March 28, 2014

Being Content with Material Things


Some might suggest that purpose of watching a film is to identify with the characters–to get caught up in the story. Sure, there are times when a director or writer wants us to loathe a character, usually in order to make some moral or cultural statement about human hypocrisy, but more times than not it seems we’re supposed to connect with what’s happening up on the screen. This past week my wife and I watched the film Nebraska–the story of an elderly man who thinks he’s won a million dollars and makes his son take him to Lincoln, NE to collect his winnings. It’s a beautiful film, shot in black and white, showing the simple–yet harsh–landscape of the Great Plains. The characters are just as simple and harsh. The old man’s wife is a ball-busting, no nonsense, woman who thinks the idea is ridiculous. (At one point in the story she hikes up her skirt in the cemetery to show the gravestone of a former boyfriend what he missed out on.) The journey from Montana to Nebraska is centered around family and identity. The son learns things about his cantankerous father that he didn’t know–revealing insight into his father’s mysterious and maddening ways. The story ends with a touching picture of empathy and grace…but that’s not why the film has stuck with me. Watching this film–and my wife can attest to this–was like watching a home movie of my extended family.

Living in places like Sioux County, West Michigan, or any version of North American suburban paradise, can lead to a severe case of “family envy”. What I mean is this: Most people seem to have it all together. Just check your facebook feed…perfect facebook families, with perfect facebook children, and all around perfect facebook lives. Deep down I think we know that this “normal” life is unattainable, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. I remember trying to make sense of my own family experience–it didn’t quite fit the mold. My extended family on both sides is quite matriarchal, but not in a feminist way, it’s more like a ball-busting, blue collar, way. My family is working class, they like to watch TV, they use vulgarity and take the Lord’s name in vain (in very creative ways, mind you), and overall they lack sentimentality. I’ve been a part of the Dutch Reformed clan now for almost 17 years–I married in. Don’t get me wrong, I love my wife’s family, the emphasis upon cleanliness, and the almond pastries are delightful. But I couldn’t help getting a bit nostalgic–and even teary–watching Nebraska. It’s an honest picture of family relationships where romantic notions about having children and finding one’s soul mate give way to the carnal desire to make it “around the bases.” In one scene the son asks, “So you and mom never talked about whether you wanted kids or not?” To which his dad replies, “I figured if we kept on screwing we’d end up with a couple of ya.”

Nebraska isn’t a picture of the ideal family, but it’s beautiful none the less. I think we could all use a good dose of reality from time to time. After all, Christianity isn’t about living in some fantasy facebook world, it’s about living gracious and charitable lives in the midst of this beautifully harsh existence.

November 21, 2013

Upward over the Mountain


Mother I made it up from the bruise on the floor of this prison 
Mother I lost it, all of the fear of the Lord I was given 
Mother forget me now that the creek drank the cradle you sang to 
Mother forgive me, I sold your car for the shoes that I gave you 

So may the sunrise bring hope where it once was forgotten 
Sons could be birds, taken broken up to the mountain 

Sitting in a theater in downtown Kansas City I experienced the power and rupture of an acoustic guitar. For nearly an hour Iron and Wine played with a full band—horns, strings, and percussion—a wonderful display of story telling and foot tapping rhythm. Suddenly, the lights went down, the band disappeared, and there was nothing but the voice of a bearded guy and a guitar. I’m not a Pentecostal… I’m not even charismatic. I’m too nordic, too Lutheran at the core, to speak in tongues or have miraculous encounters. Yet, there I was raptured by the simplicity of a heart-felt song.  I thought I’d heard every acoustic manifestation of Iron and Wine’s music, and yet, I didn’t know this one. I’m guessing it’s autobiographic, a story of family and faith, and the journey all of us take as we leave home and forge our own way. The song is a goodbye of sorts, pleading with mother “not to worry” and to “remember” even as he announces that he’d lost “the fear of the Lord I was given.” The song dramatically ends with the singer asking if his mother remembers the night that the “dog had her pups in the pantry, there was blood on the floor and fleas on their paws and you cried ’til the morning.”

This is the line that I can’t seem to shake. Why? What is it about a dog having pups and a mother crying that’s stuck with me weeks after the show? Maybe its trying to figure out why the mother is crying… Is she happy? Is she sad? Or are the two so intermingled they can’t be separated. Joy and grief—love and suffering—are never opposites, they’re two sides of the same coin. It’s as if you can’t experience one without setting yourself up for the other. This is how I hear this song—the joy and love that come with children, family, or any other relationship are interwoven with grief and suffering as relationships change and temporal life slips through our grasp. In the end, however, it’s this finitude and vulnerability that make life good and meaningful. In the end it’s these experiences and encounters that become the seeds of hope.

So may the sunrise bring hope where it once was forgotten

October 17, 2013



This past Sunday night I went to the late showing of Gravity… by myself. Fitting, I guess. Alone, with my glasses on, in the darkness. I think I read somewhere that this is really a horror film without the alien or monster – reality is monstrous enough. Ultimately, the film is less about space or space stations or even the realistic probability that someone could actually makes it back alive.  This film is about  the monstrous nature of reality… the “nothingness,” the “void”… that threatens to break open our lived experience at any moment. Astronaut Ryan Carter lost a child. There was no monster, no violence, no intruder… nothing that one could point to and say “the horror!” Her little girl was only a child playing a child’s game… “gravity” and density were the unseen monsters that ripped open the symbolic world. In space she is embraced by the void… she is fully aware of it, and is finally forced to confront it. Her entire voyage is one of re-discovery and  re-birth that ends with the creation of a new identity – one grounded in an entirely new way of seeing the world. Confronted with death and the negation of all meaning Dr. Carter discovers a new source of life as she speaks to her daughter. She is opened up to the possibility of new life by grieving for her daughter, and in a certain sense, finally letting go.

In Gravity, we experience a poetic representation of one person’s struggle  with the death of a child. Dr. Carter is disoriented (her uncontrollable spinning), and is brought out of it only with the help of some close to her. Unable to do anything for herself she is pulled along – guided to a place of safety where she can gather herself.  After much struggle, Dr. Carter finally gives in, calls on the name of her daughter, and weeps. This is the turning point… this is the moment of transcendence… the moment when she is awakened to the possibility of something new. The end of the film is less about evolution and more about the struggle to confront the void, how we  pull ourselves out of the depths of despair, and make our way back into the world. A horror film without the alien… a horror film with a happy ending.

March 24, 2013

The Reality in our Fantasy


Last weekend, on a whim, my wife and I watched Inglorious Basterds by Quenton Terrantino. I guess it really wasn’t so much a whim – whenever I watch an awards show I become fixated on a film, a musician, or in this case, a director. A few weeks back we watched the oscars; Django Unchained and Tarrantino were front and center. Which got me thinking about Inglorious Basterds, a movie I thought I liked, but also one during which I fell asleep. I thought I should see it again; we did, and I remembered why I liked it.

Then, this past week, I came down with some nasty sickness. Tarrantino style sickness that put me on my back for several days, giving me the opportunity to watch copious amounts of netflix streaming and youtube. For some reason I enjoy watching / listening to Charlie Rose interviews, so I found an old interview he did with Tarrantino when Inglorious Basterds had just come out. I know he can be difficult to watch sometimes, with his hyper, jittery, antics, but I found his interview fascinating. He talked about how he thinks up ideas for his movies, usually through his more serious writing in the field of film criticism. He talked about how Basterds is really a movie about movies – much of the dialogue focuses upon German films and film makers; the plot is centered around Goebbels’, the Nazi Propaganda Minister, love of film. The climax of the film takes place in a movie theater; everyone was there to view a propaganda film “Nation’s Pride.” Ultimately, it is literally film, the burning reels, that brings down the Nazi regime. Even the title of the movie, like Django Unchained, appropriates the name of a 1970’s WWII film – Inglorious Bastards

At one point in the interview Tarrantino began to discuss spaghetti westerns, and how the mythical construction of the “west” were often more “true” than the “historical” films that claimed to be factual. Which got me thinking about Inglorious Basterds. Obviously the film is a mythical fantasy focused upon a Jewish woman taking revenge upon the Nazi party for the death of her family. Yet, is it possible that Basterds is more “truthful” than many of the “historical” films that deal with the Nazi oppression of the Jews? Often, it seems these historical films make the Jewish people come off as weak, passive, and resigned to their fate. The Nazi’s are the one’s who exact power, cunning, and actively implement and follow a strategic plan. Tarrantino’s revenge myth turns the tables. The only Jews we encounter through the entire film exude strength, cunning, and resilience. The Jewish American soldiers, led by Brad Pitt’s character, have made a name for themselves – the Nazi’s know them and the Nazi’s fear them. The young Jewish woman exacts her revenge knowing that it means her own death. In the climactic scene, as the theater burns, it is the Nazi’s who are afraid, they are unable to face their own death, and it is the Jewish characters who fearlessly face their mortality as they carry out their plan with bombs strapped to their legs.

Maybe, under the guise of historical accuracy, films can sometimes get it wrong. Sometimes, it seems, fantasy films like Inglorious Basterds clear enough space for the truth to surface. Not in specific dates, people, or events, but in the way they shine a light upon the strength, courage, and resilience of a people oppressed by a regime that was obsessed with their own fear – the gnawing reality that no ruler, no empire, lasts forever. As the Jewish scriptures proclaim: “As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.” (Psalm 103:15-16)

March 19, 2013

The Master


When people ask me about my “favorite” movie of all time I’m usually torn. I can narrow it down to about four or five but then I’m stuck. The thing is, three of those five are Paul Thomas Anderson flicks. Magnolia, There will be Blood, and Punch Drunk Love. I usually go with Punch Drunk Love – there’s something about the music, the vivid colors, and Adam Sandler playing a version of Adam Sandler that I find riveting. The film is a love story for awkward people. That’s me.

The other night my wife and I watched Anderson’s new offering – The Master. Once again we were taken in by the colors, the music, and the characters played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix. The story was interesting, a riff off of Scientology and its founder L. Ron Hubbard. It moves between a critique of cults and religion, and the hocus pocus aura of a charismatic leader, to an intriguing relationship between two men in a “who cares if he’s making this stuff up – it’s helping this guy” way. I’ll be honest – I’m not sure about the “meaning” of the film, or what, if anything, Anderson is trying to say. It left me pondering the opening and closing scenes. Phoenix plays a WWII vet named Freddie who seems to have a form of PTSD. He’s obsessed with sex – to the point that he humps a voluptuous beach woman his shipmates constructed out of sand. He is obsessed with a young woman he had left behind, and the “master” helps him organize and confront some of these memories through “time travel” techniques. Freddie can’t help but become a loyal follower.

The film wrestles with the two sides of our humanity – a so called “higher side”of reason, spirituality, and order, and the animal side of passion and wandering. The master calls people to overcome the “animal” within and become fully human, but it is clear that it is the “animal” nature of Freddie that intrigues him. It’s as if the master is jealous, vicariously touching his animal side through the experiences of his loyal friend. The film ends with Freddie on his back having sex with an “imperfect” woman. She is real, she’d not sand, she’s not maniquinesque; she’s beautifully real. He tells the woman to say her name… “What is your name? What is your name?” He has become, in a way, the master. Not in a spiritual sense, he’s not overcome his “animal” nature, but he has calmed it… tamed it. And there he is, for the first time in the film, having sex with a real woman. The flashback to the sand woman on the beach confirms just how far he has traveled.

The beauty of our humanity, of our real humanity, is something I’ve been thinking about lately. How often we confuse the beautiful imperfections of our human existence with “sin.” In the end, it is not our humanity we are delivered from, our imperfections will not disappear; in the end, we are delivered from the prideful distortions of our humanity. This is a recurring theme in Anderson’s films – the redemption of the imperfect, not through the overcoming of their imperfection, but ultimately by our coming to embrace them.

December 22, 2011

Don Draper and the Ruins of Culture

For the past few years my wife and I have indulged in the pleasure of good television.  It all started with The Soprano’s, which began a string of television series that became our evening respite.  Around 9:30, after the kids are long in bed and our work is finished, I hit the couch, she hits the recliner, and we reacquaint ourselves with our flawed TV friends.  About a month ago we finished the 4th season of Mad Men – a series set in the advertising world of the early 1960’s.  While there are multiple layers to the creative show, as I watched I couldn’t help think that the cultural world being re-presented was that of my grandparents.

By the time I really got to know them they were old – ancient as far as I was concerned.  There was also a sense that the world they inhabited, their way of thinking, their culture, was something to be overcome.  After all, my grandparents didn’t care about computers or heavy metal music.  They laughed at the cultural content of my world as much as I laughed at theirs.  There seems to be a time when a person’s cultural clock stops – when you no longer care to keep up with the technology or fashion.  For my grandparents, it seems their cultural clock was stuck in Don Draper time.  Of course now it’s all back in fashion – that’s the beauty of postmodernity.  Hold on to your stuff, because in about 15 – 20 years it will be back.  (My son has more Star Wars action figures than anyone I know – because my mother was wise enough to keep the stuff they gave me.  His cousin is envious…)

Last week we celebrated Christmas with my side of the family.  One morning my dad received a package in the mail – a shoebox full of old pictures from his childhood.  I’m amazed at the power of old pictures – there we sat entranced.  Some pictures were polaroids, some were black and white, most were way off center (There’s an ongoing joke about the Lief inability to take a good picture… someone’s head is always cut off) – but all of them evoked some form of emotion, the most common being laughter.  There was a picture of my grandpa and grandma building an outhouse… an outhouse!  There were black and white photos of my grandparents sitting around a table with cigarettes perched atop their fingers, pictures of my dad as a kid, as a teenager, even pictures of my dad getting on the bus to go to Vietnam – all dressed up in uniform.  I picked up a picture of my grandpa as a young husband and father, standing next to his family on the front step, dressed in a hat and overcoat – Don Draper style.  My dad laughed, “Looks like a mob boss doesn’t he.”  Yes he did… my grandpa – Tony Soprano and Don Draper all wrapped into one.

Funny, but for some reason I feel watching Mad Men has given me a glimpse into the world of my grandparents – providing a bit of context for old memories and photos.  These old pictures capture them in the midst of constructing an identity – setting trajectories for their kids and grandkids.  And they left cultural ruins… markers of a life lived.  My grandpa died 2 years ago and this thanksgiving my parents brought over some of his leftover stuff to see if we wanted any of it.  I ended up claiming some stylish Don Draper cufflinks and his wedding ring.  The ring fits perfectly so I wear it.  My parents have always commented that I’m a lot like my grandpa – usually in non-complimentary ways.  But I’m thankful for the cultural ruins he left behind – they inspire me to leave some of my own for my kids and grandkids.  I wonder – when will my cultural clock stop?  My wife would argue that it already has…

I end with a quote from Stanley Hauerwas, who cusses like my grandpa, which is why I like him.  He writes,

“For Christians, particularly in the modernitites of our time, must find the means to create space in the world if we are to serve the world in which we find ourselves.  Such a space if produced with joy hopefully will become a resource for the imagination for Christians who face quite different challenges than those that produced the ruins we now inhabit… But any ruin, be it a building, book, or painting requires memory.  That memory, moreover, must be governed by the story that is the Christ.  The peculiar challenge before us – that is, the Christians of modernity – is whether we have the resources to have our memories so determined.”
                               From  “The Gospel and Cultural Formations”

August 23, 2011

The Illusionist

For the past two nights my wife and I have watched The Illusionist - an animated film about an old magician who befriends a young women as he travels from place to place.  I say two nights… because we both fell asleep the first night about half way through.  Not that the film is boring – its not – but it has a different pace to it – quiet, gentle, movements.  There is very little dialogue that is audible – the music is wonderful (yet very relaxing) and the illustrations are beautiful.  So it took us two nights – but it was worth it.

I have a 9 year old daughter who still loves, and even believes in, fairies.  She still sees the world as a magical place.  She told me the other day how “miraculous” flies are – because they could see all over.  She stills believes there is a fairy that puts streamers over her door the morning of her birthday, and she continues to build little fairy houses in the yard.  Some of her friends have moved on – to Justin Beiber of all things – which frustrates her.  She wants nothing to do with it.  (Although, she is an avid Foo Fighters fan… I caught her humming some tunage from the new record the other day… to my wife’s dismay.)  When we moved back into our house I bought her a poster with Tinkerbell on it that reads, “Who says Fairies Don’t Exist?”

This is what the film is about – a world that is becoming less and less magical, and a young girl who still believes.  Without giving away the ending… I found it exhilarating and heartbreaking all wrapped into one.  There is an obvious carry over to the notion of believing in God… which could easily be one of the undercurrents of the film.  At one point there appears a note that reads “Magicians are not real.”  The theological connection is obvious – In a world that increasingly doesn’t believe in God, or at least a certain kind of God, what about those who still believe?

My daughter will NOT believe in fairies soon enough – I’m not going to be the one to ruin it for her.  At least she still apprehends the magic of life… and it shows in the way she lives.  While Fairies may disappear – I never want her to lose the “magical” paradigm.

I loved the film – encourage everyone to see it.  Just make sure you watch it sometime when you’re not sleepy – or it might take you a couple nights to get through it.

August 22, 2011

Barth and Zizek: Can they get along?

This fall I’m doing a directed study on the theological perspectives of Barth and Moltmann as a part of my PhD program.  One part of this will be comparison – seeing how they are similar and different – while the other part will be constructive.  It’s the constructive part I’m excited about.  This past summer (sad to speak of summer in the past tense already…) I did a directed study on Zizek, Caputo, Vattimo, and Badiou in which I wrote a final paper putting them into conversation with Moltmann.  I found that The Crucified God shares much in common with Zizek’s part of The Monstrosity of Christ.  Both rely on Hegel.  Both see the crucifixion as the death of God and the obliteration of the metaphysical articulations of God.  While there are certainly differences (important ones) – there are fascinating connections that remain to be explored.

Barth, on the other hand… I’m not sure.  Last night I started the reading for this study – focusing on book IV of the Church Dogmatics.  In a certain way I’m reading Barth through the lens of Zizek – meaning I’m looking for connections or disagreement.  I underlined a few statements last night and put Zizek’s name in the margin – there are points of contact.  Barth talks about the Word as “event” – that God is known in his action, that we ultimately cannot fully apprehend or conceptualize God.  Barth talks of kenosis – he speaks of the death of God – he talks of how God, in Jesus Christ, took upon himself human weakness and vulnerability.  He even talks of how our understanding of God must be guided and reworked in the context of the life and work of Jesus Christ.  Yet… Barth doesn’t want to let go of some of the metaphysical buzz words.  For someone who doesn’t want to build philosophical towers to God… he doesn’t seem to be able to let go of the “omnis.”  In some ways it seems then that God’s “being” remains untouched by the human condition.  Does this really lead to an understanding of “God with us” and “We with God” that is, in the end, very helpful?  If God’s divinity – if God’s person – enters the experience of humanity without really being affected by it – where does that leave us?

Maybe this will be one of the points of departure for Moltmann.  This is probably where someone like Zizek would dismiss Barth’s thought… it wants to cling to the old categories of transcendence.  We’ll see… should be a fun ride.

August 2, 2011

Home Sweet Home

On Saturday we walked into our empty house in Sioux Center and exhaled.  For one year we lived in St. Paul.  Now don’t get me wrong – we loved the Twin Cities.  We met some wonderful people, established some good friendships, and enjoyed getting to know the diverse neighborhoods in both Minneapolis and St. Paul.  The problem – we lived in a 3 bedroom apartment.  3 kids… 3 bedrooms.  On top of it all – it was in campus housing.  Now… again… great people – but the problem with campus housing is it doesn’t necessarily get priority in the budget.  All of this is to say we were excited to walk into our house.  It’s not a mansion… it’s not up to date – the carpet has a pinkish hue, the trees need trimming, and our renter decided it was a good idea to plant potatoes in our back yard.  No matter.  We can’t stop grinning.  The kids have their own rooms.  We don’t have to go outside when our kids want to go out to play.  We have central air.  Little things, maybe even superficial things, but today we are thankful for them.

We do miss the Twin Cities.  Yesterday I sat at a stoplight and I was the only car there – a bit different from I-94 or 35.  Its ok though… rural life is good.  Being content wherever you are – finding the good wherever you live.  It’s good to be home.

July 20, 2011

Trying to Out Smart Youtube

Youtube won’t let me post the videos I make – these cheesy picture slideshows.  So… I thought I would post it here.  Enjoy… or don’t… its up to you.


The Mythology of Everyday Life


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