Category Archives: Faith and Culture

Focus on the Family and Reviewing Bad Movies

This past weekend, Focus On the Family’s media outlet sent a representative to watch and review a wildly successful, wildly inappropriate movie. I shall henceforth refer to this movie as Nifty Blades of Hay (adapted from the wildly successful and inappropriate novel of the same name). If you have any idea what I’m talking about, you will understand exactly why I’m not even calling this toxic cult phenomenon by its real name. If you don’t, that’s just fine too. I really have no interest whatsoever in discussing this movie. I am interested in the fact that Focus On the Family chose to review it, and I’m interested in the considerable backlash from other Christians and Christian ministries that they’ve incurred as a result. Especially since the Christian film critic who wrote the review has become a friendly acquaintance of mine over the last few months.

Without going into any details, suffice it to say that this particular movie probably shouldn’t even have qualified for an “R” rating—by which I mean “R” is too soft. The abusive relationship that it chronicles is that vile and twisted. It may not be marketed and sold as “a p*rn film” in so many words, but that’s essentially what it is, in the guise of a Valentine’s Day blockbuster. So, naturally, some fans of Focus on the Family preemptively wrote and urged its “Plugged In” reviewers not to bother informing us that this movie is Bad. Even those of us who have striven mightily to avoid reading about it have managed to piece that much together. Wrote one concerned follower, “I’m fairly confident anyone who visits this website will not be interested in seeing the film, and I am troubled at the thought of sending one of your employees to go see it.”

But Plugged In disagreed. In a blog post written before the review went up, editor Paul Asay explained that he believed it was his duty to see and review this film. He begins with an uncomfortable but sobering fact: Not only are a lot of Christians very interested in reading about this thing, but some of them are even buying the tickets. Continue reading

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Questions and Answers: For the Streetlight People

For those of you who are new to the site or can’t remember the last time I wrote an installment in this series, “Questions and Answers” explores the space where the secular touches the sacred in popular songwriting (emphasis on popular–no weird, obscure stuff here!) It is designed to help Christians think deeply about some of the most thoughtful lyrics that writers on both sides of the divide have contributed to the eternal questions: Why are we here? Who are we? What is love? Do we need to be saved? Can we be saved?

My first entry paired up a Journey song with a Steven Curtis Chapman song. Now, it seems I’m coming full circle, with another Journey song (“Don’t Stop Believin’ “) and another SCC song (“More to This Life”).

I know what you’re probably thinking (at least, if you grew up in the 80s). “Journey? Thoughtful and deep? Seriously?” This song in particular might raise such skeptical eyebrows, given its nauseating ubiquity at graduations, class reunions, and such like. It’s a fixture of American pop culture. There is no escape. (Hey, see what I did there? Escape, escape… okay never mind.) But believe it or not, I am serious. A careful listen to the lyrics apart from its fist-pumping tag will make you wonder how it ever became the go-to feel-good song for teenage America:

Strangers waiting
Up and down the boulevard
Their shadows searching in the night
Streetlight people
Livin’ just to find emotion
Hidin’ somewhere in the night

Read the rest of it in full here, divorced from the music, and you’ll see that Steve Perry’s intended message was a much more tragic, more human one than the culture realized.

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Matt Chandler’s Powerful Pro-Life Statement

I greatly appreciate the fact that each year, around the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, Matt Chandler takes a morning to preach on the sin of abortion to his congregation. As John Piper has noted with concern, it’s a topic that many pastors of Chandler’s generation are afraid to touch with a 10-foot pole. Chandler tackles it head-on with conviction and grace. But apparently, even though he’s been doing this for a few years now, the rest of the world is only just recently learning about it. His latest abortion sermon has gone viral, and news outlets are picking it up with headlines like  “‘Abortion is Murder,’ Megachurch Pastor Tells Congregation in Sunday Sermon.” Or my favorite, from a liberal rag, “Anti-abortion Texas pastor shames rape victims as worse than Hitler.” Man, I just love out-of-context, deceptive quote-splicing, don’t you?

At any rate, I’ve embedded the whole sermon here and marked off the clip that most people are talking about. I could critique a few things about the sermon as a whole, including the predictably disappointing comparisons to the Civil Rights movement, but I’ll forgive it for the hard-hitting way he dealt with the abortion issue. I was also intrigued to see how he directly addressed those in the pews who had participated in this particular sin. You can read the transcript here.

“I need to, with all the boldness that the Holy Spirit will grant me, tell everyone in this room that abortion is murder... It is a brutal horrific, disgusting practice. And many of us are guilty. But most of us are indifferent.”

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Book Review: The Stories We Tell, by Mike Cosper

If you’ve been reading my writing for any length of time, you know that I love good art and good storytelling through art, whether it’s a song, a movie or a novel. My “Marriage in the Movies” series is one example of my attempts to analyze story through a gospel lens. So when I saw everybody and his uncle recommending Pastor Mike Cosper’s book on storytelling in movies and TV, from Tim Keller to Russell Moore to Ed Stetzer to Matt Chandler… I figured, “What the heck, I’ll buy it on Kindle, write a review, and hope there’s a way to return ebooks if it turns out to be shallow and underwhelming.”

Luckily for me, there is a way, because yeah… it’s pretty shallow and underwhelming. But, I’m glad I took the time to read it and review it, because I like the idea of this book. Cosper explains, “I’ve intentionally tried to view the stories in this book in the light of the gospel, treating their characters, plots, and images as signposts for a truth that the writers, directors, and actors might not even be aware of, but that we all, nonetheless, long for.”

In general, I agree. We do need more Christians engaging with film art in a well-rounded, biblical way. We need Christians who can walk that fine line between “Wait, did he just say the d-word?” on the one hand and “All things are lawful for me, wheeeee!” on the other, sifting wheat from chaff and finding value even when the art isn’t coming from a Christian perspective. For parts of this book, I think Cosper does a relatively decent job of that. But for many reasons, it’s ultimately a poor execution of a good idea. Still, I think it’s important to examine why the execution fails and hopefully suggest a more excellent way to engage the stories our culture tells.

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Dear Christian Performers: Please Retire the Homeschooling Jokes

Picture the scene: Your favorite gospel singers are up on stage doing their between-song schtick. One unfortunate group member is the butt of some jokes aimed at his intelligence. All in good fun, of course. Then another member helpfully offers an explanation for his comrade’s denseness: “Oh, that’s right, so-and-so was homeschooled!” The crowd guffaws obligingly.

Before going further, I want to clarify that I’ve seen more than one example of this, so I’m not intentionally singling out any group in particular. However, to give just one instance, I’ll mention that Bill Gaither used to give guitarist Kevin Williams this punchline in his banter with Rory the soundman. Rory, as Gaither fans may recall, was famous for staring blankly into space while Kevin and the others reeled off clever one-liners at his expense.

Full disclosure: I was homeschooled all the way through high school. My mother taught me most of what I know about good writing and good literature. Suffice it to say that by the time I was doing Shakespeare, Dante and the rest in college, half of it was review. And that’s not even either of my majors.

However, I’m truthfully not the least bit hurt or offended by this particular punchline. You see, we homeschoolers have a pretty thick skin. We learned long ago not to pay too much attention to how the rest of the world might view us. Instead of getting our knickers in a knot and throwing a hissy fit, our preferred strategy is to smile winsomely and collect all the spelling bee/geography bee/moot court trophies in the country.

The real reason I’m criticizing this stock joke is that it makes talented artists whom I like and respect look silly. And out of touch. Whenever I wince at yet another homeschooling joke, believe me when I say that I’m not wincing for myself. I’m wincing for them. Continue reading

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When the Republican Party Leaves Me

In case you didn’t notice this week, some cowardly women and a few cowardly men in the Republican party conspired to kill a bill that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks. Of course, it would have barely alighted on our Dear Leader’s desk before being vetoed, but it’s the thought that would have counted.

I hope you’re watching the slow but steady decay of the Republican party very closely, my dear conservative readers. Don’t be like the frog in the pot. Recognize that the party you’ve loyally stood behind for lo these many years simply doesn’t care as much about things like life and marriage as you do anymore. The marriage issue bears special attention. (Don’t be too shocked if come 2016, the Republicans’ anointed candidate refuses to take a stand on the definition of marriage at all.) But this week’s decision shows they can’t even get their act together when it comes to babies being killed. Campaign strategists are pressing, on both issues, and they are pressing in a leftward direction.

You cannot allow yourself to be endlessly shanghaied into voting for the lesser of two evils. You cannot hold your nose at the ballot box forever. You need to let yourself smell the rot that’s setting in.

You have a right to vote, it’s true. You also have a right not to.

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Answering Your Questions About “American Sniper” [UPDATED]

American Sniper Kyle and Cooper collage

Top: SEAL sniper Chris Kyle ; Bottom: Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle in American Sniper

[UPDATE: 1/25/15 Since first writing this post, I’ve found more information on one of the slanderous claims that’s going around about Kyle, and I’ve updated it accordingly.]

Whether or not you’re the movie-going type, you’ve been hearing an awful lot about this one movie lately. It’s breaking box office records, FOX news is promoting it like crazy, and wild-eyed leftists are feverishly tweet-blogging their hatred for it and its subject. I’m talking about Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, based on the best-selling book by Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle.

With over 150 confirmed kills, Chris Kyle is the most lethal sniper in American history. After ten years of putting country before family, he resigned from the Navy to recover from post-traumatic stress, save his marriage and get to know his own children. He chose to put his story in book form to give people a candid look at the Iraq conflicts and the sacrifices made by military families. A compelling war memoir and a painfully honest love story, it shot to the top of the charts, and Kyle’s public profile soared. But he took the most pride in the organizations he founded to help other struggling veterans cope with the transition back to civilian life. These included veterans with PTSD. On February 2, 2013, Chris Kyle was shot and killed by one of those veterans at a gun range. All of Texas mourned.

Those who knew Chris Kyle well remember him as a war hero, a loving husband and father, and a humble man who shied from the spotlight and never stopped pouring himself into the military community. But as always, the left-wing media knows best. Meanwhile, you, a fairly pro-military conservative Christian (if previous surveys of my readership are a clue) are watching it all unfold and getting curious. If you’re like me, you may not have even heard of Chris Kyle until this movie came out. You now have conservative friends who are raving about the movie, and you’re wondering if you should see it too, just to find out what all the fuss is about. You’re probably wondering how much of it is Hollywood and how much of it is Kyle’s true story. You wonder if it’s really as conservative as Fox News says. You wonder if it’s any good. And you wonder if there’s anyone out there discussing Chris Kyle’s story from a Christian perspective, as distinguished from a purely conservative perspective.

Wonder no more, because [Larryboy voice] I. Am. That. Hero. Having seen the movie, read the book, and listened to every interview with Kyle that I could find, I’m here today to answer all your questions about American Sniper. Continue reading

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“It’s Our Baby. I Gotta Kiss Our Baby.”

Happy Sanctity of Human Life Day! Today I’m choosing to post an appropriate scene from a movie, on the principle that storytellers and story actors often speak more truly than they themselves may recognize. This is not a recommendation of the movie as a whole, but I believe this particular scene is very apt today. To explain the context, a young couple is winding down for bedtime when the husband, a would-be novelist, starts ranting frustratedly about his lack of popularity. His wife then cheers him up with some surprise news:

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New “Christian” Movie Waffles on Homosexuality

If you’ve seen Unbroken in theaters, you might have caught a preview for a new movie billing itself as a “Christian” production. The trailer’s soundtrack is current CCM, and the Dove Foundation has already rated it glowingly. So it’s safe to say that this product is being pushed in fairly mainstream evangelical circles. This isn’t Steve Taylor’s pet project. It’s the kind of thing for which your local Christian morning show might give away tickets when it gets a wider release. People are coming out of early screenings all smiles, saying what a “great message” the movie has and how much it moved them.

Indeed, judging by the trailer, it looks like the script, story and acting alone should bring a lump to any film-lover’s throat.

Okay, in case your stomach wasn’t strong enough to venture clicking on the trailer, I’ll provide a brief recap: In an unspecified hamlet of white American suburbia, one earnest teen heartthrob dares to raise his voice against the tirades of an Oppressive White Male political candidate, who’s running on a platform of “fighting” lies, corruption, and sexual immorality. I’m not sure what’s supposed to be wrong with that, but anyway, our hero hears it as a message of “hate,” and he decides to Do Something about it. That Something turns out to be running for Congress against Mr. Oppressive White Male, at the age of 17 (I gather this legal sticking-point is somehow resolved in the plot). The stage is set for a showdown between the two sides, where Millenial Teen Heartthrob can be spotted mouthing such profundities as “We cannot choose hate! We have to choose each other!”

Hang on, I need to go ransack my closet for some insulin. BRB.

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Of Sinners and Saints: Missing the Point of “Unbroken”

 

This Christmas, Angelina Jolie’s much-hyped adaptation of the best-selling biography Unbroken made it to the big screen. Most of you probably know the story: It traces the remarkable journey of WWII hero Louis Zamperini, as he became a pre-war Olympic athlete, only to be drafted as a pilot and have his plane shot down, only to be captured by the Japanese and tortured in a prison camp. But amazingly, his story didn’t end there, as he went on to have a crisis of faith while grappling with the demons of his war experiences. Through the preaching of Billy Graham, both he and his wife became Christians and launched missions initiatives of their own. Eventually, he met and forgave nearly all of his former Japanese captors face-to-face. Only the most infamously sadistic one, known as “The Bird,” refused to meet him.

Unfortunately, Zamperini’s entire post-war conversion story is relegated to a few title cards at the end of this movie, which ends abruptly with his release and family reunion. While the book on which it’s based doesn’t even go into as much detail as Louis himself in his own memoirs, at least it provides something for the reader. Run-time considerations no doubt played a role, but Hollywood’s aversion to anything openly religious isn’t exactly a secret. Allegedly, Louis himself was pleased with the final cut of the film. His son wrote a recent op-ed saying that the film’s non “preachy” nature was exactly what his dad would have wanted (the idea being that people would be motivated to learn “the rest of the story” for themselves precisely because it’s only hinted at in the film).

Interestingly enough, a number of secular critics disagree. They argue that the film feels hollow and incomplete without these details. By cutting out the messy, sometimes dark and ultimately redemptive arc of Zamperini’s post-war journey, Jolie elevates him to an almost saintly stature. Sure, he starts off as a rakish lad who seems like he could turn into a bit of a troublemaker before his brother inspires him to channel that energy more constructively. But ultimately, Louis can do no wrong. Louis is magnificent. Louis is perfect. And his prison trials are lingered over with Passion-like symbolism. By enshrining Zamperini in this way, Jolie overlooks the flawed man underneath. As a result, the movie misses the whole point of its own hero’s story.

The reality is that Louis Zamperini was a deeply messed-up guy when he came home from the war. And who wouldn’t be? You try getting tortured for several years straight, followed by trying to resume a normal life. Zamperini’s PTSD nightmares were so strong that he would wake up finding himself at his wife’s throat, thinking she was the tormentor of his dreams. Like with many war veterans, Zamperini’s coping mechanisms spiraled into addictions–smoking, drinking, even p*rnography. On top of everything else, his wife was trying to take care of their baby girl.

Eventually, she decided to end the marriage. That’s when she walked in on a Billy Graham crusade in downtown Los Angeles. The message convicted her. She came home and announced that she was no longer planning to divorce Louis, and she wanted him to come hear the preacher too. The neat little bow ending to the story would be that Louis took her advice and came down to the altar the first time he heard Mr. Graham speak. But human nature is more stubborn than that. The first time he accompanied his wife, he turned around and walked out of the tent, angrily telling her, “Don’t ever try to get me back to a place like this again!” She urged him to try again, desperately hoping that it would save their marriage. He eventually agreed, on one condition: “As soon as that fellow says ‘Every head bowed, every eye closed, I’m outta there.'”

Fortunately, God had other plans, and Graham’s well-chosen words pierced Zamperini’s shell the second time through. As Franklin Graham recounts it:

He went home that night, got rid of his p*rnography,  he got rid of his alcohol, he threw his cigarettes away. And he found his Bible that was given to him in the military, and he began to read and study the Bible, and his life was transformed instantly that day, and it stayed with him the rest of his life. He never turned from what he had put his faith and trust in, and that was Jesus Christ.

In a world of murky anti-hero stories, it’s difficult to argue with a straight-forward hero story such as the one Jolie presents in her film. And the events she depicts are, in fact, true as far as they go. Yet people can tell when the whole truth is being airbrushed out of the story. The real hero of Zamperini’s story isn’t Zamperini himself, because Zamperini himself failed to live up to a heroic standard. His own merits were insufficient to break the vicious cycle of sin that was eating away at his life and his marriage. The Holy Spirit had to take him by the collar and shake him up. Thus it has always been and evermore shall be.

To rectify the gaps in Jolie’s film adaptation, the Billy Graham foundation has pulled some exclusive interview footage from the vault and put together a short documentary called Louis Zamperini: Captured By Grace. You can watch a couple clips for yourself, including a younger Louie giving his testimony at a crusade, and see if it seems “preachy” or “cheesy.”

The foundation is offering DVDs of the documentary at a “pay what you want” rate on their website here.

 

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