Category Archives: Faith and Culture

On Homosexuality and Lost Sons

A few weeks ago, a certain Youtube video went viral. In this video, a young man secretly filmed his family’s intervention, staged some months after he informed them that he was homosexual. Family members present appear to include his grandmother, stepmother, father, and another male relative. People were shocked by the raw, painful nature of the conversation, which escalates and culminates in an explosion of physical rage from his stepmother and his male relative. Naturally, the unanimous decree of the anointed was that he was a hero, his family was horribly bigoted, and everyone should go throw $$ at his GoFundMe account now that his horribly bigoted family had disowned him.

I also found the video gut-wrenching to watch (language warning, by the way), but not for the same reasons as everyone else. In that brief 5-minute conversation, I felt that I had witnessed a lifetime of pain unfolding—the pain of a parent who looks at his son and realizes that he is truly, hopelessly lost.

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Leaving Long-Faced Religion Behind

So the other day, this regional quartet called Mark209 put out a silly music video for a novelty song called “Have a Good Time,” and now some people are getting all upset about it. Some other gospel artist (I know his name but he’s nobody I’ve ever heard of before) was Facebooking his thoughts on the matter rather bluntly. He thought it was risque, said it “nauseated” him, and wished that Mark209 would just leave southern gospel altogether and go play to the godless masses. Them’s pretty strong words!

So naturally I wondered what all the fuss was about and watched the video myself. If you absolutely need to burn a few brain cells, you can watch it here too, but honestly, it’s really not much to get upset or excited over. It’s just forgettable, vapid and goofy, with some shots of cheerleaders in questionably modest outfits (probably the main thing that’s upsetting folks).

I’m more interested in the general debate it’s brought out regarding what the Christian religion is supposed to look or sound like—in short, whether Christians are even allowed to “have a good time.” To say that this debate is nothing new would be a vast understatement.

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Dancing In the Rain: The Donald O’Connor Story (Part III of III)

A great while ago the world began
With a hey ho, the wind and the rain
But that’s all one, and our play is done
And we’ll strive to please you every day.

 Twelfth Night, Act 5, Scene 1

***

Part I here

Part II here

In 1975, the BBC asked Donald O’Connor if the musical was dead. His succinct answer: “No. It is dead the way we used to make ‘em.” He spoke without resentment. It was just a fact.

Donald O’Connor was the last of the song and dance men. Known as “the youngest old-timer in show business,” it was his misfortune to reach the height of his powers precisely when the song-and-dance musical was dying. Rising to take its place were the spontaneous musicals, the Sounds of Music and Oklahomas and West Side Stories. Characters were ordinary people expressing their feelings, not entertainers putting on a show. There was no longer a place for O’Connor’s particular skill set on the big screen. So it was back to his first love: the stage.

Shifting base of operations to Las Vegas gave the restless performer a steady audience and the ability to nurture fresh talent. One young lad joined him for a special performance to commemorate his 30th anniversary in the business, which nearly doubled as a 31st birthday party. (Candid footage of the reception shows O’Connor surreptitiously piling an extra slice of cake on the boy’s plate.) With a happy second marriage and a growing new family, it seemed that he had landed on his feet. His son Fred later recalled, “I was very blessed to have my dad as my dad… We were never without anything, and the things we really wanted, he told us ‘These are things that you have to work for.’ And I’m glad he did.” Daughter Alicia fondly remembered how he would delight the children with quicksilver impressions, saying that “You never knew who was coming to dinner.” But as O’Connor danced closer to the line between “drinker” and “alcoholic,” he fought a rising fear that like his father and brother, he would not live to the age of 50.

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Dancing In the Rain: The Donald O’Connor Story (Part II of III)

“I was born and raised to entertain other people. I’ve heard laughter and applause and known a lot of sorrow. Everything about me is based on show business. I think it will bring me happiness. I hope so.” — Donald O’Connor, Parade, 1954

 

***

Read Part I here.

Gene Kelly knew what he was doing when he hand-picked Donald O’Connor as his right-hand man in Singin’ In the Rain. His own ballet training was perfectly complemented by O’Connor’s raw hoofing talent. O’Connor later credited Kelly with teaching him to be a “total dancer,” from the waist up. Each borrowed motifs from the other to create their iconic synchronized routine “Moses Supposes.”  But working with Kelly had its tense moments. In this rare interview clip (edited by yours truly), O’Connor shares a priceless anecdote about the legend’s famously short temper on the set of their number “Fit as a Fiddle”:

The memories of Debbie Reynolds also offer some insight into O’Connor’s gentle, professional personality. When Gene became frustrated with Debbie, he would take it out on Donald. But Donald bore it with perpetual good humor. In one instance, as all three practiced a step in “Good Morning,” Kelly himself was unknowingly repeating an error while blaming O’Connor for it. Reynolds expected O’Connor to retaliate at any minute, but all he said was “I’m sorry.” Finally, Kelly stopped and announced, “I’m doing it wrong! Why didn’t you tell me?”

Yet for all his abrasiveness, Gene recognized a professional when he saw one: “Nobody else in the business could have taken the beating I gave Donald O’Connor in Singin’ In the Rain… Donald comes from vaudeville. He’s disciplined. I’ve seen him rehearse a step a thousand times.” Looking back on it all, O’Connor could only laugh and say “Working with him? Yeah, he was miserable. No, we had a great time together… I was never offended by Gene, I love the guy too much.”

Of course, “Make ‘Em Laugh” is the number that everyone remembers from O’Connor’s work in the picture. When MGM released its compilation That’s Entertainment, this was the one that could still make listless audiences break into spontaneous applause in the theaters. Mark Steyn has described it as “the essence of entertainment,” adding “Its only purpose is to delight. Which is a lot harder than it sounds.”

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Dancing in the Rain: The Donald O’Connor Story (Part I of III)

Actor Donald O'ConnorQuickly: Who’s the most talented entertainer you can name? For many, it would be the man who just took his own life last month. An older generation might name Dick Van Dyke. Yet another generation might reach still further into the past, to silent film stars like Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. What do legends like these all share in common? Answer: They all had an extraordinary gift for making anyone happy, except themselves.

To that remarkable list, I would add another name. I would add the name of the man who immortalized laughter in three short minutes of pure genius on film. I would add the name of Donald O’Connor.

Perhaps Paramount exec A. C. Lyles said it best: “Donald O’Connor’s name, spelled backwards, would be talent.” Gene Kelly simply dubbed him “The O’Connor.” But his story sounds too painfully familiar: a lightning-fast comic wit, a master of improv, full of explosive energy and beloved by fans, yet privately haunted by divorce, addiction and depression. Except that his story does not end like so many other sad, sad stories. No, my friends. This is a story that ends with hope. Continue reading

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Lost Soul: My Video Reflection on Robin Williams

Last week, I had some thoughts on the suicide of Robin Williams. While they deviated a bit harshly from the norm, I stand by what I said, because some balance was desperately needed amid the obsessive adoration. However, I can’t deny that once my attention was drawn to this character and the characters he created, it was difficult for me not to be drawn further in. It’s a rare talent that can leave you limp with laughter in one moment and move you to tears in the next. This sad, strange little man filled me with curious fascination, yet simultaneously, with pity. That was his way.

By sheer coincidence, I was recently  listening to some Bruce Hornsby music and came across a little-known song called “Lost Soul.” The lyric brought me up short, because it was so startlingly poignant and apt. With surprising speed, something came together in my mind and my movie making software. I began to create and edit.

The finished product surprised even myself. Continue reading

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On the Death of Robin Williams and the Gift of Life

[Editor's Note: This post tackles a dark subject, so young readers proceed with caution.]

[Update: I've added one more story to this piece related to Robin's work with the military, because I found it interesting and moving. Also, to watch my own video tribute to Williams with additional thoughts, click here.]

Last week, mercurial comic genius and beloved actor Robin Williams took his own life by hanging. As he made his mark a little before my time, I’m really just now beginning to approach his body of work. So upon his suicide, I observed the national mourning from a place of relative detachment. Now that I’ve given myself a little crash course on his life and career, I think I’m in a better position to offer my own few cents on Robin Williams’s legacy, his death, and America’s reaction to it.

Robin Williams gave the phrase “insanely talented” a whole new meaning. He had a bizarrely brilliant, inimitable comic gift, and yet he was a fine dramatic actor whose best work ranks with the best of actors like Tom Hanks and Dustin Hoffman.

He was also a notoriously foul-mouthed entertainer and a deeply disturbed man whose suicide came as no surprise to many, after years of addiction, depression, and broken marriages. Yet despite his ugly personal demons, he was known as a warm personality who treated the lowliest extra with respect, was given to spontaneous acts of kindness, and quietly donated time and money to wounded veterans and local food banks. And though his publicly flippant treatment of God and the Bible bodes ill for his eternal destiny, privately he loved to read The Chronicles of Narnia out loud to his kids, slipped into the back row of Tim Keller’s church more than once, and even briefly confessed Christ in rehab towards the end of his life. The duration of this commitment is unclear, but it is clear that he badly needed answers and began stumbling toward them before finally turning away to enter that dark gate of abandoned hope.

What to do with such a complex personality, and such a mixed legacy? However we respond, we can and must do better than cloying sentimentalism. Continue reading

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Christians In Entertainment: Eduardo Verastegui

Eduardo Verastegui

To the right is a face many of my readers might not recognize, but you’re probably familiar with his work in Christian film-making. Remember the pro-life film Bella? This is Eduardo Verastegui, the guy who produced and starred in it. Verastegui has been on the front lines of Catholic anti-abortion activism for years, regularly speaking out against the Obama administration and founding his own LA-based outreach organization “Manto de Guadalupe” (Mantle of Faith). Meanwhile, he’s continued to work in faith-based shorts and feature-length films. Most recently, he holds an executive producer credit on the Spanish version of Son of God, a theatrical adaptation of The Bible mini-series.

But the story of the winding road that led him to this place is fascinating. His testimony provides a perfect spotlight for the purposes of this series. Continue reading

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Movie Review: God’s Not Dead

So, I saw God’s Not Dead in theaters last month, and I lived to tell the tale. For those of you who may have heard of the movie and were wondering what I thought about it, here are all my pros and cons in one place. It surpassed all expectations at the box office, becoming a legit Christian blockbuster. $48 million was the last figure I heard. Clearly it’s connected with its grassroots evangelical audience. Premise: One lone Christian student takes up the challenge to convince his college peers of the evidence for God, or else face the wrath of the vindictive atheist professor. It’s a classroom David and Goliath drama, plus a little apologetics, Duck Dynasty, and the Newsboys. Did I love it? Did I hate it? Did I find something to like about it? There’s only one way to find out…

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Going To the Movies?

If so, I recommend skipping Darren Aronofsky’s soggy, ridiculously extra-biblical if not gnostic hack job on the story of Noah. In the words of Wretched TV, “Uh oh.” Or, “ROCK PEOPLE!” Instead, read  Dr. Brian Mattson’s much-needed and incisive review. Despite some admittedly stellar casting and stunning visuals, the director just couldn’t leave his own political/theological axe-grinding out of it. However, there’s another new movie marketed to Christians that looks much more promising in terms of its message, even if, alas, no Russell Crowe or Anthony Hopkins. The independent film God’s Not Dead did a Facing the Giants last week, opening 3rd in the box office despite its limited 700-theater release. Continue reading

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