Saturday, January 20, 2007

Little Minds Miss Sunshine

A week or so ago I finally watched Little Miss Sunshine. I typically make it a point to read family movie reviews on the Internet before watching movies that are R rated to see if there are any sex scenes or nudity. Yeah, this may seem prudish or immature, but I am subject to being “immature” (if that’s what you call a weak spot for pornography), and for me, seeing a scene that is sexually explicit is akin to an alcoholic taking just one gulp of beer. I just better not do it. Maybe you think it’s silly, but it’s true.

Anyway, I was reading Focus on the Family’s movie review of LMS on its website, Plugged In, and
it enumerated all the morally-suspect aspects of the film. It almost swayed me not to watch it, honestly, because the reviewer said that the final dance scene went too far.

It did sound bad…until I actually saw the movie. And in context, the scene was not bad at all. First of all: it was social commentary. In the reviewer’s attempts to count every speck of sin in the movie, he missed the bigger picture. The boy, while on the pier says, “F*** beauty contests,” and rightfully so-was the reviewer watching the other part of the beauty pageant, in which little girls are judged by mere externals? Would he rather these little girls be exploited so long as they play by the rules? Is a striptease any worse than the objectification that was happening on the stage? And as my wife pointed out-the majority of the girls on that stage will one day be doing stripteases because that’s the logical end of the beauty pageant scene for many of the contestants who fail. We’re not talking about a noble goal here: to be the best looking. Olive’s performance was not necessarily an endorsement of lewd sexual behavior, but an indictment on beauty pageants-showing them for what they really are: paper thin morality that covers a hypocritical obsession with externals.

So, in the reviewer’s rush to judgment, he became an endorser of the beauty pageant. I think conservative Christians tend in this direction way too often-going through the world with a kind of naïve shortsightedness that blinds them to the evils that look good on the surface, when if they’d look a bit closer, they’d see that sin is festering there worse than in the seemingly evil areas, where, I might add, redemption has the tendency to shine through.

Christians tend to become Pharisees by requiring movies to have a clean outside, but a less than admirable inside. Hangman’s Curse was a Christian film that was released some time ago. I don’t think there was one cuss word in the whole movie, and there were some positive things about it, but underlying its clean exterior, it was a crappy movie, filled with clichés, unrealistic characters, and a scene that I would classify as downright ungodly. The football coach is about as one-dimensional a villain as has ever been written. He doesn’t care at all about the poor kids who’ve been beat-up and victimized because he’s an evolutionist. “Survival of the fittest,” he drones. So, the writer punishes him by killing the coach with an army of oversized tarantulas. This is the type of trick bad screenwriters resort to: killing people off who represent ideologies you disagree with. But conservative Christians like these type of movies. So there’s no cussing, but guess what? Not only is it not entertaining, but there is nothing redemptive or instructive in the entire film. The film is an exercise in the art of patting oneself on the back. Does God admire this?

As far as Little Miss Sunshine goes, there is plenty of redemption. A family filled with hateful, self-righteous and vindictive people, repent, unite and embrace one another in the most humiliating way: dancing with their most innocent member before a jeering crowd. That was love, that was selflessness, and humility depicted in a way that the right wing I guess is too blind to see.

If you want repentance you can’t show someone getting on his or her knees and saying the sinner’s prayer. It won’t translate on film. It doesn’t work. Repentance that works in film is Matt Dillon’s character risking his life to save the woman he molested in Crash, not Kirk Cameron’s sitting in a stall and saying the sinner’s prayer in Left Behind. We’re talking about stories here, and stories work best when the person doesn’t jump out and say-“You need to accept Jesus as your Lord and savior.” Jesus didn’t do that when he told parables so why do we? There is an appropriate time for preaching and it’s guess when-while you’re preaching! Save the sinner’s prayer for a sermon.

Good art isn’t always made from all the pretty and nice things in the world. Often, especially on this fallen planet, you have to show the mire in order to get to the redemption. You can’t have the resurrection without the Cross, and you’re rarely going to get good art if you skim the surface and retreat from the dark spaces. Let’s not be small-minded people who can’t see the sunshine for all the specks.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Haggard, Hypocrites, and Hell in the Media

Recently I’ve been wondering why journalism in all its forms seems dedicated to the notion that the most important news is bad news. I can’t speak for everyone, but for me it gets tiresome hearing or seeing the words “Iraq,”1 “insurgents,”2 “Haggard,”3 or “Gibson,”4 every time I turn on NPR or open up the paper (Insert time appropriate word: 1-Palestine, Israel, N. Korea; 2-guerillas, Hezbollah, Hamas, Al-Qaeda; 3-Foley, priests, Clinton, Jefferson, Pee-Wee; 4-Michael Richards, etc.). You’d think we’d be impossible to shock after the long parade of scandal, tragedy, terror, and corruption that has been passing us by even in the years since Kennedy’s assassination. You’d think Foley would be par for the course since congressman Gerry Studds was guilty of not only salacious correspondence, but a full on sexual encounter with a page 23 years ago.5 And Foley comes as a shock?! You’d think after Nixon, we’d be prepared for corruption, but, no, we still spend months scrambling for every scrap of info about Abramoff. Why is it still interesting?

A few years ago, I was talking to a police officer about the sad depths to which people sink, when I commented that even the best of us have the capability to sink to these depths. I’ll never forget his rebuff: “There’s no need to put a black mark on everyone.” Implied in this statement is the idea that mankind is spotless-only peoples’ choices make them bad, and those few bad people are the problem. Perhaps the media, like the police officer I encountered a few years back, is obsessed with negative news because they still refuse to acknowledge that mankind has a deeply-ingrained evil. They dedicate their powers to exposing the anomalies, thinking they’re doing humankind a service. “If we blow the whistle on all the bad-guys, then the world will be a better place.”

Robyn Blumner was one of the many writers who unloaded criticisms upon the Foley’s and Haggard’s of the world: the hypocrites who preach against a sin only to indulge in it in private. Blumner stated in a recent editorial: “In Dante’s descending circles of Hell, hypocrites were cast into the eighth and penultimate level in honor of their status…I think Dante was too kind. On the scale of despicableness, the hypocrite is king.”6 Ron Hart, in another editorial wrote, “These folks have a special place in Hell reserved for them.” 7

Now before I voice my response and before you think I’m justifying Haggard’s or Foley’s actions, let me offer a few caveats: first, I recognize that this kind of media judgment is not reserved to liberals criticizing conservatives. The knife cuts both ways, and when every conservative was throwing stones at Clinton for the Lewinsky scandal I was right there with them, but I was pretty naïve then. In my older and hopefully wiser years I’m learning that these witch-hunts, regardless of their source or target, do little to make the world a better place.

Second, I do believe that the two writers I’ve referenced were right about hypocrites-that they deserve every bit of hell they get. Jesus himself spoke many parables to this end. Nonetheless, there are a couple of things that bother me about these writers’ position.

First, their tone just gets to me. They write with such a snobbish, snide and vitriolic ad hominem, you’d think they’d never done a bad thing in their lives. This is actually the thing that pushed me over the edge to type this essay out: I was watching O’Reilly factor over the Christmas break, and the guest host was tearing into Michael Richards and Mel Gibson with such self-righteousness, I just couldn’t handle it anymore. Now get me—I don’t think that what either one of them did was right or justifiable, but for goodness’ sake folks, have you not ever screwed up? Have you not ever flown off the handle and said something you regret later? Should their be accountability? Of course, but can’t we do it with a little more restraint? Can’t we be a bit more understanding? Can’t we be decent enough to admit that we too have screwed up in similar ways? This brings me to the other problem I have with the pundits: in launching their tirades against the Haggards and Foleys, they do the very thing they claim to despise in Haggard and Foley-judging others.

Hart states, “After denying that he ever met the gay escort who says he had a three-year relationship with him, Rev. Ted finally confessed. Yet, before I cast the first stone, what man among us has not summoned a gay male prostitute to our hotel room for a massage and to score a little methamphetamine with Church money?” (emphasis mine). The italicized above is alluding of course to the woman caught in adultery in John 8, whose prosecutors were a group of scribes and Pharisees ready to stone her. Now I’m sure SOME of the Pharisees and scribes could have asked a similar sarcastic question regarding the prostitute: “Before I cast the first stone, what one of us hasn’t committed adultery?” And some of them probably could have passed that test. But notice –Jesus didn’t say, “He who is without adultery, let him cast the first stone,” but “sin.” Even these self-righteous men knew enough of God’s law to know they had their share of sin, so what did they do? They dropped the stones and left. Not so, Hart. He proceeds to state that the likes of Haggard should burn in hell.

I’m really starting to notice that the cover boys for hypocrisy in this nation (the Swaggarts, Bakkers, Foleys, Haggards) have become a nice dumping off point for a new crew of scribes. The hypocritical four above may be or may have been Pharisees in the worst sense of the term (Yes, I’m one of those people who actually believe people can change), but we as a people have become a nation of scribes-writing, reading and indulging in the scapegoating of big names so we don’t have to deal with the real problem: ME.

Jesus could get off with saying hypocrites should burn in the depths of hell because He wasn’t one. But that’s not true of Hart or Blumner or me. The people behind the scandals may get railroaded in the papers and they may be hypocrites now, but thank God that He’s not like Hart or Blumner, or else they wouldn’t have a second chance. None of us would. Psalm 109:31 says of God, “For He stands at the right hand of the needy, To save him from those who would judge his soul.” I find those words at the end interesting-“judge his soul.” When mankind denies the blatant reality that we are all beset by weaknesses and failings, it makes it easy to single out those whom on a social level are worse than us, and not only demand discipline, but judgment upon their very souls.

5 "Studds did not apologize, but admitted to 'a very serious error in judgment.'[5] As his censure was read, Studds faced the Speaker who was reading the motion, with his back to the other House members.[1][6] Later, at a press conference with the former page, both stated that the young man, who was 17, consented. Studds continued to be reelected until his retirement in 1997.[4]"

6 Blumner, Robyn. "Their Demons Make Them Do It."

7 Hart, Ron. "Ministers Do More Than Laypeople."

Monday, January 15, 2007

Great Documentary

Well Dustin keeps turning my attention to some really good stuff with his own blog, and I thought I'd pass one of his ideas on. Last night we watched Dear Francis-a documentary that focuses the AIDS epidemic and its effects on Swaziland. The movie derives its narrative thread by focusing on two Americans college students who traveled with a group to Swaziland to raise awareness about prevention, etc.

The ironic thing about the movie is that is was filmed while my brother-in-law Brandon was in Swaziland with the same group. And the girl that the documentary focuses on was a friend from the Church Brandon and Melissa attended in Mansfield, TX. It was surreal to see her on film, and I half expected the movie to be low quality (I thought sure the budget would have to be very small), but the film is excellent. I highly recommend it.

I've embedded the trailer below, but if you'd like more info go to

Monday, January 01, 2007

U2's Window in the Sky Video

Dustin had this posted at his Blog:

U2's new video-It's incredible.

Marfa Mystery Lights and Human Nature

My parents live in a small town in West Texas where the mountains of the Big Bend march north from the Mexican border, leaving a number of valleys and foothils in their path. The countryside is not only beautiful (if you like the look of the old west), but has certain unique atmospheric characteristics that many believe to be responsible for a strange phenomenon: the Marfa Lights. The lights are visible at night from a small observatory just off U. S. Route 90 between Alpine and Marfa. I'm one of those guys that's fascinated by UFO's, Bigfoot, and such, so when my parents first told me of this phenomenon I was excited to have a chance to see it.

I think I've been there to view the lights on two separate occasions, and over time I've formed theories as to their origin. First, the lights:

These are time exposures of the marfa lights taken from the area of the observation park. You can find explanations of the pictures and the methodology behind them at: Night Orbs.

Now, I can give my testimony that these pictures adequately reflect what I saw at the observation area. I'm not really writing to make you believe that these things exist and are some kind of alien intelligence or something. But I am writing because I find people's reactions to these lights very interesting.

At the viewing park, there is a display that explains the history of the lights, the direction you should look, and (very important) the direction you should not look: the Southwest. This is because Highway 67 runs over the mountains and is visible from the viewing area. Any lights that are seen emanating from that direction are car headlights, and because of the distance and (I'm guessing) temperature change over the valley, these car headlights look very UFO-like indeed.

On the night of my second visit, a whole group of people were practically jumping for joy because they were seeing Marfa lights with their own eyes! Tons of the lights- dancing around, trading places, disappearing and reappearing. Except, of course, they were in the Southwest. I wanted to tell them to read the display for themselves, but who am I to burst their bubble? The ones that bug me more than the naieve believers, though, are the skeptics who say that the Marfa Lights are nothing more than car headlights on Highway 67. These skeptics, so ready to attack anything potentially inexplicable, don't even bother to take the time to find out that the real sightings of Marfa Lights are not what they are attacking.

Here we have the two extremes of the human condition: the man of faith and the man of reason, Mulder and Scully, Locke and Jack, or Bryan and Darrow. The thing that annoys me most about these two extremes is that it is all or nothing: blind faith or blind reason. This culture (as I suppose every one throughout history has been) is plagued with this dichotomy.

I think the thing that's so telling about my Marfa experience is that it shows that people do not want to learn. We want things to fit just as we expect them to, because otherwise we will be forced to change or, GASP, think!

Conservatives do this all the time with liberals, and vice versa. We're so busy thinking the other person is a communist or a fundamentalist bigot, we don't take the time to hear them out. Dialogue is very rare indeed because we want the other point of view to be wrong. This is the territory in which critical thinking is an absolute necessity, but it is usually replaced with bias.

None of us is perfect in this area; there are certain things that we just can't handle accepting, but we all can grow and learn to suspend judgment and look at the world as objectively as is possible.

It's my opinion that the Unidentified Lighted Objects outside Marfa have an explanation, but why dismiss them out of hand without hearing both sides? It would be better to withhold judgment and admit that we don't know everything than to jump to a conclusion based on insufficient evidence, or as some wise thinker once said, "Better to be silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt."