Tuesday, February 26, 2008

February Books

One problem with reading (and/or listening to) short, easy books is that if you're planning to blog your books a bunch pile up quick. I'll have to remember to read longer books in March. Consequently, these observations will be short.

The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis, read by Alex Jennings. Of all the Chronicles of Narnia this has always been the one I've least respected because it seemed the least theological and the shallowest. Still I've always loved the story of the talking horse Bree and the boy Shasta and their flight from slavery in Calormen to freedom in Narnia and Archenland. It's a great adventure. It's also a beautiful picture of Aslan's (and hence God's) providence in Shasta's life. As Aslan explains Shasta's life to him in the mountain pass it's an invitation for us to look at our own lives and see God's hand at work to preserve us and bring us where we are today. Did I also mention it's a great adventure story.

The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis, read by Kenneth Branagh. This is the beginning of all the comings and goings between Narnia and our world. The image of the creation, of standing in black nothingness and then hearing the first notes of the song and watching a world come into being is amazing. Branagh's a good reader and really shines on Uncle Andrew's voice.

Night Watch by Terry Pratchett. I picked this up and reread it after an image in a Doctor Who episode tickled my memory. Night Watch is a Discworld novel focused on Sir Samuel Vimes and the Ankh-Morpork city watch. Vimes' wife Sybil is about to give birth and he and a few of his men are preparing to celebrate the anniversary of the Glorious 25th of May, a revolution they took part in 30 years ago. Suddenly he finds out they've cornered a dangerous, wanted criminal near the Unseen University. In the midst of apprehending the felon Vimes is caught in a magical storm and they are sent back 30 years in the past to relive the revolution. Vimes is probably my favorite Discworld character and it's a lot of fun to see him struggle with unrest leading up to the revolution and catch the criminal and try to impersonate the man who's training his 30 years younger, rookie cop self while trying to figure out how to get back to his own time. One of Pratchett's best.

Ambient Findability by Peter Morville. Morville is a librarian and information architect. The tagline on the cover of this book is "What we find changes who we become." The book mostly focuses on how we find things and what that can teach those of us who are interested in enabling things, e.g. information or books, to be found. What do people search for? How do they search? How is our knowledge conditioned by its sources and availability? The book discusses all kinds of things from ubiquitous computing via smart phones and wireless networks and radio frequency identification to evolutionary psychology and architecture. It's a very broad but interesting look at how we find our way through life and especially how we find information.

The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis, read by Patrick Stewart. I wouldn't have imagined that Patrick Stewart would be so good at reading talking dogs, but he's great here. The Last Battle is my favorite of the Chronicles of Narnia for its picture of heaven. I love how it expands as they progress "further up and further in" so that each ring of the concentric circles is larger than the one outside it. A couple of my favorite quotes:
"Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worth of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than be Tisroc of the world and live and not to have seen him." Emeth on meeting Aslan
"'Yes,' said Queen Lucy, 'In our world too, a stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.'"
It's hard for me to get through the end of this book without tears of joy. I love it.

General Life Doins

So I've had a good time this month. We've had lots of snow, more than 20" with another 5 cold and wet last night. Last night's snowfall got me a 1 hour delay at Trinity this morning, and we're looking at more snow Thursday night. On the news last night they were interviewing people who all talked about how tired they were of the snow. Not me, nor my friends Dave, Dianne, or Anthony. We all love it. "If it's going to be cold anyway, you might as well have snow." says Anthony. So we say, "Bring it on."

We had our Jr. High youth retreat in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin on the 15-17th. It was a good time. The weather was great on Friday and Saturday and the kids seemed to love it. They had a lot of fun and they almost all really enjoyed the times of worship and prayer. It was rainy on Sunday. Of the 17 kids who went at least 10 missed our next group meeting on Wednesday because they were sick. A few of us leaders got sick with colds too but it was definitely worth it. The overall theme for the retreat was Burning Bright but beneath the main theme each of the four sessions has its own theme, To live, To Serve, To Love, and something else. I don't remember much about Friday and Saturday nights' themes (live and love) but the Saturday morning message about burning bright to serve and the gospel presentation on Sunday were both very good. Another good retreat.

Otherwise its been a good time watching Doctor Who with Steve, working, worshipping, reading, and hanging out. I love Doctor Who. It's the best science fiction on t.v., at least until Battlestar Galactica comes back in April, and probably then as well.

Random quotes from February:

"Ignore the shooty dog thing!" Doctor Who villain to henchman
"I planned a ceiling. He's planned a miracle." Pope Julius VI to a henchman who complained about Michaelangelo's new design for the Sistine Chapel in The Agony & the Ecstasy
"But if you keep looking steadily into God's perfect law--the law that sets you free--and if you do what it says and don't forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it." James 1:25 (NLT)

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Recent Books

First, more weather. We got a load of snow, maybe 15 inches from Tuesday night to Wednesday night. At about 1 p.m. they decided to close Trinity's campus and send us home for the day. They should have called the day off that morning, but it was nice to have a half day off. Steve, his work closed also, and I watched Judge Dredd and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, before going over to our friends Jason and Bonnie's place to eat pizza ("it's not delivery, it's DiGiorno" and some delivery guy's very lucky) and play Starfarers and Settlers of Cataan. The campus today is beautiful with all the snow covering the trees.

Anyway, one of the things I wanted to do this year was try to blog some thoughts about the stuff I read both to help me think about it and to share it with others. Here are thoughts on three recent books.

The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis, read by Jeremy Northam. I've been listening to Trinity's collection of The Chronicles of Narnia on audiobook in my car. They're produced by HarperAudio and read by various famous British actors. One of the interesting parts is the way the readers pronounce the same words differently. The Silver Chair has been moving toward a place as my favorite of the Chronicles for several years now. Puddleglum the marsh wiggle is definitely my favorite of Lewis' characters. He's so funny in his pessimism but also in his determination and faithfulness to Aslan. I love his assertion to Eustace about releasing the possibly mad and enchanted prince that Aslan didn't tell them what would happen, only what they had to do. The prince might kill them but they will die obeying Aslan. Also, Northam gave him a great accent making him more fun to listen to.

Philippians by Gordon Fee. This is an entry in the InterVarsity Press New Testament Commentary series and is a shorter version of Fee's NICNT commentary. Fee is a Pentecostal New Testament Scholar who has specialized in textual criticism and Pauline studies. I wanted to study Philippians in greater depth so I read this commentary at breakfast and read the focal passages from the letter as part of my quiet time. I wanted to better understand Paul's focus on knowing Christ and the power of his sufferings. It's a brief commentary and for details Fee often refers to his longer one, but it was still helpful. Fee focuses on the letter to the Philippians as an ancient friendship letter and I think that was a helpful emphasis as was the Philippian context as an imperial Roman colony. Therefore the competing claims of Christ and Nero as Soter (savior) were very much in the open to the Philippians and part of their conflict with their fellow citizens.

Body Piercing Saved My Life : Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock, by Andrew Beaujon. Beaujon is a music critic for Spin magazine and non-Christian who got interested in Christian rock music while working on piece on P.O.D. and decided to investigate what it was all about. He spent a couple of years traveling the country to various festivals and events like Cornerstone, Calvin College's Festival of Faith and Music, and the GMA's in Nashville. He also visited record labels, went to concerts, and interviewed many bands, activists, and Christian music insiders. I expected it to be a very interesting book and it was. The research and attention to background detail wasn't always what it could be, e.g. Jonathan Edwards was not an itenerant evangelist, 99% of Evangelicals do not believe that man had nothing to do with writing or translating the Bible (though the survey research he read did indicate 95% of us believe it is the word of God), the hymn is not "The Church Is One Foundation," and, most egregiously from my perspective, equating The Lost Dogs with Petra (especially after praising Daniel Amos and The Seventy-Sevens who provide half the members of The Lost Dogs)--a critic ought to know better. An obvious benefit of the book was having my attention drawn to bands I've not listened to much, or even heard of, like MuteMath, Pedro the Lion, and MeWithoutYou. Now they're on my radar, or sonar. It was also interesting to get Beaujon's perspective on Christian music and evangelicalism as an outsider. One particularly poignant moment in the book came during his visit to Calvin College. He was hanging out with several artists and speakers from the conference and asked one of them why he took time out to answer questions from an angry listener. The singer responded, "Because I'm a Christian." That led Beaujon to reflect on the fact that he liked these people but was fundamentally cut off from them because of his own lack of belief. Often he talks about the fact that Christian rock is really the only genre of music that is defined by its lyrical content. I also found his discussion of worship music very interesting. At first, especially at the GMAs he was very turned off it. It seemed very sappy and individualistic. Other than the obvious emotional high people were getting from the music, he didn't get its appeal. This coincides I think with some things my former worship pastor, Ryan Flanigan has said in his and Sean Carter's blog, Reform Worship. Worship music needs to be considered as part of a life of worship and particularly as a corporate response to the teaching of the faith. Divorced from those contexts it loses its meaning and power, even when it is good music. Beaujon comes to understand some of this through conversations with a friend and particularly through the music of David Crowder and The David Crowder Band. He's especially spot on in his observation at a Crowder concert that it became most powerful at the point when Crowder, still playing, left the spotlight to focus on the music, leaving "the star's" place empty, while people kept worshipping lifting themselves to something beyond the band and the music.
As a complete picture I think the book loses something by primarily focusing on those bands and singers that are trying to crossover to the mainstream or be something more than a "Christian band", other than Crowder, who is unapologetically church-focused in his music. By focusing the book that way he's unable to really engage with the influence of Rich Mullins or Michael Card, or even Steve Camp. He closes by reflecting on the question, "Why Christian rock?" and decides that while it's culturally unnecessary he's glad it's culturally possible. In that decision I think he's still not fully understood the importance of the (W)word to evangelicals. We strive to be people of The Book and our faith is in the living Word, Jesus, but through the revealed, written word. More so than most other religions evangelical Christianity is focused on cognitive belief. Because of that we can't really overlook or ignore musical lyrics but crave something that rocks like what we hear on the radio or ipod. Petra wasn't Guns-n-Roses, probably not even Poison, but I needed something as kid that gave me a taste of what Axl and Slash could do but that didn't offend what I believed and aspired to. As we grow we come, or should come, to a place where we can experience and understand more than just our own faith and music, but we also need those who consciously come from where we have and who can challenge us to grow or draw us on to a shared goal in their songs. So, I liked the book.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Winter Movie Thoughts

It's definitely been winter up here. This time a week ago all our lovely snow had melted and the temperature was hovering, even at night, in the high forties to low fifties range. When I headed for work on Tuesday morning it was about fifty. When I headed home from LIFEgroup on Tuesday night the temp. was in single digits and headed for negative four. An exciting wild west wind was blowing snow all over the place and making my drive home (c. 15 miles) tense and interesting. By the time I got up we'd had three inches that had drifted into a ridge a foot deep in the driveway between my building and the one next door. On Thursday our predicted snow showers turned into a nine inch deluge. At some point during the super bowl somebody looked outside and noticed that it was snowing and we picked up another 5 inches or so. With temps in the forties and rain today and tomorrow it might all be gone by the time I leave work and by the time I leave LIFEgroup again, the same night it'll be cold and snowing. It's been a fun winter. Some folks are ready for it to go but I'm having too much fun. Thus for the winter part of the title.

Now for the movie part. I saw a couple of things I wanted to comment on. Also we're doing a movie display at work to coincide with Oscar season (whatever happens to the show itself) at work and Matt asked me to write up reflections about some of the movies on our display that students might not have seen so here're thoughts on two I saw over the weekend and the three displayed.
1. U2 Concert in 3-D: I saw this on the Imax in Lincolnshire with my friend Dianne on Saturday. I'm impressed with the 3-D technique. It's way beyond what I remember from watching The Creature from the Black Lagoon on t.v. with the cardboard red and blue glasses back in the 80's. Bono and lads as well as the audience really were jumping out of the screen at me. There were a few times when I thought the kids in the seats in front of me were waving their hands in the air but no, it was the Argentine crowd on the screen. Also U2 rocks. There was something about listening to this huge crowd of teens and 20somethings singing along to New Year's Day and Sunday, Bloody Sunday. There's a lot of stuff said about 80's music, but the decade wasn't all bad. Their new stuff's good too, and so is the stuff in between. It was an impressive spectacle.
2. The Rhinoceros: This is an adaptation of the Ionesco play starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder that came out around 1973. Mostel is truly amazing as Wilder's pretentious neighbour who turns into a rhinoceros. Wilder's is the lead role but it's Mostel's performance that is gripping. I didn't care for their pairing in The Producers, though I might if I gave it another chance, but they work very well together here. Wilder is also very good as the alcoholic accountant who struggles to resist as everyone around him becomes a rhino. Wilder is especially gripping toward the end when he comes to terms with the fact that he's the last human. How, now, does he know he is human? How does he know he is right and all others are wrong? How does he know he speaks while they only bellow and snort? It doesn't matter, he will fight for his humanity. It's a very interesting movie.
3. It Happened One Night: This 1934 picture won Oscars for best adapted screenplay, best actor (Clark Gable), best actress (Claudette Colbert), best director (Frank Capra), and best picture. Colbert plays as young socialite who's just gotten impulsively married. Her family blocks the marriage and to escape their opposition she jumps off the family yacht in Miami and tries to get back to her husband in New York. Gable plays a down-and-out reporter who blackmails her into letting him travel with her in hopes of a big scoop. As they progress through difficulties up the coast they steadily fall in love before having to deal with her father and ersatz husband. Aside from being a fun story the movie is very interesting for the social attitudes it portrays. Gable's drunkenness and his assertion that Colbert's character "needs is a guy that'd take a sock at her once a day, whether it's coming to her or not." pass completely without critique in a way that would be impossible today. Legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon has used the movie on occasion as an example of the way societal attitudes towards what is permissible can change seemingly overnight.
4. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre: This 1948 film won Oscars for best supporting actor (Walter Huston), best director (John Huston), and best adapted screenplay. It stars Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt as Americans down on their luck in Mexico who hook up with Huston's old prospector to look for gold in the mountains. They have to contend with the elements, an interloper, bandits and their own greed. Bogart's Fred C. Dobbs scoffs at the old man's warnings about gold fever even as he descends into his own madness. It's a great study of camaraderie and what good fortune can do to men. It's also the source of the famous line, "Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinking badges."
5. On the Waterfront: This one came out in 1954 and won Oscars for Best Actor (Marlon Brando), best supporting actress (Eva Marie Saint), best director (Elia Kazan), best original screenplay, and best picture. Brando is Terry Malloy, a former boxer who "coulda been a contender," but who now works in the shipyards and for the mob. Eva Marie Saint is his neighbor and Karl Malden is a priest, together they challenge Terry to speak up to the police to help fight the corruption on the docks and take down Lee J. Cobb's crime lord. You could watch the movie just to see Saint's face or to hear Malden's sermon urging the workers to take action on their own behalf against the mob and so prevent new crucifixions, or to see Malloy, beaten by the boss's goons struggling to work in the face of the ostracism of his peers. It's been argued that movie is Kazan's defense for having named names in the McCarthy hearings, whether that's true or not, it's a powerful story of man's struggle to fight against his past and do what he thinks is right.

So there you go, winter and movies. Also how about those Giants.