Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The one and only Terence Stamp

John Hurt isn't bad either. . .

The Hit (dir. Stephen Frears, 1984)

Review here.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Where we find salvation (Bonhoeffer)

Here in a nutshell Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains why the Christian community gives itself to the reading of the Scriptures as a living whole.

It is not in our life that God's help and presence must still be proved, but rather God's presence and help have been demonstrated for us in the life of Jesus Christ. It is in fact more important for us to know what God did to Israel, to His Son Jesus Christ, than to seek what God intends for us today. The fact that Jesus Christ died is more important than the fact that I shall die, and the fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead is the sole ground of my hope that I, too, shall be raised on the Last Day. Our salvation is "external to ourselves." I find no salvation in my life history, but only in the history of Jesus Christ. Only he who allows himself to be found in Jesus Christ, in his incarnation, his Cross, and his resurrection, is with God and God with him.

The Bible is many things, but first and foremost it's the record of God's mighty work of salvation culminating in Christ. In Bonhoeffer's words it is "the holy history of God on earth." It's there we learn to believe that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is our God too, and that the Father of Jesus Christ is also our Father.

Quote from Life Together, p. 54

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Another prince brought to naught

He brings princes to naught
and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.

- Isaiah 40:23 (NIV)

Photo via The Big Picture

The difference between skepticism and doubt

Jamie Smith:

But there is also an important difference between emergent skeptics and catholic doubters: The new kind of skeptics want the faith to be cut down to the size of their doubt, to conform to their suspicions. Doubt is taken to be sufficient warrant for jettisoning what occasions our disbelief and discomfort, cutting a scandalizing God down to the size of our believing. For the new doubters, if I can't believe it, it can't be true. If orthodoxy is unbelievable, then let's come up with a rendition we can believe in.

But for catholic doubters, God is not subject to my doubts. Rather, like the movements of a lament psalm, all of the scandalizing, unbelievable aspects of an inscrutable God are the target of my doubts--but the catholic doubter would never dream that this is occasion for revising the faith, cutting it down to the measure of what I can live with. It's not a matter of coming up with a Gospel I can live with; it's a matter of learning to live with all of the scandal of the Gospel--and that can take a lifetime. Graham Greene's "whiskey priest" doesn't for a moment think that the church should revise its doctrine and standards in order to make him feel comfortable about his fornication--even if he might lament what seems to be a denial of some feature of his humanness. All of his doubts and suspicion and resistance are not skeptical gambits that set him off in search of a liberal Christianity he can live with; they are, instead, features of a life of sanctification, or lack thereof. And no one is surprised by that. The prayer of the doubter is not, "Lord I believe, conform to the measure of my unbelief," but rather: "Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief."

There's so much I could say about this, since it speaks to several of the big issues facing the Western church today. But I'll just encourage you to read the whole piece.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Cake and candles

This evening we had a little birthday celebration for my lovely mom. Samuel helped his "Jammah" do the honors.

And the lemon coconut cake from TooJay's was delish!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The problem with worshiping images (J.I. Packer)

Good stuff from chapter 4 of Knowing God. . .

Historically, Christians have differed as to whether the second commandment forbids the uses of pictures of Jesus for purposes of teaching and instruction (in Sunday-school classes, for instance), and the question is not an easy one to settle; but there is no room for doubting that the commandment obliges us to dissociate our worship, both in public and in private, from all pictures and statues of Christ, no less than from pictures and statues of his Father. (p. 45)

To illustrate: Aaron made a golden calf (that is, a bull-image). It was meant as a visible symbol of Jehovah, the mighty God who had brought Israel out of Egypt. No doubt the image was thought to honor him, as being a fitting symbol of his great strength. But it is not hard to see that such a symbol in fact insults him, for what idea of his moral character, his righteousness, goodness and patience could one gather from looking at a statue of him as a bull? Thus Aaron's image hid Jehovah's glory.

In a similar way, the pathos of the crucifix obscures the glory of Christ, for it hides the fact of his deity, his victory on the cross, and his present kingdom. It displays his human weakness, but it conceals his divine strength; it depicts the reality of his pain, but keeps out of our sight the reality of his joy and his power. In both these cases, the symbol is unworthy most of all because of what it fails to display. And so are all other visible representations of deity. (p. 46)

These examples show how images will falsify the truth of God in the minds of men. Psychologically, it is certain that if you habitually focus your thoughts on an image or picture of the One to whom you are going to pray, you will come to think of him, and pray to him, as the image represents him. Thus you will in some sense "bow down" and "worship" your image; and to the extent to which the image fails to tell the truth about God, to that extent you will fail to worship God in truth. That is why God forbids you and me to make use of images and pictures in our worship. (p. 47)

Packer goes on to warn that even if we wouldn't think of bowing down to a bull, or praying before a crucifix, it's still possible to fashion a false likeness of God in the form of mental images. "I like to think of God as [fill in the blank]." How can we be sure we are worshiping God in truth? Packer points his readers to the Son -- "the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature" (Hebrews 1:3). It's in Jesus Christ that we find the final truth about God. By centering on him the false images we are prone to manufacture -- whether with our hands or with our minds -- are replaced by true ones.

This is one of those books I want to read over and over.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Galvin's prayer for justice

The incomparable Paul Newman with dialogue by David Mamet. . .

The Verdict (dir. Sidney Lumet, 1982)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Light and Days of Heaven

Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven (1978) is one of a handful of touchstone films for me. I would guess I've watched it at least ten times -- first on DVD and now on Criterion blu-ray. The DVD transfer was quite good, but it's no surprise that 1080p HD brings out another dimension. One of the things it does is allow the grain of the film to be seen, which is especially important for a film shot as naturalistically as this one was.

Most of Days of Heaven was shot out of doors against the majestic skies and wheat fields of Alberta, Canada (standing in for the Texas panhandle). Often, Malick and crew would wait for the "magic hour" just before dusk to shoot. More often than not they managed to catch lightning in a bottle and it's no accident that Days is among the most visually beautiful movies of all time.

Here's an interesting clip with John Bailey talking about the use of light. Back then he was a camera operator working under the aegis of esteemed Spanish DP Néstor Almendros. Bailey would go on to have a distinguished career in his own right. His memories of working on the film are accompanied by some of those beautiful images.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Internet circa 1995

My how far we've come (in ways both good and bad).

via kotkke.org

Monday, August 15, 2011

Church membership 101

A couple years ago I read What Is a Healthy Church Member by Thabiti Anyabwile and thought it would make a good small group study. The last few weeks I've been using it to teach our adult Sunday school class. There are lots of books on the subject of healthy churches, but not as many geared toward the individual church member. The book assumes that some kind of formal church membership is biblical. In other words we can find a mandate for it in the Bible. I like to use the word covenanted. Much like the marriage covenant a relationship with a local church shouldn't be entered into lightly. Vows are taken before God and man, and along with the privilege comes responsibility. While it's true that church membership isn't explicitly commanded in the New Testament, many NT passages simply don't make sense unless there was some kind of formal membership even in the earliest churches we read about in Acts. Pastor Anyabwile briefly discusses a few of those examples in the book.

So if church membership is biblical then it must be good for us. Good for us as human beings, and good for our flourishing as individual members of the body of Christ. What Anyabwile is pushing isn't "churchianity" it's basic Christianity. The New Testament assumes that personal salvation is accompanied by identification with the visible body of Christ (i.e. the institutional church with all her flaws). I like how the author puts it in the introduction.

Whether your Christian life began yesterday or thirty years ago, the Lord's intent is that you play an active and vital part in his body, the local church. He intends for you to experience the local church as a home more profoundly wonderful and meaningful than any other place on earth. He intends for his churches to be healthy places and for the members of those churches to be healthy as well. (p. 14)

The book presents ten "marks" of a healthy church member. Some of them obvious, others less so. It's an easy read, but full of solid content. And it's written by someone who clearly loves Jesus, loves the gospel, and loves the church. I don't know of a better book of its kind out there.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity

When it comes to reflecting on the Trinity the patristics are in a league of their own.

No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the Splendour of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Them than I am carried back to the One. When I think of any One of the Three I think of Him as the Whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking of escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of That One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the Rest. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the Undivided Light.

Quote from Oration 40 (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Second Series, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Hit (1984)

One of the joys of being a film buff is discovering hidden gems. These are often movies that flew under the radar, perhaps finding moderate success, and then fading away until finding a new audience years or decades later. One such recent discovery is British director Stephen Frears' debut feature The Hit. It's not Citizen Kane, or even Easy Rider, but it's one of those films that remind me of cinema's power to surprise -- no matter how many movies you've sat through. Frears had spent over a decade working in British television before teaming up with writer Peter Prince (another TV veteran) to fashion this intelligent taut example of hardboiled crime drama.

It's a pretty straightforward genre picture, but with enough eccentricity to make it fresh and interesting. I'd describe it as an existential British gangster pic with a generous dash of Buñuel-esque surrealism thrown in. The latter coming as a result of its Spanish setting -- the Andalusian countryside, Madrid and the foothills of the Pyrenees -- and the film's numerous daffy touches. I mentioned Easy Rider because it's also very much a road movie. Instead of Harley's it's a beat-up white Mercedes that carries our antiheroes on their journey of self-discovery.

Willie Parker, played by legendary Terence Stamp, is a thief turned "supergrass" informer. After his testimony that will put away a quartet of bad guys -- including the mysterious "Mr. Corrigan" -- his partners in crime serenade him in the courtroom with Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again" (we'll meet again/don't know where/don't know when/but I know we'll meet again some sunny day). Flash forward to a sunny day ten years later as Willie enjoys his new life in an obscure Spanish village. Parker's former associates have finally tracked him down. Willie doesn't seem all that surprised as he meets the two pasty-faced hit men sent from London to hustle him across the frontier to France; and then to Paris for what's assumed will be a final reckoning with Mr. Corrigan.

Mr. Braddock (played with wonderful subtlety by John Hurt) and his young associate Myron (a bugeyed Tim Roth) are swallowed up by the vast and strange landscape they find themselves in. They're more unnerved than the man that should be afraid, the man they've come to kill -- or at least deliver to his death. Stamp is just perfect as the philosophichal ex-crook (he's been doing a lot of reading in exile). Braddock and Myron have the guns, but Willie has the upper hand. His confident and serene demeanor wins over the impressionable Myron; who begins to look up to Willie and question the leadership of his boss. What does Willie know that they don't? What's he up to?

The wild card is Maggie, a curvy moll who joins the ride in Madrid after her boyfriend finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Played by flamenco dancer Laura del Sol she's the only member of the ill-fated quartet who's on home ground. Her stereotypical hot-blooded sensuality and temper prove disastrous to the controlled demeanor and best laid plans of cold fish Braddock. The cast is rounded out by veteran Fernando Rey playing the Spanish police inspector following the trail of mayhem. The film gets a huge assist as well from Eric Clapton's bluesy opening credits music and a flamenco guitar score composed and played by Paco de Lucia.

The nihilistic dénouement isn't a surprise given what we've come to expect from the genre, but it comes with a twist -- a surprising loss of nerve -- that seems to question the existential heartbeat of the story. I wouldn't place The Hit in the category of "great" films, but it's a fine example of a certain cinematic sensibility that continues to wear well long after splashier efforts have been forgotten. I just watched it again after first seeing it a couple of year ago. It was even better than I remembered.

The Hit is available on Criterion DVD.

Effective Romney ad

I don't know if I'll vote for Mitt Romney, or even if I'll vote, but the Obama campaign strategy to paint Romney as "weird" strikes me as a desperate attempt to deflect attention from a failing administration. Romney seems like a decent enough guy and this is an effective ad in response.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Des hommes et des dieux (Of Gods and Men)

To stay or leave? That was the question facing a community of French Trappist monks living in the mountains of Algeria as civil war broke out between the corrupt government and Islamist insurgents. These monks had been a part of their community for decades, peacefully coexisting with their Muslim neighbors. Their days were lived to the rhythms of prayer and work, and they embodied the love of Christ to the villagers by providing health care at a clinic on the monastery premises. Now they were caught in the middle between two sides that wouldn't mourn the collateral damage of a few dead French missionaries. To make a long story short the monks of Tibherine remained, and in 1996 seven of their number paid for that decision with their lives. It's presumed they were kidnapped and killed by one of the terrorist groups fighting the government. The bodies were found, but the details of what happened remain a mystery.

That is the outline of the story told by the 2010 French film Of Gods and Men, directed by the previously unknown to me Xavier Beauvois. I can't think of a more beautiful cinematic portrayal of faith, hope and love. The movie opens slowly and quietly as we follow the brothers going about their vocation -- praying, working and caring for the sick. They are thoroughly embedded and accepted members of their community. When an elderly woman needs help obtaining a passport to visit her son in France she comes to the brothers. When a young woman needs advice on matters of the heart she comes to the brothers. In one scene we see them being invited to -- and attending -- a family celebration which concludes with the village imam offering prayers. One senses on the part of these Christians not a naive acceptance of Islam, but a respectful effort to understand it and build bridges between faiths. The leader of the group -- Brother Christian (an apt name) -- is able to quote the Qur'an as confidently as he quotes the Bible, which he does in a tense stand-off with the terrorist leader who invades the peaceful confines of the monastery on Christmas night.

Director Beauvois channels the spirit of Robert Bresson by allowing silence, light and shadow to tell this story as much as does sound and dialogue. This is a movie about a group, a collective, yet each member is allowed to shine as an individual. As the threat of violent death hangs over the monastery each man must wrestle with the implications of his calling. For one in particular there's a dark night of the soul to pass through before arriving at a confirmation of being on the right path. Each brother must count the cost. Of the cast only Michael Lonsdale will be familiar to most American viewers. He plays Brother Luc -- the clinic's doctor -- a man of deep compassion and irascible spirit. "I'm not afraid of terrorists and I'm not afraid of death. I'm a free man," he defiantly declares with a twinkle in his eye. And we believe it.

Of Gods and Men is one of the most understated films of recent years, but I think that's why it's so effective. I found it even better on second viewing. It's exciting and dramatic, but not in the conventional ways. The dramatic impetus is supplied by the moral seriousness of the situation. Even if we don't know the story going in, we can pretty much guess what the outcome is going to be. The monks sense it too. Once a vote is taken -- which turns out to be unanimous for staying -- the film plays out with several scenes of remarkable power. The last time the brothers are together is around a table. There is food and wine and for the only time in the film swelling music -- a recording of the Swan Lake Overture. It's a last supper of shattering emotional impact, a profound moment of catharsis before the final test. There are tears of joy mixed with sorrow. I couldn't help but see it as a foretaste of another communal meal, one where the joy will be of everlasting duration.

And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Friday, August 5, 2011

In honor of John Huston's birth day

A clip from Huston's adaptation of Flannery O'Connor's novel Wise Blood. The under-appreciated Brad Dourif stars. . .

Wise Blood (dir. John Huston, 1979)

Jesus and the budget debate

In the wake of the debt/deficit fracas in which people on both sides invoked divine approval for their position -- WaPo columnist Michael Gerson writes:

This use of religion in politics is a source of cynicism. It should raise alarms when the views of the Almighty conveniently match our most urgent political needs. A faith that conforms exactly to the contours of a political ideology has lost its independence. Churches become clubs of the politically like-minded. Political dialogue suffers, since opponents are viewed as heretics. And when religion becomes too closely identified with a detailed political platform, both are quickly outdated. Despite William Jennings Bryan’s best efforts, who now recalls God’s view of bimetallism?

Yet religion is not a purely private matter. There is a reason that, two millennia after his execution as a rebel in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire, people still ask, “What would Jesus do?” Despite his indifference to Roman politics, his teachings on compassion and human dignity have had dramatic public consequences. While a Christian position on monetary policy is a stretch, Christian opposition to slavery or segregation is a matter of consistency. Faith does not dictate specific policies, which are properly determined by the prudent assessment of likely outcomes. But religion helps define the priorities of politics, which include solidarity with the disadvantaged.

As a moral matter, federal budgeting lies somewhere between bimetallism and abolitionism, leaving room for healthy debate. Two recent dueling efforts have attempted to draw out the ethical implications of budget choices. . .

Keep reading for Gerson's wise critiques of these dueling efforts by two groups of Christian leaders -- one generally sympathetic to Democratic priorities and the other to Republican priorities. For what it's worth, Gerson is an evangelical Christian and former policy advisor to George W. Bush. In other words -- Paul Krugman he ain't.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

I'd rather lose my mind than lose my soul

I came across this excellent quote in Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan (a book I'll be blogging on eventually).

An individual, quite completely free from tension, anxiety, and conflict may be only a well-adjusted sinner who is dangerously maladjusted to God; and it is infinitely better to be a neurotic saint than a healthy-minded sinner. . . . Healthy-mindedness may be a spiritual hazard that keeps an individual from turning to God precisely because he has no acute sense of God. . . . Tension, conflict, and anxiety, even to the point of mental illness, may be a cross voluntarily carried in God’s service.

The quote is taken from a Christianity Today article by theologian Vernon Grounds: "Called to Be Saints—Not Well-Adjusted Sinners". I tried and failed to find the complete article online.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Hebrews: the cure for shaky saints

Sunday past I finished teaching through Hebrews in our adult Sunday School class. The study and preparation has been immensely rewarding. I once heard R.C. Sproul speak at a conference where someone asked him what one book of the Bible he would take with him to a desert island. I expected him to say Romans or one of the gospels, but he said Hebrews. Now I know why.

The author of Hebrews refers to his (probably -- though Priscilla of Corinth has been proposed as a possible author) letter as a "word of exhortation" -- something very like a sermon -- which in all likelihood would have been read to its original recipients. I imagine they must have at several points thought the sermon was wrapping up only to find out there was more to come. There are several "false" climaxes, but I think the climactic exhortation is 12:1-2.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Every Christian should have those stirring words memorized. One could also argue that the clinching truth to anchor our lives on comes at the end of chapter 12, verses 28-9.

Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.

Notice it's not up to us to go out and build this kingdom. Thank God for that! As participants in the awesome realities of the new covenant mediated by Jesus -- as opposed to the first one mediated by Moses -- we're simply to receive. Though, as Hebrews makes clear, this doesn't mean passively sitting on our hands. This letter is full of forward-thrusting, action-oriented imperatives. Here are a few that come to mind.

We're to pay close attention to what we've heard (2:1)

We're to strive to enter the final Sabbath rest (4:11) -- interesting language juxtaposition there -- strive to rest

We're to go on to doctrinal maturity (6:1)

We're to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises (6:12) -- for examples see chapter 11

We're to hold fast the confession of our hope (10:23)

We're to stir up (incite) our fellow believers to love and good works (10:24)

We're to strive for peace with everyone and for the holiness without which no one will see God (12:14) -- if you want to see what that holiness looks like in practice read the final instructions of chapter 13.

And there are many more. Yes, we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken while all around the kingdoms of man totter on their foundations. Read the newspaper, watch the news. Are things looking shaky? The New Testament predicted it. Hebrews is more relevant than ever.

One final thought -- which is that tucked away in this book is perhaps the best answer to the question, "How do I know if I'm saved?" Hebrews 9:28 gives the answer.

. . . so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

Get it? Saved people are those who are eagerly waiting for Christ's return. The NIV isn't as good here because it doesn't add the word "eagerly" which is justified by the strong nature of the Greek verb. Look around you. Do you see many people living as if they are eagerly waiting for Jesus to appear a second time? Am I? Are you?