I Don’t Know—And I’m Better for It


Went out caroling last night with the youth and others from my church. A good time. I enjoy lending my voice to worthy causes.

It worries me, though, that a lot of today’s young people don’t know the traditional Christmas hymns (you know, the ones that talk about Jesus) as well as they seem to know “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” When we took a request from a carolee to sing “Rudolph,” the singing gusto went up noticeably, particularly from the youngest carolers.

I noticed that same trend last year at a St. Nicholas Day sing that we do with some friends. The younger crowd stumbled through the old Christmas hymns but were in full voice for the secular songs. Worst of all, despite the fact that the vast, vast majority of Christmas songs played in our own home are sacred, our son seems to stumble through those, while somehow knowing all the lyrics to “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” This startles me because, as far as I know, he’s never seen The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. And to hear him singing that ubiquitous ditty about the Heat Miser and Cold Miser from A Year Without a Santa Claus, which I’m nearly positive he’s never seen, makes me wonder whether I should give him a tin-foil hat for Christmas.

Last night, I saw Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the Top 100 songs of 2007. After perusing the list, I quickly realized I’d finally reached geezerhood; I recognized less than a fifth of the artists on that list. Worse, I recognized not a single song.

A running joke in my family deals with my encyclopedic knowledge of all sorts of ridiculous facts, the kind of savanthood that would place me on Jeopardy! or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. millionaire_or_not.jpgIn fact, my wife’s family heartily encouraged me to try out for Millionaire in its heyday. I saw one show, one early one featuring the million dollar question “How far is the earth from the sun?” a question I thought most second graders were supposed to know, then wrote off the show.

At some point in that one show, they asked an earlier question about some rap group, and I thought that would be my Waterloo if I ever tried out. I used to have an extensive knowledge of popular music, but somehow that got petrified around 1995, and after that it’s been all downhill. And don’t even get me going on these one-hit hip-hop wonders that sprout up today.

Ironically, my father-in-law convinced me to attempt the syndicated version of Millionaire. My standard reason for holding that request at bay would be that I had no clue on who these hip-hop artists are, and inevitably I would get a question asking me about what the “Z” in “Jay Z.” is supposed to stand for and I’d be clueless. Still, the insistence wore me down.

When I finally called the contestant testing number, I sat patiently awaiting my first question. That question: “Rearrange the following letters to spell the name of this popular rap group.” I spent so much time laughing hysterically that I didn’t even hear the letters. So I bombed on the first question. You know, that very fateful question I knew would be my undoing. Needless to say, I suspected I wouldn’t get a question about Marcel Proust or Carl Fabergé.

And this is what all this blabbering means so far: I don’t know—and I’m better for it.

With 2008 just around the bend, I can honestly say that the new year won’t find me worried about the latest movie releases. Couldn’t tell you the Oscar-worthy films from this year, either. I don’t know what they are—and I’m better for it.

People drop names of celebrities. Blogs talk about this star or that. I stand in line at the grocery store and must face down a rack of tabloids that trumpet which strumpet of the moment’s having an illegitimate child, who’s divorcing whom, and shocking pictures of “here today, gone tomorrow” stars without their makeup. You know, the beautiful people. I don’t know who they are—and I’m better for it.

I can’t tell you what’s happening on Lost or 24. To me, TV doesn’t matter except for the rare event like 9/11. I can’t tell you the last TV show I watched. I don’t know the latest shows—and I’m better for it.

I walked into a bookstore the other day and recognized few names on the “New and Notable” shelf. Even the book world seems to be otherwordly lately, like some alternate plane of existence that somehow intersects the plane of my life at only one or two points. Euclid would not be happy with the mangling that gives his geometric precisions, I’m sure. The point remains: I don’t know the latest books and authors—and I’m better for it.

I’m also losing touch with the blogosphere. I haven’t had the opportunity to read too many other blogs lately. I should suspect that a few people feel the same way about this one. Such is life.

All I know lately is that the Church in America has this obsession with culture that borders on the unhinged. We’re either slaves to it or we’re fighting it so hard that it distracts us from what is true, ultimately making us just a different type of slave. We seem to either love bathing in culture, especially under the guise of relevance, or as some sort of immunity potion, as if immersing ourselves in it will somehow mitigate its effects.

Here’s what the Bible says about all this:

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ…
—Philippians 3:7-8

I think, as I look back over this year, that the one spiritual truth that emerges more than any other is that nothing else matters but Jesus. Peter once asked the perfect rhetorical question, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” We seem to be unsure how to answer that question. To the culture? To all the things we know? To our houses packed with things we can’t take with us and only tie us down to earth?

What does a church look like that lives only for Jesus? That desires only to know Him, forsaking all the cultural ties that bind and hamper?

I can tell you this much: that church would be a glorious thing. I pray that I live long enough to see it this side of heaven.

So I don’t know about a bunch of perishable things—and I’m better for it. Let’s pray we can all be better for it sooner than later.

Sometimes Movies Get It Right


Mater & Lightning from Cars—by Disney & PixarMy family sees almost no movies in the theater. Truth is, we don't have time to watch movies, especially when so many today are vapid and vulgar.

Our gracious friend, Eric, invited us to go see Pixar's latest, Cars, on him. That's the kind of friends we have! Not being the kind to turn down a free movie that will probably be great, we saw the film Friday evening.

This isn't an in-depth review. A million reviews exist elsewhere. But I will say this: the themes covered in Cars are the exact same ones I discussed in "Unshackling the American Church ." The movie is about as "crunchy" as it gets. The value of small town life, valuing one's neighbors, understanding the sacramental, treasuring beauty, the need for local economies, learning to lean on others, even eating organic—the list goes on and on.

I think some people are getting it. I don't know if there are any Christians attached to the film, but I pray there are and that they have a positive impact in their churches.

A thumbs up from me.

The Lion, The Witch, and the Curiously Missing Pixie Dust


There was a time when Disney was the first word in enchantment. They didn't call it "The Disney Magic" for no reason. Something effervesced in Pinocchio, blossomed in the cels of Bambi, and soared in Fantasia. AslanYou've got to believe that Papa Walt knew it when he saw it and managed to capture that lightning in a bottle more than once.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe developed as a film under the magnifying glass of Lewis aficionados everywhere. Scrutiny was most certainly given billing as one of the production team, although I could not find him listed in the credits over at IMDB. Having now seen the film, I want to say that this is a good adaptation that hews true to the book, and only adds to or subtracts from it when needed—something the producers do with skill. Most of us should be pleased with the final outcome.

However, several reviewers have noted something missing from this film: enchantment. This is an astute assessment, I believe. I caught myself wondering when Tinkerbell would appear on the scene and tap her little wand against the background, revealing true magic in the production. That didn't happen, sadly, and the film stays good, but never ventures into magical.

Over a steaming hot meal of Chinese food, my wife and I discussed why this might be:

    1. Aslan's presence was formidable, and the special effects team gets an A+ for rendering him so perfectly, but the link he has to the children—so necessary for our belief in their loyalty and love for him—is not given enough screen time. One scene with him cavorting with the children would have established the mood needed to convince us all of the children's devotion. Otherwise, their allegiance seems manufactured, weakening the magic. This may not have been covered in depth in the book, either, but somehow Lewis's storytelling makes this believable.2. The merrymaking of Aslan's army at his arrival wasn't shown. If there was joy, we did not see it. A minute of partying would have been all that was needed. Instead, Aslan's there, some knees are bowed, and that's it. If it was a money issue, a minute taken from the battle scenes would have supplied the funds.

    3. The film was lacking in sensory details. There's a way to show flowers visually that can make an audience catch a whiff of their aroma. The filmmakers captured the essence of the always-winter-never-spring Narnia perfectly, but when the world thawed, we should have been treated to an explosive springtime, filled with the smells and sounds of the season. This is Aslan's vernal triumph, is it not? Unfortunately, our senses went wanting.

    4. Music. We forget how much an excellent soundtrack serves to enhance the mood. I believe that the single biggest letdown in this film is that the music lacked power. I can't remember the last time I saw a film where I was painfully aware that the music failed to enliven the action on screen, but repeatedly I was pulled out of Narnia because of a lack of appropriate soundtrack underpinnings.

    I think back to Excalibur, the Arthurian fable from the early 1980s. Yes, that film had an original look, but more than that, the soundtrack was flawless. Repeated excerpts from Wagner and other classical greats filled the movie with soaring energy. When Arthur's bier is borne across the waters to heaven, "Tristan's Funeral March" plays to thrilling effect. And though we've heard it in a zillion other films since, Orff's "Carmina Burana" was never more brilliantly applied than in this film.

    Beyond any other element, exuberant music is the missing pixie dust in this first Narnia film. When thundering brass is called for, we get weak strings; when music akin to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" is essential, we are instead treated to a timid flute passage. Nearly every scene had the wrong musical backing. Mild, mild, mild—and it hurts the film tremendously. When a mythic fantasy adventure ends with Alanis Morissette singing, something's wrong.

Some will consider this nitpicking, but in the case of the music, I think it's a glaring fault. Looking back, I can't think of a film I've seen where poor music detracted so obviously from what was otherwise an excellent film. So perhaps we have a first here. I've not seen any other reviews that mention this, but it is so striking to me that I'm at a loss to explain why other (better) film critics have said nothing to this point. I simply note this miscue and ask if others heard what I did.

Disney, this is my call to you: When time comes for the DVD release, find a way to ratchet up the soundtrack with better music. I've got to believe that it can be done affordably; the DVD sales on this one will be huge, so the money will be there. DVD releases today fiddle with soundtracks as much as anything, so there's a precedent we're used to. Massed choirs, time-tested classical music excerpts—anything will help here. Do it for the audience.

Aslan will thank you for it.