I don’t claim to be a Star Wars super-fan (I googled a bunch of names in the movie to write this post). I liked movies 4-6. They are good stories that introduce us to a creative universe and throw in some humor.

The Force Awakens was a home run, but I was disappointed by the The Last Jedi. It had its bright moments, and it wasn’t the worst Star Wars that has been made, but it is closer to the bottom of the pile than the top. I would give it a three out of five stars. What has surprised me is the varying opinions of this movie. Some loved it, others hated it. I can’t quite place my finger on why this is, so here is my explanation of my general disappointment.

It basically comes down to bad storytelling. Tell a good story and I can get past some of the bad scenes. Tell a bad story and the bad scenes become painful to watch.

It is not just super-fans who are let down, but regular movie-goers who are merely looking for some continuity within a series.

The Relationship to The Force Awakens

One huge problem was immediately apparent. Johnson didn’t care what happened in TFA. Usually the scroll screen at the beginning tells you what has happened when you were not watching Star Wars. But there is no time between TFA and TLJ. TLJ picks up where TFA left off. And if you remember, in TFA the resistance destroyed the First Orders’ biggest weapon. They should be scrambling at this point. But now the First Order is back in power again. What? It is almost as if Johnson forgot how TFA ended.

And this brings up a larger point. TLJ at almost every point took what was set up by the TFA and did something different. Now that is their prerogative, but this is a series and it teaches viewers to not care about the development in TFA. To me it says, don’t pay attention to our plot or character development, because we might scrap it in a flip of a switch.

The TFA made us think that Rey came from some important family and TLJ just quickly said, “Nope.” Again, it is not wrong to do this, but why the set up in TFA?

Add to this that they never explained who Snoke was, where he came from, and then they just killed him off. Again, TFA made me intrigued about who this figure was. TLJ said, “Let’s just cut him in two and move on.”

Plot Holes and Pointless Scenes

At the end of the day, movie had too many plot holes and pointless scenes. Here are a few of them.

– Fin just wakes up from his coma. So does Leia. So will Rose I assume. So space comas don’t matter at all is what they are telling me. Kill someone off for goodness sake. These near death experiences are killing me.

– They dropped bombs in space (enough said).

– The whole Canto Bight scene was worthless in terms of plot development. It felt off from the beginning. They had a few hours to get to a planet, find a person they didn’t know, and then break into the First Order. Fin was not developed at all in these scenes and the plot line fizzled into nothing.

– They find the robber for one second and then find another in jail? What? Why is the best hacker in jail? Why did Maz tell them there is only ONE PERSON who can do this and then they find another? And if this robber/cloaker is so good, why not employ them?

– They tried to throw in this Rose/Fin love angle right at the end. So now we have a love square going on? Rey, Ren, Fin, Rose. I am more confused than excited to see what happens next.

– Speaking of plot development, there were essentially two plot lines. One with the relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren (good) and the second with the Resistance fleet fleeing the First Order (bad). I heard the Resistance storyline compared to the OJ White Bronco chase scene. Nothing happens…for hours. It is like a space chase in slow motion.

– Oh and side note: why didn’t they just put a robot on the ship and crash it into the First Order rather than one of their top commanders?

– Rey dropping down into the dark hole in Ireland was pointless. She went down there and saw herself and snapped a few times. Maybe the point was to show that she didn’t have a famous family past but it seemed an odd way to show it. That scene should have been huge as she struggled with the dark side, but it was just weird.

– The Porgs. The Ewoks worked before because we came to love them and they ended up being a big part of the final battle. The porgs felt thrown in just to have a silly creature in there. That is not the way to make a movie. Make every scene count.

– Why did Luke pole vault?

Trying Too Hard

The movie also tried too hard. It had one really good ending scene, but then added about five more to try to wrap too many plot lines together. But this isn’t the last movie!

I would have rather had them leave a few strings hanging like TFA did at the end with Luke, Rey, Fin, and even Kylo Ren. That was a good ending that made me really want come back for TLJ. TFA realized they could keep people on the edge of their seats. I walked out of TLJ not so interested in what was going to happen next. I just kept thinking they had about 10 chance to kill Leia and didn’t do it.

The good final scene that I am speaking about in TLJ was with Rey, Kylo Ren, and Snoke. That felt like the best of Star Wars to me and clearly a throw back to the Luke, Vader, and Emperor scene. I was at the edge of my seat during this scene because the most interesting plot line of the whole movie was coming to a climax.

But they also messed up this scene with Ren then flipping again immediately after he killed Snoke. At one minute Rey and Kylo Ren are fighting side by side and then the next they are battling for the light saber. What was that? Talk about a roller coaster. I understand they were trying to get across the divided nature of Ren, but the power of the Vader flip was that no one saw it coming. Now I don’t think they have to do exactly the same thing with Ren as Vader, but the flip in two minutes didn’t work.

They tried to have four epic endings, but they focused on the epic rather than the ending. Rey and Ren face off, Luke and Ren face off, the Empire and the Resistance face off, and Fin and Chromehead face off. Talk about overkill. I realize they needed to bring some of these to a conclusion but IT WAS NOT THE LAST MOVIE. Leave something to be desired.

Conclusion

It might sound like I thought The Last Jedi was all bad. It wasn’t. Here are a few of the things I liked.

– The storyline between Rey and Ren was well done. I liked the slowness of the relationship between Rey and Luke as well. That whole plot line was good.

– Even though I didn’t like White Bronco space chase plotline, I liked Poe a lot (Oscar Isaac). He is always a good actor. The best of the bunch in my opinion.

– Though I thought Ren flipped and flopped too much, I actually think he plays his part well.

 

If you enjoyed the move I don’t have anything against that. The point here is that it is not just Star Wars super-fans who had issues; the plot had issues. I was just hoping to see a good storyline continue. Unfortunately, I was let down and am not as interested in the next movie. Sure, I will still see it, but it this even fixable now?

Either Abrams goes back to TFA in Episode IX and this movie sticks out like a sore thumb, or they keep up with TLJ and TFA looks out of place. I think they put themselves in a hard place.

Maybe someone will tell me why all the scenes I described so negatively actually worked and continued the storytelling of the Star Wars saga.

 

 

Favorite Albums of 2017

December 21, 2017 — Leave a comment

Here are my favorite albums of 2017, with no comment next to them. This is basically so I can remember.

 

The War on Drugs: A Deeper Understanding

Perfume Genius: No Shape

CityALight: Only a Holy God (2016)

Lorde: Melodrama

Kendrick Lamar: Damn

Beautiful Eulogy: Worthy

The National: Sleep Well Beast

Jason Isbell: The Nashville Sound

Cold War Kids: LA DIVINE

James McAlister and Sufjan Stevens: Planetarium

Each year I attempt to write down some of my favorite reads of the year. This year I spent a lot of time on research projects and that meant I employed commentaries and resources that don’t make “best of lists” very often. But I did run across some good books.

One clarification is necessary: I disagree with or have significant questions about the major theses of some of the books on this list. I find that many times I learn more from the books I disagree with than the ones I agree with. It makes me go back to the drawing board and ask why I disagree and many times it end up solidifying, nuancing, and strengthening my thinking on a topic.

When I look at this list, I realize I need to do more reading outside the field of biblical studies. I felt particularly overwhelmed at work this year so I don’t have much time to read outside of my field but the goal is to try to do so more.

With these comments in place here are the books in no particular order.

ECHOES OF SCRIPTURE IN THE GOSPELSRICHARD B. HAYS

Even if one does not agree with how Hays gets to all his interpretations, the clarity and creativity of Hays’ writing is hard to ignore. I would like to see him focus more on reading forward (along with reading backward), but nonetheless, he is still one of the most important voices in the field of intertextuality and he cannot be discounted.

IN SEARCH OF ANCIENT ROOTS – KENNETH J. STEWART   

I picked up this book at ETS and devoured it. Stewart argues that evangelicalism is not a flash in the pan but has ancient roots. He tackles tough objections and does it well. In sum, he argues that if you want a historic faith, you don’t have to turn to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.

FOOL’S TALK: RECOVERING THE ART OF CHRISTIAN PERSUASION – OS GUINNESS

This is one the best book on apologetics that I have read. Enough said.

THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT AND HUMAN FLOURISHING – JONATHAN T. PENNINGTON

I don’t have this in my picture because I just realized I don’t have a copy (thanks supervisor; if you read this go ahead and send me one). I read this in its pre-publication stage and revisited the whole work that I have in PDF when I taught through the Sermon on the Mount this semester.

PAUL THE ANCIENT LETTER WRITER – JEFFERY A. D. WEIMA

I am very happy to include this book because I have not seen it on another list. Weima does not break new ground but his analysis is careful, even-handed, and quite compelling. I think along with “Interpreting the Pauline Epistles” it is the best introduction to interpreting Paul’s letters.

AWAITING THE KING – JAMES K. A. SMITH

A fine conclusion to a compelling series. It is a timely addition with the turn to public theology. I love Smith’s style of writing. I wonder how many editors told Smith he can’t write like he does, but it goes to show that if you follow all the writing advice tips, you will probably end up being a mind-numbing writer. Be yourself in your prose.

PROGRESSIVE COVENANTALISM – EDITED BY STEPHEN J. WELLUM AND BRENT E. PARKER

I can’t quite remember when I read this but I am including it here because it is a great collection of essays charting a course between dispensationalism and covenant theology. Many of these chapters are dissertations distilled into chapters and so there is a wealth of well thought-out arguments in the book.

COVENANT AND GOD’S PURPOSE FOR THE WORLD – THOMAS R. SCHREINER

Covenant is one of the most important concepts in all the Scriptures and many of the works on the topic do too much with historical backgrounds or get caught in the crosshairs of covenant theology and never escape. Schreiner’s work is a short, clear, biblical theology on the topic.

SALVATION BY ALLEGIANCE ALONE – MATTHEW W. BATES

Even if I didn’t end up being entirely convinced by Bates’ thesis, I really liked the book. Much of the book is on target and it is a good corrective, though an over corrective.

Reflection 1: https://www.westernseminary.edu/transformedblog/2017/05/31/the-v-shaped-gospel/

Reflection 2: https://www.westernseminary.edu/transformedblog/2017/06/07/salvation-by-allegiance-alone-part-2/

SAVED BY FAITH AND HOSPITALITY – JOSHUA W. JIPP

Jipp’s work on God as our divine benefactor and Jesus offering hospitality to us through table, bread, and water made me think of some texts in a new light.

My review of it at TGC: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/saved-by-faith-hospitality/

A MAN ATTESTED BY GOD: THE HUMAN JESUS IN THE SYNOPTIC GOSPELS – J. R. DANIEL KIRK

This was an interesting book for me because I disagree with Kirk’s main thesis and also thought there were quite a few false dichotomies. At the same time, I learned a lot from this book and found myself respecting the humanity of Jesus in a greater way. The ancient church settled the issue Kirk gets at long ago, but if one wants to reflect on the “human” Jesus at a scholarly level, this is a good book to go to.

DESTROYER OF THE GODS: EARLY CHRISTIAN DISTINCTIVENESS IN THE ROMAN WORLD – LARRY W. HURTADO

I am adding this one last minute, but Hurtado is great on backgrounds and he writes this book at a learned but accessible level. I flat out loved this book. If you don’t like reading books on backgrounds I challenge you to read this one and tell me again that you don’t like background books.

Israel Matters Review

August 7, 2017 — 2 Comments

Over at TGC I did a review of Gerald McDermott’s new book Israel Matters. I conclude with the following.

McDermott presents two ways on this issue: supersessionism or New Zionism. But why are those the only options? I offer my most significant critique by proposing a third way: “fulfillment.”[2] This avoids clunky statements like “the church replaces Israel” and also provides more information about what it means that “Israel matters.”

Fulfillment avoids two misunderstandings: (1) that Jesus came to set aside old promises, and (2) that Jesus simply came to say the old promises continue in the same way. Jesus didn’t come to abrogate the law or to simply affirm it; he came to fulfill it. The New Testament authors argue that Jesus fulfills the law and the identity of Israel, and the church is an outgrowth of this fulfillment. The tension between the new and the old is illustrated and encapsulated in the word “fulfillment.”

These positions can be put on a spectrum:

Christ Abrogates the Law ––––––––– Christ Fulfills the Law –––––––– Christ Affirms the Law

To put these positions in the terms of this book, the “abrogate” position maps onto supersessionism, and the “affirm” position maps onto New Christian Zionism.

Supersessionism ––––––––– Fulfillment –––––––– New Christian Zionism

It seems to me that McDermott falls into the trap that Jesus avoids in Matthew 5. The law is neither simply abrogated nor affirmed, because the environment has completely changed: Christ is here, and that makes all the difference.

McDermott’s proposal has some attractive features, but I think he falls too far on the affirming side of the spectrum. By using the third way of “fulfillment” we can still affirm that Israel matters, but then we can ask, “In what way?” All our answers must come only after we’ve grappled with our Christology, the triune nature of God, and the biblical storyline.

One of the ways to analyze culture is to look at film. This year’s Oscar nominations for best picture are quite impressive. Unlike previous collections, this batch of movies are thoughtful and possess unique cohesive themes. While summer blockbusters are usually an inch deep and a trillion dollars wide, this year’s Oscars are an impressive canon—instructing, initiating, and instilling a larger cultural conversation.

While it would be silly to argue they each have the same message, viewing them canonically unearths some interesting insights. Each of the Oscar nominations for best picture have some reflection on time. Some reach back in time, others skip through time, and a few are centered on the relationship of the past to the present.

Moonlight quickly moves through stages of Chiron’s life. Lion likewise jumps ahead in Saroo’s life from a young child to a college student. Saroo can’t move forward without first going back in time. La La Land is a throwback to old musicals and has a key scene at the end where Emma Stone reflects on how a different choice could have altered her life. Arrival is about the gift of language to humans which allows them to transcend time. Fences reaches back in time and centers of Troy Maxson and his wrestling with the past and present. Hidden Figures retells a familiar story and discloses strands of this story that were neglected. Manchester By the Sea brings the past into the present in the tragedy of a young family. Hacksaw Ridge tells an unlikely heroic narrative of the past and Hell or High Water is framed around the ethics of the past bank crisis.

Whether it be the intersection of the past and the present or the possibility of the future, each movie educates about life in the present and gives us quite a bit to digest in our current cultural moment. Four lessons come to the surface: (1) the past always extends into the present, (2) beware of nostalgia (3) don’t let the past derail the present, and (4) the future can be hopeful.

The Past Always Extends Into the Present

Although we tend to think of the past as locked away, its fingers find their way into the present almost like sugar ants inevitably find their way into a house. One of the most powerful portrayals of this comes in Manchester by the Sea. Lee Chandler is a sullen man who is asked to take care of his nephew when Lee’s older brother dies. What viewers find out part way through the movie is that Lee had a previous life. In this life he was happily married with three kids but a tragic mistake takes the life of his three children. Lee’s marriage unravels, and he now has to face his past in the city where his life was torn to shreds. In one telling scene he bumps into his remarried ex-wife and her newborn baby. She expresses remorse about how she treated him and asks to reconnect but Lee says, “There’s nothing there.”

Although the entirety of La La Land does not reflect on the intersection of the past and the present, the last scene reveals that if Mia and Sebastian had made a different choice their present would look different. The past decision of Mia going to Paris radically altered her life. Moonlight gives time montages of Chiron building the background of the story of a young black man and his struggles with identity and sexuality. The director Jenkins jumps through time to show the struggles Chiron has a kid are never really resolved although he matures.

The point is that in each of these films the past plays a major role in the development of the story, if not the most critical one. The movies teach us that we can’t siphon off the past as if it never happened and simply “move on” with our lives. Rather, the past always haunts us and causes us to reflect and ask different questions for the present and the future.

I believe this directly speaks into the racial discussion our country is having. I see pictures of white men holding up signs about how they never enslaved anyone, and hear those claiming the past is not their fault. But maybe Oscars help us see that this is stunted view of reality. We can’t siphon off the past and think that because it was in the past it does not have some effect in the present and the future. The past molds and shapes the present in ways that we can’t see unless a director fast-forwards through time. The past bumps into the present and reaches into the future. Acting like the past doesn’t play into the present and future is a very godless and deistic way to think of time. Time is a progression, but it is also unified.

Beware of Nostalgia 

A few of this year’s Oscar’s warn also of nostalgia of the past. La La Land is the most explicit with this theme. La La Land leads viewers through the motions of an old musical only to break their hearts at the end. The director Chazelle purposively lulled his viewers into sleep only to upset their expectations in the last few scenes. Chazelle warns his viewers to not escape into nostalgia. Not everything in the past is as it seems, so don’t get lost in the past.

Yuval Levin argues similarly in his book The Fractured Republic. Both liberal and conservative American’s nostalgia for the past has led to today’s polarized national life. Liberals to miss the economic arrangements of social liberalization in the 1960s while conservatives miss the 1980s. But today our society is more fragmented and fractured than either of those eras so we need different solutions to some of the same problems.

The films also in a similar way urge us to widen our perspective of the past. It is not just that the past reaches into the present, but that we have a rather limited view on what happened in the past. History is complex—thousands of threads combine to tell a story and not all those stories have the same point. Hidden Figures recounts a well-known space race story from the 1960’s but urges us to look deeper at some of the players that did not receive the credit they deserved. While we might think we know our history or the history of the nation, our perspective on the past is always at best incomplete. Our view of the golden age may have not been golden for others.

Hacksaw Ridge in a similar way told a WWII story but from the perspective of hero we may have never heard of and may not agree with ideologically. Hacksaw displays that those not like us, those who we might fiercely disagree with, are not necessarily bad people just because they have different perspectives. They are not cowards for not fitting into the current ideology. It takes more strength to take a step to a different tune. Sometimes those who are most unlike their generation are the trailblazers for the next generation.

Don’t Let the Past Derail the Opportunity of the Present

While the movies portray the importance of the past for understanding the present, they also warn that the past can derail the present. In Fences Tory Maxson is so wrapped up in the glory and tragedy of his past that he can’t seem to move his family into the good of the present. This is most evident with his interactions with their son Cory. Cory is a promising young football player but Troy refuses to let him pursue this dream because he thinks the white man will never let him succeed. Ultimately, Troy looks for happiness outside of his family which destroys the family. Toward the end of the movie Cory is tempted to also let bitterness define his identity by not going to his father’s funeral. But Rose (his mother) is a voice of reason. She tells him that she loved Troy, despite his weaknesses and that part of Troy still lives in him and he needs to conquer where Troy failed.

Hidden Figures in the same way tells of the story of four black women at NASA in 1961 who were instrumental in the space race with Russia. Rather than letting the past define these women’s roles they all push forward to become more than what the current culture would normally allow. They do this by being excellent at their trade and having a never-give-up attitude.

In one way, this point challenges those who would give a hearty “amen” to my first point. While a few of the movies show that the past can never fully be discounted, a few others caution against letting the past define the present. Don’t just blame the past and get stuck in protest and forget to see the opportunities right in front of you. If the first point challenged those acting like they are innocent in the racial tension, this point dares to address those so preoccupied with the past that the discourse has been poisoned before it started. It warns through the image of Troy and emboldens through the images of the three black women working at NASA.

The Future Can Be Hopeful

Finally, this year’s Oscars direct our eyes to a hopeful future. This comes in spite of a checkered past, and the danger of the past derailing the present. Arrival tells the story of linguist Louise Banks who is asked to decipher the language of aliens who have landed on earth in twelve spacecraft’s. When Louise learns they want to offer a weapon, fear takes over the globe. But Louise argues the symbol can be interpreted as a “tool” or “technology.” Louise then learns that this weapon is language that changes their perception of time. Viewers realize that Louise’s flashbacks are really flash-forwards. Louise foresees that Ian will father her daughter Hannah, but will leave discovering that their daughter will die of a rare disease. Nevertheless, Louise agrees that she wants to have a baby.

Arrival argues the solution to fear is a shared language. A hopeful future arrives by transcending the current nature of our discourse. We need a reversal of Babel where fear is not the controlling factor—rather hope is. Love hopes the best. The present danger is that we won’t learn from our past, we will neglect the reality our past, or we will let the past derail the present, but hope is found in communication, honesty, and transparency.

 

 

 

 

The Oscar nominations for the best picture are stunning. Look back at previous years. In 2013 Argo won and it probably would be near the bottom of this list.

I have now seen all of the nominations for best picture except Hacksaw Ridge. With such strong titles which one will rise to the top? I have no idea which one will win, but as I looked over the titles I found it difficult to rank them. Each are unique in their own way. Below is my attempt at ranking them giving a few arguments for why some outshine the others.

As the list goes on I will reduce my comments to a few sentences because of time ya know.

1. Moonlight

This one was not too hard for me. Moonlight stood a shoulder above the rest of nominations. I struggled more with 2-5 than with which movie should take the gold home. Moonlight is a coming-of-age tale of a black man in Miami. All the best films capitalize on their locations and Barry Jenkins is no exception. He provides a unique look at inner-city Miami and doesn’t shy from showing both the beauty and ugliness. Jenkins himself grew up in Liberty City, Miami and one can sense the care Jenkins took in presenting Miami. Unlike so many films these days, it also moves away from being an “issue” film. Some might watch it and think it is mainly about race or sexuality but this would be to miss the point. Miami, race, and Chiron’s sexuality are the backdrop. They are essential backgrounds, but the movie is a human movie. Essentially it prompts empathy and introspection by following the random memories of a black, gay man growing up in Miami. Beautifully made, beautifully scored, and incredibly put together, this movie should take home the Oscar (but it probably won’t).

2. La La Land

This movie has been divisive. Some claim the bloated nominations is Hollywood narcism. Others genuinely think this movie broke new ground. I am of the latter ilk. Name the last good modern musical. Chazelle’s daring and beautiful film both borrows from the musical genre and also takes it for a new spin. The key to getting this movie is the juxtaposition of romanticism and realism. It is a love story and musical and therefore purposively over-the-top. Yet, Chazelle brings the musical down to earth with playful interweaving of realism. A musical number breaks out in the midst of a Los Angeles traffic jam. Many of the songs are intentionally playful, and Chazelle intentionally takes long shots on their dance scenes and does not smooth over some of the flaws in Gosling and Stone’s voices. Emma Stone commanded the screen in every scene she was in. Now that Chazelle has broken the ice, a few others will try their hand at the musical genre, but this will be looked back on the one that restarted the old and rusted classic car.

3. Arrival

I walked out of Arrival knowing that I needed a few days to reflect on the message. Arrival is essentially about language — the function, form, use, and abuse of language. It is also about the relationship between time and language. As someone who teaches a language I found this to be a deep and moving film. Every scene, every camera angle, every word seemed purposeful in Arrival. The only reason I put it third is because it dragged at certain points, but overall it was a masterpiece. (I also had the king of ice chewing next to me in the movie theater which does not go well with anything. He had so much ice. It was like a bottomless cup of ice)

Watch this reflection on the film from Nerd Writer.

4. Hell or High Water

Like Moonlight, Hell or High Water capitalizes on its location. In this case it is West Texas and Mackenzie uses every unique part of Texas to his advantage. This low-budget film came out in the summer in the midst of the usual superhero summer doldrums and was a breath of fresh air. Two very different brothers attempt to make a better life for the straight-laced one’s son. All three main actors deserve credit but Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges made a good movie an excellent one. The movie also pushes viewers to think about ethical boundaries in the midst of financial corruption.

5. Fences

The story of a struggling black family in Pittsburg in 1957. Troy Maxson was a good baseball player but was too old once the MLB started admitting black players. He now picks up garbage and is always thinking of what could have been. Therefore he looks outside of his family for happiness and makes a decision that throws his life into a tailspin.

6. Lion

Lion had its flaws, but the movie was just so heart-wrenching. I have never been to India, but it felt like a very real portrayal of India. Good score too.

7. Manchester by the Sea

It is painful to put such a good movie this low. I liked aspects of this film and have not seen something like it. It basically had no plot but was an experiment on how past suffering pushes itself into the present. For pastors who deal with people’s past suffering, this movie will be a learning experience.

8. Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures was a good movie, but it wasn’t the best picture of the year. If one movie doesn’t deserve to be on this list it is Hidden Figures. I know a lot of people liked this movie, and you should like it. It is just not the best picture of the year.