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.

And the Ones Left Standing Carry On

February 13th 2016 will go down as the day conservatism died in America. It died on a West Texas ranch. And it died on a stage in South Carolina. — Mike Adams

Justice Scalia funeral
Pall-bearers take up the casket of Justice Antonin Scalia

The results of Saturday’s South Carolina primary should break the heart of every American conservative. Yet, sadly, they should not have been unexpected. The signs were all there exactly a week before. On February 13th, as the nation reeled from the death of Justice Scalia, Donald Trump added insult to injury by dominating the Republican debate stage with childish tantrums and 9/11 conspiracy theories. One image summed it all up: Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio bickering with each other across Trump, who stood between them with a satisfied smirk on his face. It foreshadowed the state primary’s final percentages all too well, as Cruz and Rubio exactly split second place, trailing Trump by double digits. Even among people who call themselves born-again Christians, Trump was regnant. His competitors will plow forward and continue to rally their supporters as best they can, but the numbers don’t lie: The death knell of American conservatism is ringing, and Donald Trump has sounded it.

Another bell tolled on Saturday, signifying another death: that of Justice Antonin Scalia. But while those present were gathered to mourn, Father Paul Scalia delivered a eulogy to his father that was anything but mournful. Full of love and light, it celebrated the legacy Scalia left for his family and his country. Yet this was not the half of Father Paul’s message. Yesterday, as I grieved the double death of Justice Scalia and the conservative principles he spent his life upholding, Father Paul reminded me, as he reminded the nation, where we must fix our gaze:

We are gathered here because of one man. A man known personally to many of us, known only by reputation to even more. A man loved by many, scorned by others. A man known for great controversy, and for great compassion. That man, of course, is Jesus of Nazareth.

Continue reading “And the Ones Left Standing Carry On”

My Top 5 Love Songs

The death of Justice Scalia sadly over-shadowed Valentine’s Day for me and for this blog. But a slightly belated Valentine’s Day top five list of love songs is better than none at all, right? I said, right? Okay, we’ll assume I’m right and carry on.

So last year, I came up with this list of my top five underrated love songs. But it wasn’t a top five list period. This year, I’m unveiling my top five. Favorite love songs will vary widely depending on each person’s individual tastes. These happen to be the ones I personally return to most often, that come closest to perfection as far as I’m concerned. There may be greater, more stirring, more heartfelt love songs out there that I have forgotten or never even heard. There are also a ton of honorable mentions that I’ll have to give a nod to at the end of the list. To some extent, this is all a matter of taste. Still, I would like to think that while the exact ordering of some of my choices may be disputable, the fact that they belong somewhere among the ranks of great love songs is not. So, without further ado…

5. Reminiscing, by the Little River Band

Hurry, don’t be late

I can hardly wait

I said to myself “When we’re old

We’ll go dancing in the dark

Walking in the park and reminiscing.”

Of all the songs on this list, this one certainly has the lightest touch. A smash 70s radio hit, it still strikes me today with its freshness, both lyrically and musically. The melody is catchy, yet full of pleasing harmonic twists and turns. And the lyrics offer a window into a more innocent time, when young men thought beyond their next date to the life of memories they might share with that one girl.  It’s also a loving homage to the big bands of yore. Naming specific artists like Glenn Miller and Cole Porter grounds the song in a sense of time and place, making the listener wonder what it might have been like for his own grandparents to fall in love for the first time.

4. You Are So Beautiful, by Joe Cocker

You are so beautiful to me

Can’t you see?

You’re everything I hope for

You’re everything I need

You are so beautiful to me

It’s been said that Beach Boy Dennis Wilson had an uncredited hand in writing this song but generously gave it away to his co-writers. Regardless, it’s a good one. Although it has hardly any lyrics, the gorgeous piano setting juxtaposed with Joe Cocker’s gritty delivery makes for an unforgettable listening experience. I suppose you could argue that the arrangement and the performance are such a large part of what makes this song work that its inclusion on a top five songs list is questionable. But whatever. As long as I can play the piano, my fingers will not be able to resist going to those chords.

3. She’s Always a Woman, by Billy Joel

She’ll promise you more
Than the Garden of Eden
Then she’ll carelessly cut you
And laugh while you’re bleedin’
But she’ll bring out the best
And the worst you can be
Blame it all on yourself
Cause she’s always a woman to me

Billy Joel fans will forgive me if I neglect the overplayed “Just the Way You Are” in favor of this sharper-edged, yet (in my opinion) deeper offering. At first glance, it seems like a series of back-handed compliments. We don’t necessarily like the woman being described in this song. She sounds stubborn, fickle, sometimes callous or even cruel. But look again at the verse quoted above. That line “But she’ll bring out the best and the worst you can be” is especially telling, and absolutely true to human nature. People can be both “frequently kind and suddenly cruel,” and women in particular seem able to shift emotions at the drop of a hat. And there is no husband who can’t relate to the line “She never gives out, and she never gives in. She just changes her mind.” But of course! “Yes,” she will say, “Just as I thought all along.” The man sighs and doesn’t even try arguing the point. She’s always a woman to him: his woman.

2. In My Life, by the Beatles

But of all these friends and lovers
There is no one compares with you
And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new
Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more

This is one of those songs where the more you think about it, the better it gets. And the older you grow, the truer it rings. It’s arranged so crisply and sung so freely that you almost forget how deep the lyrics really are. Certainly, it is a love song, but it is also more than a love song. The listener is moved to reflect on those people, places and things that have touched him, that he has touched. But in the end, as all other memories, all other loves fade away, there is one that stays ever new.

1. I Will Be Here, by Steven Curtis Chapman

I will be here
And you can cry on my shoulder
When the mirror tells us we’re older
I will hold you
And I will be here
To watch you grow in beauty
And tell you all the things you are to me
I will be here

This is not just a great Christian love song, or a great song sung by a Christian singer. It’s a great song, period. But it has a bittersweet provenance. Chapman was inspired to write the lyrics when his parents went through a bitter divorce. It shook him and forced him to reexamine his own commitment to his wife. Although he was not even 30 yet at the time he wrote the song, it remains far and away his best work, and in my opinion, far and away the best love song of all time. Of course, you are free to disagree. You’ll be wrong, but you’re free to disagree.

Honorable Mentions

Faithfully, by Journey

God Only Knows, by the Beach Boys

True Companion, by Marc Cohn

Dancing in the Minefields, by Andrew Peterson

Kathy’s Song and For Emily, by Simon & Garfunkel

My Love, by River

She’s Everything, by Brad Paisley

Longer, by Dan Fogelberg

In This Life, by Collin Raye

… and many more.

In Memoriam: Justice Scalia

You couldn’t have a better man at your side in a losing battle. What he’ll do if we win, I can’t imagine. — C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

Justice Scalia with pipe

It would be impossible to do justice to the legacy of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in a blog post, so I won’t even bother making the attempt. I am still in disbelief that he is gone. But I still felt a few words were in order to mark the passing of this legal giant and fearless warrior for Christ.

In losing Justice Scalia, we have lost a great steward of the Good. A staunch defender of life, marriage, and religious liberty, he upheld his sworn duty to interpret the Constitution as written even when other members of the Supreme Court stabbed their country in the back. In dissent after blistering dissent, he never failed to stand athwart the path of progressivism crying “Stop!” Like the character of MacPhee in C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, Justice Scalia was the best man you could have at your side in a losing battle. Like Mr. Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, he understood that sometimes lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for.

His last dissent, against the decision that declared gay “marriage” a constitutional right, may have been his best one yet. It is fitting and sobering that he should go out on this scathing, yet tragically true note: “The Supreme Court of the United States has descended from the disciplined legal reasoning of John Marshall and Joseph Story to the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie.”

In April, 1996, Scalia gave a speech at a Catholic prayer breakfast that closed with this profound word of wisdom: “If I have brought any message today, it is this: Have the courage to have your wisdom regarded as stupidity. Be fools for Christ. And have the courage to suffer the contempt of the sophisticated world.” Scalia certainly suffered his share of contempt in life, and that contempt is reaching an almost demonic fever pitch in the wake of his death.

May the Church continue to take heart from the courageous legacy of Justice Scalia. The godless and the perverse may trample on his grave, but the truth will endure to all generations. We shall not see his like again.

The Pro-Life Generation and the Soul of the GOP

Whatever the outcome of this campaign season, we are indebted to Marco Rubio for making it clear where the battle lines for the Republican Party’s soul have been drawn on the issue of abortion.

Republican Presidential candidate Florida Senator Marco Rubio (L) speaks as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush looks on during the Republican Presidential debate sponsored by Fox News at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa on January 28, 2016.
Left: Marco Rubio; Right: Jeb Bush

By some standards, Marco Rubio had a bad night in the New Hampshire Republican primary debate on Saturday. He was blind-sided by older establishment candidates, particularly a dangerously desperate Chris Christie. In a dog-eat-dog primary where Rubio’s star appears to be rising and theirs fading, they have one simple goal: Bring him crashing down before he is out of range. Never mind that American voters are plainly no longer interested in what Bush, Christie and their ilk are peddling. Never mind that what gets applause in New Hampshire is not likely to go over well outside their handkerchief-sized stomping ground. All that matters is that Rubio has committed the unpardonable sins of a) not waiting his turn, and b) stealing their votes after not waiting his turn. For that, the establishment is determined to make him pay, out of sheer jealous spite.

To be clear, I am personally not convinced that Rubio is the absolute best choice for the Republican nomination. And yes, on pure rhetoric, he stumbled badly under Christie’s frontal assault. (His main gaffe was continuing to repeat an anti-Obama talking point word-for-word, even while Christie was mocking him for it.)

But something else happened on Saturday night, something that far outweighs this misstep for me. There was one issue on which Rubio rose head and shoulders above the candidates who were trying to take him down. I’m talking about the issue of life. As I watched Bush and Christie attack Rubio for being “too pro-life” on the New Hampshire stage (and draw applause for it), it became clear that I was witnessing a pivotal turning-point in American politics. I was witnessing nothing less than a battle for the soul of the Republican party.

Continue reading “The Pro-Life Generation and the Soul of the GOP”

5 Principles for Christian Voters

Recently, I was commissioned to write an article for Summit Ministries on how Christians can engage thoughtfully with the political process. It was published largely as is on the official Summit website, but I wanted to share the original version with you readers. Enjoy, and join the conversation here or on Facebook!

As Christians, how now shall we engage with the political process? Here are five principles to guide your thinking as you prayerfully prepare to cast a vote.

1. Know where your identity lies.

If you are a Christian, your identity does not ultimately lie in your political affiliation, or even your citizenship. It ultimately lies in Christ. If we ground our identity in our political party, we become vulnerable to demagogues and mass manipulators who tickle our ears with what we want to hear. Our faith must inform our political engagement, not the other way around.

2. Do not be afraid to take a stand.

Some Christians mistakenly believe that there should be a sharp divide between the realm of the church and the realm of the state. If a pastor speaks his mind from the pulpit about a pressing moral issue that happens to have political ramifications, they believe he has crossed a line that should not be crossed. But this conflates taking a stand on a question of right versus wrong with making an official political endorsement. A pastor should certainly not turn his sermons into campaign advertisements, but he should not quarantine uncomfortable moral truths in a file labeled “politics” either.

3. Maintain clear priorities.

We are constantly told by other people where our voting priorities should lie. For Christians, some priorities will always be unpopular with the surrounding culture, particularly those that touch on life, death, or sexuality. Sadly, what should be non-negotiable for a Christian may become less so for the politicians in Washington who are supposed to represent our interests. As Christians, we should maintain an open mind on matters of comparatively minor importance, but on the essentials, we cannot allow our standards to be set for us. We must come to the polls with our own priorities firmly set in our minds, even if that leads us to leave parts of the ballot as blank as they were when we walked in.

4. Do not be swayed by peer pressure.

Peer pressure is powerful, and it is not limited to just one side of the political spectrum. One common refrain around voting season is that no matter how we feel about the candidate chosen to represent “our” side, we must always vote for the lesser of two evils. By this logic, a vote withheld or cast for an off-beat candidate is equivalent to a vote for “the other guy.” This is false, both mathematically and morally. The Christian voter is not duty-bound to endorse a candidate whose values do not align with his own. To withhold such an endorsement is not wasting one’s right to vote. On the contrary, it recognizes the power a vote carries.

5. Do not pin your soul to any man’s back.

Inevitably, there are leaders we look up to and trust now who will fail us badly in the future. It has happened in the past, and human nature shows no signs of changing. This is not to say that we must suddenly regard all those we admire with a jaded, cynical eye. But we would do well to heed the words of Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons: “I’ll not pin my soul to any man’s back, no, not the best man I know.” We must hold our loyalties with an open hand, prepared to release them if and when it emerges that they were misplaced.

If there was ever a time for Christians to be passionately and prayerfully engaged in the political process, the time is now. A passive, isolationist church is the last thing our country needs. Our country needs Christian voters who understand that bluster does not equal boldness, insults do not equal honesty, and arrogance does not equal strength. It also needs voters who understand that in the end, there can be only one leader and one savior of the world. If we look for that savior in Washington, we are looking in the wrong direction. In the end, there can be only one leader and one savior. If we look for that savior in Washington, we are looking in the wrong direction.

Old Movies, New Eyes: The Best Years of Our Lives

You know, I had a dream. I dreamt I was home. I’ve had that same dream hundreds of times before. This time, I wanted to find out if it’s really true. Am I really home?

Welcome to the opening of a new series! Better yet, a new series that I hope to make at least semi-regular (we’ll shoot for monthly and see how it goes). This one has been a long time coming. Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved old movies. Now, I finally have the space and time to share this passion with you, my readers. For each installment, I will hand-pick a film no fewer than 40 years old that has stood the test of time, conveying a thought-provoking story in an honest and meaningful way. The selections will by and large be serious works, some better-known than others, some grappling with very weighty subjects indeed, all providing excellent food for thought to Christians who want to engage with the arts. As I revisit them from a young movie critic’s perspective, my simple goal is, in the words of author Joseph Conrad, “to make you see.” May you enjoy reading as much as I will enjoy the writing process.

It seemed fitting to begin with a classic that celebrates a round-numbered anniversary this year: William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, released in 1946. It won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Director. Weaving together the stories of three returning World War II veterans and the women who help them heal, it remains one of the best movies about marriage and the meaning of love that I’ve ever seen. Consequently, it will double as an addition to my series Marriage in the Movies.

Continue reading “Old Movies, New Eyes: The Best Years of Our Lives”