Friday, December 30, 2011

The Top 10 Things of 2011

Keeping in the spirit of this blog -- in which I write about my haphazard interests as inspiration strikes -- I decided to simply do a "Top 10 Stuff of the Year" list, rather than a Top 10 books, films, or albums list. Another reason to approach it this way is that I haven't seen 10 films I loved, or liked 10 albums that much this year. Part of that is me just not keeping up, but another part of it is that it has been a somewhat lackluster year in film and music, for example, not withstanding some stellar stand-outs. This also frees me up to highlight things that didn't necessarily arrive this year, but which I discovered or appreciated this year. Many of these things I've already blogged about, and so I'll mostly just quickly describe what was great about each thing and link to other more in-depth posts. Without further ado:

The Top 10 Things of 2011

10. Lakers Meltdown

Though I don't expend much energy following sports these days, as an avid, lifetime Laker-hater, I felt compelled to include their getting swept earlier this year in the playoffs in the top 10. Not only did the Mavericks sweep them, they did so in spectacular fashion, blowing them out by 36 in the fourth game, sending the Lakers into a pathetic temper tantrum. Kobe humbled, Phil Jackson sent into retirement, the dynasty very likely reconciled to at least a near-future of mediocrity; the sound of that legacy crashing with a thud is sweet, joyful music to my ears.

9. Drive

Though the thrills are somewhat tawdry and cheap, this stylish flick by Nicolas Winding Refn is one of the better of its kind that I've seen in recent memory. Ryan Gosling plays a part-time mechanic, part-time Hollywood stunt driver, and part-time robbery getaway driver that gets embroiled in a situation with a host of shady characters which explodes into violence. There's not a whole lot to the film, especially with Gosling's playing it in such a stoic fashion, but what it lacks in depth it makes up for in flair and pizzazz.

8.  The Republican Primary Campaign 

This is something I imagine 99% of the populous won't understand -- and I fully sympathize with your antipathy or apathy, whatever the case may be, I assure you -- but as a political junkie I have enjoyed following the campaign. Whatever it says about me, I religiously watched every televised debate but watched almost no other television this year -- you might have noticed the conspicuous lack of anything television related on this list. From Cain's downfall to Perry's flub to Newt's late rise to Romney's steady presence it has been interesting and disheartening, compelling and disappointing.

7. The Expired Dictator

While I think the Obama administration has been a travesty, at least he gave the go ahead to kill Osama bin Laden. It's hardly a feat deserving of much credit -- any president that didn't sign off on it would be incompetent -- but he is a Democrat and conceivably could have backed off on the War on Terror altogether, but he didn't, so that's at least worth a small amount of recognition. Gaddafi and Kim Jung-Il also met their demise this year. Of course, the rate at which evil replaces evil in this world is often astonishing, so these developments may not have any significant, lasting impact, but the passing of these wicked men is something to be thankful for.

6. Google (Google+, Google Currents, Google Music etc.)

I'm not really much of a tech guy, and while I'm sure there were probably much more significant developments in the tech world, I mostly enjoyed the rolling out of these excellent Google products. I just finally got a smartphone this year, so these products having Android apps to go with them made Google a noteworthy contributor to my universe this year. Google Music? Upload your entire MP3 library and have it accessible from any browser anywhere. Delightful. Google+? The best social-networking experience available (though it still doesn't have enough of an active user base to be the runaway best, it is the most enjoyable to use). Google Currents? A slick, aesthetically and functionally pleasing way to read online news, blogs, articles, and essays. Total cost? $0. The technological age has a lot to be said for it, and Google is near the top of that list for me.

5.  The Attributes of God by Shai Linne

Highly related to entry number three, Shai Linne's Holy Hip-Hop album The Attributes of God was released in November of this year, and is by far the best rap album that I have heard this year. Titled and patterned after the book by A.W. Pink, The Attributes of God is an album-length meditation on just that: the attributes of God. His goodness, faithfulness, justice, wrath, love and grace, to name a few. Each attribute is addressed in a separate track (though there is some cross-pollination, of course). Shai Linne spits creative, incisive reformed theology of such high quality it's somewhat unfair to classify the album as "just" a hip-hop album. It's a legitimate theological treatise and an intense act of worship. Provocative, wise, and relentlessly christcentric, the album was unlike anything I had ever heard (though it led me to Lampmode's back catalog, where there were other similar gems). To add to the revelation that the album was, even aside from the content, the beats and rhymes themselves are more impressive than anything the secular rap world currently has to offer, and it isn't even really close.

4. Tim Tebow 

Try as I might, I was unable to resist the magnetism of the Tim Tebow phenomenon. A strange confluence of events on and off the football field led to one phenomenal football story as Tebow led the Broncos to a 6-1 streak while winning in bizarre, seemingly miraculous fashion week after week, and praising Jesus while doing it. How could this story not send me into fits of rapturous ecstasy, especially when Tebow's humble glorifying of the Creator of the universe actually raised the ire of critics? What's not to love here?

3.  Holy Hip Hop / Lyrical Theology / Reformed Rap

I've said almost all that I can say on this topic in my previous post. To summarize: I discovered Lampmode records -- most notably the rappers Shai Linne, Timothy Brindle, and Evangel -- along with the whole Holy Hip-Hop movement this year, opening up a new dimension of hip-hop to me, as well as providing a tool for spiritual education and edification. Not only are these guys making extremely intelligent, Christ-centered, theological music, but they're doing it with a very high level of skill, making the exact kind of hip-hop music that I enjoy. Hallelujah!

2. David Bentley Hart's Writings

If I make a similar list to this in years to come, I expect this to be a mainstay right near the top (especially with him having at least two big projects coming up soon). The Eastern Orthodox theologian's massive erudition as it relates to history, culture, language, and religion, and his penchant for being a delightfully acerbic polemicist are some of the reasons he's my favorite living writer. Not content to merely excoriate Christianity's facile critics and make significant contributions to high theology, he also displays a great amount of literary creativity, humor, and wit in many columns which may fully blossom in his upcoming short story collection.

1. The Tree of Life

I've written more about this film than any other subject this year, so I'll spare you too many more adjectives of adulation. But the gulf that separates The Tree of Life from every other film released this year is titanic. The scope and ambition of the film is gargantuan as it tackles the subjects of the universe, humanity, death, sin, family, existence, and God deftly and without pretension. Through the prism of the life of one family, as remembered by one man, the mystery of the exquisite savagery, grace, and beauty of the universe is explored and unraveled. I will be marveling at this work of art for some time to come.

Monday, December 26, 2011

'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' -- Fincher's Take

Despite my not having read any of the books, or seen the Swedish films, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was still atop the list of my most anticipated films of the year because of director David Fincher. Fincher is one of a small handful of elite American auteurs and also one of my personal favorite filmmakers, so naturally I closely follow all of his projects. And though I had no personal familiarity with the source material, I was aware that it was dark, gritty, pulpy, and intense which is right in Fincher's wheelhouse. Knowing this, seeing the trailer, and being aware that he would again be teaming up with Trent Reznor -- which seems like a much more fitting marriage of material-director-composer than did The Social Network -- The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo catapulted to the top of my most anticipated list for 2011 (2nd only to The Tree of Life).

To briefly set the table: the film is set in present day Sweden where investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist has just been sued for libel and lost the case. Publicly disgraced, he is contacted by a rich businessman who wants him to investigate the disappearance of his niece, who was 16 at the time she disappeared forty years ago. The businessman and his family live in a secluded area, where members of the wretched family rarely talk to each other, despite all living within earshot of one another. He wants Mikael to apply his keen eye to a collected storehouse of evidence and see if anything stands out to him, all the time suspecting someone in his own family to be somehow involved in the nasty business.

Meanwhile, Lisbeth Salander is a 23 year-old, pierced, tattooed, mow-hawked girl who the state essentially contracts out to people who need her hi-tech savvy and brilliant investigative acumen. After a brutal subplot involving Salander's rape by -- and revenge upon -- the social worker in charge of her finances, Mikael seeks her out to be his partner in attempting to solve the case. With their combined skills, they form an investigative super-team and get to work.

The most interesting, and not immediately obvious, thing about the film is the way that it fits inside of Fincher's oeuvre. Most significantly, the fact that it's his third serial killer film, and the manner in which it acts as a kind of counterpoint to Zodiac. Zodiac was a serial-killer detective procedural that was marked by frustration and failure, where every piece of evidence seemed to only lead to other pieces of evidence which didn't connect, or to complete dead ends. Common human failure and technological limitations of the era were the primary sources of disruption, and the halting but deliberate pacing of the film was reflective of this. By contrast, Dragon Tattoo is marked by a breakneck pace that mirrors the immaculately speedy and efficient detective work on display in the film, which is aided by today's wealth of technological tools that make the '70s look something like the stone-ages. Where Zodiac was a film that depicted human limitation and weakness all too clearly, Dragon Tattoo is an ode to reason and deduction and the rewards that can be reaped from skill and dedication. Instead of every piece of evidence popping up and then promptly disappearing again, every piece of evidence fits into the greater puzzle. Every loose end can be tracked down and tidied up.

And, as exciting as that can make the exploits on screen, it also strains credulity at times. The central crime that is being investigated took place over forty years ago, long before the explosive proliferation of cell-phones with cameras, yet there is an insane abundance of photographic evidence that the investigators are able to collect. So much, in fact, that Mikael is able to create a flip-book with shots from one crucial scene and, without much difficulty at all, track down a shot from another angle on the other side of the street at an important moment. Not that realism is at the top of my list of requirements for a film, but there are still reasonable limits and the film tested them in certain moments.

Fincher puts a great deal of faith in his audience, which I always appreciate, but there is at least one pivotal scene that is a wordless montage which requires reading a bit and following a certain investigative logic that I imagine could lose some people, especially given the speed at which the events unfold. In my case, it just made those sections exhilarating.

Despite the, at times, quite outlandish nature of the material -- not only the superhuman feats of the detectives, but also the almost cartoonishly wicked characters that they come into contact with and scenarios that unfold -- Dragon Tattoo excels as a superbly crafted entertainment. Lisbeth Salander lived up to her billing as an original and iconic character. It's quite difficult to think of any legitimate benchmark for comparison as I've really never encountered much like her in film or literature. She is a creature of an emerging world and something novel.

Shot in actual Sweden, the cinematography is predictably phenomenal. Fincher's trademark cinematic  wizardry is on display throughout, whether it's in the transitions, in the framing of shots in the middle of a blizzard (which may or may not be a CGI creation), or shots of Lisbeth tearing through the streets on her motorcycle, the aesthetic qualities of the films are excellent. Reznor's soundtrack is another subtle, brilliant piece of work, rarely intruding too openly, and always adding a grim layer of texture. Daniel Craig as Blomkvist is the best that I've ever seen him, and Rooney Mara turns in a solid performance as Salander, though at times it seemed that her performance may have lacked a certain intensity. Which, admittedly, is explicable as a product of her lousy childhood, and which may contribute to an air of even greater cloaked intensity. I'm not positive which it is. In any case, Fincher made it work for the film.

As a standalone piece, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is another triumph for Fincher who continues to deliver the goods. Seen within the greater context of the work of the artist, specifically as part of a triptych along with Se7en and Zodiac, Dragon Tattoo's standing is elevated even further.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Discriminating God

In his debate with William Lane Craig, Sam Harris lodged the forceful objection against Christianity (and Islam) that, according to its doctrines (as he misunderstands them), millions of people will go to hell for being born into the wrong culture at the wrong time. What he means is that those born into, for example, predominantly Hindu or Islamic cultures will be less likely to ever come to accept the truth and forgiveness offered by Christ's redemptive and salvific work on the cross and in His resurrection, than someone who was born into a predominantly Christian culture.

While this is, in a sense, true, it's an incomplete picture of the situation and it is represented with a particular narrow rhetoric that doesn't do justice to reality. Once a few things are clarified, the poverty of this particular representation of the situation becomes clear.

First of all, simply being born into a Christian culture will curry you no favor with the Christian God. Many people who are raised Christian, and even many who consider themselves Christian, in the vaguest sense, are not actually Christian. Then there are many who are born into Christian cultures but reject Christianity. And -- something I sometimes forget about myself but was reminded of when I re-read The Screwtape Letters recently -- even a true Christian can sometimes fall away from the faith (not that that happened in Screwtape, but the simple fact that Screwtape's "subject" was a Christian reminded me).

Secondly, given the global spread of Christianity, there are many people in all cultures who are now Christian. Not to mention that what were once the "right" places for being born Christian, such as France, are increasingly becoming (or have become) places where you're much more likely to be raised secular and godless than many villages in Africa where you are now more likely to be born and raised Christian. So the picture is much more ambiguous and muddled than merely being born into the "right" or "wrong" culture.

Thirdly -- though perhaps this should have been my first point -- according to Christian beliefs, all people are guilty of sin, the wages of which are death. If someone goes to hell it wasn't because of which culture they were born into, but because they sinned against God, and because they rejected -- not didn't hear, but rejected -- the gracious rescue by Christ from sin and death.

Now, as to the supposed injustice of it being easier for those born into a Christian culture to come to knowledge of, and commitment to, Jesus Christ, this is probably true. Christ came to rescue all humanity and open the way to God for all people, yes, but he did this knowing that many people (and cultures) would reject him. If that seems "unfair" to our modern (and perverse) cultural lenses, who ever claimed fairness (in our modern sense) to be a divine attribute? We claim that God is just, and justice for the guilty means death. Death means separation from God and hell. That is what everyone deserves. God would have been perfectly just to leave us in our death. Anything humanity is given that is greater than death and hell for all is an act of Grace. Something no one deserves, but which you may either accept or reject.

The fact that God seems to make the conditions for following him "easier" for certain peoples isn't exactly inconsistent with his character as revealed in the Bible or as understood by Christian doctrine. The God of the Old Testament was the God of Israel, His chosen people, to the exclusion of the other peoples of the world. God also annihilated human life on the whole planet except for Noah and his family. While we may find this act more palatable because Noah was a relatively righteous man in a wicked world, he was still a sinner whom God could have also justly eliminated. But God had mercy on him. The situation is no different from today, only it isn't a "relative goodness" or a "smaller wickedness" that Christians possess, as Noah did, but a perfect righteousness that is imputed to Christians via Christ's substitutionary work of atonement on the cross. The sins of those who trust in Christ are washed by His blood and they are made new in His resurrection. Not because they were born into the right culture, but because they placed their faith in Him and accepted the only salvation available to the guilty. And this way is open to all the people of Earth.

Whether or not one accepts the truth of this narrative, the question that's pertinent here is whether or not it makes sense to impugn God's character as unjust or unrighteous. If it did, then that would be a legitimate objection to a faith that claims that God is just and righteous. And this was Harris' point; if the God of the Bible is real, then He is "unjust" or (really) "unfair", because the God of the Bible doesn't fit our modern American model of fairness. He had a chosen people, and even when He graciously opened the way for all people to Him, it's still a truth that is easier for some to accept than others. Shouldn't he make it equally easy or difficult, to be fair? And if He claims to be just and righteous but isn't (again, according to our faulty model of what it means to be just and righteous), then He either isn't actually real after all, or He isn't worthy of our allegiance because He's discriminatory (and a discriminatory God is unacceptable to our cultural tastes).

Once the objection is seen for what it is, it carries no weight whatsoever against the truth or consistency of Christian belief, although one could see how it might resonate with the values of our culture. If God were actually "playing favorites", that would be his prerogative and we would have no legitimate complaint against it as we deserve nothing but death. But, viewed in the correct light, there's no reason to conclude that anyone is ever treated unjustly, even granting that people born in certain cultures will more readily accept Christ, and others will more readily reject Him.

Our God is a discriminating God. There are things that delight Him and things He finds abhorrent. He bestows blessings and curses. He has a people. He has a Kingdom. He has standards. We all fall short of those standards and must either accept or reject His Gracious offer of Christ's blood as a means of reconciliation. Being born into the "wrong" culture is no excuse.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Tebow Fever: Caught

I tried to resist, but even I have caught a dose of Tebow fever. Though I've followed baseball, football, tennis, and basketball at various times in my life, in the last 4 or 5 years I haven't followed any sports closely at all, and I was fine with this development. With the NBA lockout this year causing even greater disillusionment, I was prepared to write off all sports forever.

Then in the last few months the name 'Tebow!' (always with an exclamation) kept appearing in my social network feeds, even though I don't follow any sports-specific figures on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook, and only some of these posts were coming from friends who were into sports. I knew who Tim Tebow was, that he was on the Broncos, and was aware of his faith, but I didn't know why he kept appearing in my feeds. After a while I finally googled him to see what the fuss was about and learned that, since becoming the Bronco's QB, they had gone 5-1 (at the time of the googling) with many of the wins being 4th quarter, miraculous comebacks. And that his persistent giving of credit to Jesus Christ for all that he accomplished -- in post-game interviews, during the game, in press conferences, and symbolically by kneeling (or 'Tebowing') after big plays -- was adding to the controversy surrounding him, creating vociferous and adamant supporters and detractors. Not only that, but Tebow's statistics at quarterback during this run have been fairly abysmal and his mastery of the fundamental skills of the position leave much to be desired, adding to the strangeness of the run. In many of the wins he seems to play poorly or mediocre for three quarters and then often brilliantly in the fourth. OK, so this is why he was causing such a stir. Interesting.

So yesterday, at home after church, I happened to see that the Broncos were playing and put the game on. The Broncos were down 10-0 with 5 minutes in the game when Tebow engineered a brilliant comeback, which was (providentially?) assisted by a severe mental blunder by Marion Berry -- the running back for the Bears -- when he ran out of bounds with 1:55 left on the clock, when merely staying in-bounds would have won the game for them. Later, in overtime, Berry looked poised to break free on a run for a possible game-winning touchdown, or at least to get into great position for a game-winning field goal, and instead he fumbled the ball and the Broncos recovered. This was another bizarre play in which, at a most crucial moment, eminent defeat was transformed into victory. Are there greater forces (or, more precisely, The Greatest Force) at work here?

Of course the magic isn't being created by Tebow -- or providence -- alone. In yesterday's game, for instance, the Bronco's kicker nailed monster 59 yard and 51 yard field goals late in the game, the former tying the game with seconds left and the latter being the game-winning field goal in overtime. Tebow put them in position, of course, and also helmed a crucial touchdown drive which put them in reach, but his teammates stepped up as well. After yesterday's miracle victory, the Broncos are now 7-1 with Tebow at the helm and poised to make the playoffs.

Whether God is a Broncos fan remains to be seen. It seems a trivial thing for God to care about, on one hand, but on the other hand, having a national figure so publicly and unabashedly proclaiming the power of Christ whenever he is given the opportunity is no small matter.

"I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." - Phillipians 4:13

Clearly Tebow believes this, and if he is always humbly pointing to the One who makes his accomplishments -- to say nothing of his, or anyone else's, existence -- possible, it isn't so hard to imagine that God would dignify that all-too-rare act with recognition.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

David Bentley Hart's Translation of the New Testament (and other news)

About 4 months ago I posted an inquiry on Google+ (which, as it happens, I enthusiastically support as the premiere social network) to Giles Anderson of The Anderson Literary Agency, which represents David Bentley Hart, as to whether he had any information on what his next project would be. A few months later Anderson informed me that they would have an announcement concerning the details of his next project shortly. Hart had mentioned that he had written (or was writing) a novella with the character of the Devil appearing in it. I was expecting Anderson's announcement to be with regard to this novella.

In the meantime, a collection of short stories by Hart titled The Devil and Pierre Gernet appeared on Amazon along with pre-order information. There was no announcement from Anderson or his agency, so I assumed this was an outside project for Hart. Due to arrive sometime in February, the prospect of David Bentley Hart's imagination and erudition being applied to a proper work of fiction was cause for legitimate excitement.

Then, a few days ago, Anderson messaged me on Google+ with what appeared to be an excerpt of an email from Anderson to Yale University Press regarding Hart's next project. Here is what he sent:

"Author of Atheist Delusions and recent winner of the Michael Ramsey Prize David Bentley Hart's THE NEW TESTAMENT: A New Translation, a version that promises to awaken readers to the mysteries and ambiguities in the original text, to Jennifer Banks at Yale University Press, by Giles Anderson at Anderson Literary Agency."

For Hart enthusiasts, such as myself, that is one colossal, exhilirating announcement! Coming, as it does, on the heels of another translation by a public Christian intellectual -- N.T. Wright -- it also could mark the beginning of a contemporary trend of sorts.

In addition to both these bits of news, Hart recently contributed a piece to The New Criterion's "Future Tense" series with an exquisite, brilliant essay on religion in America, in addition to an excoriating article at First Thing's online dismantling "the Oxfordian hypothesis", which is the basis for the seemingly ridiculous film Anonymous.

All of this following the demise of his regular On the Square column and a few months of troubling silence. I have both been edified and left in a state of great anticipation.