Monday, December 21, 2009

The Noughties: Best of the Decade 2000-2009

Okay. As of today here is my "Best/Top" list for the Noughties--the decade of 2000-2009. There's 7 of each because it's more than 5 and less than 10, as well as being biblical and all, and they're not in a particular order. I didn't put comments on each one because these aren't reviews, and all really should be experienced more than talked about. Some criteria include media I actually consumed (never got into Lost or saw City of God, for example, so such things were off the table), cultural relevance (so none of my especially weird, obscure stuff) and, of course, artistic merit (sorry Britney Spears, though "Toxic" was pretty brilliant). I especially tried to include stuff that, looking back, had strong ties to the decade that was, whether starting trends or voicing a zeitgeist. Check it out, laud or bash away, expand your horizons, add your questions, comments, or snide remarks. And Happy 2010!

Best Albums:

All That You Can't Leave Behind (U2)--After a decade (90s) ending with boy bands and pop-tarts, U2 came along and saved rock n' roll.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? Soundtrack (Various)--Gave attention to the genius of T-Bone Burnett and opened a huge window for a revival of roots music, seen in the new folk and bluegrass-influenced bands.

Kid A (Radiohead)

Elephant (The White Stripes)

A Rush of Blood to the Head (Coldplay)--The Coldplay people were remembering when they were lauding Viva la Vida. Had they kept in this direction, it wouldn't have become fashionable to hate Coldplay.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Wilco)

The Rising (Bruce Springsteen)--What we needed after 9/11. What we still need.

Best Songs:

"Hey Ya!" (Outkast)--Irresistible dance/pop/hip-hop/funk in the tradition of Pariliament/Funkadelic. You know you loved to "shake it...shake-sh-shake it like a Polaroid picture"!

"Clocks" (Coldplay)--The song that was on every TV commercial and was copied by so many other bands...and for good reason.

"American Idiot" (Green Day)

"Paper Planes" (M.I.A.)--Stirred up all kinds of trouble in a kicky, pop way.

"Crazy" (Gnarls Barkley)--Same Funkadelic pool as Outkast--much more sinister, haunting, and melodic.

"The Rising" (Bruce Springsteen)

"Beautiful Day" (U2)--Because there were few better comments on the times than the images of tuna fleets, Bedouin fires, and oil fields juxtaposed with the bird with a leaf in her mouth and the post-flood rainbow.

Best Movies:

The Lord of the Rings (trilogy)

No Country for Old Men

Memento--Brilliant example of the trend of non-linear storytelling (see also Mulholland Drive, Adaptation), with a gripping, classic "amnesia" action plot to boot (a la North by Northwest).

Juno--Heralding a fresh era of fresh indie filmmaking, movies like this one and Little Miss Sunshine are examples that sharp writing in the hands of strong actors and directors all telling an honest story can still result in classic films. And a superb soundtrack doesn't hurt, either.

Man on Wire

Knocked Up--The best (so far) of the Apatow company and their heartwarming, offensive, immoral morality plays.

Kill Bill Vols. 1 & 2--If there's any doubt that Tarantino is the best of his generation, these perfections of the spaghetti western/samurai genre should put them to rest. Just give the man a genre and he'll master it.

Best TV:

The Office

Curb Your Enthusiasm--You only thought Seinfeld was over. It just moved to HBO and got better!

The Sopranos

The Daily Show with John Stewart--What sharper commentary can there be on our times than the fact that truth in media is found on a "fake" news show.

The West Wing

Arrested Development--Because I couldn't quite get The Royal Tennenbaums on my best movies list. This show was ahead of its time and would likely be a hit if debuting today.

Battlestar Galactica

Best Books:

The Tipping Point (Malcolm Gladwell)

Fast Food Nation (Eric Schlosser)

Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (David Foster Wallace)--A writer's-writer, including depression and suicide, Wallace's use of our native tongue is like discovering a strange city under the floorboards of your kitchen.

Simply Christian (N.T. Wright)--Simultaneously carrying the mantle of C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity apologetics, while heading in the very different direction of Wright's brilliant-yet-practical presentation of the faith.

Fortress of Solitude (Jonathan Lethem)--Though separated by so many elements, I experienced and witnessed so much of this Brooklyn story in small-town Texas. This is a mark of powerful story-telling.

The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen)

The Road (Cormac McCarthy)--Social commentary, a father-son parable, and running from cannibals all in one alarmingly lean novel.

News Stories:

Google, Facebook, and Youtube

Hurricane Katrina

Election 2000/Supreme Court Elects Bush President

Iraq/Afghanistan Wars

Human Genome Mapped

U.S. Elects First African-American President

September 11, 2001

Honorable Mentions: The Colbert Report, Red Sox Win World Series, Mulholland Drive, "Hurt" (Johnny Cash's cover), Pope John Paul II Dies/Benedict XVI Ascends, "Stan" (Eminem), 30 Rock, There Will Be Blood, "Single Ladies" (Beyonce), Family Guy, High Fidelity (movie), China: Sleeping Giant Awakes, Freakonomics (Levitt, Dubner), Indian Ocean Tsunami 2004, God's Politics (Jim Wallis), The Dark Knight, Good Night and Good Luck

Thursday, December 17, 2009

I'll Be Home for Advent

As I write this—sitting in a bookstore, drinking coffee—there is a girl talking on her cell phone to her sister. She is buzzing around looking for a book the sister had recommended, the title of which she’s forgotten, but she can’t stop talking about how excited she is to get home for Christmas to see her sister and family. She talks about finals and her look definitely betrays that she is living in Abilene for college. I’m sure she has many friends and an enjoyable enough life here. But this is not home, and her life for now is very much shaped by the hope of home.

One of the special things about Advent and Christmas is that our lives are especially shaped by hope. We are hopeful about seeing family and friends, about time to rest and slow down, about giving and receiving gifts—there’s a sense of anticipation and even camaraderie. The vast majority of our culture is still in on this, and what we’re in on is something hopeful. And this hope shapes our lives. Despite the jokes and complaints we make about Christmas being hectic and frustrating, we really do tend to—as a culture, and even other cultures around the world—we tend to rise to the occasion of togetherness and anticipation. We rise to a lifestyle—albeit temporarily—of hope.

It is a sad state of American Christianity today that our thoughts of the “end times” are characterized by pessimism and fear. For the apostle Paul and the early church, “end times” was a subject of triumph. Paul doesn’t write, “Things are so bad, Jesus must be coming soon to take us away from all this.” No, Paul’s understanding was that, having won such a magnificent victory over sin and death, Jesus’ kingdom reality must only be a heartbeat away. And what’s more, that heartbeat is yours and mine. Just as we pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, so we are to be living from that kingdom and building it until Christ comes in final victory to lift the veil between heaven and earth and to establish his kingdom forever. This is the Blessed Hope of Advent.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Some Angel Named Harold?

For your consideration, I want to reintroduce you to Charles Wesley's brilliant Christmas hymn "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." I believe this to be one of the (if not THE) greatest Christmas song in the church's musical canon. It is thick with theological insight and rich with biblical imagery. If you will take a moment just to read these words (aloud please), perhaps as a poem without music, I think you will be stricken by their power. (And please forgive the lack of gender-inclusive language. No offense intended.)

Hark! the herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!"
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With the angelic host proclaim,
"Christ is born in Bethlehem!"
Hark! the herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King!"

Christ, by highest heaven adored;
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of a virgin's womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail the incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel:
Hark! the herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King!"

Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings;
Mild, he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth:
Hark! the herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King!"

Even that familiar first verse deserves closer attention, with concepts like God and sinners being reconciled, and the plea for nations to rise and join in worshiping the true "King of kings" (Wesley's original words, replaced with "newborn King" by George Whitefield.) And for a real mind-scramble, let me introduce you to some stanzas we don't usually sing:

Come, desire of nations, come,
Fix in us thy humble home;
Rise, the woman's conquering seed,
Bruise in us the serpent's head.
Now display thy saving power,
Ruin'd nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to thine.
Hark! The herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King!"

Adam's likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp thy image in its place.
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.
Let us thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the life, the inner man.
O, to all thyself impart,
Form'd in each believing heart.
Hark! The herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King!"

I'll admit this is no "Frosty the Snowman" or "Grandma Got Runover by a Reindeer," but maybe there's some stuff in here we should consider in our Christmas observances. In my humble Methodist opinion, little Chuck Wesley has given us a powerful work of art here, chock full of crunchy fruits and nuts!

And it's made all the better paired with Felix Mendelssohn's wonderful music. Mendelssohn was surprised at the idea of his "secular" music being used for sacred text, but this act of redemption only enhances the signficance of the hymn. Listen for this song during key moments of your favorite holiday films like It's a Wonderful Life and A Charlie Brown Christmas, and if you sing it this season, maybe think about the words and the message of those herald angels: Glory to God in the highest! Glory to the newborn King of kings! And on earth, peace...

Monday, December 7, 2009

Patrick Swayze & the Night Visitor

A few years ago my wife and I moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, in April so we could find a place to live and get settled before I began seminary. We had decided we would camp in this beautiful part of the world while apartment-hunting. We had left Amarillo, Texas, well into spring with temperatures in the 70s, but we arrived at the end of the Vancouver winter with cold, wet weather in the 50s.

After asking around we found a beautiful area to camp several miles north of the city. We pitched our tent at a secluded campground with pine trees all around and snow-capped mountains that reflected into a perfect lake. After setting up camp we went into town for a while to see what leads we could get on apartments. Later, we returned to camp, grilled some hot dogs, and settled into the tent where we watched a movie on the computer (Dirty Dancing, I believe--roughing it!) Then we zipped into our sleeping bags and drifted off. It was perfect...until somewhere around midnight.

I heard a distant rumbling. The ground began to shake. Do they have earthquakes around here? Then I saw a blinding light as bright as the sun shining through the fabric of our tent. It was like high noon in West Texas. I couldn’t believe it but there was a train that ran about 20 yards away, roaring by our tent at midnight! I tossed and turned the rest of the night hoping another a train wouldn't come, which it didn’t. But that bright light and pounding rumble proved to be an inescapable memory.

The prophetic ministries of Isaiah and, centuries later, John the Baptizer were something like that train—bright, shocking, disturbing light shining into the cold darkness of Israel’s hearts. Many generations had come and gone since Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, since Moses and the Exodus, Jeremiah and the Judges, since King David, Solomon and the Temple, and hundreds more years of back and forth faithfulness and disobedience.

Despite God's own long-suffering and faithfulness, his people had routinely grown complacent in their worship and calling. Their experience of God was marked by dead ritual devoid of justice and mercy, and their cold hearts were no longer open to God’s warming love. They neither felt it nor showed it. This is when prophets appear on the scene. This is when God comes.

The same could be said about our culture today--perhaps even the church. Maybe we have gotten settled into the cold darkness and need to experience the shocking light of God’s presence. He is still the God who comes, barreling through the night, invading our secure little tents and our scenic slumber. That’s what Advent is about. Sleep in heavenly peace? How about "the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all flesh will see it together"!

My Friend Thomas

I met Thomas when we ditched school together. We were 16, and my friend Scott and I had planned to skip out after homeroom and take Scott’s ...