Thursday, April 21, 2011

Good Movie and Bad TV

The Way Back is out on dvd. It is based on the book The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz who was a Polish citizen caught up in the insanity of the Stalin purges in Russia around WW2. Some say Stalin was responsible for 20 million deaths and some put it as high as 40 million! Rawicz tells the story of his imprisonment in the Gulag in Siberia. He escaped along with five others and walked to India! From Siberia, through Mongolia and the Gobi desert, and then over the Himalayas! Amazing, so amazing some critics doubt it ever happened. Few people could do it or would do it today. But what Rawicz and the others had going for them was survival. They had to do it or die. Others have tried to duplicate his journey and even with modern survival gear have found it impossible. Rawicz and the others lived off the land for over 4,000 miles! So, while others debate whether he really made the journey or not, watch the dvd. It's a beautiful story of human survival. Man (and one woman) vs Nature. Nature is shown in it's dramatic majesty but also it's brutal insensitivity. One minute you are marveling at the mountains or taking in the awesome grandeur of the desert and the next moment you are trying to stay alive in a blizzard or a sandstorm. The Way Back is a throwback to the days when epic films were made. The special effects are all natural. There are long silences as there would be on a long walk. There are deeply humanizing touches as the men and one young woman come to know and help each other. One powerful scene has the woman washing the badly damaged feet of one of the men (appropriate for this Maundy Thursday!). Another scene of similar power is a simple funeral with prayers asking for God's mercy for one of their companions who died on the walk. This is one of those "they don't make movies like this anymore" moments.

Greg Mortensen who wrote Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools is all over the news after CBS's 60 Minutes 'exposed' him as a fraud last Sunday night. Author Jon Krakauer who was an early supporter of Mortensen's questioned his work and his integrity. He claimed Mortensen used donations to his charity, Central Asia Institute, as his personal ATM and most of the donations funded his publicity trips where he sold his books. After 60 Minutes was done, Mortensen looked like a fraud who had pulled the wool over everyone's eyes and got rich doing it. His humble, disorganized, demeanor looked fake, as well, a cover up for his dishonest intentions. 60 Minutes in a 20 minute segment undid years of charitable work and ruined a man's reputation as a self sacrificing humanitarian. We are quick to make heroes in this country and just as quick to discard them. All it takes is a hit and run segment on a popular tv show. Nicholas Kristof writing in the NY Times cautions against this rush to judgment. He knows Mortensen well and wonders whether some of his better qualities make for poor management skills. He has personally visited and written about some of the schools Mortensen's charity has built (the only images of Mortensen's schools 60 Minutes showed were empty). He reminds us that what is beyond doubt is that Mortensen has provided educational opportunities for countless numbers of Afghan and Paksitani children, especially girls that they never would have had. He has made a difference in their lives and his work has had a peaceful and positive impact on relations in the Middle East. He has done something and that something amounts to way more than most people have done in their lives to benefit others. The 60 Minutes piece was largely negative. Even when they showed Mortensen what they showed was how he seemed to be avoiding them (who wouldn't knowing the kinds of hatchet jobs they usually do on the people they are after). That is not the whole story. Let's give Mortensen a chance to explain these allegations (which 60 Minutes portrayed as "facts"). He may have made mistakes but there is too much good here to trash his name and his work and move on to the next scandal. You can't document a person's life in a 20 minute video complete with commercials. All you can do is leave them with the impression you want to create. 60 Minutes did this and it was irresponsible and unfortunate.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Rand Again

The other day I read that Republican congressman Paul Ryan who is leading the Republican budget battle against the Obama side is a devoted disciple of Ayn Rand. Rand's book, Atlas Shrugged, so galvanized his thinking that he had his entire staff read it. He credits Rand's philosophy with the reason he got into politics. Ok. There are lots of reasons people get into politics. Ayn Rand has become something of a hero of the conservative side of the Republican party. Some tea partyers are helping to market a new movie based on her book. It's not a good movie from what I have read so far so I don't know if it will help get the Rand message (and Republican message) out to the voters. Rand's philosophy which she set forth in novel format is a kind of hyper individualism, that creates a pure form of capitalism. She champions an extreme self interest that answers to no one, not even God. Rand was an atheist. The one thing that matters is one's pursuit of personal happiness. She was an early advocate of whatever turns you on. She was totally amoral in sexual matters and an early pro -abortionist. Still, Ryan and other Repubs interest in her have to do with her economic ideas and her warnings about governments that penalize self centered ambition in order to support the welfare of the "collective." They believe Rand would save us from Obama. I am glad to know who Ryan's main mentor is. I don't have a particularly positive opinion of Rand. I have read parts of her books but only because I had to for some course I took. At a Christian school where it was mentioned that Rand's philosophy was about as far from a Christian philosophy of life as one could find. She is also not an especially gifted writer. But then again there are her ideas. I was both puzzled and surprised to read a column by Cal Thomas the day after the movie, Atlas Shrugged, debuted. Cal Thomas is nationally syndicated but he used to be simply a Christian speaker and writer. I have heard him speak about issues from a Christian perspective at Christian gatherings. Thomas ends his column with a rousing call to his readers to see the film if we care about where this country is headed. Used to be Christians cared about things like sexual ethics, and abortion and caring for the poor, and whether or not someone believed in God. Used to be those were some hot topics when we considered where this country is headed. Now, I guess it's all about the economy, stupid, and if Rand's vision gets us to where we think we want to go, the heck with everything else.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Easter, again

With Easter only a week away it's been on my mind. It's a big deal when you live from Sunday to Sunday like pastors do. It's the biggest Sunday of the year. Not saying it should be or needs to be, just saying it is. It has the biggest music and the biggest attendance is on Easter. People get up real early on Easter for sunrise services. What other Sunday of the year could you get people up for a service at 7am. Most Sundays church people struggle to get to church by 11am. It has the biggest hype. You build up to it for seven weeks of Lent. Even if church people don't make a big deal of Lent still there is a countdown. Then, Good Friday, and finally, Easter.

I confess to real mixed feelings about Easter. I am not supposed to hate but my feelings for the Easter bunny come close. I can kind of tolerate the commercial - sacred tension that surrounds Christmas even though Christmas trees in churches and the whole idea behind giving gifts to each other because Jesus gave his life for us - is a huge stretch. But, at least, Christmas only falls on Sunday once in seven years. Easter is on Sunday every year. So every year is a battle between the colorful bunny and Jesus. And I see Jesus losing.

When our kids were small we did the Easter thing with eggs and baskets on Saturday. To get it out of the way and so as not to confuse them with what Easter was - a celebration of the Resurrection. I have suggested that idea to numerous Christian parents who looked at me like I was starting a cult. So, you' re left with trying to sort out how you teach the Resurrection among egg hunts, and big bunnies, and even chocolate crosses! What would the apostle Paul say to that?

I know the story about the early Christians who tried to trump the spring solstice celebrations of their culture by introducing the celebration of Easter as a Resurrection celebration. But, its not working too well today is my thought. After all how do you celebrate Resurrection. At least with Easter you can buy stuff, and give stuff, and hunt for stuff, and make up stories about easter bunnies (HOP!) and let's face it we love all that stuff! Go to the stores and there are aisles of stuff to make your Easter special. But, what do we do at church? We get people up early, we eat breakfast together, and then we try to have a grander worship service than usual. Not hard to see why we are losing out to the cultural, commercial Easter.

Here is what I will do again this year. I will devote as little time as possible to consuming Easter either in thought or buying stuff. I will buy stuff for the grandkids because they are our grandkids and wouldn't understand my theology if I tried to explain it ! But whatever we do it will be on Saturday (Holy Saturday too! Even that compromise hurts). Easter is Resurrection Sunday when we celebrate Jesus who is risen! That is our faith and we celebrate that faith on every other Sunday of the year, in fact, that faith in the risen Jesus informs every area of our lives. There is a sense in which Easter is not all that special for Christians, every day is Resurrection Sunday. And I will be as counter cultural as I can. No Easter brunches at a restaurant, no baskets or eggs, and inflatable easter bunnies will be shot on sight, and I will neither buy nor give easter candy. I will go to church to worship and I will fellowship over a meal with other brothers and sisters to share our common faith in the Risen Lord Jesus. Amen.

Baseball and Bonds

Barry Bonds broke the rules. There are other more important matters facing the world right now and this seems like the least of them. It was an expensive trial that ended up with a mixed verdict. He was convicted on only one count of obstruction of justice. He was evasive and determined to not tell the truth. Truth matters. Especially on a stage as big as professional baseball. Performance enhancing drugs is a huge social problem. Kids emulate their sports heroes. If you can cheat at baseball why not cheat in other areas of life, as well. If only those other areas were as clear cut.

Baseball has rules. Clearly defined rules. Everyone can see the boundary lines. A ball hit inside those lines is fair play and one hit outside those lines is foul. Ball four means a batter gets a free pass to first base. There is no funny business. Three strikes means a batter goes back to his seat on the bench. There is no leniency. Pitchers earned run averages and batters hitting averages are exact. No one's era is about 3. It is 3.21, exactly. The team that scores the most runs wins and there is no nonsense about awarding anyone a run for effort or good attitudes. Players that bet on games are thrown out of the game. Players that take drugs to get an advantage are suspended and thrown out if they keep on doing it. Even if they have hall of fame numbers they broke the rules of baseball and should not get in. So far that has been the case, anyway.

Life is not so clear. That's why baseball is an escape from life. The game of baseball makes sense in the way life does not (excepting players salaries and perks, that is, which make no sense in the real world and it is terrifically irritating to hear baseball commentators say things like he is worth every penny of the 3 million he is being paid - they are not living in the real world either - is this the fantasy league people talk about?)

In so called real life, boundaries are not so clear. Not one of the executives of any of the financial institutions that caused the economy to melt down has ever paid a dime or answered for their cheating. Politicians who play outside the lines do not have to account for their foul play. People find creative ways to get ahead any way they can. Their scorecards show they have scored more runs than the rest of us but they don't have to follow the same rules.

That's why I like to watch the game of baseball.

There are second chances in baseball and even if you go 0 for 4 there is always another game tomorrow. You can even go 0 for 20 and you still get another chance. If you hit a home run on your 21st at bat the other 20 at bats are forgiven. But that is about as far as grace goes in baseball. If you went 0 for 40, you might get shipped to the minors and wind up out of baseball. If you get injured and couldn't play, you won't get to remain part of the team. And if you cheat, you are gone. The lines are clear and well defined. Still, I'm glad life is not like that. As messy as real life can be, grace is a good thing. Bonds and Rose and Ramirez will never play the game again and they probably will never have their greatness immortalized in the hall of fame but God's grace is for cheaters and other sinners. They can still go home a winner.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

NCAA Tournament Final

Before the lights go out and the courts are rolled up at the 2011 NCAA basketball tournament, I need to comment on the championship. Not on the game which I thought was as enjoyable to watch as any other tournament final. I am in the minority apparently. The "expert" basketball commentators pretty much put a man to man press on it. It was the "worst" championship game ever; it was "ugly"; it was "pathetic"; it was a "disgrace", and so on, ad nauseum. The CBS lineup of experts tried to out - commentate each other describing how awful the Butler Bulldogs were. More like Butler kittens, they were. True, they shot poorly and could not adjust to their poor shooting. That, they only lost by about ten points was not due to their defense but to UConn's woeful shooting as well. Charles Barkley who was often insightful throughout the tourney bailed out and said it was the worst basketball game he had ever seen (or championship game - I don't remember exactly). Granted I watched the game as an amateur fan who has played a little basketball not as an expert commentator. Maybe that is why I saw a different game than the experts. I just muted them after a while, a short while. I saw two teams playing their hearts out trying to find a way to win when their shots were not falling. Most of us non-experts know what that feels like. I saw two coaches keep their poise and continue to try to find ways and combinations of players to give them the best chance to win. I never saw a coach berate or lose his temper with a player. It was obvious they were playing hard and there were not many mental errors. For Butler playing against a very good defense shots that normally fall did not.

Although UConn was bigger and longer, Butler had beaten such teams in the tournament such as Florida State and Pitt. Butler had a way off night. After the game Dan Wetzel of Yahoo sports reported the glum Butler locker room scene with several players crying and taking the blame for the loss. Ron Norad who had a particularly poor shooting night including missing several free throws began to pick the guys up. He reminded them of what this was, a game, not life. No one player was to blame. They were not there to point fingers but to take care of each other. Soon, the players were supporting each other as the brothers they had become over the year.

Butler is a school with 4,300 students. Their program graduates 90% of their athletes which is one of the highest of all the NCAA schools in the tournament. There has not been a hint of scandal in their program. Their athletic budget is dwarfed by UConn's, Brad Stevens salary is many times less than Jim Calhouns. It was a david vs goliath game. Midmajor vs Big East. Some would say Butler overachieved all year (or for two years!). Hardly, they are a quality program. They played their hearts outs and came out on the losing end. They didn't win any style points and the shots weren't dropping. But, they were a class act in defeat. No one has a good game every game. Sometimes in sports things happen that you can't explain. What is important is how you deal with it and how you respond to it. That's what I was watching. Too bad Charles missed it.