The End of “Choice”

I looked over at my wife, who was reclined on the nurse’s table but still close enough to hold my hand. Her eyes were filled with tears, the tears of the sweetest kind of joy and relief and thankfulness. The nurse had a club-looking instrument on my wife’s belly, and right in front of me, on a screen not much bigger than a current iPad, a bean-shaped figure appeared in a hazy monochrome.

“There’s your baby,” the nurse announced sweetly. “It’s got a beautiful heartbeat.” Continue reading The End of “Choice”

The Hyper-Examined Life Isn’t Worth Living

As we approach the end of 2015 and the beginning of the New Year, many of us in American culture will begin to reflect, even if briefly, on our lives and loved ones in the past year. For some, that will mean reliving warm and cherished moments, and for others, feeling anew grief and pain. In either case, there can be no doubt that American culture, as distracted and unfocused as it often is, encourages a kind of serious introspection this time of year.

Self-reflection is a good thing. It’s a habit that can produce the kind of humility, modesty, and moral awareness that characterize the people we tend to admire. It’s a practice rooted in a biblical command to examine ourselves, to take heed of our spiritual condition so as to not be deceived, either by sin or by each other. Done in the right spirit, introspection can remind us of our need for a Savior, and renew a genuine thankfulness and desire for Christ.

As is true of all things, however, self-reflection can be corrupted. If the unexamined life is not worth living, the hyper-examined life isn’t either.

The hyper-examined life is what happens when a legitimate desire to be self-aware becomes an unhealthy preoccupation with our own emotional lives.  Hyper-introspection can make us watch our thoughts and feelings with an obsessive hawkishness, making us perpetually unable to enjoy moments of self-forgetfulness. This can be particularly debilitating in relationships, when every relationship and encounter is constantly subjected to inward scrutiny.

At first, it may sound like the hyper-examined life is really a personality bug, a flaw in some introverted temperaments that really only affects a few people. But a quick look at social media, the dominant interpersonal medium of our generation, reveals quite a bit about how unaware we can be that we are living a hyper-examined life.

Because social media is essentially a faceless, competitive marketplace for digital personas, it tends to encourage habits of thought and feeling that tend toward a hyper-examined life. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram all have their respective “reward” systems for participation: Likes, Retweets, etc. The key to getting the most out of these mediums is to constantly orient your own personality toward whatever is popular (or controversial) at a given moment, and post accordingly. This habit can easily spill over into offline life; for example, choosing a book whose picture will get plenty of attention on Instagram, or posting clever zingers on Twitter and being unable to remember anything substantial about what you watched.

The effect here is that we fail to cultivate genuine moments of life that don’t have to rebound back to us in the form of digital approval. And that, in turn, can affect how we live offline too. Many writers and teachers have observed that my generation struggles with decision-making. Millennials often seem paralyzed by fear of failure, desiring complete assurance that the next step will be easy and rewarding. Thus, many young people unwittingly hurt their chances of lasting marriages, stable careers, and fruitful relationships by trying to constantly make the “right” decision, when simply making a decision would, in fact, be the right move.

An obsessive preoccupation with what others will think and a paralyzing fear of failure go hand in hand, and both are symptoms of a hyper-examined life. Many who are living a hyper-examined will flit and float from job to job, from friend to friend, from place to place. This may seem adventurous at first but often what is behind this rootlessness is a compulsive need for satisfaction in every season of life. Instead of losing themselves in the joys of the mundane, the regular, and the everyday, these wandering souls constantly search their own emotional state for happiness, not realizing that this kind of preoccupation with self is exactly what tends to kill happiness in the first place.

The hyper-examined life is exhausting. Life, including the Christian life, isn’t meant to be lived by way of non-stop self-appraising and people pleasing. A day in, day out regiment of the hyper-examined life leads inevitably to burnout, frustration, and a nagging sense of unfulfilled desire not based in reality.

By contrast, the well-examined life is not driven by fear or compulsive self-searching but by a humble desire for grace. Personal failures are not meant to be endlessly agonized over but repented of, with the confidence in God’s provision for forgiveness and transformation (2 Cor. 7:10). Confidence in the mercies of God disarms paralyzing fear, if we live life knowing that poorly made or even sinful decisions do not exist outside the scope of God’s plans and promises for us (Rom. 8:38-39).

Instead of meandering from one thing to the next in search of the emotional fulfillment that always feels out of reach, living the well-examined life frees us to drop self-preoccupation and learn the virtues of gratitude and contentment. The reality is that, many times, the most spiritual thing we can do is stop trying to think such spiritual thoughts and simply stop thinking about ourselves at all.

As you near the New Year, be encouraged to reflect well on 2015, to look for evidences of God’s grace in your life and take stock of how you can trust Christ more in thought, word, and deed. Then close your journal and go outside (and take no pictures!), or call an old friend, or take a coworker out for lunch. Don’t be afraid of the awkward moment or the failed attempt. Live life confident in the heavenly Father who spared nothing from you, not even his own Son. Think on that, and look at yourself through your Father’s eyes.

Why We Can’t Explain Scrooge

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol begins like this: “Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.” The opening emphasis on Ebenezer Scrooge’s late business partner and friend Jacob Marley is crucial to understanding Dickens’ tale. A Christmas Carol isn’t about how one solitary, anti-social miser was frightened into a sanguine personality, and it’s not about the loneliness of self-centered living. In fact, when you think about it, Scrooge wasn’t a loner at all. Jacob Marley is proof of that.

But we modern readers seem to miss this. Our perception of Scrooge is that he is unfriendly because he dislikes people. We reckon that the three ghosts of Christmas–Past, Present, and Future–break Scrooge’s will by breaking through his defense mechanisms, perhaps like Robin Williams broke through Matt Damon’s child abuse-fueled mistrust of people. That is why we often use the word “Scrooge” to describe people we think are too dour or too introverted, those who rain on the parade.

But that’s not the Scrooge that Dickens created.

The ghost of Christmas Past helps us see this. The first spirit transports Scrooge back in time to three distinct scenes of his life. In the first, Scrooge sees himself as a boy at boarding school, forced to stay while his friends travel home for Christmas. But this moment quickly gives way to another, in which Scrooge’s sister arrives at the school and tells him that “Father is so much kinder than he used to be,” and has called for his son to come home. This moment in Scrooge’s childhood ends with happiness and reconciliation.

The next scene is likewise joyful. The ghost shows Scrooge his time as an apprentice to a garrulous man named Fezziwig. Fezziwig is kind and merry, and throws a delightful Christmas party for his family and apprentices. The point of this small act isn’t lost on Scrooge, who realizes that Fezziwig’s friends love him because he possessed “the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil…The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.” Under Fezziwig’s wing, Scrooge was a happy, cared for man, who rebounded the love he received into love–at least a temporary love–for others.

What happened to this love? Why did Scrooge lose it? Was it due to abuse, abandonment, or neglect? In our psychoanalytic culture, we would probably assume so. Surely such a change in character must have been precipitated by intense personal trauma? But that’s not what Dickens and the spirit show us. Instead, Dickens’ transformation of Ebenezer into Scrooge is far more subtle and far more perceptive of human nature:

He was not alone, but sat by the side of a fair young girl in a mourning-dress: in whose eyes there were tears, which sparkled in the light that shone out of the Ghost of Christmas Past.

“It matters little,” she said, softly. “To you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.”

“What Idol has displaced you?” he rejoined.

“A golden one.”

“This is the even-handed dealing of the world!” he said. “There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth!”

“You fear the world too much,” she answered, gently. “All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you. Have I not?”

“What then?” he retorted. “Even if I have grown so much wiser, what then? I am not changed towards you.”

She shook her head.

“Am I?”

“Our contract is an old one. It was made when we were both poor and content to be so, until, in good season, we could improve our worldly fortune by our patient industry. You are changed. When it was made, you were another man.”

“I was a boy,” he said impatiently.

“Your own feeling tells you that you were not what you are,” she returned. “I am. That which promised happiness when we were one in heart, is fraught with misery now that we are two. How often and how keenly I have thought of this, I will not say. It is enough that I have thought of it, and can release you.”

With that, the two lovers part, and the elderly Scrooge, unable to bear further the sight of this memory, tells the spirit to haunt him no longer.

Dickens is telling us that this moment in Scrooge’s life signals his descent into icy miserliness. Yet there is no psychological pain, no humiliation or unrequited love (from Scrooge, at least). His personal transformation defies Freudian explanation. Scrooge fears the world, yet the world had been kind to him. He fears poverty, yet the poor he had known for so long had shared their joy with him. How is it that this young man, reconciled to his father, rejoiced in by his master, and loved by a woman, becomes the kind of person to wish death on the poor so as to “decrease the surplus population”?

The answer is simple: We don’t know. That is the mystery of human nature, a topic that received Dickens’ masterful treatment many times. Scrooge’s past undermines our modern, convenient explanations of his present. In the end, all we are left with is the fact that somewhere, somehow, Ebenezer Scrooge fell in love with money.

This isn’t a lack of character development on Dickens’ part. On the contrary, this mystery is what gives A Christmas Carol its power. The Ebenezer Scrooge that is a cultural meme is someone to despise, someone on the outside that we may mock and jeer and never have to worry about. On the other hand, Scrooge the protagonist (yes, protagonist!) looks very much like me and you. No spectacular suffering, no singular moment of overwhelming seduction. Just a slow, gradual, sin-ward crawl, day by day, year by year, and decade by decade. His redemption was supernatural, but his moral decay was not.

Screwtape was right:

Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.

 

Christmas and the Wrong Side of History

When you think about it, nearly everyone and everything connected to the first Christmas was on the wrong side of history.

Zechariah and Elizabeth were on the wrong side of history for sure. They were an elderly Jewish couple, living in an occupied land. They had no platform, no political clout. Even worse–they had no children. Their legacy would die with them: no son to carry his father’s name, no daughter to bear grandchildren. They were prepared to die unwept, unhonored, and unsung, an anonymous couple holding fast the religion of their ancestors. They were on the wrong side of the empire, the wrong side of culture, even the wrong side of fertility.

Mary and Joseph were on the wrong side of history too. Mary, a teenage girl with no husband, no dowry, and no way to explain the life inside of her, at least in a way that her family and her culture would possibly comprehend. There was to be no way around the scandal and shame of a baby born outside wedlock, scandal that would follow her and her child for many years. And Joseph, who did not avail himself of the clear permission that Moses’ law gave him to send his betrothed away in reproach. Joseph, who in the eyes of his father and brothers and friends now was the man willing to live with a whore. The reward for his trouble would be a life of labor, carpentry without a country, and a reputation as a man who had let himself be cuckolded.

Shepherds lived on the wrong side of history. Anonymous laborers who would make the term “blue-collar” seem extravagant. Their life’s hope was that enough of the flock would survive wolves and bears. No “opportunity for advancement” here, except wherever they would guide a foul-smelling herd on a particular night. How many believed their story about the night the angels came and told them about a baby, lying in a barn in Bethlehem? Did their children? Did their grandchildren? Did enough people laugh at them to convince them later in life that it must have all been an elaborate prank or mass hallucination? The word of a shepherd was to be taken lightly.

What about Simeon and Anna? I’m afraid they were on the wrong side of history as well. Two elderly, devout Jews, seemingly ignoring the Roman centurions around them so they could keep babbling about some Messiah. It was like they had never heard of someone called the emperor. Anna the widow never left the Temple; “Don’t listen to her, she’s crazy,” they would say. “Too heavenly minded and no earthly good.” Simeon and Anna, praying to a God who had not stopped an exile and an overthrow, talking about a king whose ancestral line had long been broken. Simeon and Anna, two more religious nutjobs who wouldn’t accept reality.

Poor, mute Zechariah. Poor cuckolded Joseph, poor philandering Mary. Poor daydreaming shepherds. Poor deluded Simeon and Anna. If they could have just accepted the Way Things Are, maybe their lives could have been more. Maybe they could have served in Herod’s palace, or been a confidant of Caiaphas.

If they had just been on the right side of history, maybe the world would still be talking about them.

Just maybe.

My Favorite Articles and Blogs From 2015

Last week I did a run down of my favorite book reads from 2015. Below is a brief list of my favorite blogs, articles, and reviews from the year. As with the book list, there is no hierarchy or ranking here.

“There Is No Pro-Life Case for Planned Parenthood,” by Ross Douthat in The New York Times.

But to concede that pro-lifers might be somewhat right to be troubled by abortion, to shudder along with us just a little bit at the crushing of the unborn human body, and then turn around and still demand the funding of an institution that actually does the quease-inducing killing on the grounds that what’s being funded will help stop that organization from having to crush quite so often, kill quite so prolifically – no, spare me. Spare me. Tell the allegedly “pro-life” institution you support to set down the forceps, put away the vacuum, and then we’ll talk about what kind of family planning programs deserve funding. But don’t bring your worldview’s bloody hands to me and demand my dollars to pay for soap enough to maybe wash a few flecks off.

“The Beauty of the Cross: 19 Objections and Answers on Penal Substitutionary Atonement,” by Derek Rishmawy.

As I said before, though it is not the only work Christ does on the cross, his sin-bearing representation is at the heart of the gospel. While we need to be careful about using it as a political tool to establish Christian orthodoxy, the issues at stake make it worth defending with grace and care. The justification of God’s righteousness in the face of evil, the graciousness of grace, the finality and assurance of forgiveness, the costliness of God’s love, and the mercy of God’s kingdom are all caught up in properly understanding the cross of Christ.

“The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Atlantic.

Two terms have risen quickly from obscurity into common campus parlance. Microaggressions are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless. For example, by some campus guidelines, it is a microaggression to ask an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?,” because this implies that he or she is not a real American. Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response. For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’sThe Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.

“How Not to Read the Bible If You Want to Remain a Christian,” by Collin Garbarino in First Things

But Crossan’s central idea is not amusing; it’s disingenuous. He talks about finding the “heartbeat” of the Bible, but he’s interested in no such thing. Instead of honestly trying to understand how love and wrath can both find their source in a holy God, Crossan seeks to tear God in two. The violence of God must be dismissed as Crossan looks for the nonviolence of God. Crossan says that he’s looking for the diastole and the systole of the Bible’s cardiac cycle, but he isn’t. He’s actually trying to have one without the other. Any heart that only has one and not both will die. In the same way, the heavily edited Jesus of Crossan’s imagination is not the living Christ, and the faith that Crossan offers is a dead one.

“The New Intolerance of Student Activism,” by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic.

Watching footage of that meeting, a fundamental disagreement is revealed between professor and undergrads. Christakis believes that he has an obligation to listen to the views of the students, to reflect upon them, and to either respond that he is persuaded or to articulate why he has a different view. Put another way, he believes that one respects students by engaging them in earnest dialogue. But many of the students believe that his responsibility is to hear their demands for an apology and to issue it. They see anything short of a confession of wrongdoing as unacceptable. In their view, one respects students by validating their subjective feelings.

Notice that the student position allows no room for civil disagreement.

“Slouching Toward Mecca,” by Mark Lilla in The New York Review of Books.

Given all this, it will take a long time for the French to read and appreciate Soumissionfor the strange and surprising thing that it is. Michel Houellebecq has created a new genre—the dystopian conversion tale. Soumission is not the story some expected of a coup d’état, and no one in it expresses hatred or even contempt of Muslims. It is about a man and a country who through indifference and exhaustion find themselves slouching toward Mecca. There is not even drama here—no clash of spiritual armies, no martyrdom, no final conflagration. Stuff just happens, as in all Houellebecq’s fiction. All one hears at the end is a bone-chilling sigh of collective relief. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. Whatever.

“The Serial Swatter,” by Jason Fagone in The New York Times

Early one weekend morning in January 2014, Janet was sleeping fitfully in her parents’ home in Toronto. A junior studying elementary education at a nearby college, she had gone home for the weekend in a state of nervous collapse. For months, someone going by the name ‘‘Obnoxious’’ had been harassing her online. He had called her cellphone repeatedly and sent her threatening texts. Worst of all, he had threatened to ‘‘swat’’ her at school — to make a false emergency call to the police and lure a SWAT team to her door.

“What ISIS Really Wants,” by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic.

That the Islamic State holds the imminent fulfillment of prophecy as a matter of dogma at least tells us the mettle of our opponent. It is ready to cheer its own near-obliteration, and to remain confident, even when surrounded, that it will receive divine succor if it stays true to the Prophetic model. Ideological tools may convince some potential converts that the group’s message is false, and military tools can limit its horrors. But for an organization as impervious to persuasion as the Islamic State, few measures short of these will matter, and the war may be a long one, even if it doesn’t last until the end of time.

Theological Triage and the Doctrine of Creation,” by Samuel Emadi in The Gospel Coalition.

Theological triage is not a way of minimizing doctrine but of being able to say all doctrine is important, though some doctrines are more important than others. Lose the Trinity and you lose the gospel. Lose your favored millennial position and, while you may need a little reshuffling of some exegetical commitments, most of the rest of your theological system remains safely intact. To be clear, I’m not saying the earth’s age or the length of the days in Genesis 1 is unimportant or that we shouldn’t have convictions on these matters (just to prove it, I’ll tip my hand and reveal I’m a fairly committed literal six-day, young earther). I am saying we need to separate first-order issues in the doctrine of creation from second- and third-order issues, mitigating our suspicions of the other side and hopefully reminding those with teaching ministries what to prioritize about creation as we disciple others. In other words, this isn’t just about learning where we can disagree; it’s also about shoring up our defenses on the non-negotiables.

“C.S. Lewis Was a Secret Government Agent,” by Harry Lee Poe in Christianity Today.

How Lewis came to be recruited and by whom remains a secret. The records of the Secret Intelligence Service, known popularly as MI6, remain closed. Perhaps one of his former pupils at Oxford recommended him for his mission. It was an unusual mission for which few people were suited. J. R. R. Tolkien had the knowledge base for the job, even beyond that of Lewis, but Tolkien lacked other skills that Lewis possessed. Perhaps someone had heard Lewis lecture on his favorite subject in one of the two great lecture halls in the Examination Schools building of Oxford University. At a time when Oxford fellows were notorious for the poor quality of their public lectures, Lewis packed the hall with an audience of students who were not required to attend lectures. In the 1930s, Lewis was the best show in town. Somehow Lewis had developed the skill to speak to an audience and hold them in rapt attention, in spite of his academic training rather than because of it.

“The Force Awakens” and Getting Trapped By Nostalgia

In conversations with friends about the new Star Wars movie, I’ve noticed two trends. The first is that most of the people I’ve talked to report enjoying the movie quite a bit (and that makes sense, seeing as how the film is scoring very well on the critic aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes). The second trend is that virtually no one has criticized The Force Awakens for being too much like the original Star Wars trilogy. Indeed, the opposite seems to be true: Most people who have told me how much they like Episode VII have mentioned its similarity, both in feel and in plot, to George Lucas’s first three Star Wars films as a reason why they like it so much.

For the record, I enjoyed The Force Awakens quite a bit, and J.J. Abrams’ homage to the golden moments of the original films was, I thought, well done. But many of my conversations about it have confirmed to me what I suspected when Episode VII was announced: We’re trapped in a cultural moment of nostalgia, and we can’t get out of it.

Of course, the nostalgia-entrapment begins with the existence of movies like The Force Awakens. As I’ve said before, as much as I love Star Wars, the fact that a 40 year old franchise is still dominating the box office, news cycle, and cultural attention is not something to be excited about. There comes a point when tradition becomes stagnation, and at least in American mainstream film culture, it seems like that line was crossed some time ago. Case in point: Included in my screening of Star Wars were trailers for a Harry Potter spinoff, another Captain America film, an inexplicable sequel to Independence Day, and yet *another* X-Men movie.  In other words, had an audience member in my theater just awoken from a 12 year coma, they would have seen virtually nothing that they hadn’t seen before.

Nostalgia, if unchecked, runs opposed to creativity, freshness, and imagination. Even worse, the dominance of nostalgia in American pop culture has a powerful influence in marketing, making it less likely every year that new storytellers with visions of new worlds, new characters and new adventures will get the financing they need to materialize their talents. That is a particularly disheartening fact when you consider that the storytellers whose work has spawned a generation’s worth of reboots and sequels were themselves at one point the “unknowns:” George Lucas couldn’t find a studio to finance Star Wars until an executive at 2oth Century Fox took a risk on a hunch; Steven Spielberg finished “Jaws” with much of Universal’s leadership wanting to dump both movie and director; and for much of the filming of “The Godfather,” executives of Paramount openly campaigned to fire writer/director Francis Ford Coppola. If formula and nostalgia had been such powerful cultural forces back then, there’s a good chance there’d be no Star Wars to make sequels for at all.

The trap of nostalgia is deceitful. It exaggerates the happiness of the past, then preys on our natural fear that the future will not be like that. But this illusion is easily dismantled, as anyone who has discovered the joys of a new story can attest.

There’s a freedom and a pleasure in letting stories end, in closing the book or rolling the final credits on our beloved tales. The need to resurrect our favorite characters and places through the sequel or the reboot isn’t a need based in the deepest imaginative joys. It is good that stories end rather than live on indefinitely so that we treasure them as we ought and lose ourselves in a finite universe rather than blur the lines in our mind between the truth in our stories and the truth in our lives. If we cannot allow myths to have definite beginnings and endings, it could be that we are idolatrously looking to them not for truth or grace but for a perpetual youthfulness.

Of course, there are dangers on the other side too. An insatiable craving for the new can be a sign of the weightless of our own souls. A disregard for tradition can indicate a ruthless self-centeredness. And, as C.S. Lewis reminded us, novelty is not a virtue and oldness is not a vice.

But we should be careful to distinguish between a healthy regard for those that come before us, and a nostalgia that (unwittingly) devalues tradition by ignoring how and why it exists. In the grand scheme of things, how many Star Wars films get made is probably not of paramount importance. But being trapped by nostalgia has its price. An irrational love of the past can signal a crippling fear of the future. Christians are called to lay aside the weight of fear and follow the gospel onward. If we’re not even willing to learn what life is like without a new Star Wars or Harry Potter, how can we do that?

Review: “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens”

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is a breath of fresh air, not just for the Star Wars faithful but for millions of moviegoers who left the last batch of Star Wars films disenchanted and wondering if the series had lost itself. The familiar characters and locales feel a bit like a homecoming, but writer/director J.J. Abrams’ real accomplishment here is opening doors to a thrilling new corner of the universe.  Episode VII isn’t a perfect movie, but through and through, it feels exactly right.

The Force Awakens takes place several years after the death of Darth Vader and the (apparent) defeat of the Empire in 1983’s Return of the Jedi. Luke Skywalker, Vader’s son and the last living Jedi, is missing, and an heir to the Galactic Empire has arisen to challenge peace and order. The plot is the intersection of three new characters: Finn (John Boyega), an imperial Stormtrooper who defects after witnessing atrocity; Rey (Daisy Ridley), an orphaned junk scavenger; and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a leader of the evil First Order who appears to have learned the ways of the Dark Side and continued Vader’s legacy.

Each of these characters have surprising emotional depth. Rey believes she may see her family again, but is drawn to abandoning that hope and joining the New Republic’s war. In a scene late in the film, a villain uses telekinesis to discern that she hopes she’ll find a “father she never had.” That’s the kind of earthy dialogue that Lucas always fumbled over, and done well it adds layers of humanity to the film. Finn fears retaliation for his defection and doubts whether he will actually be able to fight when the moment comes. I won’t say much about Kylo Ren for fear of spoiling, but will only commend The Force Awakens for taking a rare and satisfying risk with their main villain that I didn’t expect.

Perhaps the most serious weakness of episodes I-III was the previously known fate of the film’s heroes and villains; the predestined lives of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker, and Emperor Palpatine lacked meaningful development and emotional resonance. By contrast, Rey and Finn are not simply pieces of legendarium existing to fill gaps; they offer relatable and fascinating narratives that the story builds on naturally. Much of this is due to good casting and good writing; Boyega and Ridley turn in excellent performances, and their personalities aren’t farmed out in favor of making them responders to enormous action sequences.

The decision to bring back some of the heroes from the first Star Wars films turns out to be a good one. Harrison Ford appears as Han Solo for the first time since Jedi, and infuses the film with humor and nostalgic delight. Carrie Fisher as Leia isn’t quite as interesting, but her moments with Ford are sweet and strike the right notes. Fans will relish these scenes.

My fear going into The Force Awakens was that Abrams would try too hard to craft Star Wars into an Abrams Production, and sacrifice the wonder and thrill of the Saturday matinee serial that Lucas channeled. I’m happy to report that the fear is (mostly) unfounded. The Force Awakens looks terrific; its puppets and live set pieces shame the prequels’ over reliance on digital effects (and for what its worth, the digital effects in Episode VII look as good or better anyway). There’s space in the screenplay for memory and enchantment: Consider a lovely scene underneath a seedy space bar, where Rey finds a crucial piece of Luke Skywalker’s past, as well as a wonderfully written monologue from Han Solo about the adventures of old: “The Force, the light and the dark: It’s true, all of it.” These scenes hit high emotional notes and avoid the over-contemplation of the prequels or the forced sincerity of the Marvel movies.

There are a few missteps along the way. The third act feels a bit too much like we’ve seen it before, and Boyega’s character is given more than his fair share of comedic obligation. But who cares? The first Star Wars films were filled with things that didn’t work, and that was OK. They weren’t supposed to be flawless mythological masterpieces. The Force Awakens is a return to a dustier Star Wars, a more explosive, more human and less philosophical space opera. Its last shot is sure to tantalize fans for as long as we must wait for Episode VIII.

I have a good feeling it will be worth it.

My Top Books of 2015

Here some of my favorite reads from 2015. Note that not every book here was actually released in 2015, but all are books that I read this year. There’s no ranking, so the order is more or less arbitrary.

The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene.endaffair

I discovered this book and Graham Greene courtesy of a fine essay by Matthew Schmitz. I bought two of Greene’s novels immediately at the local used bookstore, and devoured The End of the Affair quickly. This wasn’t an easy novel to read, nor was it immediately satisfying in the conventional ways that we often want from novels. But Greene’s portrait of an adulterous relationship, and the torment that comes to those who suppress the righteous protests of their conscience, is a haunting and moving story, and one that ends ultimately in the recognition that God is the source of true love.

41BfG5+LceL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Road to Character, by David Brooks

David Brooks is one of my favorite columnists, so when I heard that he was writing a book about becoming a moral person, I figured this was going to be a must-read. Brooks is not just a talented wordsmith; he’s a fluid and provocative thinker who isn’t afraid to follow his instincts and his cultural analysis to inconvenient (yet honest) conclusions. The Road to the Character shines brightest when Brooks directs his attention towards cultural attitudes that have eroded individual quests  for moral formation. As a Christian, I resonated with many of Brooks’s points, though the book isn’t written from a distinctly Christian standpoint and thus lacks the theological roots that we need to really become more like Christ. Still, as a (somewhat) religiously neutral commentary on society and morality, The Road to Character is a fascinating and enlightening read.

Onward, by Russell Mooremoore

I work for Russell Moore, so you may be tempted to dismiss this entry as sheer schlepping. But that would be a mistake, because Onward is genuinely one of the most compelling Christian books I’ve read in years. Moore’s great gift is articulating a completely Christian civic engagement, one that looks like Christ not only in its voting record but also in its prioritization of the kingdom. I’ll put it simply: This is a book that must be read by any Christian who cares about living as a gospel witness in their culture.

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr18143977

This WWII-era novel about a young boy thrust into the violence and evil of Hitler’s Youth and a blind girl struggling to survive the occupation of Paris is a gripping, beautifully written tale. Doerr skillfully weaves the vulnerability and hope of childhood with the brutal wages of war, and the result is a book that you won’t put down. An upcoming movie adaptation means you should read this book as soon as possible, for I can practically guarantee that Doerr’s prose is deeper and more satisfying than any screenplay could capture.

The Stories We Tell, by Mike Cosper

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If you’re an average American, there’s a good chance that you enjoy a good movie and an interesting TV show. But if you’re also a Christian, you probably want to know how and why stores like film and TV fit into God’s good gift of creation and culture. That’s where Mike Cosper’s book The Stories We Tell can help you. Mike’s book is a helpful and eminently practical primer on why cultural mediums like film and TV appeal to us on a human level, in light of our being created by a story-telling God. If you need a reason to check out this book, I’ll tell you that one of the chapters is titled, “Honey Boo Boo and the Weight of Glory.” Enough said.

51-IOj-3u+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_How Dante Can Save Your Lifeby Rod Dreher

Ever wonder if reading a nearly 800 year old poem could actually save your life? Well, that’s exactly what happened to columnist Rod Dreher. Dreher’s book not only tells the story of how reading Dante’s epic Divine Comedy helped him reorient his life at a time of crisis; it also serves as a kind of summary of why Dante’s poem is so powerful and revelatory. This book is especially for you if you delight in stories of how fiction and narrative can move the soul in unexpected, and Godward, ways. Highly recommended.

 

Leave a comment and let me know what your favorite books of the year are!

The Enduring Power of “It’s a Wonderful Life”

Much like its protagonist, It’s a Wonderful Life was a financial failure in its day. Today it is probably one of the ten most well-known American films of all time. There’s an interesting story behind that, too. Frank Capra’s film was apparently the beneficiary of a clerical error that prevented the renewal of its studio copyright in 1974. In the next few years, television networks aired the film repeatedly, especially around the Christmas season. What had heretofore been a relatively obscure piece of Capra and star Jimmy Stewart’s filmography was suddenly a seasonal tradition for thousands of people. Nowadays it is difficult to imagine Christmas without It’s a Wonderful Life, but barring a mere typo, many of us might never have heard of it.

Doesn’t that story remind you of George Bailey? The film opens with the sound of many voices praying for George, including urgent prayers from his wife and children. We find out later that George is on the brink of despair and possibly suicide. Why? The short answer is that his uncle and business partner lost thousands of dollars of the Bailey Building and Loan’s funds. The real answer is that George thinks his entire life has been misplaced capital, a waste of ambition and heart that began the night he gave up college to save his father’s business and his hometown from the greedy millionaire Mr. Potter (played to perfection by Lionel Barrymore).

George is an adventurer and an intellect. As a boy working after school at Mr. Gower’s ice cream parlor, he boasts to the local girls that he reads National Geographic and knows where coconuts come from. He’s going to see the world, he says; “just wait and see.” He says the same thing years later to the beautiful Mary (Donna Reed, effortlessly delivering the film’s most important performance) in one of the most perfectly written scenes of romantic cinema: “Mary, I know what I’m going to do tomorrow, and next year, and the year after that. I’m shaking the dust of this crummy old town and I’m going to see the world!” The two are in love, but she’s the only one who knows it yet. Their first kiss (a chaste kiss that was nonetheless so passionate that the studios expressed concerns) follows an argument in which George vows to never be domesticated. The next scene is, of course, their wedding. “Just wait and see.”

Man’s greatest fear is not death but irrelevance. As the years pass, George fears he is becoming irrelevant. Capra and Stewart make George’s fears more corporeal by keeping them subtle and implied rather than monologued out. Potter, annoyed by George’s success, offers him a lucrative job that sorely tempts him. Remembering his father and his principles, he angrily rejects it, and then slowly walks home and wonders whether he made the right decision. I think this is a turning point for him. It’s the first time he realizes things could have been different. It’s not that he doesn’t have enough love (Mary tenderly tells him in this scene that she’s pregnant), it’s that he feels unworthy of the love he has.

Though universal, I believe these themes particularly resonate with men. It’s not for nothing that Jimmy Stewart, cinema’s premiere “common man,” was cast as George and has since made the role unimaginable in the hands of another. It’s also not for nothing that It’s a Wonderful Life released in 1946, right as thousands of American men were returning home from Europe wondering how and why to reassemble their lives.

The bottom finally falls out after George realizes he is facing criminal charges for the misplaced money (he won’t allow his uncle to be held responsible). Drunk and desperate, he drives to a bridge and is prepared to kill himself and advance his family a $10,000 life insurance policy when another man falls in and cries for help. You know what happens next. Clarence Oddbody  (Henry Travers in one of his final roles) is film’s most famous guardian angel, and he gives George a “great gift: A chance to see what the world would be like without you.” But what happens in the film’s final act is only partially about why George is valuable to the world. It’s more about why the people and places in George’s life are valuable to him. That’s why Clarence leaves him a message in the film’s final scene: “No man is a failure who has friends.”

It’s a Wonderful Life gets our eyes moist every Christmas because it speaks to something elemental in our human nature: The tendency to evaluate our lives based on something other than love. We classify ourselves and others as “successes” and “failures” based on hundreds of criteria. Thus, our lives are tangled knots of complication and misery, when we could be remembering that our Lord summed up the entire Law and Prophets with these words: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” The measure of success in eternity is love for God and love for neighbor. The small kingdoms that we build up are sandcastles, washed away at high tide to our grief and frustration but unable to ballast our lives with meaning.

Capra loved stories about small people who meant something (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds). It’s a Wonderful Life is a tale about a small person who meant something to other small people. The film works on every level because it is warm and human, not epic or philosophical. In a lesser film, Clarence the angel would have been a major character, chortling life lessons to George and to us. Clarence is not a deus ex machina though; he is there to meekly point out what’s been in plain sight the whole time. That’s how life works. Rarely do we grow by learning something new. Most of the time, it’s by relearning something we forgot.

(Postscript: Do not for any reason view the colorized version of It’s a Wonderful Life.)

Why Should You Trust the Bible? 5 Questions With Pastor Greg Gilbert

 

Greg Gilbert, pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky (full disclosure: Third Avenue is where I am a member), wants you to “get” Christianity. That’s why, for example, he has a Masters in theology from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a Bachelor’s degree from a little New England school called Yale. It’s also why Greg has written, to date, three short, easy-to-read volumes on the basics of Christian belief: What Is the Gospel, Who Is Jesus, and now, Why Trust the Bible.

Greg’s latest work Why Trust the Bible? is a brief primer on why and how the Bible stands up to even the most strident criticism and examination. I asked Greg if he’d be willing to answer 5 questions about Why Trust the Bible, and he graciously did so.

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How did doing an undergraduate at an Ivy League school help you prepare for articulating the kind of arguments you’re making in “Why Trust the Bible”?  

People ask me sometimes if I experienced any “culture shock” coming from a small town in East Texas to Yale.  Other than eventually forcing myself to love coffee, the main thing was that all of a sudden, essentially no one approached Christianity with the same deference and presupposed acceptance that was normal for basically everyone in my home town.  All of a sudden, every proposition of my faith was under question by peers and professors alike, and so I had to do the really hard work of figuring out not just what I believed, but why.  At first, I think I took a fairly defensive posture in the conversations I was having.  My main goal was just to be able to say, “I believe this, and that’s intellectually defensible.”  

But over time, I think I finally got frustrated with that approach and decided to go on offense. I didn’t want to end the conversation just having shown that it was okay for me to be a Christian.  I wanted to show people that the pressure really was on them, not me.  They needed to defend themselves for not believing that Jesus rose from the dead. 

That was an intellectual revolution for me–to realize that the evidence for Christianity is actually so good that a Christian can go on offense with a non-believer and challenge them to defend their unbelief.

In your own ministry context, do you tend to see more people doubting the trustworthiness of the Bible due to intellectual/logical issues or due to personal/existential crises?

It’s almost always a tangle of issues.  Intellectual questions can introduce the kind of doubt that leads to personal crisis, and personal crisis can lead people to doubt the Bible on an intellectual level.  So it’s important always to deal with both sides at the same time; you have to get the wheel turning, and it’s impossible to make half of it turn if the other half isn’t turning as well.  Does that make sense?  

3. What’s one common mistake you see Christians making when it comes to dialoguing with non-Christians about the trustworthiness of the Bible and Christianity?

 I think the most damaging mistake is accepting the world’s assumption that we don’t really have good reasons for believing what we do.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Christians get backed into a conversational corner and finally just throw up their hands and say something like, “Well I can’t prove it to you! You just have to accept it on faith!”  And of course when we do that, the unbeliever just chuckles and walks away thinking, “That’s what I thought.”  

But the Christian faith isn’t like that at all.  We don’t accept it on an empty “leap of faith.”  No, there are solid reasons for believing what we do about Jesus.  There are reasons for believing the Bible is trustworthy, for believing that Jesus really did rise from the dead, and for believing that he really is who he said he is.  And the thing is–they’re not just reasons that will be convincing only to those who are already convinced!  They’re reasons that, if we understand them and use them well, can challenge an unbeliever to rethink his unbelief.  I think that’s what Peter meant when he said, “Always be ready to make a defense for the hope that is in you.”  That word “defense,” doesn’t mean “defense” as we hear that word.  It means “case.”  Make a case.  Have reasons that will not only make you feel better, but will make an unbeliever feel unsettled.  

 What author(s) has been particularly helpful to you in thinking about these questions? Specific books?  

There are a lot, and many of them are mentioned in footnotes and also in an appendix in Why Trust the Bible.  None of the arguments I make in that book are original to me (well, maybe one or two!).  The idea was just to take the massive, detailed case Christians have made for centuries about the reliability of the Bible and put it in a form that Christians can read and grasp and use quickly and (I hope) easily.

If you had time to say only one sentence to an atheist to provoke them to consider Christianity, what would that sentence be?

“Did Jesus really rise from the dead, and how can you be so sure?”

Be sure to pick up pastor Greg’s new book Why Trust the Bible, available everywhere.