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What Would People Think?

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Divide That Should Not Be

Words of wisdom I read today:

For generations the church has been polarized between those who see the main task being the saving of souls for heaven and the nurturing of those souls through the valley of this dark world, on the one hand, and on the other hand those who see the task of improving the lot of human being and the world, rescuing the poor from their misery.

The longer that I've gone on as a New Testament scholar and wrestled with what the early Christians were actually talking about, the more it's been borne in on me that that distinction is one that we modern Westerners bring to the text rather than finding in the text. Because the great emphasis in the New Testament is that the gospel is not how to escape the world; the gospel is that the crucified and risen Jesus is Lord of the world. And that his death and Resurrection transform the world, and that transformation can happen to you. You, in turn, can be part of the transforming work. That draws together what we traditionally called evangelism, bringing people to the point where they come to know God in Christ for themselves, with working for God's kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. That has always been at the heart of the Lord's Prayer, and ow we've managed for years to say the Lord's Prayer without realizing that Jesus really meant it is very curious. Our Western culture since the 18th century has made a virtue of separating out religion from real life, or faith from politics. When I lecture about this, people will pop up and say, "Surely Jesus said my kingdom is not of this world." And the answer is no, what Jesus said in John 18 is, "My kingdom is not from this world." That's ek tou kosmou toutou. It's quite clear in the text that Jesus' kingdom doesn't start with this world. It isn't a worldly kingdom, but it is for this world. It's from somewhere else, but it's for this world.

The key to mission is always worship. You can only be reflecting the love of God into the world if you are worshiping the true God who creates the world out of overflowing self-giving love. The more you look at that God and celebrate that love, the more you have to be reflecting that overflowing self-giving love into the world.

- New Testament scholar N.T. Wright

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Political Stands for Which I Have No Sympathy

Political Stand # 1: I oppose sending more troops into Iraq, but I don't want to vote on a non-binding resolution condemning the President's plan because that doesn't show national unity.

Political Stand # 2: I oppose sending more troops into Iraq to die for the sake of trying and failing to avert a civil war......but I think the current resolution is too harsh and will offer a nicer one.

Political Stand # 3: I oppose sending more troops into Iraq, and I will express that opposition in a strongly worded resolution which is entirely non-binding. Furthermore, I will expend my time and legislative energy on making these words as strong sounding as possible....while the President nevertheless sends troops.

I look at Congress right now and I see sound and fury....heat with no light.....talk masked as action.....posturing which does nothing to stop the coming bloodbath.


What can Congress do?

1. Well, as I've argued in my sadly-unpublished (but still available if you ask for it) national security law paper, Congress has the power to direct movement of troops. Lots of people don't understand this - and many people willfully misunderstand it because it's in their interest. But, constitutionally speaking, Congress CAN limit the president, even in time of war. There is longstanding Supreme Court precedent supporting the practice. It's just that, practically speaking, Congress isn't structured to run the details of a war very well and usually leaves it up to the branch which is structured to be more decisive - the Executive branch. But Congress has at time exercised its power and it should do so now, before the President sends more troops to what one Senator aptly described as "that grinder."

2. Even the biggest, scariest advocates of Executive Power - like Professor John Yoo - admit that Congress has the power of the purse and can wield it to stop an out-of-control President. Congress can - and should - wield it to stop this useless escalation.

But, of course, it won't. Congress is too busy posturing while soldiers die.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

I Cannot Think Of A Title For This Blog Post

David Barzelay recently commented on Mike's blog that Mike and I probably haven't seen 2/3 of his top 15 movies of the year. This depresses me, for I used to pride myself on seeing all sorts of excellent, obscure movies.

Pride goeth before the fall, I guess. Or it goeth after marriage. (Yes, yes, it's still worth it.)

Nonetheless, in a desperate attempt to reclaim my movie street cred, I'll note something that kind of shocked me. Hannibal Rising is the upcoming "origin" story about Hannibal Lecter. It looks just plain awful. Nonetheless, I was shocked to realize the role of Hannibal is played by Gaspard Ulliel - that angelic-looking fresh-faced young man from A Very Long Engagement. Talk about your different roles. Of course, I guess his innocent looking face is part of the point of his casting as the face of evil.

I'm bored, so I'll toss this out there. Any other examples of innocent-looking evil in the movies? And please don't cite Macaulay Culkin in The Good Son. Show a little self-respect.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Why Everybody's Wrong About Iraq

Okay, that may be an overstatement. But as I survey the debate over Iraq (sad how it's taken the focus off of the Democrats' first 100 hours, as Matt observes), I'm hearing two general theories about how to proceed.....at least 2 theories coming from the mouths of our nation's leaders.

Bush's theory: We need to throw more troops into the mix to bring the violence down to a level where compromise and diplomacy among Iraq's warring factions is possible. Only when Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has "breathing room" will he and Iraq's other leaders be able to beat back the radical elements and engage in some moderate political bargaining.

The Iraq Study Group Theory (for lack of a better term): This one is embraced by most Democrats and, increasingly, some Republicans....even conservatives like Sam Brownback. This theory states that we need to start withdrawing troops. Only then - without the crutch of American military power to hold them back from the abyss - Iraq's leaders will realize they must work toward the future on their own. Then they will compromise for the sake of their own survival.

Both these theories, in my mind, share a fatal flaw. They are dependent on the good will - or at least the enlightened self-interest - of Iraq's leaders, especially the Shiite-dominated Maliki government. And those are 2 qualities I see in short supply.

One of the major reasons strategies like "Clear, Hold, and Build" didn't work was that the Maliki government cravenly and unabashedly sought sectarian power above all other values. The strategy called for 5 or 6 (I forget which) Iraqi battalions to secure Baghdad from militias and insurgents. Maliki sent 2. Whenever the American or Iraqi military moved against Shiite militias like those run by Moktada al-Sadr, Maliki would cut them off or protest. The "build" portion fell flat because the Maliki government directed reconstruction money away from Sunni neighborhoods. And don't get me started on the monumentally idiotic way they executed Saddam Hussein!

Iraq's Shiite leadership isn't interested in building consensus with their Sunni former oppressors. They are interested in taking their long-denied power and reaping its benefits. And the Kurds.....hell, all they want is for the others to let them stay out of this and build their own nation.

So all the plans for "victory" that I'm hearing seem to rely on good will that doesn't exist. Indeed, how can anything like "victory" be achieved when everybody just wants to grab for more power?

Rodney King once said "Can't we all just get along?" I imagine the Iraqi leadership might respond "You can't make us!"

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Ben's Eagerly Awaited 2006 Movie Recommendations

[In honor of Gerald Ford, the President Bush has given federal employees a day off. So this post goes out to you, Jerry!]

A strange thing happened to me on the way to the movie theater (my perpetual state of being) in the year 2006. I got married.

Now marrying Christy is the best decision I ever made aside from deciding to follow Jesus. Christy has filled my life with joys great and small. She encourages me and enables me to face challenges at work and otherwise which scare me. She truly makes me happy. Marriage also, however, limits my movie-watching capacity.

First off, there's the issue of time. I spend a lot less time alone and a lot more time with Christy. Simply cooking dinner and cleaning house - acts I previously accomplished with a microwave and procrastination, but now perform alongside Christy - take a hell of a lot of time. This means less time spent watching movies. Second, Christy and I have similar, but not exactly the same, tastes. Thus, when we do go the movies - and I've only seen one movie without her since I got married - I try to pick movies we would both enjoy. This sometimes rules out ultra-violent films which I'm curious to see (i.e. Apocalypto, The Descent). Finally, it turns out there are other things to do than see movies. (Who knew?) This is something Christy likes to point out to me when I suggest for the 1,007,528th time that we watch this cool movie. She has a point.

Bottom line: My movie-watching experience was greatly limited in comparison to previous years. There are a number of good movies which I have missed. And it will likely remain that way in future years. The price I willingly pay for deep and abiding happiness. I love Christy that much.

Now, enough of this mushiness. On to the list, presented in no particular order. These are the movies I recommend from 2006:

  1. Brick: Any lover of film noir owes it to himself/herself to see this movie. The idea of taking the film noir conventions and placing them in a high school may sound like a dumb gimmick. But it works out brilliantly. You might even be skeptical because it stars that kid from Third Rock From the Sun. Don't be. Brick is the modern-day heir to The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Out of the Past, The Third Man, and other classics.
  2. The Departed: This one rightfully takes its place at the top of many critics Top 10 lists. It would compete with Brick and Children of Men for me, but I can't deny how awesome this movie is. I mean, The Departed has it all. A brilliant conceit: double-agents in the police and the mob struggling to discover each other before they are themselves uncovered and dealt with. A cornucopia of top notch-talent directed by one of the all-time greats. Plot twists and backstabbing aplenty. Tension continually ratcheted up.
  3. United 93: When I saw the trailer for this movie, I wanted to scream at the screen, "How dare you?" I expected a cloying movie which exploited the memories of 9/11's heroes for ticket sales and turned them into cliched patriotic stereotypes. As is often the case (see "Casino Royale" below), I was wrong. United 93 approaches 9/11 with a documentary-like style, immersing us on the chaos and confusion on the ground and in the planes. No cheesy music. No false character development. Just the rush of events, confusion, desperate decisions, true heroism, and tragedy. I left the theater crying and deeply appreciative that director Paul Greengrass got it right.
  4. Casino Royale: Speaking of me getting things wrong, I owe a whopping apology to Daniel Craig, the new and perfectly fitting James Bond. I thought I would never get over my favorite Bond, Pierce Brosnan. But that thought died in the first 2 minutes of this film. And it only got better, piercing the soul of 007 and discovering how he became the cold-hearted, fearless, womanizing spy we all know and love. All while keeping up the spectacular action. Pierce who?
  5. Little Miss Sunshine: How do you take a picture with a suicide attempt, drug use, dysfunctional families, and a chilling look into the exploitative world of child beauty pageants.... and make the heartwarming, feel-good comedy hit of the year? That takes a special kind of genius.
  6. Stranger Than Fiction: Will Farrel pulls a Jim-Carry-in-The-Truman-Show and succeeds. Another brilliant screenplay conceit. One step below a Charlie Kaufman script, and that ain't a bad place to be.
  7. Inside Man: Spike Lee abandons the bizarre preachiness and delivers a slam-bang heist flick. Another cast clicking on all cylinders. And I love the opening scene with Clive Owen. "My name is Dalton Russell. Pay strict attention to what I say because I choose my words carefully and I never repeat myself."
  8. Cars: Chalk this up as another "Ben was wrong." "Surely," I thought "Pixar can't keep up their string of witty, kid-friendly, adult-friendly hits forever without eventually making a bad film, or at least a mediocre one." And Cars looked like a good candidate based on the trailer. I mean they had Larry the Cable Guy in it. I hate that guy! Instead - surprise, surprise - Pixar somehow crafted yet another film which I and my 3-year-old nephew love with equal enthusiasm. How do they DO that?
  9. Over the Hedge: It's no Cars, but I had to include it just for these lines. "Rosebud." "We, like, worked our tails off, you know? Like, a lot! And the food we gathered was totally...you know! And you're...you're all whatever." "Look at this. The grass actually seems to be greener over here!" Also, this is a witty, ever-so-slightly subversive take on suburbia. Also - "curse you, plastic moldsmen!"
  10. The Proposition: I'm a fan of latter-day, unsentimental Westerns. They don't get less sentimental than this sometimes-gruesome, sometimes-beautiful, morally ambiguous, compelling, set-in-Australia Western. (Does that setting make it an Eastern?) Not for the faint of stomach, but fascinating in the way it makes you sympathize with and hate all manner of characters at the same time.
  11. Miami Vice: I never saw the '80s TV show and I don't feel any the worse for it. This is basically a run-of-the-mill action, cops-and-robbers movie which makes this list for 2 reasons: 1) 2 of the most awesome kill shots in recent action cinema history, 2) random throwaway shots of awesome beauty. You can tell this was made by the guy who made Collateral.
  12. Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Not as good as the first, but I'm a sucker for a sword fight. And, in that category, POTC 2 does not disappoint. Swashbuckling aplenty. There is also plenty of wittiness to go around. And, of course, Johnny freakin' Depp. Have I mentioned he can do anything?
  13. 16 Blocks: Chalk this up as a well-constructed thriller. Again, not deep. It's not even a Miami Vice. But I was actually touched by the buddy story. The less you know about this picture going in, the better.
  14. Thank You For Smoking: The most brilliant comedy I've seen in years. Turns many movie conventions on its head to get you cheering for a despicable front man for the tobacco industry. All while taking numerous well-placed jabs at a million and one deserving targets. Aaron Eckhart for Best Actor!
  15. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story: How do you adapt a novel which starts at the narrator's birth, gets sidetracked, and ends at the narrators birth? By being equally funny, meandering, and surprising. The film simply defies description. What do I call this - a half-mockumentary, half-adaptation? See it. You'll be glad you did.
  16. Children of Men: It's the camera work that got me. Love at first deep-focus shot. Then there's the details of an infertile, decaying world, such as a commercial for suicide pills that looks like it's advertising anti-depressants. The chase sequences are virtuoso. The sense of bleakness, despair, and tiny glimmers of hope. Clive Owen for Best Actor! Alfonso Cuaron for Best Director! Seriously, Cuaron is a master at directing action in long shots. Children of Men blasts that other dystopian British future (V for Vendetta) out of the water
Okay, that's all I got. See you next year. And whenever I blog again. Let me know what you think of these films if you see them.

And post some of your own recommendations.