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Archive for April, 2011

When we squander life on anything less than the God revealed in Jesus and made present in the Spirit, we miss out on life itself, resurrection life, the life of Jesus. …

Ephesians is a resurrection document. It trains us in understanding ourselves as saints, not saints in the sense of haloed exceptions to garden-variety Christians, but simply Christians who realize that Jesus’ resurrection places us in a position to live robustly in the world of the Holy, growing up in Christ, practicing resurrection. …

The Christian life was never intended to be a conventional, cautious, careful, tiptoeing-through-the-tulips way of life, avoiding moral mud puddles, staying out of trouble, and hopefully accumulating enough marks for good behavior to insure us a happy hereafter. And the church was never intended to be a subculture specializing in holiness, sanctification, or perfection. The Holy is not a specialist activity.

— Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection

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Although there are ways of making sense of Jesus’ crucifixion … the first thing we should recognize is that for Jesus’ followers and family at the time it made no sense at all. It was the denial of everything they’d longed for, the stupid and pointless snuffing out of the brightest light and best hope Israel had ever had.

Jesus’ crucifixion must have made his followers wonder if Satan had been tricking them all along, if God had not after all ben at work in Jesus, if Israel’s God was maybe not the world’s creator and judge after all, if maybe Israel’s God didn’t exist, if maybe there was no God at all …

If we don’t recognize that, then we have domesticated the cross, turned it into a safe symbol of private faith, and forgotten what it was really all about. And then we wonder why we are left with nowhere to turn when things in our lives, our own families, our own communities, our own civilization, seem to go not just pear-shaped … but utterly chaotic, totally random.

Good Friday was chaos come again: darkness, earthquake,violence and the death of the one who had given life to so many.

— N.T. Wright, Christians at the Cross

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Update at bottom

After hearing about Tim Hetherington’s death in Libya yesterday, I decided to push his documentary “Restrepo” to the top of my long to-do list, to experience the power of this Oscar-nominated documentary for myself.

And powerful it is. “Restrepo” chronicles the experience of a U.S. Army platoon in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, a site of continual battle with the Taliban. Many articles have focused on the film’s intensely visceral perspective (see David Carr at The New York Times), and I have to agree. But it’s also more.

The film is a character study, in which Hetherington and Sebastian Junger (who wrote of his experience in the book “War”), are fully present with the soldiers yet allow viewers to draw their own conclusions.

While undeniably sympathetic to the troops, “Restrepo” also challenges us to reflect on the full range of the troops life in war. We see clowning around in down time. We see intense grief over the death of one of their own. We see the terrible consequences when U.S. fire injures civilians, including children. And we are left to wrestle with what this all means.

By the end of the film it’s difficult to offer a definitive answer, and even in post-deployment interviews the soldiers wrestle their experience and what they accomplished. However, it is tough to read in the closing credits that in April 2010 (just before the release of “Restrepo”) the United States withdrew all troops from the valley.

What’s important about Hetherington (and photographer Chris Hondros, who also died yesterday) was not just that he sought to bear witness, but how he pursued this task.  As Jon Lee Anderson noted in The New Yorker:

I think it’s safe for me to say that what Tim was trying to do by going to war was to look into the souls of men, whose truths are perhaps more exposed in that environment than in any other—and to show the rest of us what he saw. He gave us a legacy in the important work he left behind, and, for those of us who had the honor to know Tim as a friend, a cherished memory of a man whose own soul was very intact.

This is true regardless of the medium: with film, as was the case in “Restrepo,” or with still photography, as shown in his book “Infidel,” which Hetherington discusses in the clip at the top of this post — displaying a bit of his own soul along the way.

Amid the extreme inhumanity of war, Hetherington extended grace to his subjects by never losing sight of their humanity. Just as important, he also refused to apply the false gloss of manufactured glory. In doing so, he honored all his subjects.

The New York Times’ Lens blog has a very nice overview of Hetherington’s work. They offer the same with Hondros’ astounding photography, which you’ve likely seen even if you don’t recognize his name. And below, you can watch the trailer for “Restrepo.”

Update: Junger has posted a tribute at Vanity Fair. He concludes:

Before this last trip you told me that you wanted to make a film about the relationship between young men and violence. You had this idea that young men in combat act in ways that emulate images they’ve seen—movies, photographs—of other men in other wars, other battles. You had this idea of a feedback loop between the world of images and the world of men that continually reinforced and altered itself as one war inevitably replaced another in the long tragic grind of human affairs.

That was a fine idea, Tim—one of your very best. It was an idea that our world very much needs to understand. I don’t know if it was worth dying for—what is?—but it was certainly an idea worth devoting one’s life to. Which is what you did. What a vision you had, my friend. What a goddamned terrible, beautiful vision of things.

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What does it look like if you take one word — symmetry — and turn it into images? This is how the folks at Radiolab answered the question. It is beautiful, moving and sobering all at the same time.

I couldn’t resist posting the video here, even though The Lords of Copyright won’t permit playback on a little blog like this. Just click through the link on the video, which will take you to YouTube so you can watch it; it’s worth the extra steps. Music by Sufjan Stevens.

(And, as they say over at The Daily Dish, hat tip to Andrew Sullivan)

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Recently, I was rereading Pascal and came upon this, “Men never do evil as thoroughly or as joyfully as when they do it in the name of God.”

As if we needed a reminder of the truth in those words, we received one recently with the brutal attacks on U.N. workers in Afghanistan, all inspired by the burning of a Koran by Florida pastor Terry Jones.

Fortunately, we also have a reminder that violence is not the only response to terror.

As a counterpoint to the likes of Jones and anti-Sharia fear-mongers, we have the beautiful French film, “Of Gods and Men,” the story of French monks who chose to remain at their monastery amid Algeria’s civil war of the mid-1990s. As A.O. Scott observed in his New York Times review, very few films can match the characterization of faithfulness to God that one finds in “Of Gods and Men.”

In small monastery in the village of Tibhirine, the small group of Trappist monks lived quiet lives of devotion to God and service to their Muslim neighbors. By simply being present over decades, the monks’ actions spoke more loudly than words, and “Of God’s and Men” captures the fruit of this devotion in the relationships between the monks and villagers.

These moments of Christ’s love incarnate are what help sustain the monks, for the film’s tension rises from the stark contrast between the monks and the chaos enveloping a land they’ve come to love. They hear and see news of foreigners executed by Islamist radicals, creating a sense of dread that slowly builds like a slow-moving yet insidious fog. In contrast, the monks find their anchor in the routines and rituals of the monastic life, from study to worship to chores to service, even as that sense of dread closes in.

Still, the monks debate again and again whether they should stay or go. They see no glory in becoming martyrs; they prefer to live. It is more than tempting for most of them to leave. But each time they debate they arrive at the same conclusion: They must stay. Their sense of call is too great.

In this way the film is consistent with John Kiser’s excellent 2002 book, “The Monks of Tibhirine,” which offers even more depth and texture to our understanding of these monks (who were not the only foreign Christians murdered by Algerian Islamists). The quote at the top of this post, appearing in both the book and film, comes from the writings of Luc, the 80-year-old physician who cared for up to 150 people a day, including some Islamists wounded in clashes by the government. The monks’ ethic would not allow them to discriminate between those in need of medical care, even Islamists who threatened their lives. 

Nonetheless, perhaps’ the film’s greatest strength, which separates it from the clichéd renderings in many “Christian” films, is that these men are far from plastic saints. They are all so human, with courage and fear mixed together in such a manner that you could feel the air being squeezed from their lungs. Great credit goes to the film’s cast members, who blended both restraint and emotional depth to powerful effect.

In the end, violence does claim their lives, about a month after Islamists seized eight of the monks in an effort to extract the release of prisoners from the Algerian government. The film, mercifully, spares us the final visual details: Only their heads were found.

Yet the film does not leave one with the sense that the monks gave their lives in vain, a point confirmed by Kiser’s book, which notes that word of the murders created great division among the Islamists, with many believing that this murder of holy men was one step too far.

I can’t recommend “Of Gods and Men” enough. It’s not likely to appear in theaters outside of urban areas like Seattle, but if you have a chance to see it do so. Otherwise, be sure to rent (or buy) the film when it appears on DVD. If these monks could show such courage amid such severe a threat, how much more could we muster in response to the fears that hobble our own nation?

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During the years between 35 and 55, most people experience a variety of losses. … What’s new at midlife for most people is the way the losses accumulate and build on each other in a bewildering and sometimes overwhelming fashion. At the same time that we face new physical limitations, we may also be dealing with complex family and work transitions. It can feel like too much at once.

The accumulations of these losses can prompt us to grow spiritually, to draw near to God in new ways. As we understand the fragility of life, we grow in humility. As we come up against limitations we couldn’t have imagined, we are offered an opportunity to evaluate what is most important to us.

The increasing awareness of the reality of death that many experience in the midlife years can be a call to deepen our awareness of the kingdom of God on earth and the reality of heaven on the other side of death. The words of the psalmist become more real: “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps 73:26).

 — Lynne Baab, A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife

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I know my postings have been sporadic as of late, symptomatic of a hectic time of year in which we transition from one quarter to the next at breakneck speed — what was that notion of the tranquil, contemplative life of the academic? I seemed to have missed it.

Nonetheless, thanks to those who have stopped by and sampled the scribblings and musings at this little blog. I hope to resume a more regular schedule of postings soon. In the meantime, I am grateful for your visits.

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