Monthly Archives: July 2008

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Lord, Save Us From Your Followers: Film Review

There are several reasons why I went back and forth about whether or not I would even do this review. It was getting to the point where I was arguing with myself about it:

Come on… you haven’t posted anything in forever.

No… it’s late and I have more important things to do.
Okay, but remember the Augustine quote? Remember how fired up that got you? That’s the kind of stuff worth writing about.

Is it worth being late to church over?

Maybe, maybe not, but if you put it off now, you’re never going to get to it.
So what… Dan’s Merchant’s stock is hot right now, all kinds of people will be and have already reviewed Lord Save Us. In another week, there will probably be four or five great reviews that you’ll be able to link to.

And none of them will be from me.
Since when is it all about you? Grow up already.

After awhile I realized that arguing about it was probably more time consuming than the review itself. Thus, my first instincts won out and you get to read this.

Lord Save Us From Your Followers is both a film and a book, both of which bring an entertaining look at the cultural divide between evangelicals in America and the scores of Americans who can barely understand, much less stomach, their methods.

Its breezy, irreverent tone evokes a Michael-Moore-meets-Donald-Miller kind of thing. If that last sentence smacks of lazy cult-hero-comparison, it is… but only because it’s so easy. Not only is director Dan Merchant clearly influenced by both, but he directly references both.

That Merchant is from Portland, my hometown, is not surprising. Only someone in an extremely liberal coastal metropolis like Portland would possess the requisite balance of moxie, humility, and offbeat nuttiness to make the film entertaining while still keeping an even moral keel. It’s clear that Merchant wants to entertain, but not at the expense of promoting understanding.

This philosophy contrasts with what I call the Dave Chappelle Syndrome (alternately known as Aaron McGruder Syndrome) whereby merciless depictions of a subculture’s worst elements are justified by the creator identifying with said subculture — i.e., ‘I can make fun of Black people because I’m Black.’ This mentality, when carried out to the nth degree, creates a double standard and restricts conversation more than it promotes it, because people outside the group will complain that if they tried to say the same thing, they would be crucified by the P.C. police.

In Lord Save Us, Merchant wisely avoids this. His genteel sense of sportsmanship keeps Lord Save Us from spiraling into mean-spirited caricature by doing things like taking shots at both Left Behind and The DaVinci Code in the same breath. This means that the film should reach a relatively wide audience, even if constituents on both sides of the issues will come away feeling like he didn’t go far enough.

The director begins the film with his own story of Christian upbringing, in order to establish the impetus for his journey: to examine what’s behind society’s apparent rejection of organized Christianity, despite its overwhelming belief in God. To achieve his goal, Merchant travels the U.S. in search of answers to his sub-titular premise (“how the gospel of love is dividing America.”)

What results is a thorough explanation of how Christians get it wrong, followed by several compelling examples of what happens when Christians get it right. He does this through interviews with theologians, politicians, and policy wonks, interspersing them with man-on-the-street Q&A and a few memorable vignettes recorded during his travels as a bumper-sticker-wearing conversationalist.

My personal highlights were the opening Augustine quote from Tony Campolo, the “Culture Wars” game show, and all of the Al Franken material. I was surprised by how gentle and humble Franken came off in this documentary, contrasting so heavily with much of the strident rhetoric of his counterparts on the conservative side.

If there was anything I didn’t particularly like, it was Merchant’s overly conciliatory tone at the conclusion of the film. Throughout the film, many of his subjects repeatedly referred to God or Jesus Christ as being about love, which is definitely true. However, he does little throughout the film (other than a humorous look at historical names of cities) to demonstrate that his enemies in the faith — those Christians making the church look bad — have legitimate motives, even if their methods are suspect.

Thus, his pleas for tolerance and universal love come across to me as being a little too Pollyanna for my taste. Not punctuating the film with stronger statements about truth or objectivity may have been a move calculated to maximize positive response with secular press and promote healthy conversation between enemy combants in the culture war.

If that’s the case, then I applaud his decision to be strategic. Others might wonder if all his time spent with non-believers has weakened his grip on the truth. To each his own, I guess.

Nevertheless, one thing is clear — if this film continues to build word of mouth buzz through private screenings in churches, then Dan Merchant will join Donald Miller (“Blue Like Jazz”) and Paul Young (“The Shack”) in an exclusive club of Portlanders who moonlight as countercultural icons of authentic Christian spirituality.

If history holds to form, the leftist Christian movement will build, and then in thirty years my children will have another iteration of the establishment to rail against.

Lord, help us all.

[Big-ups to Cole Brown at Red Sea NE for the screening.]

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Jesus Was Gangsta, and Other Lessons from John Chapter 2

From time to time, I just like to share my thoughts on certain passages of the Bible.

Consider the gospel of John, chapter 2, the first part of which is the famous passage where Jesus turns water into wine.

(And by “consider” I mean read it. Go ahead and follow that link, and read the passage first. Even if you’ve already read it… read it again. Trust me… the rest of what I have to say will make more sense if you read the text first.)

______________________

There are a few thoughts that strike me here.

Sometimes great things can come out of what looks like inconvenience.

Jesus’ response to his mother in verse four implies that He wasn’t just sitting around, waiting for a need to meet. He seems to bristle at his mother’s loaded statement, “they have no more wine.”

(Doesn’t that sound like a good Jewish mother? You can almost hear a gentle, yet goading, tone of voice. They’re out of wine, my son. I’m sure you can think of something.)

Meanwhile, Jesus is all, look, you’re jumping the gun here. Can’t I just relax and enjoy this wedding feast?

Yet despite his annoyance, Jesus has compassion on the hosts of the party, and does His thing. Which leads me to the next lesson.

When Jesus performs a miracle, he doesn’t always broadcast it.

You’ll notice that Jesus never said: “Fine. I’ll just turn some water to wine, then.” He just told them to fill the water jars. This is part of the story that’s easy to miss.

But think about it for a moment. If the servants were in the wrong frame of mind, they might have completely missed what Jesus was doing. They might have thought that Jesus was just telling them to fill the huge stone water jars because, well, since we’re out of wine then folks oughta be able to drink something.

The text in verse nine says that the servants knew what happened, but it doesn’t tell us whether they found out after the master of the banquet had discovered the jars were full of wine, or whether or not they knew all along what Jesus was up to. We can only speculate.

But I’ll tell you what… if they were anything like me, they probably didn’t see it coming at all. Because many times I pray and ask God for things, but not having enough faith to believe that He’ll answer that prayer, I stop looking for the answer. And often times, it’s right in front of me.

Jesus, I really wish you could just go get some — hey, is this wine???

That moment of discovery, where your frustration disappears and all you can do is stand there dumbfounded… that’s the story of my life. God’s timing doesn’t match our own, but it’s always perfect.

The third lesson from this passage is related to the second:

Jesus never uses miracles to draw attention to Himself.

You’ll notice that the master of the banquet went to the bridegroom and remarked — I’m guessing in a congratulatory note — about how most of the time by this point in a feast, the host brings out the cheap stuff, but this time, he saved the best for last. Obviously he said this not knowing that Jesus had just transformed the water into wine.

Now at this point Jesus could’ve stepped in and taken credit.

I’m reminded of D.L. Hughley’s great line from The Original Kings of Comedy, where he’s imagining Jesus performing this miracle:

“‘You know, I don’t normally do this, but uh … [*blessing the water*] y’all keep the party going.'”

I mean, it’s not like He would’ve marched in, all proud and junk. I transformed this water into wine! I am God! Bow to me! Jesus, in my opinion, was far too cool a dude to do something that obnoxious.

But, he could’ve done that thing some of us do from time to time, where we want to take credit for something without looking like we’re taking credit for it. Like we want people to know what we did, but we don’t want to look like we’re glory-chasing attention hounds.

He could’ve said, “Yeah, I just figured the good people here appreciate good wine, y’know? So I just put a little something together, no big deal. It’s mostly water, anyway.”

A few self-deprecating jokes here, a few strategically-placed business cards there, and Jesus could’ve built a wine distribution network in no-time flat.

But He didn’t.

Instead, He allowed the bridegroom to get the credit.

When Jesus said to His disciples much later that they would do greater things than He did, it wasn’t so they could claim the authority that their reputation as His close associates would bring. Rather, it was so that they could continue to be a blessing to others, and in so doing, show His love to people who needed it.

_______________________________

Heading into the second part of John 2, we read the account of another famous story, where Jesus clears the temple of merchants. Foreshadowing the exploits of Indiana Jones, Jesus grabs his whip and clears out everybody involved in buying and selling in the temple courts.

One of the most interesting parts of this passage is in verse 17. In this verse, it says the disciples remembered the scripture that says, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

This is an odd thing to read, because it leaves so much out. Like many verses in the Bible, this one is open to quite a bit of interpretation. When did they remember this scripture? Was it, like in verse 22, much later when they made the connection between Jesus’ actions and that particular Davidic psalm?

Because of my own life and my own struggles in ministry, this is what I see.

I see that verse and I see a man on a mission. Driving the moneychangers out by force of whip is not the action of a nice man with a few spiritual directives. That’s the sign of a man burdened with a dogged, unrelenting passion to see evildoers brought to justice. In that moment, Jesus was like the Jason Bourne of Nazareth.

And I think the disciples saw it. I think in that moment, they got a picture of exactly what makes Jesus tick. They saw “a man possessed” — take that, Clay Bennett — by a need to defend His Father’s house and prevent others from cashing in on His glory.

And honestly, I think it might have scared them a little.

Because if you read the whole psalm, it’s not a nice picture. David is lamenting his plight. He’s talking about how he’s up to his neck in trouble. About how those who hate him outnumber the hairs on his head. He’s pleading desperately to God, hoping this his mistakes will not wreck God’s reputation among the people. And the line that is quoted in the second chapter of John, if you read it in its entirety, it reads as follows:

Zeal for your house consumes me, and the insults of those who insult you fall on me.

Many Christians today use the language of God consuming us, referring to God as an all-consuming fire, desiring God to remove our own desires and replace them with His.

But do we really understand what that means?

Maybe we wouldn’t be so casual with that prayer if we substituted the word “consume” with the word “burn.”

Zeal for your house burns me.

Not just burns within me, but burns me. As in, I get so overloaded, I get such intense tunnel vision about God’s glory, that I get burned to a crisp, all smoky and blackened, like a Cajun entrée left on the grill too long.

Yeah, it’s devotion to God, but in the natural sense, it’s not very desirable.

Who wants to live burnt?

And for that matter, who wants to be insulted?

That the insults of God’s enemies can, would, or should fall on us, is a heavy idea, one that I blogged about just over three years ago.

Once you read the whole thing, that whole zeal consuming thing takes on a whole new light, doesn’t it?

This is what was Jesus was referring to at the end of Luke 14, when he talked about the cost of being a disciple.

He was saying, essentially, if you can’t forsake what you hold dear and follow me to the point of willing to be crucified, then just forget about it now. Don’t start out all gung-ho and then punk out later when things gets tough.

That’s what I think the disciples were seeing when they saw Jesus put the smack down on the charlatans in the temple. I think they were seeing Jesus in his rawest, Rasheed Wallace-like form, burning with rage and indignation.

(Valiant rage and indignation looks different to different people, by the way. Some people compare Jesus to William Wallace, but I see him more like Rasheed Wallace. Maybe Denzel’s John Creasy character from Man on Fire would be a nice compromise.)

So anyway, that whole recognition of Jesus in his rawest form had to have provoked both fear and admiration. That’s what I think happened in verse 17.

Which sets up the next part so beautifully. When the Jews come at Him wanting a sign to demonstrate his authority, he tells them that if you destroy this temple, he’ll rebuild it in three days.

And the Bible says that after He had been crucified and raised from the dead, then they understood what Jesus meant. He was referring to his own body, and not the physical temple building.

I always respect when someone can tell me something that doesn’t make sense at the time, but then later on their actions give enough context for me to get what they mean. Because often times they do so intentionally, hoping that your lack of understanding will get you to pay attention.

And I love the end of this chapter, verses 23 and 24:

Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name.[c] 24But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. 25He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man.

That’s one of those archetypes that is always glorified in the movies. The loner hero who can look into someone’s eyes and know what they’re up to. Jesus would not allow himself to get too close to everybody who wanted a piece of Him, because He knew their hearts. He knew they would turn on Him in a New York minute.

He didn’t need to hear the stories, He just looked at them, and He knew.

And He refused to be played. When the time came for Him, nobody took His life from Him … He laid it down himself.

______________________

It wasn’t until I finished digesting the whole chapter that the title for this post came to me.

Because seriously… when you imagine the two sides of Jesus on display here, the image begins to coalesce. On one side, Jesus is having a good time, and when the homies run out of wine, he’s right there to make everything legit. On the other side, you see fools encroaching on territory where they don’t belong, and as soon as Jesus rolls up He starts some stuff. Gettin’ all up in their business. Regulatin’ the situation.

And afterwards He sees His influence grow, to the point where everybody wants to be down with Him. Only, He can’t let them get too close, because He can’t let them interfere with His Father’s business.

If that’s not gangsta, I don’t know what is.

I’m Jelani Greenidge, and thanks for mixin’ it up with me.

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Mary Mary Launches Reality Show to Add Third Mary

They’re known as sisters.

And they’ve since become mothers.

How fitting, then, that they would seek to find another sister — named after the most well-known mother of all.

As a follow up to their popular Mother’s Day promotion with Colgate, Tina and Erica Atkins-Campbell, commonly known as superstar gospel duo Mary Mary, have agreed to star in a reality-TV vehicle to discover a third singing partner. The twist? She’ll be a Mary, alright. All the eligible contestants will be Catholic nuns.

Tina says the inspiration came from an unlikely source.

“We had just come from a long studio session, and Teddy had already put the girls to bed, and I just couldn’t sleep yet, so I turned on the TV. And there was Lauryn, just tearing it up again.”

“I’ll never forget that night,” piped in Erica.

They’re referring to a rebroadcast of Sister Act 2, part of a November Whoopi Goldberg marathon on TNT. The 1993 sequel, directed by Bill Duke, featured a breakout performance from then undiscovered Lauryn Hill, who went on to become an accomplished singer and rapper with The Fugees.

“Just watching her sing the open to ‘Joyful Joyful’ got my heart racing,” says Tina. “Pretty soon, I had to get on the phone.”

“Tina called me at 12:30 at night, talkin’ ’bout ‘Girl, turn on TNT… remember this?!'”

They both watched the rest of the song, completely spellbound in nostalgic reverie. By the time it was over, they knew something was brewing.

“Erica said, ‘are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, but Lauryn Hill’s not in the industry anymore.'”

“My sister, she didn’t quite get it,” laughs Erica. “So me and Warryn did some brainstorming the next day, and a few months later, here we are.”

Their brainstorming led them to contact Whoopi Goldberg directly, who thought the idea was splendid. Ms. Goldberg’s advocacy on their behalf helped them gain the rights to record a remake of “Ms. Celia’s Blues (Sister),” which will function as the show’s theme song, albeit with reworked lyrics:

“Sister, you can jump the line
Sister, we’re three of a kind, oh,

Sister, have I got some news… for you!”

The three day miniseries, entitled, “Sister, May I?” will be broadcast on the BET network, in anticipation of their fourth album to be released in August. It’s their hope that the third Mary will be able to tour with Tina and Erica, and maybe even contribute in the songwriting process for the fifth album, slated for a release sometime in late 2010.

“It’ll require an adjustment period for all three of us,” admits Tina. “But whichever sister joins the group, we don’t want her to change on our behalf. She can still wear the habit and everything.”

“Black is always stylish,” chimes in Erica.

Still, the bold reality-TV concept wasn’t exactly greeted with enthusiasm by representatives of parent label Columbia Records.

“Even if she can sing, I’m not sure how it’s going to work,” said industry analyst Nathan Trimble.

“I’ve never seen any nuns with sex appeal.”

When reminded that Mary Mary was a gospel duo with a large Christian audience, Trimble was undeterred.

“Christians have sex too,” he said. “I mean, isn’t that how R. Kelly got so popular?”

Local convents have welcomed the news, as scores of musically talented African-American women have filled their ranks in the weeks following the announcement.

“They’re coming in droves,” said sister Mary Francis of Santa Sabinet, a religious order of women in southern California. “The days of banquet fund-raising is over. From now on, it’s choir concerts and braiding hair.”

One of the hopeful contestants is former Sister, Sister star Tamera Mowry.

“Call me greedy, but I always wanted more than one sister,” Mowry laments. “And ever since Tia got married, it’s like I don’t even have her anymore.” Beaming in front of the camera, she continued.

“That’s why I was so excited about this show. I wanted to be an unofficial member of Out of Eden for awhile, and that didn’t work out. Maybe Tina and Erica can become my newest sisters instead. If not… well, aren’t the ladies in Point of Grace related?”

Still, the newest BET reality vehicle is earning its share of controversy, despite its wholesome premise. The Vatican has since issued an advisory warning about the series, citing the tenuous connection with Lauryn Hill, whose 2003 Vatican concert offended many, including the Pope. As a result, several local Catholic advocacy groups have organized a boycott.

“I think they’re a little confused about their theology,” said spokesman Jason Card. “I mean, the doctrine of the trinity has nothing to do with the virgin Mary.”

When the show’s operating budget was announced, Card backtracked a bit.

“If they need a publicist, however, I can be available.”

A sampling of Mary Mary fans polled online have favorable expectations for the program, although a few comments on their message boards revealed concerns about the move.

User JeZusLUVSM3 wondered if they’ll have to change the name of the group to accommodate the new member.

“How about ‘Mary! Mari! Maré!’ I mean, you know, it worked for Raphael and them, you never know.”

“Feels good to me,” she added.

Other anonymous users wondered if the duo is simply trying to cash in on the reality TV trend.

“That’s ridiculous,” said Columbia A&R representative Lisa Redmond. “All of our acts are committed to the highest standards of artistic integrity.”

At that, she couldn’t resist one more plug.

“So don’t forget to tune into BET next Friday, where we’ll have a live release party concert from our newest trio in the Columbia gospel family, Trilogy 6:8.”

* * *

[STANDARD DISCLAIMER — this is satire. Otherwise known as humor. No, it’s not true. It’s a joke. But I had you going, didn’t I? You know I did.]

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If I Didn’t Think Time Shares Were Shady Before…


…Now I’m convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Shady, shady, shady.

You know how they’ll give you a free vacation just for listening to their spiel? I posted about that ultra-manipulative sales experience here. At the time I figured, hey, if you can withstand their cultlike mind control tactics and see through their rationalizations, you get a free vacation out of it.

I thought the trade off was even.

Now, I’m not so sure.

Because just setting this thing up has been one gigantic pain in the butt after another.

First, we had to wait for their company to send us a gift certificate in the mail. Weeks later, we got it. Then we had to fill it out and return it back to them (but not before making copies of the certificate in case it got lost in the mail), which we did. After that we had to wait for a confirmation letter to arrive stating that they got our certificate. This letter had the phone number we were to call to actually schedule the vacation.

So we waited, and we got the confirmation letter. At which point we found out that the vacation must be scheduled at least 60 days in advance, but not within a week of any of the major summer holidays (Memorial Day and Labor Day). And I understand holding those dates out… those dates are high volume dates and they need to get paying customers in the door, I understand that. But still.

So then a week or two later, after Hol and I figured out most of our summer plans, I called to schedule the trip. Our first and second choices for dates were taken, so we took our third option. Which, okay, still… no biggie. It’s still a free trip.

Today, I get a letter in the mail, saying that in order to confirm the arrival date, we must pay a tax deposit of $50, in the form of either a money order or a cashier’s check. No personal checks, no cash, no credit cards. Failure to confirm the deposit deadline will result in a cancellation of reservation.

This, to me, is a sad state of affairs.

The reason why these companies can afford to give these trips away is the same reason why companies offer mail-in rebates on their products bought in stores — because they know that, statistically speaking, many people will not have the fortitude to stick with the process long enough to get what they were promised.

After awhile, it feels like it’s just not worth it to keep making phone calls, following up, sending things in the mail.

Arranging your vacation should not feel like choosing an insurance company.

Seaside better be awesome in the fall, or else someone at this agency is getting a prickly letter from a certain West Indian blogger with a penchant for hip-hop and a Portland address.

*shaking head*