Monday, December 31, 2012

Rocky (1976)


An except of a review recently posted on Schaeffer's Ghost:
If there’s a more quintessentially American film than Rocky, I don’t know what it is. Americans love a good rags-to-riches tale, and there aren’t many things we like better than rooting for a scrappy guy who faces insurmountable odds. It’s part of our history. We are the scrappy no-accounts who, armed with little more than our own determination, stood toe-to-toe with one of the greatest empires in the world and emerged as an independent nation. Or so the story goes. [...] 
We Americans just love this stuff. Our national mascot should really be an underdog, because boy, do we love to watch a longshot make good. It’s part of who we are and how we see ourselves. 
But we don’t just love it in our history and our films. We also love it in our religion. And that can lead to problems. Rocky Balboa is a nobody who’s given a second chance (or really a first chance, as it’s not clear he ever really had a shot at anything big time), and by hard work and sheer determination he shows the world that, by golly, he’s good enough, he’s smart enough (well, kind of), and, doggone it, people like him. And we import this same mentality into our picture of God and the gospel. Sure, maybe we blew it the first time around. Maybe we didn’t do ‘as well as we should have’. Maybe we screwed up. But God is the God of second chances, right? We figure if He’ll just give us another shot, we’re sure we can buckle down and do right. We’re Americans, and we’ve got gumption and pluck and we will not be denied. Just give us one more chance, God, and we’ll prove to You that we deserve Your favor. 
But what is merely a harmless preference in entertainment is absolutely fatal when it comes to our faith. We are fundamentally mistaken about our past, our potential, and our position, and as a result, we are believing a false gospel.
Full review available here.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Top Shelf: Best Reads of 2012 Edition

As 2012 draws to a close, the interwebs are flooded with year-end lists: the best-dressed, the worst-dressed, the best and worst movies, the most memorable moments, etc. I am not in a position to offer an opinion on the best books of 2012, since I don't keep up with the latest publications, but I did make my own list--the best books I read in 2012, broken up by genre--which was recently posted on Schaeffer's Ghost. Here's an excerpt:
Best Romance: A Long Fatal Love Chase, by Louisa May Alcott 
Did you know that Louisa May Alcott, she of the quaintly wholesome Little Women, also wrote insanely outlandish romance novels? Well, she did, and they are awesome. A Long Fatal Love Chase is full of improbably named villains with nefarious intentions and a lovely heroine whose flight from said villain takes her from yacht to convent to mental institution, through an assortment of disguises, forbidden love, and daring escapes. In short, it is flat out bonkers, and I loved every minute of it. 
Honorable Mention: A Modern Mephistopheles, by Louisa May Alcott
Full post available here.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Les Misérables (2012)


An excerpt of a review recently posted on Schaeffer's Ghost:
Javert, on the other hand, has no understanding of grace. He is upstanding, incorruptible, and an unfailing servant of Justice. But those in his path must realize that with Javert, justice is all they will ever get—no less than justice, but no more. Sins must be punished—‘Those who falter and those who fall must pay the price.’ He hunts Valjean relentlessly, and is unmoved by Valjean’s apparent change of heart. When Valjean has an opportunity to kill Javert and chooses to spare his life, Javert lets Valjean go (for the time being), and is immediately so horrified by his lapse of duty that he kills himself. 
Or at least, that’s what he tells himself. Really, even worse for Javert than the knowledge that he failed in his duty is the realization that he, Javert, received grace from a convict. A sinner spared his life, and now he must either accept this act of grace and the change it will inevitably bring about in his life (for grace accepted always changes us) or reject it. And, of course, this is what he does. Because the knowledge that he received grace from anyone, let alone a criminal, is too much for him to deal with. He is determined to stand or fall by his works alone, not by the grace of another. And so, like all who choose this approach, he falls.
Full review available here.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Secret Adversary, by Agatha Christie


The Great War is finally over, and as jobs are scarce, childhood pals Tommy Beresford and Prudence "Tuppence" Cowley find themselves in similar financial predicaments. Strapped for cash, the duo decide to go into business for themselves ... as adventurers. No sooner have they so decided than an adventure comes knocking. Before long, our heroes are smack in the middle of an international intrigue that could destroy England itself. A draft treaty somehow found its way into the hands of a young American girl called Jane Finn, and now both the girl and document are missing. If either of them falls into the wrong hands, the result could be a full scale Communist revolution. Tommy and Tuppence are tasked with locating the missing girl and recovering the document. But at every turn, they find themselves thwarted by the mysterious--and unknown--Mr. Brown, who seems to know all and anticipate their every move. With the help of a highly respected attorney and an energetic American millionaire, the Young Adventurers, Ltd. tackle this, their very first adventure ...

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)


An excerpt of a review recently posted on Schaeffer's Ghost:
Miracle on 34th Street is, in many ways, a quintessential example of the heart-warming ‘Christmas’ movie. There isn’t even a whiff of the real Christmas story, of course. That would be too much to ask. Instead, it celebrates Christmas by decrying selfish commercialism and encouraging kindness and goodwill—though it is worth noting that much of the ‘progress’ is itself motivated by pure, unadulterated self-interest. For example, Mr. Macy endorses Kris’s new policy of sending shoppers elsewhere if Macy’s cannot supply their needs because he believes that it will benefit him to be perceived as kind and customer-oriented. Gimbel follows suit so as not to miss out on the public relations benefits of this ‘kindness.’ The two retail giants compete for the role of generous benefactor not because they actually are generous, but because they wish to appear generous in order to receive a financial benefit. And Macy later defends Kris in court not because he actually believes his claims, but because to do otherwise would be bad for business. Similarly, the judge who presides over Santa’s trial is reluctant to lock Kris away not because it would be unjust to do so, or because of any desire to uphold the ‘spirit of Christmas’, but because he fears it would hurt his chances of re-election. Thus, there is a broad streak of humorous skepticism behind this touchy-feely tale, which gives the story a depth and complexity that is lacking in much of the usual holiday treacle.
Full review available here.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Right to Die, by Rex Stout


Twenty-six years ago, a young man named Paul Whipple got Nero Wolfe out of a jam. Now Whipple himself is in a jam, and he comes to Wolfe for help. His son Dunbar wants to marry a white girl, and Whipple is dead against it. He's convinced that the lady in question, the lovely (and wealthy) Susan Brooks, must be crazy to want to marry a poor black man, and Whipple wants Wolfe to dig up something that would convince Dunbar not to go through with the wedding. Wolfe reluctantly agrees to investigate Susan, but he's barely gotten started when circumstances intervene and Susan winds up dead--and the police think Dunbar killed her. Wolfe disagrees and, on surer footing in a murder investigation than in matrimonial prevention, he dives right in (metaphorically) to exonerate the accused (and bereaved) Dunbar. But in order to clear Dunbar, Wolfe must shift the blame to the real killer, and he's convinced that the guilty party is in some way affiliated with the Civil Rights organization where Susan and Dunbar both worked.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

What Is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission, by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert


Pastors Kevin DeYoung (Just Do Something) and Greg Gilbert (What Is the Gospel?) team up to address a major question among Christians: Just what is the mission of the church, anyway? Along the way, DeYoung and Gilbert address a board spectrum of 'missional' teachings and examine biblical teaching on the Kingdom of God, social justice,  and church ministry.

If you've read much of DeYoung or Gilbert's work (to say nothing of D.A. Carson, Matt Chandler, and Michael Horton, all of whom wrote blurbs for the back cover), you probably have a pretty good idea of what they think the mission of the church is. (Hint: If you guessed the Great Commission, you are correct.) What's new here is their attempt to engage with those who embrace a gospel of the Kingdom or who tend to elevate social justice to the church's primary mission.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Mirror Crack'd, by Agatha Christie


Movie star Marina Gregg has just bought Gossington Hall, the big manor at the edge of St. Mary Mead. The whole village is agog with the news, and turns out en masse for the big fundraiser on the grounds. The event is a huge success ... until a local woman winds up dead, after drinking a poisoned cocktail. Before long, the authorities have concluded that the lovely Marina was the intended victim--a conclusion that is bolstered by the threatening letters she receives and the arsenic-laced coffee she narrowly avoids drinking. Chief-Inspector Craddock is stumped--and not above consulting his favorite adopted aunt, Jane Marple. Miss Marple is more housebound than she use to be, but still sharp as a tack and perfectly willing to lend her not inconsiderable talents to the solving of this mystery. But who could have done it? One of Marina Gregg's many ex-husbands? Someone on her staff? One of the children she impulsively adopted and just as abruptly rejected, all grown up and bearing a grudge? A crazed fan? Her current husband seems to adore her, but perhaps appearances aren't what they seem ...

The title to this work comes from Tennyson's beloved poem The Lady of Shalott (familiar to many modern readers largely because of its appearance in the television adaptation of L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables):
The mirror crack'd from side to side;
"The curse is come upon me," cried
The Lady of Shalott.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

White Christmas (1954)


An excerpt of a review recently posted on Schaeffer's Ghost:
The overall theme is one of continued connectedness, obligation, and sacrifice. On some level, this works itself out comically (as in Wallace’s continued sense of obligation to Davis for saving his life, and Davis’ shameless willingness to exploit that sense of obligation). But there are more serious implications as well. [...] Wallace and Davis undertake to move their entire show—cast, sets, and all—to rural Vermont to help out their old Army general. This is far from a low cost endeavor. It is nothing short of an act of personal sacrifice. And when Wallace exhorts his fellow veterans to come to Vermont to show appreciation for General Waverly, they do so. That they would leave their families on Christmas Eve, and at a moment’s notice, is evidence of a deep devotion to the General. 
The interesting thing is that none of these individuals were supposed to have been terribly good friends. [...] Time and time again, Wallace and Davis remind each other that they are doing this or that undesirable task ‘for a pal in the Army.’ The emphasis is clearly on ‘Army’, not ‘pal.’ The connection between them is not personal; it is based on a shared commitment to and service of a particular cause—a common experience that transcends personalities, professions, geography, and even time. On the strength of this connection, Wallace, Davis, and the other veterans of the 151st Division make costly sacrifices.
Full review available here.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Death of a Dude, by Rex Stout


It's summertime, and Archie's out Montana way living the good life with the well-heeled and playful Lily Rowan, who just so happens to own a ranch and a couple thousand head of cattle. It was supposed to be a vacation, but we know better, and before long Archie's up to his eyeballs in murder. Everybody seems to think Lily's ranch foreman Harvey bumped off the no-account city slicker who got his daughter pregnant, but Archie's convinced that Harvey would never shoot a man in the back. Still, knowing it and proving it are two very different things, and it looks like Archie may be out West for the long haul. This is, of course, a completely unsatisfactory state of affairs for Nero Wolfe, so the corpulent genius trundles off to Big Sky Country to expedite matters. Will the dynamic duo be able to clear Harvey and catch the real bad guy? And will Wolfe ever get Archie back home to the comfort of his beloved brownstone?

Friday, December 7, 2012

Twelve Unlikely Heroes: How God Commissioned Unexpected People in the Bible and What He Wants to Do with You, by John MacArthur


Well-known preacher John MacArthur walks the reader through the stories of twelve 'unexpected' Bible heroes (in ten chapters--Gideon and Samson are paired, as are Mark and Onesimus).

I confess that I was expecting something a bit ... different. With a title like Twelve Unlikely Heroes, I somehow got it into my head that the stories would all involve lesser-known bible characters--some of the more obscure judges, perhaps, or Jael, or Abigail, or Haggai or Titus or somebody. So when I flipped to the Table of Contents and saw names like Joseph, John the Baptist, and James, I was a little disappointed. Not that they're all big names--MacArthur includes Enoch, Miriam, and the aforementioned Onesimus. But still, his focus was different than I'd anticipated.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)


From 1943 to 1949, Disney's animated 'feature films' were not, in fact, full length movies, but were instead 'package films'--a collection of shorter films. There was a war on, after all, and many of the animators and creative minds behind Disney were otherwise engaged--producing training and propaganda films. In fact, the first few 'package films' were themselves a form of propaganda: Saludos Amigos (1943, Disney characters go to South America and have adventures) and The Three Caballeros (1945, Donald Duck receives various presents from Latin American friends) were designed to foster goodwill with South America and counteract the Nazi influences there. The rest of the package films weren't directly related to the war effort, but WWII left a significant creative drain in its wake, resulting in a lot of half-finished storylines, which were then cobbled together to make feature length films--Make Mine Music (1946), Fun and Fancy Free (1947), and Melody Time (1948). The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad was the last in this series.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Mysterious Affair at Styles, by Agatha Christie


When the rich Emily Inglethorpe drops dead from strychnine poisoning, everyone suspects her new (and significantly younger) husband, Alfred. But Alfred's not the only one who benefits from her death--or the only one who had the opportunity to commit the heinous act. Was it one of her sons, who stood to inherit the manor at Styles? Or perhaps her daughter-in-law, Mary Cavendish, who was overheard quarreling with the victim shortly before her death? Then there's Dr. Bauerstein, who seems awfully friendly with Mary Cavendish, and has an expert knowledge of poisons ... and Cynthia, the poor relative staying with the family and working at a pharmaceutical dispensary in the next town ... and, of course, the various staff members, chief among whom is the redoubtable Ms. Evelyn Howard, the murdered woman's companion and factotum. The local police are at a bit of a loss, and Lt. Arthur Hastings, who is staying with the family while he recovers from his war wounds, can't make heads or tails of it all. Fortunately, an old friend of Lt. Hastings just happens to be staying nearby ... the inimitable (and ingenious) Hercule Poirot!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, by W. Phillip Keller


The title of this one is pretty self-explanatory. One-time shepherd and pastor Phillip Keller walks the reader through the 23rd Psalm as David the Shepherd King would have seen it. At least, as Keller thinks David would have seen it.

Keller's insights are certainly helpful, particularly in America's increasingly non-agrarian culture. He includes meditations on the relationship between sheep and shepherd, the importance--and blessing--of having a good and wise shepherd, the dangers that threaten the flock at every turn, and the hard work and sacrifice of the shepherd on behalf of his sheep.

I have always understood Psalm 23 to contain a combination of metaphors--David seems to transition smoothly from comparisons to sheep (verses 1-4) into language that evokes a royal banquet and possibly a coronation of sorts (verse 5) and thence to a sort of benedictory prediction of future care and blessing in this life and a hint of the life to come.

Monday, December 3, 2012

And Four to Go, by Rex Stout


This one's a rare four-story collection of holiday homicides.

The collection kicks off with 'Christmas Party', wherein Wolfe himself--in an effort to investigate the depth of Archie's commitment to a particular female--bartends a Christmas party. In disguise. As Santa Claus.  When the host drops dead from cyanide poisoning, Wolfe skedaddles, but the police are understandably suspicious of the mysterious unknown Santa-bartender who vanished immediately following the murder. The only way to keep the world from finding out is to find the murderer before the police find Santa (er, Wolfe).

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Top Shelf: Christmas Edition

For those of you gearing up for the holidays, I figured I'd collect all my holiday posts to date in one place. Because I am all about making your life easier.

I've reviewed a few Christmas-related devotionals over the years, including The Meaning Is in the Waiting: The Spirit of Advent by Paula Gooder and God Came Near by Max Lucado, both of which are excellent resources for preparing your heart for the Christmas holidays and meditating on the real reason for the season. 

If biography's more your speed, I also reviewed The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus, by Adam C. English.

For the musically inclined, Calvin Stapert's Handel's Messiah: Comfort for God's People is an excellent read.

And of course Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol is a holiday must-read--and a short one at that.

If you're not looking for a whole book, I also did a blog series on the Gospel content of 13 well-known Christmas carols, including What Child Is This?, The First Noel, Good Christian Men, Rejoice, We Three Kings, and perennial favorite O Holy Night, just to name a few.

I've also posted some thoughts on the incarnation, with an assist from theological bigwigs like G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and J.I. Packer.

And of course, we mustn't forget the Christmas movies! I've reviewed both White Christmas and Miracle on 34th Street, as well as the best Christmas movie of all time: Die Hard.

Merry Christmas, everybody!