viewed against the tragic backdrop. That sound you hear is of one hand clapping.
Friday, January 2, 2009
Doubt is one of those prestige films that the studios release in the fourth quarter in hopes of generating awards season buzz. Expect to hear this film mentioned a lot between now and Oscar night, particularly the bravura performances of Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. This is an impeccably written and directed film, but it's brought off primarily by the actors. Writer/Director John Patrick Shanley adapted Doubt from his acclaimed one act play Doubt: A Parable, and like some of the parables in the Gospels it resists an obvious interpretation. Despite my disagreement with Roman Catholic doctrine and practice I respect the positive role the Church has played in the fabric of American life, thus I was relieved that this film wasn't another Hollywood polemic against the Catholic Church or religious faith in general.
Doubt is a respectful evocation of urban working-class Catholic America. A world that's gradually fading away, but can still be seen in places like Scranton, PA (my wife's hometown) which has a church on every corner and a Jesuit university downtown. The film portrays a time (1964) when everyone went to Mass, every home had a picture of the Pope and JFK on the wall, and the parish priest was the most important figure in the neighborhood (in this case the Bronx). Shanley drew on personal experience in writing the play and has said that the characters are inspired by figures from his own past. The opening of the film was shot on the street where Shanley grew up and some scenes were filmed in the school he attended. You can tell he knows his subject. I suspect that anyone who spent time in Catholic school will respond with recognition. "I had a nun just like that!"
If Doubt isn't an exercise in Catholic-bashing, what is it? The overarching message, it seems to me, is that religious certainty of any kind is undesirable and is to be avoided. This is a sentiment that will play well, especially since it's articulated by the character that most viewers will sympathize with. Doubt is part of being human, but this movie elevates it to the level of an epistemological principle. Still, it's a good film and should provoke lots of reflection on human nature, the nature of ecclesiastical authority and how easily it can be abused (and how hard it can be to ferret out that abuse), and the fine line between grace and license. Shanley's script makes only the slightest reference to the Bible, the gospel, or Roman Catholic dogma, but there's a lot to be read between the lines. The subject of vows does come up, and those interested in the inner-workings of the Church may find themselves wondering which of the two main protagonists kept their's. Was one justified in breaking them in order to keep a higher law?
Or you can set all that aside and simply bask in the presence of great movie-acting. Streep and Hoffman are superb (I would be remiss not to mention the fine supporting performance by Amy Adams too). Streep plays the iron-fisted ruler of St. Nicholas school, Sister Aloysius. It's a role that could easily have come off as an over the top caricature in the hands of a lesser actor. She gives a wonderfully controlled/out-of-control performance...if that makes sense. Hoffman continues to amaze. There's not a better male actor of his generation. He doesn't undergo the same transformation as in some previous roles (e.g., Truman Capote), but he totally inhabits this character of Father Flynn, the young reform-minded priest who may or may not be guilty. Three times we get to see and hear him giving a sermon before his rapt parishioners. When he slips into an Irish brogue to tell a story about a gossip and her father confessor it's magic time. Hoffman said in a recent New York Times Magazine feature that he was drawn to the role because "a good sermon is just like theater." He also said he doesn't know if the priest he plays "did it" and saw his character as someone who understood that "being a human on this earth is a complicated, messy thing." Yes it is.
Doubt is unobtrusively scored by Howard Shore, as well as featuring some gorgeous choral music. The setting that plays over the closing credits is worth staying in your seat for. Cinematographer Roger Deakins must have been granted a leave from working with the Coen brothers to shoot the fall and winter Bronx exteriors and the muted interiors. Camera flourishes are kept to a minimum, and when primary colors are used they stand out. The actors who make up the student body of St. Nicholas are finely drawn, including one unfortunate young man whose transistor radio and earpiece end him up in the principal's office. We're not told, but I bet he was listening to the '64 Series between the Yankees and Cardinals! Doubt has two scenes that gave me trouble. I found them too muddled even for the universe of the film. One is the final scene which climaxes in a surprising apotheosis. I give Shanley credit for not ending his parable with an easy resolution, still, this ending seemed a bit too contrived, as if doubt must become its own form of certainty.
New Year's Eve was a relatively quiet affair at our house. We celebrated with a few dear friends, and one rambunctious 2-year-old, who supplied a dose of joy and energy to the proceedings. My lovely and very pregnant wife (God bless her!) put together a lavish spread which saved us from having to battle the crowds at local eateries. Yes, New Year's Eve in Northwood felt more like a Frank Capra film than Fellini. But across the bridge in post-recession, post-Madoff Palm Beach it was different...
Read about it at The Wages of Wealth
Thursday, January 1, 2009
Continuing with some thoughts on Recovering the Reformed Confession by R. Scott Clark...what about this business of "confession"? Obviously, we're not talking about "going to confession" though acknowledgment and repentance of sin is a major subject of "the Reformed confession." My local church is part of a confederation of dissident churches within the PCUSA called the Confessing Church Movement, but that's not exactly what Clark is talking about either. Taken narrowly he means the 16th and 17th century Reformed confessions i.e., Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dort, Westminster Confession of Faith and the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms. More broadly he means the understanding of those confessions by the Reformed theologians and churches of that period, and theoretically at least, of the present-day Reformed churches.
In interesting fashion Clark lays out some of the historical background of the confessions and writes at length on the ways in which Reformed theologians and churches have understood and approached "subscribing confessions" from the early days of the Protestant Reformation until today. Keep in mind that the author makes his living as a professor of church history and historical theology, and has seemingly read everything there is to read on the subject. Clark advocates returning to a strict standard of confessional subscription by ordained officers and members of churches that claim to be Reformed. But before getting to that point, he addresses some foundational problems and misconceptions, primarily an incorrect understanding of the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura "by Scripture alone." An understanding that turns Luther into a radical individualist and egalitarian that left no role for tradition or ecclesiastical authority in reading and interpreting the Bible.
In Chapter 1 ("Whatever Became of Reformed Theology, Piety, and Practice?") Clark summarizes historian Heiko Oberman's formulations of two competing ways of relating Scripture and tradition in the medieval church -- the "single exegetical tradition" (Tradition I) and the "two-sources theory which allows for extra-biblical oral tradition" (Tradition II). Oberman "argued that the Council of Trent represented Tradition II, and the Reformers represented Tradition I." (p. 8) While they rejected the Roman Catholic view that the authority of the Church is on a par with Scripture, they would be quite unfamiliar with the prevalent attitude among Protestant evangelicals today that makes reading and interpreting Scripture solely a private affair. The pastor of the Baptist church I used to attend would jibe the non-denominational church across town by saying that "non-denominational was a denomination." He had a point. Clark makes a similar argument against the idea of a nonconfessional church.
There are two difficulties to face immediately. First, confessions, however limited they may be, are inescapable. Even "no confession" is a confession of sorts. Everyone who associates with a "no confession" church confesses that there is "no confession." Anyone in a "no confession" congregation who attempted to impose a longer or different confession would run into opposition from all those who confess "no confession." Second, the creation and use of any such document to norm the reading of Scripture are necessarily problematic. What is the status of a confessional document? Does it necessarily or implicitly subvert the normative status of Scripture? Is Scripture the "unnormed norm" (norma non normata)? The answer is that, among classical, confessional Protestants, Scripture is indeed the norm which norms all norms. Nevertheless, that norm must be read and understood within a given community (i.e., the church), and that community must come to some agreement about what Scripture teaches and implies and how it is to be read and applied within the church. Any such agreement or covenant is a confession. (p. 159)
Clark continues by quoting Anglican theologian John Webster that creeds and confessions exist to "goad", "shape" and "tie" the church to the truth (they are nothing less than the "servants of the gospel in the church"), and asserts, based on earlier chapters, that binding ourselves to a confession is not a contradiction of sola Scriptura, indeed to be Reformed is to be confessional.
To be sure, the community's understanding of Scripture may change, and when it does, if there is a consensus regarding that change, the confession may and should be changed to reflect that consensus. What exactly is the relation between the community and the secondary authority, its confession? The idea that Christians should be, in their interpretation of Scripture, in theology, piety, and practice, held accountable to a human document strikes some Christians as flatly wrong, and a violation of conscience, a violation of sola scriptura, or both. We have seen, however, that this view of ecclesiastical authority is not tenable among those who would be Reformed. Among the Reformed churches, our confessional documents have always been recognized as a "public and binding indication of the gospel." (p. 160)
Whether you're among the convinced or the curious the first step in recovering the Reformed confession is to read it. A helpful tool to do just that is Daily Confession. There you can read the documents mentioned above in bite-sized chunks throughout the year. Start today and by this time next year you'll have them read!