Category Archives: Faith and Culture

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

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.]

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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Movie Review: Grace Unplugged

This film drew quite a bit of Christian buzz when it came out last year, and it focuses on the music industry, so I thought I’d check it out and review it for you guys. Here’s the premise: Johnny Trey, a one-time one-hit rock star, has left the Hollywood life behind him, kicked drugs, and settled down in a small town to raise a family. Now he serves as a worship pastor at his church. His daughter, 18-year-old Grace, shows musical promise but chafes under her father’s strict regulations for the band. When daddy’s old manager offers him a new record deal after a cover of his classic sugar-stick goes viral, he smiles and declines easily. But Grace decides to do her own cover of the newly popular hit and e-mails it to “Mossy.” Mossy likes what he hears, and after yet another fight with dear old Dad, you can guess what happens next: Yep, little miss evangelical-teen-with-daddy-issues packs her bags and heads for Hollywood! Just write the rest of the script yourself from there and you probably won’t be far off from the real one.

Okay, so I’m being a bit snarky. I did genuinely like some things about this film, so let’s list some Pros before we get into the Cons:

Pros

* The character of the father. I really, really liked this character—both the way he was written and the way he was acted. In fact, I liked him so much that I found it hard to sympathize with Grace’s whining, and I kind of wanted to pull some of her pretty, pretty hair out when she bad-mouthed him behind his back. Maybe I just don’t “get” whiny teenagers, but I was always rooting for Team Dad in their arguments. When Grace skips youth group for a movie, and worse, she lies about it to her mother, Dad is NOT happy about “that little song and dance you gave your mother.” Actor James Denton believably conveys deep love, anger and hurt as Trey’s little girl grows up and rejects him. Unlike some of the other characters, he actually seemed like a real person, with real emotional layers.

* I appreciated the unflattering, but  probably 90% accurate portrayal of how the pop music business actually works (except that Grace hops on a tour bus before she’s chosen and recorded more than one song, which simply doesn’t make sense). Her fashion designer is also kind of over the top (we get it, in American movies a British Accent alwaysalways = Bad). But when Dad shakes his head sadly and says, “Oh, you are not ready for this,” he’s more right than she can imagine. Continue reading

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In, Not Of: Christians in Entertainment, Part II

Harry Connick Jr., Blue Light Red Light cover image

I was initially inspired to explore the topic of Christians in entertainment by Harry Connick, Jr. So of course, Part I was about somebody else. But now I’m back with Part II, and this one is all about Harry. Whether or not you’re a fan, I hope you’ll enjoy this post, because it explores important questions about what changes and what stays the same when someone who’s serious about his faith becomes a mega-star in mainstream entertainment. (Preemptive side note: Catholicism vs. Protestantism is relevant to this post, but please don’t turn the thread into a discussion of whether Catholics are Christians at all. Thanks!)

There are those who can perform. There are those who can write. There are those who can play. Then there are those who can do all three with aplomb. Yes, boys and girls, before there was Michael Buble, there was Harry Connick, Jr. And yes, I died a little just putting Michael Buble in the same sentence with Harry Connick, Jr. Continue reading

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No, Jesus Wouldn’t Bake the Cake

[02/23: Today Powers has published ANOTHER fluff piece along with partner in church-wussification Jonathan Merritt, this one regarding a similar law that's being proposed in Arizona. Since her attempt at exegesis worked out so well, this time she tries to use "logic." Someone please tell this woman to stop before she hurts herself. Meanwhile, read Russell Moore's measured response here. And Al Mohler's here.]

Many of you may have been following the recent defeat of a bill in the Kansas State Senate (after passing in the House) that would protect Christian business-owners from lawsuit and potential financial ruin for refusing to lend their services to gay “weddings.” Unfortunately, this defeat has met with sanctimonious approval from a number of alleged Christians.

Among them is columnist Kirsten Powers, whose conversion to Christianity from her hard-core secular New York background was recently highlighted in Christianity Today. Conservatives passed the testimony around as an intriguing story. Of course I was pleased to see another soul won to Christ, but Powers’s testimony in that article and also in this video raised some red flags for me. I was concerned by her very evident discomfort with conservative politics in general and her relief at finding “other Christians who were like me—very progressive-minded.” She clearly now believes that she can be a Christian and keep most of her favorite liberal security blankets at the same time (except maybe for being pro-abortion). Tim Keller was the pastor who initially influenced her to become a Christian, but while he’s almost certainly more conservative than she is, he’s not the best pastor to provide hard-edged clarity of political thought to a Democrat who needs a wake-up call. (In fact, I heard a sermon where Keller said “moving” or “changing” in your politics is a sign of Christian maturity no matter which direction you’re moving—presumably becoming even more conservative doesn’t count. ;) )

Anyway, all those worries are coming home to roost in Powers’s shallow, childish little rant about the fact that conservative Christians (shocker!) thought the Kansas bill was a good idea, in which she proves that she still doesn’t grok Christian morality and enlists the aid of outright liberal pastors like Adam Hamilton and Andy Stanley in the process. Where to start? Continue reading

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In Not Of: Christians in Entertainment, Part I

Last week I promised some posts on Christians who are currently navigating the larger entertainment world. Here is the first installment. I’m going to begin with two incidents, involving two female Christian singers, that caused some kerfuffle around the 2014 Grammy Awards. First of all,  as some of you may have picked up on the interwebs, there were several performances in particular that were especially offensive this year. One was an obscenely sexualized number by celebrity couple Jay-Z and Beyonce. Another was a so-called “wedding ceremony,” including same-sex couples, officiated by a female celebrity with a temp license and blasphemously set against the stained-glass backdrop of a church service.

Natalie Grant and Mandisa are two of the most popular female vocalists in contemporary Christian music. Some of you are probably already familiar with Grant’s work on a couple of Gaither videos. Mandisa may be less familiar, but she was a stand-out on American Idol s0me years back and has since enjoyed a successful career on the CCM circuit. What else do these ladies have in common? Both were nominated for Grammys in categories for the best Christian song/record of the year. Also, both chose to make a public gesture distancing themselves from the culture of the Grammys.

In Mandisa’s case, she had already chosen not even to attend the ceremony. Here is an excerpt from what she had to say on her Facebook wall:

I have been struggling with being in the world, not of it lately. I have fallen prey to the alluring pull of flesh, pride, and selfish desires quite a bit recently. Continue reading

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