Not Without Witness: An Easter Reflection

…[A]nd then, suddenly, we come down to the resurrection of Jesus. It’s so petty, it’s so trivial, it’s so local, it’s so earth-bound, it’s so unworthy of the universe. — Richard Dawkins

Easter Sunday is the Christian’s yearly reminder that our faith is unlike any other. Where other religions traffic in the elusive and the intangible, Christianity is planted firmly in the concrete. No other religion places the stakes so high. The Apostle Paul wrote that if Christ did not rise from the dead, then our faith is vain. If this physical event did not take place at this physical moment in time, when Caiaphas was the high priest, Pilate was the governor, and Tiberius was the emperor, then we are of all men most miserable.

The mundane particularity of it all must not be lost. It marks the place where our faith is anchored. We trust not in a comforting notion or a platitude, but in the most real and solid of occurrences: a man dead, and that same man alive again.

We human beings are creatures of the tangible. We invest ourselves emotionally in what we can see, touch, and embrace. When those bonds are broken, whether through betrayal, loss, or simple loneliness, maintaining faith in things beyond our grasp does not come easily to us. This is why it’s not enough to encourage a doubting friend by saying, “You just need to believe harder.” We must be prepared to answer the question, “Why should I?” Yet we have the answer. Indeed, we have the best possible answer. The gospel is a record of a real moment in real time, preserved and handed down from generation to generation. On some days we feel like believing it. Other days, we may not. It doesn’t matter. The record remains, an ever-fixed mark.

Christian, ask yourself not what you feel, but what you know. Perhaps your pastor had a profound moral failing, and perhaps the church board turned a blind eye. You feel betrayed, but what do you know? Perhaps you are caught in a vicious cycle of temptation. You feel despairing, but what do you know? Perhaps you simply can’t sense God’s presence like you used to. You feel isolated, but what do you know?

This is where our hope is found: It is found in the still-empty tomb of the One who who did not leave himself without witness. In the words of the Apostle John, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched — this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.”

This Easter week, let us encourage ourselves and each other with this great good news: that while in this world we will have trouble, Christ has overcome the world.

We Call This Friday Good

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

— T. S. Eliot, “East Coker”

Movie Review: Risen

How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth? — Sherlock Holmes

After hearing good things about the new Christian film Risen, I finally got the chance to see it for myself this week. Offering a fresh twist on the Easter story, it walks through the aftermath of Jesus’ resurrection from the perspective of a Roman tribune named Clavius. Clavius is tasked by Pilate to find Jesus’ missing corpse and quash pesky resurrection rumors, preferably before Tiberius Caesar arrives for a check-up. The result feels like a 1st century crime procedural, as Clavius examines the scene, collects witness testimony, and weighs multiple explanations of the evidence he gathers. The closer he gets to unraveling the mystery, the more uneasy he becomes.

Before diving into what I thought of Risen, I want to say a few words about Christian movies in general. As the market for Christian films has grown, my attitude towards them has run the gamut from *CRINGE* to “Hey, this is actually okay.” I am reluctant to bash the Christian film industry writ large, because I am reluctant to come off as a snide, self-important critic of Christian culture writ large. (But that’s a topic for another day. I think I’ll call it “How I Somehow Avoided Becoming a Christian Culture Snob.”) I even challenged John Mark Reynolds when he put out a scathing critique of the Kendrick Brothers’ War Room, despite the fact that I didn’t see the film and frankly still don’t have a burning desire to do so. I did it because I want to be fair, and I want to give Christian filmmakers their due.

And yet… I still love movies. And the movie-lover in me can’t deny that too many Christian films are simply not that well put together, by any objective standard of film-making.

So, it gives me great pleasure to report that Risen is not just a good Christian movie. It’s a good movie, full stop.

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Old Movies, New Eyes: The Lost Weekend

One’s too many, and a hundred’s not enough.

The Lost Weekend, one's too many still 1
Ray Milland as Don Birnam in The Lost Weekend

When The Lost Weekend first came out in 1945, nobody had predicted that it would be a hit. It was based on a novel that had sold well, but the book market was one thing. The film market was another. And Charles Jackson’s semi-autobiographical tale of an alcoholic loser who deliberately rejects love, hope and sobriety to go on a three-day bender was not exactly an easy sell.

Yet somehow, against all odds, the film swept the Oscars and the box office alike. Perhaps it was because in The Lost Weekend, people finally saw something that reflected the painful truth of alcoholism, as opposed to the Hollywood fictions that had glamorized it or laughed it off. Perhaps when they looked in the lost eyes of Don Birnam, they saw their own prodigal brothers, lovers and sons.

But I would be short-changing this film if I described it as merely a message movie about alcoholism. Don Birnam’s story is not merely the story of an alcoholic. It is the story of a sinner and the grace that pursues him even when he pushes it away. It is the story of a soul with life and death set before him, as they are set before every soul. And it stands as a haunting reminder that, in the words of C. S. Lewis, “There are only two kinds of people, in the end: those who say to God, Thy will be done, and those to whom God says, in the end, Thy will be done.”

Continue reading “Old Movies, New Eyes: The Lost Weekend”

If The 2016 Election Was a Season of American Idol…

AI and Election collage

Imagine, if you will, a parallel universe where instead of running for president, our 2016 contenders had competed in American Idol instead. (While meanwhile, in another parallel universe, TV personalities were running for president. Oh wait, that’s our universe, never mind.) What might the contest look like? I decided to draw on my vast knowledge of American Idol’s last few seasons and imagine it for you. Here is how I picture most of the candidates who ran this year as American Idol contestants. I say “most,” because I couldn’t think of something clever for everyone. Sorry, George Pataki, whoever you were.

Continue reading “If The 2016 Election Was a Season of American Idol…”

What (Some) Politicians Have in Common With Southern Gospel Singers

GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio has had a rough weekend. Even before his dismal showing in Saturday’s polls, he had to slog through a taxing debate on Friday while battling a very hoarse, sore throat. After the debate, he broke tradition by giving the other candidates a fist bump instead of a handshake, to avoid spreading his cold. (Though it’s debatable that anybody would have minded had he given Donald Trump a handful of cold germs.)

It just so happened that the next day, I was chatting with my good friend Michael Booth before going to see a Booth Brothers concert. Michael told me that he had almost canceled the trio’s weekend dates, because he, too, had come down with the flu.

This coincidence led me to reflect on some of the ways that the business of politics can resemble the business of singing gospel music. Before I get attacked by ardent gospel music fans, rest assured that the comparison is not meant cynically! These are just my observations of the enormous physical and mental demands that are made on politicians and gospel music singers alike, and of how people of good will in both professions can rise to the occasion.

Continue reading “What (Some) Politicians Have in Common With Southern Gospel Singers”

A Simple Plea for Super Tuesday

My readership is largely concentrated in the South, so if that describes you, I feel moved to write something brief for your benefit on this Super Tuesday.

Donald Trump is poised to sweep the states that are casting their votes today for the Republican nominee. If neither Ted Cruz nor Marco Rubio can siphon off a sizable chunk of delegates, the race will be effectively over. Even if Cruz holds down his home state of Texas, it could well be effectively over.

It is sad but true that people have tended to categorize Ted Cruz with Donald Trump in their minds as “both outsiders,” “both insurgents,” and “both people the establishment hates.” On the other hand, particularly for people who obsess over the immigration issue, Marco Rubio is perceived as the one candidate they would never vote for.

The truth is that of these three candidates, the two who have the most in common are Cruz and Rubio, not Cruz and Trump. Yes, I have disagreements with Rubio, and yes, I was disappointed to see him dip his toe in some Trump-style smear tactics in South Carolina. But as the debate last week should have made clear, Cruz and Rubio are a united front against Trump. Some still hold out hope for a more concrete alliance to form between them, but that seems unlikely. At this point, the best we can hope for is that Trump is slowed enough for the party to limp its way to a brokered convention.

That’s where you, dear readers and voters, come in. At this point, unless you live in Texas, in which case you should hope Cruz wins as big as possible, I honestly do not care whether you prefer him to Rubio or vice versa. Flip a coin. Roll a die. But for God’s sake, whatever you do, don’t sell your soul to Donald Trump. Don’t pledge your fealty to this vulturous shell of a man who despises you almost as much as he loves himself. Don’t make the same mistake so many other souls have made, some calculating and opportunistic like Gov. Chris Christie, some just simple folk who are easily duped, others consumed with rage and bitterness who positively want America to burn. Yes, I realize some of those souls include Benghazi heroes, Sarah Palin, even (alas) Phyllis Schlafly. But you still have a choice. Your own conscience still lies in your own hands. If you let it slip through your fingers now, you will never recover it.

If you do not heed this warning, then may God have mercy on your soul for what is about to happen.