Donuts, P.T. Anderson, and my conversation with Dwight Lyman Moody
I'm pretty stinking tired these days. This symposium--which people keep wanting to call a conference and I'm of a mind to give in, the Greeks be damned--is chewing my head off; and my sleep. Conference organization is not for the weak of heart. We get a steady stream of encouraging notes, and for those we're grateful, but we also get a steady stream of wacky and angry notes. One fellow is pretty perturbed that we quoted Plato on the front page. Apparently, Christians of good conscience should not quote pagan philosophers--should have no need to quote.
I'll make sure to tell St. Paul that when I see him in paradise.
The book contract for the symposium went through with Baker Books. That was good. As we used to say back in the late '80s, I'm pretty psyched. I'm playing editor to the man (Eugene Peterson) who wrote the Bible (The Message). "No, Eugene, that is a very poor use of a semi-colon. Very poor. You should know better. And you really need to work on your poetic meter. It's a little, how shall we put it, funky?"
No, it'll be fun. This past November I asked N.T. Wright if he would consider writing the forward and he gave me a funny look. It's the same funny look that J.I. Packer and Eugene Peterson give when they're asked that question for the gabillionth time. Bishop Tom said he was positively inclined. We'll see.
In another bit of happy news my book review for Books & Culture just came out. It was especially felicitous that I shared the issue with Herr Jeremy Begbie. My review isn't online yet, but Begbie's is (here). And I can't say I didn't literally sweat my forehead off reading Os Guinness' review of Frank Schaeffer's book, Crazy for God, tied in with Schaeffer's response and Guinness' counter-response. I felt a little like a kid walking through the living room while two grown men, famous in evangelicalism (though Schaeffer long ago shook off the dust of his feet carried by evangelical Christianity in exchange for life in Eastern Orthodoxy), fought loudly, profusely, even caustically over the kitchen table. I found myself wanting to plug my ears. But there you go.
Speaking of violent exchanges: I think the movie "There Will Be Blood," as a story, stunk. Film critics fawned and fainted over it. Even Christian film critics (whom I admire) wrote floridly about Paul Thomas Anderson's script. For the record: I love PT Anderson's work. I'd vote him to my fantasy dinner party for eight any day. But I really think he blew it, at a story level, with TWBB.
Positively: the acting, the music, the cinematography, the costumes, the pace, the set design, the pretty much everything else about the movie was kickingly, awesomely rad. At moments I found myself spellbound by the sound and sight of a particular scene.
But the script and the characterization? I gave it a big, fat, bowel-churning groan. C'mon, people, it was one continental-sized chunk of cheese. Rapacious, greedy capitalist oil man? Booooooooooooooooooorrring. We've seen it a million times. Quacked-out, greedy abusive man of the cloth? Boooooooooooooooooooooooorrring. We've seen it a million times. They were caricatures! Anderson robbed them clean of all humanity. The reason we eventually felt pity for Darth Vader is that we got to see his real face. Behind the black mask (which we're all tempted to wear) there was a fleshy, pulpy, pathetic sad face, a face ruined by evil but not evil itself.
With Daniel Day Lewis' character there was only variations on the theme of un-original evil. The mean bastard we meet at the beginning only becomes more of a mean bastard at the end. Anderson gives us crumbs to feel any compassion for him. At the end of the movie he's simply a quacked-out monster of a man with a lot more money than he started out with. Paul Dano's character ends up un-interestingly whiny and small.
It killed me. I had such high hopes for Anderson's latest output. I really wanted it to be good. But Jeffrey Travis and I just sat there on the couch dumbfounded. That was it? The end? I gave him an F-plus for characterization and a D-minus for story. For spectacle: he gets an A. The movie was spectacular but tedious. It preached to the choir and therefore lost every opportunity to effect genuine transformation in the viewer. So be it.
Speaking grades, I stunk up my radio interview with Moody Bible Institute's "Prime Time America" show. PTA (hm, another PTA) is Moody's version of "All Thing's Considered." The reporters collect interviews then distill them down to a 5-minute story. Phil Fleischman interviewed me for about an hour. That's a lot of material. But did I take advantage of the opportunity to say transforming culture this, transforming culture that, transforming culture this coming April--every 45 seconds? Nooooooooooooooooooo. I just talked about art; which isn't a bad thing, but c'mon folks, I've got a conference--a symposium!--to organize, and increased registrations means I make my budget.
Oh well. I can't get their station anywhere in Texas so I haven't had a chance to listen to it. But, lo, here it is, for March 7, 2008: online. Hm. I wonder how it turned out. I hope I didn't sound like a dork. . . . and Phaedra and I just listened to it. Hm. Interesting. Good times.
And now to my thing with donuts.
Every Good Friday at Hope Chapel we host a service where seven people, seven rather "ordinary" people--that is, non-staff, non-pastor people--from the congregation each give a 5-7 minute reflection on one of the seven last words of Jesus that he spoke on the cross. Hands down, it's my favorite service of the year. It also happens to come under my pastoral purview.
In writing a note of instruction to this year's seven people I ended up drafting an illustration to explain my meaning. I only meant to write two sentences about the donuts but the donut illustration just kept going. Here are the two pieces of counsel I gave them as they set out to write their reflections. And with this I end my feisty entry for the day.
Number 1: Vulnerable, vulnerable, vulnerable.
The stories that have been the most powerful in the past are those that have come from people being vulnerable. It's awful, mind you, but it's sooooo good for your soul and ours. I will pray that God give you the strength and grace you'll need to honestly self-examine your life, to put your thoughts and feelings to paper, and then to speak them to the rest of us.
Remember, it's not a performance, it's not exhibitionism. It's a simple, honest, personal, humble testimony. You are testifying. You are bearing witness. You are bringing us into your life--and that's frightening business. But it's also deeply good. It's good for your brothers and sisters to be reminded of the purifying power of an honest confession: Here I am, here is my life, here is my brokenness, here even is my broken faith, but I'm still standing here: at the cross, with you, not alone, never alone.
Number 2: Seek to be very specific and concrete in your story-telling.
Try to avoid generalities and abstractions. For example, if someone says, "I've struggled all my life with gluttony," that's a general statement. It's true but pretty un-engaging. A specific statement would sound like this: "Every time I pass Krispy Kreme donuts I crave them; and I mean, I really crave them. I crave them because as a child donuts were the way I medicated my feelings after watching my parents fight. Donuts with sprinkles on top numbed the pain. Chocolate-cream-filled donuts put me in La-La Fantasy Land.
"So now as an adult I crave donuts every time something hard happens which is pretty much every morning at 7 AM when I look in the mirror and wonder what has happened to this person. I even keep a stash hidden from everybody else in my house. I know I shouldn't say this out loud, but I just did. I'm addicted to donuts. I don't know how to stop. I'm stuck and I hate it.
"What's worse, I find myself not wanting to invite Jesus in to this place. I don't want him. I want my donuts. And I guess that's just another way of saying I trust my donuts more than I trust Jesus. Butter, sugar, eggs, flour and lots of boiling hot oil vs. the Second Person of the Trinity. Sigh. But you watch your parents fight night after night after bludgeony night without any intervention from the Almighty, then tell me donuts don't save. They do. Sorta. Not really. And so I hear Jesus say, "It is finished," and I think "What's finished!? . . ."
That's specific, concrete and vivid. It's also made up.
But it's probably true for somebody. . . . .