Christmas Special

I’ve decided to take a break from regular blogging for the next few weeks.  But before then, a Friday list of some worthy Christmas movie choices near and dear to my heart…and two that should be avoided at all costs.

  • A Christmas Carol starring Patrick Stewart (1999): A movie about Christmas starring Captain Picard?  What’s not to like?  More faithful to the source material, I think, than some other versions…and a lot of fun.  I particularly like the scene where he stops into church on Christmas morning.  
  • An American Christmas Carol starring Henry Winkler (1979): My father’s favorite version.  Set in the United States during the Depression, it is a unique adaptation of the tale…and powerful in its own right.
  • A Muppet Christmas Carol starring Michael Caine & Muppets (1992):  Just a lot of fun.  Yes, I’ve only seen it once.  But how can you not like it?
  • It’s a Wonderful Life (1946):  Perhaps the ultimate in Christmas films.  A truly American take on Dickens’ masterpiece that is as heartwarming as it is epic.
  • A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965):  What’s the real meaning of Christmas?  Leave it to Charlie Brown and the gang to let us know, year after year.

And then there are (at least) two Christmas specials to be avoided at all costs:

  • “Merry Extraordinary Christmas” episode of Glee (2011):  With a lifeless plot and relatively empty rendition of holiday songs, one of the worst moments in Christmas history I’ve ever seen or heard.  I might be exaggerating a little, but I did feel like my soul was dying while watching this stinker.  In an homage to truly horrible TV specials of Christmas past, Glee made the very unfunny choice to be so…unfunny.  It’s on Hulu right now, and you can see it for yourself.  But I beg you: don’t.  It’s not worth it!
  • The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978):  A special so bad that it gets its own Wikipedia entry.  You might think: Star Wars?  I like that.  How bad could this be?  Very bad, my friends.  Strange guest stars like Bea Arthur and Jefferson Starship, an entire segment filmed in the Wookie language, and more nonsense than you can shake a stick at.  My soul actually did die at some point during my viewing of this montrosity.  Take a look, and shudder:

Merry Christmas, friends!  I may be posting a little here and there over the next two weeks, but won’t be returning to my regular schedule until the new year.


We Are The 1%

I read an article from Christianity Today yesterday that reminded me of a few things about our world.  The brief piece highlights the new documentary The Road We Know, a film about the AIDS crisis in Botswana.  The infection rate there is the second highest in the world, and some have turned to abstinence as the only sure way to arrest the problem:

In this life-and-death context, The Road We Know profiles seven Botswanan college students who teach that abstinence before marriage is the safest way to prevent the spread of AIDS.

Abstinence?  Yes, we’ve heard of this.  Especially us youth ministry types.  The author reminds American evangelicals that we too have

urged young believers, by way of youth-group talks and paper pledges and purity rings, to abstain from premarital sex. The program and others like it root their argument for abstinence in the logic of payoff: “If you wait for marriage, your future sex life will be hot.”

Ah, yes.  Marketing spiritual discipline by–in a lot of cases–patently lying.  According to the article, it gets even worse: “Unlike True Love Waits, their [the Botswanan] payoff logic has less to do with hot married sex and more to do with not dying at age 24.”

This devastating difference in perspective reveals a lot about our society and the larger world: the realities of disease, global population growth, economic inequality, and the like.

The Occupiers have constantly raised the spectre of “the 99%” of average Americans being overrun by “the 1%” with all the wealth.  Maybe that’s true.  But on a global scale?  According to the calculator at The Global Rich List, even the median American income of $26,364 puts one in the company of the top 9.28% richest people in the world.  Imagine that.  The current poverty line in the United States for a single person is $10,890.  That person is amongst the top 13.12% of the world’s richest.  Astounding.

Try typing in your yearly salary.  A lot of you (myself included) will find yourselves amongst the 1%.  What, then, do we do with THAT knowledge?

Tell Me A Story

Today, two really interesting resources for youth ministry.  I’ve used one of them myself while serving in New Jersey.  The other is a newer tool that has a lot of potential.

The first is a method called “storying.”  Based on the work of Michael Novelli and his book Shaped by the Story, “storying” represents an effort to have adolescents engage the main narratives of the Bible on their own terms.  It is a plan as ancient as it is innovative.

In this model, students are read a paraphrase of a biblical story (Noah’s, for instance) and then asked what they heard and where they saw God.  Various questions are asked, and space is provided in the conversation for their own questions to surface.  As they enter in to this conversational space students have the opportunity to encounter the story of God for the first time (if they’ve never heard it) or in a completely new way (since they are given the freedom to ask questions they might never have before).  No three-point sermons here.  Everything from Creation to the Resurrection and beyond can be a constituent part of this method.

A premium is placed upon students grappling with the narrative of the faith and their place in it.  Novelli’s website Echo the Story explains his method in greater detail and provides some excellent resources for “storying” with your students.

The second resource is a new one by Sparkhouse entitled re:form.  I haven’t had the opportunity to spend much time at all with this, but I hear good things and I like what I see.  Take a look:

Like “storying,” the re:form people seem to place a premium on student engagement of and communal reflection on the material.  At present they have two sets of curriculum: 1) “Traditions” (three separate tracks focusing at present on the history, theology, and shape of Lutherans, Reformed Christians, and Methodists) and 2) “Ancestors” (in their words, “a youth Bible study that explores the ancestors of our faith by exposing the real, unpolished and unexpected personalities of Old and New Testament Bible characters”).  With their creative use of media, it’s like theology and the Bible ala Monty Python.  Classic.

Not exactly.

I’m excited there are such resources available for ministers and teenagers.  With so much flash and bang in youth ministry, these new models ask a great question: what if we just let students engage material and see what happens?  What if we make the bold choice of letting students grapple with the story of their faith tradition or (more importantly) the Scripture on their own without excessive commentary from us?  I think we’ll get a lot more honest engagement, retention, and growth this way. I’m no Mitt Romney, so I can’t bet you $10,000 that this will work with your students.  I will tell you, however, that a “storying” and conversational approach has the potential to revolutionize the way you do youth ministry.  I believe in this stuff.  So make a plan (maybe even starting in January), set aside some time (to do this effectively will take some months), and prayerfully implement this in youth ministry whenever you can.

The Politics of the Wager

The big news coming out of this past weekend’s Republican debate was Mitt Romney’s mistake.  Goaded into an exchange with Rick Perry over his record, Romney challenged him to a bet.  Take a look:

Oops.  The effect of this somewhat bizarre flub has further cemented the image of Romney as an out-of-touch, rich, white male.  I agree.  What could possess a person to bet that much money so casually?  Sure, from time to time I jokingly bet someone $10, but even then I hope I don’t have to pay.

Popular criticism of Romney on this point is well-deserved.  But when I thought about it more, I considered that none of the people running for president are really average Americans, at least financially speaking.  According to The Wall Street Journal, the average American net worth in 2010 was “about $182,000 a person—though the average is pulled up by a small group of the very wealthy.”

We're looking at you, McDuck!

The Republican candidates’ net worth (according to Fox Business):

  • Mitt Romney leads the pack with $190-250 million.
  • John Huntsman is worth $16-71 million.
  • Newt Gingrich has at least $6.7 million.
  • Ron Paul comes in at $2.5-5 million.
  • Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachmann each have between $800,000 and $2.8 million.

Not one to be left out, President Obama’s net worth is arond $7.3 million.  So no one’s really hurting here.  While Mitt Romney far exceeds the pack in terms of personal wealth, each of the candidates could be considered outside of the mainstream.  The least rich of them (Rick Santorum) is worth more than four times the average American.

This is, I think, the new status quo.  Running for office takes money, and no one for whom $10,000 is a prohibitive amount of money could hope to afford the journey.  Besides that, people in our society who are qualified to be president will likely be highly successful individuals…with wealth to match it.  So, unlike some, I’m not furious that our politicians  are outside the norm when it comes to net worth.  It think the bigger and more important question is, though: do they understand what it is like to NOT be rich?  This is something Bill Clinton (to name just one example) conveyed very well.  The fact that Mitt Romney seems somewhat tone deaf on this point is disconcerting for a lot of people.

How this will play out for the Republicans?  We’ll see in the next few months…

History and the Moving Picture

The past week of my Western Civilization III class has consisted of some very interesting student presentations.  The assignment: compare and contrast two films set at roughly the same time in history and analyze their connection to historical events, their skill in representing the facts, and their usefulness as teaching tools.  Whether the films are accurate or not, they provide a great opportunity for students to dig deeper into the story of the past.  On the whole I’m pretty pleased with my students’ findings, and would recommend such an assignment to other college history professors (especially in required general education classes).

We had some interesting results, including:

  • A film I’ve never heard of: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.  It is a 1983 Japanese film that tells the story of POWs held by the Japanese during the Second World War.  My student paired it with Bridge on the River Kwai, which made for an interesting discussion.
  • Three great pairings: 1) The King’s Speech & The Sound of Music (the rise of Nazism and the coming of WWII), 2) Inglourious Basterds & Schindler’s List (resistance to Nazis and the Holocaust) and 3) Doctor Strangelove & The Manchurian Candidate (Cold War paranoia and commentary at its best).
  • Best example of pandering:  My favorite movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  It was paired with the film Downfall, which focuses on the last days of Hitler’s life.  Both films feature der Fuehrer at vast different points in history.
  • Most surprising discussion: One student watched Mary Poppins and Around the World in 80 Days and used the films as an opportunity to launch into extended commentary on the height of the British empire, the suffrage movement, the power of the Bank of England, and the effects of the Industrial Revolution.  Pretty impressive.

    It's not all fun and games when your lungs are full of soot.

Hearing about all these movies last week inspired me to watch an old one over the weekend.  Motivated by news of the recently released spy film Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy based on a 1960s novel by John la Carre, I took the opportunity to watch an adaptation of his book The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965).  In moody black-and-white, the film couldn’t be more opposite from James Bond if it tried.  In short, a much more realistic depiction of Cold War espionage and possible addition to any course on the period.

So then: which historical films strike your fancy?

Khan Job

The word on the street is that the new Star Trek movie (a sequel to the recent J. J. Abrams film) will be premiering in 2013 featuring the return of a classic villain: Khan Noonien Singh.  “Khan,” as he is more frequently known, was first featured in a 1960s Star Trek episode as a genetically enhanced superman who attempted to take over the Enterprise.  After being defeated by Captain Kirk, Khan and his people were marooned on a planet.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan picks up this story two decades later and brings the two old foes together once again.  Both Ricardo Montalban’s Kahn and Shatner’s Kirk love their overacting…and it is a terrific movie.  It is widely considered to be one of the best of the Star Trek films.  Plus, it features one of  the best Shatner moments of all time:

A lot of Trekkies aren’t too happy with the decision to revisit an old villain for the new movie.  They would, quite simply, prefer a new and more creative villain or storyline.  Normally I would agree, but the Khan story has such potential for being told in an interesting way that I’m excited to see what they do.

The bigger question, though, is whether Star Trek movies need strong villains at all.  Every drama needs its antagonistic force, yes.  But we’re not talking about Mission: Impossible or James Bond here.  This is Star Trek.  Both the movies and the show upon which they were based tended at their best to be about more than simply defeating one particular enemy.

So, then, a look bad at the “bad guys” in Star Trek movie history:

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1 star)

  • Bad guy: A giant space probe.
  • Method of victory: A human being joins together with it on its journey towards self-understanding.
  • Amount of hand-to-hand combat: Zero
  • What it’s really about: the human adventure (even though it is a horrid movie).

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (4 stars)

  • Bad guy: Khan
  • Method of victory: A space battle that leaves Khan’s ship devastated; he then commits suicide by blowing it up.  Ultimate salvation for the crew occurs as Spock sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise.
  • Amount of hand-to-hand combat: Relatively little.  A good space battle, but Khan and Kirk never meet.
  • What it’s really about: a meditation on hate, love, life, and death.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (3 stars)

  • Bad guy: Hard to say.  Ostensibly a Klingon captain, but it could also be a disintegrating planet OR the problem of Spock’s death itself.
  • Method of victory: Clever thinking, the power of friendship, and a fight between Kirk and a Klingon.
  • Amount of hand-to-hand combat: A big fight between Kirk and a Klingon captain.
  • What it’s really about: the good of the one outweighs the good of the many.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (4 stars)

  • Bad guy: Another giant space probe.
  • Method of victory: Bringing whales from the 1980s back to the future.
  • Amount of hand-to-hand combat: None.
  • What it’s really about: environmentalism and a celebration of the characters.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1 star)

  • Bad guy: Spock’s hippy half-brother, who is more obsessed with finding God than fighting.
  • Method of victory: Both the realization that the quest of Spock’s brother will not succeed and Kirk fighting a malevolent alien claiming to be God.
  • Amount of hand-to-hand combat: See above.
  • What it’s really about: No one knows.

    "What does God need with a starship?"

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (4 stars)

  • Bad guys: A conspiracy of hardliners that want to declare war  on the Klingons.
  • Method of victory: Outsmarting the conspirators and thwarting their efforts to initiate war.
  • Amount of hand-to-hand combat: One prison fight and a space battle, but other than that not much.
  • What it’s really about: The Cold War ending, and with it a generation of Cold Warriors (including Kirk and crew).

Star Trek: Generations (2 stars)

  • Bad guy: A scientist who wants to blow up a planet to achieve happiness.
  • Method of victory: Believe it or not, hand-to-hand combat featuring Kirk and Picard vs. the scientist.
  • Amount of hand-to-hand combat: See above.
  • What it’s really about: An attempt to bridge the gap between Star Trek generations.

Star Trek: First Contact (4 stars)

  • Bad guy: The Borg, a cybernetic race headed by their evil queen.  They’ve traveled into the past to mess up Earth’s history.
  • Method of victory: Working to restore the timeline and a confrontation with the Borg queen.
  • Amount of hand-to-hand combat: Moderate fighting with the Borg and Picard’s defeat of the Queen.
  • What it’s really about: A classic tale of universe rescuing that highlights the unique features of The Next Generation crew.

Star Trek: Insurrection (0 stars)

  • Bad guy: I don’t even remember his name.  He wants to steal a planet’s resources and doesn’t care about it’s inhabitants.
  • Method of victory: The command staff of the Enterprise defended the planet and Picard fights the bad guy.
  • Amount of hand-to-hand combat: A big space battle and Picard literally fighting the main bad guy all by himself.
  • What it’s really about: Anti-imperialism.

Star Trek: Nemesis (2 stars)

  • Bad guy: A Romulan clone of Captain Picard.
  • Method of victory:  Literally ramming the Enterprise into the enemy’s ship.
  • Amount of hand-to-hand combat: Very little, but the movie attempts to pit the bad guy and Picard directly against each other in a Kirk/Khan way.
  • What it’s really about: A ham-handed way to recreate The Wrath of Khan.

Star Trek (3 stars)

  • Bad guy: A Romulan from the future intent on killing Spock and destroying the Federation.
  • Method of victory: Blowing stuff up.
  • Amount of hand-to-hand combat: I can’t recall too much, but the protagonist does cast a long shadow.  Kirk defeats him handily ship-to-ship.
  • What it’s really about: The coalescing of the crew and a cool reboot of Star Trek with some important homages to The Wrath of Khan.

The best Star Trek movies (especially from the 1980s) tend to be about something deeper than the surface action.  When a strong villain helped develop the theme upon which the movie reflects, OK.  But in a number of important cases, the “villain” was more of a force or power than an individual that had to be fought.  Therefore, if Abrams and company are using Khan to say something, terrific.  But if they just want to have him and Kirk have a big fight at the end, they are missing what Star Trek is all about.

Results: The Theology of Taco Bell

Well, the results are in…and I have emerged triumphant!  I was at 13 tacos when my student threw in the towel at 11.  I declined to eat anymore, and we gave the rest of the tacos to our classmates.  Kudos to my competitor, Josh Brown.  A scholar AND a gentleman taco-eater.

Final tally: 13-11.  Game over.

I am now officially retired.  Friends: I’m going out on top!