Sunday’s Best: Texas Toasted

A few days from now I’ll be trying not to get roasted in the Texas sun, which makes this week’s Sunday Frazz at least a little more pertinent.  It’s a creative strip, wonderfully paced and colored.  And it definitely fits the season.

Frazz and ToastOh that all of us could go jump in a lake.

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Ah, Those Little Things (that give you away)

Perhaps the one song from U2’s Songs of Experience that has really stuck with me over the last few months has been one of the album’s slower songs, “The Little Things That Give You Away.”  A few weeks ago I was in my classroom with the speakers up and it felt like I was hearing the song’s bridge for the very first time:

Sometimes I can’t believe my existence
See myself on a distance
I can’t get back inside

Sometimes the air is so anxious
All my tasks are so thankless
And all of my innocence has died

Sometimes I wake at four in the morning
Where all the doubt is swarming
And it covers me in fear

Sometimes, sometimes, sometimes…
Sometimes full of anger and grieving
So far away from believing
That any song will reappear

That first set of lines is a great picture of the abstracted self, oddly distant and seemingly irreconcilable with day-to-day existence.

Here’s a recent performance of the song by U2 for Spotify.  A great rendition of one of the album’s best songs.

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Generational Encouragement of a Necessary Kind

I finally got around to watching Chris Pratt’s “Generation Award” acceptance speech at the recent MTV Video and TV Awards.  It’s one of those nice bits of pop culture that float to the top every now and then that can remind us not only that there are Christians out there in fields beyond us, but also that articulating the Gospel takes on different forms in different contexts.  Consider:

It’s a good mixture of PG-potty humor and some kind of real wisdom.  And it’s a nice build towards something of significance.  Sure, the odd cheering for difficult truths is interesting, but I think the overall presentation is worth it.  It’s almost a “slow build” from the belief in a soul to the imperfect soul’s need for grace.  And that’s what makes it an interesting case for a kind of “evangelism” we too often forget: working from the ground floor to build something that points higher.  Everything, of course, is evangelism in one way or another.  And the way we articulate it might change from moment to moment, from culture to culture, but that kernel of Truth and its first-fruit implications (saying “you’re not perfect” is more than just letting possible perfectionists in a perfectionistic culture off the hook) are vital if we as Christians are hoping to “play the long game” in a culture that’s oversimplifying everything.

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Crashing through the City of Mirrors

CIty of MirrorsLong have I considered myself a zombie guy.  The sense of civilization lost, of a rag-tag group of survivors trying to make things right (or at least stop things from going so very, very wrong), the sobering irreversibility of so much lost and nothing gained.  Which is why I was surprised to find myself so enthralled by Justin Cronin’s The Passage a few summers ago.  Much like the story, I can’t quite call it a vampire story, though that’s exactly what it is.  It’s like the movie Contagion but with real blood-letting consequences.  I had a daily lunch-date with Amy and Wolgast and their attempts at understanding what was happening to the world around them.  It was a story so good that I didn’t feel any need for a sequel (even though the story of Amy obviously begged for one).  Then came The Twelve.  It moved the story in an interesting direction, not-the-least-of-which was a jump in time to a frontier-like picture of life after the virals all but conquered North America.  The novel’s climactic conflagration cemented in my mind Cronin as a master of plot and timing.  Then came The City of Mirrors.  I bought it as soon as it came out but couldn’t get into it.  And so I put it aside . . . until last week.

Much like The Twelve, The City of Mirrors plays with time a little, skipping both forward and backward across its 600 pages.  The cast from The Twelve mostly return, though many are changed, have grown older and, in different ways, wiser.  And in that passage of time, the stakes have once again gotten very, very high.  Despite its size, the cast feels wonderfully realized, easily distinguishable from one another.  The big shift in this book, of course, is the intentional telling of the story of Zero, Timothy Fanning, the first viral.  His story takes up an inordinate amount of the book, which shocked me at first.  If nothing else, it was evidence that Cronin could do more than just tell tense action scenes well.  With Fanning, we get a glimpse of college life in the 90s through the point-of-view of an outcast who finally finds people he loves.

It’s all set-up, of course.  In fact, the first two-thirds of the book is set-up.  Which, in Cronin’s hand, is perfectly fine.  There are enough twists and turns in the first two-thirds of the book that you can’t help but read on.  And then, once all of the pieces are in place? No turning back, not at all.  And you wouldn’t have it any other way.

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There’s something very cinematic about Cronin’s style.  You get a great sense of that in The Twelve.  And then he’s obviously honed that ability by the end of Mirrors.  The cuts he makes from character to character, storyline to storyline,  work in a way that almost defy good novel-specific storytelling.  It’s read just like the best, most climactic moments of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings view: multiple cuts with tension and a thematic thread holding things together.

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Last month FOX announced that it had picked up The Passage for its 2018-2019 television season.  It’s a second attempt to bring the story to the small screen.  And while the show’s trailer, which I posted here, doesn’t look all that different from other stories of its kind, I can’t help but hope that the show is good enough, sticks around long enough, to fully embrace the gripping and consuming story it eventually becomes.  It would definitely require a shift in tone and cast after a season or two, but it would be worth it.

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This puts me at four books read this summer: Lanier, O’Donovan, Palahniuk, and Cronin.  I’ve got a second O’Donovan book in the bag . . . really abstract, but some real wisdom in there.  I’ve got a Chabon novel up next, along with a couple of recommended theology books from Richard Hays.  I’m not sure which, if any of these, will make it on the plane next week.  Plus there’s the necessary re-read of Alan Jacobs’s How to Think before the school year starts up.  Guess we’ll have to see how much reading happens between now and then.

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Second Thoughts on First Reformed?

First ReformedScratch the surface of the 96% Rotten Tomatoes approval rating for First Reformed and you’ll find frustration and discontent from those hoping for a more faith-filled movie about a small church pastor trying to make sense of the ever-bleaker world around him. This review at First Things is a good rundown of some of those concerns . . . definitely more thoughtful than I could ever put together.

I tried going into my recent viewing knowing as little as possible.  I knew it was bleak.  And I heard a little about its environmental concern (though not the extreme sense that comes through in the movie).  And while it’s totally bleak and truly frustrating in a faith-empty way, it does point towards some tensions worth teasing out in conversations.

The first is danger of isolation.  This is a very lonely movie, and it’s not just a loneliness for a single clergy.  Toller, the priest, is lonely.  Mary and Michael, the married couple who serve as one of the catalysts for the movie’s conflict are lonely in their marriage and as a marred couple.  So it’s not just a single, celibate thing (which is the direction some might turn the conversation).  Setting the story in a bleak New York winter only accentuates the loneliness, too.  Toller’s church is mostly empty.  The same could be said for his parsonage, with maybe one simple set of furniture in each room.  This definitely begs questions about community and fellowship, both with other Christians and with others in civil society beyond the Sunday  morning crunch.

The second tension is the relationship between old and new when it comes to ecclesiology.  Toller’s First Reformed Church is consistently contrasted with the larger, sponsoring church, Abundant Life Church.  Large sanctuary.  Youth choir.  Recording studio.  Cafeteria?  Michael, the depressed young man whose wife seeks out Toller, refuses to go to Abundant Life for counseling because of its artificial feel.  The assumption, right or wrong, is that the kind of spiritual wisdom that cannot exist in a large, factory-sized, church can and should be found in a smaller church.  If only that had turned out to be the case.  There seems to be a good bit of worldly wisdom found at Abundant Life Church, but Toller flees from it, is probably pushed farther into a more isolated life as a way of being critical for what appears to be a more artificial approach to the faith.

The third tension is the question of suffering and success.  There’s this great scene about halfway through the movie where Toller visits the youth/young-adult group at Abundant Life Church.  The meant-to-be-cool pastor is checking in with his group.  One person gushes about the faithfulness and goodness of God.  The pastor responds warmly and with great cliche to this news.  Then a young woman shares about her father, how is a faithful Christian who has lost his job and has no prospects for what’s next.  Instead of answering her concerns, the cool pastor turns attention to Toller, who has to find some way to answer questions of theodicy that the other couldn’t.  And so the tension of success and suffering ultimately articulates the best/worst of both sides of the spectrum.  In the end, any “success” is shallow because it is compromised by worldly intervention.  But Toller’s “suffering” is also frustratingly shallow.  By the end of the movie he puts on the metaphorical “hair shirt” as a kind of penance for his inability to work well in the fallen world.

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I can’t say that I loved the movie.  But I did find it engaging.  Some of the tensions played out in humorous moments, though with a dark humor, I suppose.  A number of the turning points were sad and frustrating, too.  It makes you wonder how easily the Gospel could get lost in the mess of the movie . . . but then you realize how easily we lose it in our own lives together.  Ethan Hawke, who plays Toller, does a great job.  He brings some interesting nuance to the role.  He’s a deeply tortured soul.  I wanted to know about his formation (beyond the personal tragedy that moved him to the church).  They probably won’t make a movie about that, though.

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Beyond Working Lonely

A couple of weeks ago, I posted some thoughts on what set Parks and Recreation apart from the other comedies of its particular moment.  I stand by my assertion that of all the Thursday night shows on NBC from the time, the Parks and Rec gang was the group that really embraced the idea of friendship in a way the others couldn’t.  But yesterday’s post about loneliness at work brought to mind two particular moments from The Office that keep it in the running.  The first is great, but the second has the money quote.  First: Jim says farewell to Michael.

And then, in the final clip involving a missed connection with Pam, Michael makes a profound statement for our times.

It’s highly possible that I’ve shared both clips before on this site, but that’s okay.  It is good to be reminded of these things, these moments, as fictional and extreme as they might seem.  Something I’ve slowly learned over the last few years of working with seniors is that “sometimes the things that often ‘go without saying’  actually need to be said.”  Even if it took years to get there for people like Jim, Pam, and Michael Scott.

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Working Lonely

Office SpaceLast month I posted a couple of links to Comment Magazine (along with an extended quote from Henri Nouwen) on the topic of loneliness.  Comment’s most recent issue is about social isolation, and little by little they have released parts of the issue online for free.  The most recent article, written by Brian Dijkema, has to do with social isolation and work.  He starts the article with a sobering realization:

If you work full time for the same amount of years that your children are in the house (let’s say twenty-five), you will have spent fifty thousand hours with your colleagues. That is a lot of time. So much time that it’s possible that at the end of that quarter century, you will have spent more of your waking time at work than with your kids as they grew up.

My first response as I contemplated this was . . . depression.

That’s really a depressing thought . . . and I don’t even have kids.  But I do get the sense of the challenge of proportion and the reality of how we spend our time.  This is even true for teachers, who often cite extended summer vacations as a reason for pursuing the job.    But for a single guy like me, even extended summer vacations away from routine and a more consistent presence of others, can be something of a struggle.

Dijkema has a lot of good things to say about the workplace as a necessary social environment.  It’s a well-cited article (and he even links to some classic Looney Tunes workplace humor!) that is good reading for lots of people, especially for those who lead out.  One of the article’s best quotes:

The basis for determining the value of human work is not primarily the kind of work being done but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person. The sources of the dignity of work are to be sought primarily in the subjective dimension, not in the objective one. . . . In the final analysis it is always man [the Latin here is hominem, plural homines, or people] who is the purpose of the work, whatever work it is that is done by man—even if the common scale of values rates it as the merest “service,” as the most monotonous even the most alienating work.

Among the many things Dijkema accomplishes in the article is the reminder that work can be and should be good, that there is both personal and social dignity in how we “make a living.”  And while the language of unions is pretty foreign to me, I get a sense of what he means when he talks about leading and challenging through dignity.  It’s a good article that you can read here in its entirety.

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Speaking of work and vacation, I’m now a week out from my last official meetings for the year.  And while I’ve still got stuff to do, I’m also just under a week from heading out for a mainland excursion that will include about five states.  So the days are much quieter right now, which is both good and a challenge for me.  Dijkema’s article is a good reminder for the social significance of work, even when you don’t necessarily have to go in.

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