Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Counting Down: The Best of 2013

In looking back on 2013, I wanted to add a slight twist to the typical “Top Ten” idea. What I’ll do this time around is count out my ten favorite happenings—not necessarily blog posts—at Happier Far, beginning with number 10 and working my way up to the biggest highlight of the year. To a limited degree, the order of these items is influenced on reader popularity, but I’ve also arbitrarily bumped a few of them up or down as seemed best to me.

10. Paradise Lost. To be honest, this is on the list simply because I love the book so much. Frankly, I was surprised (and somewhat disappointed) by how little interest the Paradise Lost series initially generated here on the blog, although the last couple entries have enjoyed a larger readership. We’ve made it through eight of the twelve books in the poem, so we’ll finish things up in 2014. And since I’m a glutton for punishment, I may eventually delve into the four books of Paradise Regained sometime in the future. (To those wondering if that’s a threat or a promise, it’s both.)

9. The Expulsive Power of a New Affection. I have reaped countless spiritual benefits from “translating” Thomas Chalmers’ nineteenth century sermon into modern English. It was a pleasure and a privilege to share the results of my efforts on the blog as well. Here’s the final lineup of the entries: “When You Can’t Give Up the Sins You Love” (here), “‘Just Say No’ Doesn’t Work” (here), “Why Those in the World Cannot Love God” (here), “How to Avoid the World’s Seduction” (here), and “Finding an Attraction to True Beauty” (here).

8. Changing Views of the Bible. The Lutheran distinction between law and gospel has forever altered my perspective on the Christian faith. I spent several weeks explaining what this distinction is and why it so radically matters to our Christian walk. Here is the final lineup of the series: “Lutherans Know Something We Don’t Know” (here), “What’s Law Got to Do with It?” (here), “Using the Law Unlawfully” (here), “The Gospel We (Don’t) Believe” (here), “Does Jesus Have a Double Standard?” (here), and “Accidentally Hating what God Loves” (here).

7. When Big Names Pat Little Backs. God condescends to show His face to the undeserving. I have been the recipient of His unmerited favor in a myriad of ways, one of which is the encouragement from some popular and influential Christian figures. I’m constantly blown away by how approachable Gene Veith is, and by his gracious endorsement of my blog writing—particularly the Law vs. Gospel series. Football legend Inky Johnson has not only encouraged me in my writing, but he also granted me an interview for a blog post earlier this year, then reposted it on his own website. His humility and graciousness are a blessing to me. And one of the main reasons for my increased blog presence is the encouragement of my friend (and soon to be published author) Trillia Newbell. Because of her advocacy for me, I also had the privilege of writing an article for the Gospel Coalition earlier in the year. Through their interactions with me, these individuals illustrate the graciousness of God in the gospel to undeserving sinners.

6. You. Yes, you are on the list. Friends, family, acquaintances, and other visitors: so many of you have provided me with positive, instructive, and even corrective feedback. Bloggers like Chip Gruver and Steve Martin have been enormously kind with their repeated encouragements. The responses I have received from you all have encouraged me in God’s use of the talents He has given me. I am further encouraged that others have found Happier Far to be a means of grace in their own lives. Thank you for walking on life’s journey with me.

5. Fatherhood. If we were talking strictly about my personal life, this would be higher on the list. Becoming a father has been one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had. It also afforded me the opportunity to write what has become one of this year’s most popular posts: “Confessions of a New Father: I Wasn’t Prepared for This.”

4. Telling My Own Story. As an amateur theologian, it’s easy for me to intellectually dissect doctrines and dogmas from afar, keeping them at arm’s length. But theology was meant to have real life implications, and God has made sure to make the wheels of my theology leave some tire marks on the road of real life. Rather than study the Bible as a specimen under a microscope, I have had to face God’s truth in my own experience, making my study both more painful and incredibly more beneficial. It has been a privilege to blog about a few key incidents from the last year or so. “How One Hebrew Word Changed My Heart” (here), “What I Learned from Wetting My Pants” (here), and “One Thing About Christianity that Still Bothers Me” (here) are the three highlights. Intensely personal, these stories help show how God’s grace splashes down into our experiences. I hope they have benefited you in at least some small way.

3. Sex and Nudity in the Movies. My evolving views on cinematic sexuality have been heavily influenced by Scripture and the progressive insights of author and pastor Wayne A. Wilson. This year, I wrote two posts on the topic. The first, “Sex, Lies, and Star Trek” (here) may very well be the most popular post of 2013. True, a few other posts received more hits, but this piece had no help from famous outside sources (except for possibly pastor Wilson himself, with whom I directly corresponded about this post). The follow-up piece was equally controversial, and equally necessary: “When Is Public Decency Acceptable?” (here). We will definitely revisit this issue in 2014.

2. Shannon’s Wordsmithing. Yes, God has gifted me in the area of writing, but I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge that God has also gifted me with the superb language, rhetoric, and editing gifts of my wife Shannon. Brainstorming ideas, generating blog titles, writing effective attention grabbers, selecting pictures—everything I’ve done this past year has been affected by Shannon’s expertise. Her involvement has dramatically improved the quality of my blogging. As in our family life, Shannon’s influence here at Happier Far has been invaluable.

1. Learning to Love. Too often, I’ve used truth as a weapon of mass destruction rather than an agent of healing. God has really done a number on me this year, helping me to grow in my desire and ability to let His love more effectively color my thoughts, words, and actions. It’s hard to pinpoint a definite starting point for this process, but a milestone took place in early February when I wrote “Dan Cathy, Chick-fil-A, and the Love of Jesus” (here). During that time, I experienced a growing desire to demonstrate the character of Christ while interacting with others—especially those with whom I disagree. As the year progressed, I often returned to the topic of loving others: “I Love Jesus, but I Hate the Church” (here), “Treating Fellow Christians Like Enemies” (here), “Blog First, Ask Questions Later” (here), “Being Offensive and Charitable” (here), and “Loving Someone Who is Trying to Kill You” (here), as well as the sex and nudity articles discussed already. This doesn’t mean I will shy away from hard topics (like I did here in “The 3 Habits of Highly Effective Heretics”), but it hopefully means that my treatment of others will better mirror the grace and truth Christ displayed in His relationships.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Nativity: As Told by Children

You know you’re sick when you look at your adorable baby girl and you have no desire to hold her. That’s how my wife and I felt for part of last week. In God’s kindness, Shannon and I weren’t hit with the worst of our sicknesses concurrently; one was always able to take care of Elanor while the other remained in bed. Still, I wasn’t exactly in a condition to do a lot of writing.

That being the case, and since this is Christmas Eve, I won’t take much of your time. But speaking of adorable children, I thought it’d be fun to share a video project I helped work on a few years ago. We interviewed several young children about the Christmas story, then edited the resulting clips together to provide something of a “script” for other children to act out. What resulted was a nice blend of cuteness and humor. I hope you enjoy the video.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (2013) – Film Review

Having loved the first Hobbit movie, and knowing that The Desolation of Smaug would include scenes from my favorite parts of the book, I entered the theater with great expectations. To put it bluntly, I left the theater with great disappointments. In fact, even before the end credits rolled, I was morosely nursing the wounds—the desolation, so to speak—that Peter Jackson had inflicted upon me.

I wish I could say watching the movie was only as bad as eating lembas bread. Unfortunately, it was more distasteful than that.* In the review below, I will refer to the movie as Desolation—and not just because it’s good shorthand. As a reminder, I rate my movies based on three criteria: morally objectionable content (C), artistic merit (A), and my personal opinions (P).

CONTENT (C): 7 out of 10
Desolation has the dishonorable privilege of being the first Middle Earth movie with a couple lines of sexual innuendo between a male and female character. It’s sad when Tolkien’s source material is soiled by such content, even if it is “minor.” On another occasion, one dwarf reports that he told an elf to “go [Dwarvish word] himself.” Other than that, the most potentially objectionable content—from a moral standpoint, that is—is the violence. As with An Unexpected Journey, Desolation has a few instances of what I would consider unnecessary gore. Finally, certain characters make questionable moral choices regarding their treatment of others.

ARTISTRY (A): 5 out of 10
Both the cinematography and editing take a turn for the worse with Desolation. In George Lucas fashion, Jackson relies heavily on CGI shots. Many of these pan and swirl into oblique angles. The effect is distracting, not impressive. The battle scenes are littered with close-up shots, blurry action, and quick cuts, making it hard to discern who is doing what to whom. This isn’t supposed to be another entry into the Jason Bourne franchise.

This film strays more from Tolkien’s source material than any of Jackson’s previous efforts. Some of these choices, such as fleshing out the character of Bard, are laudable. Other additions, such as giving the Dwarves a more active role in the confrontation with Smaug, are understandable, if not entirely successful. Still other embellishments, which involve the inclusion of new characters, are both needless and sometimes cringe-worthy.

Understandably, the filmmakers are more confident in their work, considering their enormous artistic and financial success with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. This success may be part of the reason why Jackson feels comfortable branching out, but it is this very branching out that weakens the narrative. The Lord of the Rings comprised three movies based on three volumes—or, in Tolkien’s mind, one incredibly large volume. I can’t imagine trying to fit that story into one or two movies.

The Hobbit, on the other hand, is just one book, and a smaller one at that. It appears fairly obvious at this point that The Hobbit should have been split into no more than two movies. The source material is being stretched too thin—like butter scraped over too much bread.

PREFERENCE (P): 4 out of 10
I never expected The Hobbit to cater to all my personal preferences. However, the movie did me no favors by simultaneously condensing and embellishing my favorite part of the book—the Mirkwood section (especially the spider sequence). It’s one thing to use artistic license with the Mirkwood material, but it’s another to gut a large portion of it and replace it with utterly superfluous.

Without going into details, I will say the romantic tension inserted into the story is implausible at best. I did finally warm up to the character of Tauriel, but her role in the narrative is sometimes frustrating. She can act recklessly from time to time. Whenever I responded negatively to a rash decision Tauriel made, Shannon just reminded me, “Hey, it’s Kate. What did you expect?” (To be fair to actress Evangeline Lilly, she’s a fine thespian. In fact, she only agreed to play the part of Tauriel on the stipulation that there would be no love triangles. The filmmakers evidently agreed and then went back on their word later in the process. As it stands, the character of Tauriel, like Kate from the TV series Lost, tends to lean toward the impetuous side of things.)

Many of the embellishments just didn’t work for me, including the added material with Bard and Lake-town. And while I enjoyed the official introduction of Smaug, the dragon’s extended role only served to eventually drag the film down into the realm of the ridiculous. I’m sad to say that one of the highlights of the film for me was making fun of it with our friends after it was over. That’s certainly not how The Desolation of Smaug should have ended.

CAP score: 53%

* Disclaimer: I have never actually eaten lembas bread. My statement is based solely on assumptions formed by watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

One Thing About Christianity that Still Bothers Me

I’m not quite sure what it was that teed me off initially. Our Sunday morning started innocently enough: we woke up and began the process of getting ready for church—something that involves more gymnastics these days, now that we have a newborn daughter. (I’ve never had to deal with projectile poop before.)

I was finishing changing Elanor’s diaper when she spat up, ruining the outfit I had just wrestled her back into. Seeds of impatience sprouted out of my mouth: “Your timing sucks,” I told my uncomprehending daughter. After switching out her clothes, I brought her out of the room, only to encounter Cliff Bar (our cat) in front of me, seemingly determined to get tangled up in my legs as I walked. Juggling a baby and dribbling a cat aren’t activities you want to combine.

“You’re really stupid, you know that?” I barked at the cat. (Huh. Pun not intended.) In response, my wife Shannon put out her arms and asked for Elanor, advising me to take my shower so I could be alone for a while.

Being alone didn’t do much for me. I knew my anger was unjustified. I knew I had sinned in my heart, not to mention my mouth. I knew I needed to repent. The thing was, I couldn’t quite get over the fact that I had gotten so terribly upset over so small an incident.

On the drive to our church meeting, Shannon asked me how I was doing. I answered with something akin to a shrug and a grunt. You see, I had been confronted with one aspect of Christianity that sometimes sticks in my craw: the enormously good news of the gospel reveals just how enormous my sin really is. It rips off the fa├žade of righteousness I love to play dress-up in. It reminds me that God draws near, not to the self-sufficient and morally upright, but to the contrite and lowly in heart (Isa. 57:15). It reveals just how desperate I am for God’s redeeming and renewing grace to rescue me from myself.

I am very much unlike the Apostle Paul. In Philippians 3, he lists all the reasons why he has a right to consider himself an upstanding citizen of the world. He has a lot going for him. But instead of clinging to this list as a source of confidence, he says he would rather treat it like dung. He would rather trade in his greatest accomplishments and be left with nothing. Why? So he could be found in the righteousness of another—namely, Jesus.

I, on the other hand, often prefer dung cakes to humble pie. I don’t like admitting that I’m dust (Ps. 103:14). I don’t like admitting that all my efforts at self-salvation are as productive as a woman giving birth to wind (Isa. 26:18). I don’t like admitting that my cleanest and most righteous deeds are, in and of themselves, menstrual rags (Isa. 64:6).

But in asserting my own false sense of righteousness, I effectively cut myself off from the righteousness God offers to me in Christ. Sure, the gospel puts me in a bad light, but only to position me to receive the light of God’s gracious countenance. I can’t have the latter without the former.

So what happened in the car on the way to church? The Holy Spirit graciously prompted my wife to speak to me. Her encouragement went something like this: “You said Elanor’s timing sucked, but she doesn’t even have timing yet. So really, what you were saying was that God’s timing sucked. So it’s interesting that God perfectly timed our marriage and our daughter and perfectly timed Christ’s coming into the world so that He could forgive you for saying His timing sucked.”

Through my wife’s gracious words of law and gospel, God broke my heart and brought me once again to contrition and humility. I was able to experience godly sorrow and genuine repentance, which, as God has promised, leads to true, regret-free salvation (2 Cor. 7:10). I may be a stubborn sinner, and I may sometimes balk at the path to sweet forgiveness, but thanks be to God that His grace is greater than all my sin!

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

FROZEN (2013) – Film Review

In the kingdom of Arendelle, sisters Anna and Elsa grow up separated by a tragic case of magic. Elsa’s ability to turn her surroundings into ice—a power made more dangerous by its connection to her emotional state—makes her a constant threat to her sister, and to the future of their kingdom.

For years, Elsa’s powers are kept secret, even from Anna. The secret makes an unwelcome public appearance when Anna finally confronts Elsa over her lifetime of ostracism. Soon, the entire land is covered in ice. Elsa runs away, and it’s up to Anna to bring her back and rescue Arendelle from a perpetual state of “always winter, never Christmas” (to steal a quote from another fantasy story).

CONTENT (C): 8 out of 10
The film has a few mild innuendos—two visual and one verbal. All or most of these pass by without notice. (Until I double-checked the content, I had forgotten about one instance and had missed another one entirely.) There are a couple offhand references to bodily functions, but nothing overtly crass or vulgar.

One protagonist’s careless immaturity, while not overtly celebrated, is also never clearly portrayed as negative. I’m also tired of paper-thin Disney princesses, not to mention countless other female leads (digital, hand drawn, and live action). Hollywood’s obsession with thinness isn’t doing anyone any favors.

In atypical Disney fashion, one character takes a few humorous—and welcome—jabs at the prospect of rushing into romance. Love at first sight isn’t a standard by which to base any mature relationship. This sets the stage for a third-act display of love that focuses on self-sacrifice instead of romance.

Voice actor Idina Menzel has called Frozen a “bit of a feminist movie.” If by feminist she means featuring two female leads, then yes it is. But I saw chivalry on display throughout the duration of the story—nothing that would provide confusion for children related to gender roles (although I can sympathize with some people who are more concerned than I am.)

ARTISTRY (A): 6 out of 10
The animation in Frozen is gorgeous, especially when ice-related magic takes place. There are several musical numbers, all of which help drive the story forward and/or provide comic relief. Some of the dialogue, especially between ice harvester Kristoff and Anna, is deliciously clever.

Unfortunately, less attention has been paid to the two female leads. In fact, there are no strong character arcs for either of them. As revealed by the deluxe edition soundtrack, there was originally an additional song entitled “Life’s Too Short” (designed for around the middle of the story and once again as a reprise) that helps provide those necessary character arcs. Alas, the song was jettisoned from the final version of the film, robbing the princess sisters of some much-needed depth.

According to producer Peter Vel Decho, they had a “very short time schedule for this film,” which may be a factor in the above problem. The shortened timeline might also have contributed to some unnecessary slight-of-hand with one character’s motivations. I don’t mind being surprised by plot developments, but I do mind being deceptively misled.

These deficiencies don’t derail the story; they simply lessen its overall effectiveness. It’s still nice to see a movie where sibling relationships get almost as much weight as romantic relationships. I just wish the filmmakers had spent a little more time developing stronger platonic plot points.

PREFERENCE (P): 7 out of 10
It took me a while to…well, warm up to Frozen, but I finally did. For the most part, the musical numbers serve their purposes; I’m just not a huge fan of most of them. Some feel a little too poppy for the context, but maybe it’s just me. The inclusion of Norse mythology elements, while perfectly functional in the film, didn’t engage me much either.

For me, the movie’s saving grace is its humor. There is a sporadic sense of the film not taking itself too seriously, almost on the level of The Emperor’s New Groove. Olaf, the anthropomorphic snowman, is the comedic highlight of the film. Practically everything he said or did had me in stitches. I don’t want to exaggerate, but Olaf may be my favorite Disney sidekick, right up next to Pixar’s Dory.

The intended pathos of the film’s climax didn’t ring true to me—due in large part, I think, to the lack of character arcs in the two female leads. I found myself completely disengaged at the most poignant moment of the film, and that’s saying something. I mean, I’m the guy who cries at children’s movies like hippies cry over beached whales. No tears from me during Frozen. If Anna and Elsa’s growth as characters had been more clearly portrayed I would’ve found the climax more moving.

I stick around for movie credits (as everyone should), and my stick-to-itiveness was rewarded this time with a couple Easter eggs at the end, including a funny “disclaimer.” If you see the movie, stick around to check it out.

CAP score: 70%