The Part-Time Critic

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Part-Time Recommendation: Is God anti-gay?

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Part-Time Recommendation: Is God anti-gay?

Sam Allberry's short book Is God anti-gay?  is a great introduction to the key questions and concerns surrounding Christianity and homosexuality. Sam is a Christian pastor, speaker, and writer who is single and openly shares that he is same-sex attracted (HERE is a great introduction to his story and his teaching). This issue is one of the most pressing of our culture and it is also one of the most difficult and tough to talk about. I think Allberry's book provides one of the most accessible, practical, and biblical Christian voices on this topic.

Allberry's book answers the somewhat shocking question in its title with a direct response "God is not anti-gay." The rest of his short book (it is less than 100 pages) lays out his biblical reasoning:  God’s message for gay people is the same as his message for everyone: repent and believe. The Bible provides the foundation for this teaching – begun in Genesis, reinforced and expanded by Jesus and his Apostles in the New Testament. It is the same invitation to fullness of life in God, the same offer of forgiveness and deep, wonderful, life-changing love. Repenting and accepting God’s invitation is just as challenging to everyone as it is to gay people because it asks nothing less than a full-life commitment. 

Not just satisfied with an overview of the biblical teaching on sexuality and in particular homosexuality, Allberry takes time to speak to many of the practical issues as well. Much of the last third of the book takes up this project.

All of us experience fallen sexual desires, whether those desires are heterosexual or homosexual by nature. It is not un-Christian to experience same-sex attraction any more than it is un-Christian to get sick. What marks us out as Christian is not that we never experience such things, but how we respond to them when we do. 

Beyond the main chapters, many readers will find the book's sidebars on the most popular objections to Christian teaching extremely helpful:
  • Surely a same-sex partnership is OK if it’s committed and faithful?
  • Aren’t we just picking and choosing which Old Testament laws apply?
  • Can’t Christians just agree to differ on this?
  • Isn’t the Christian view of sexuality dangerous and harmful?
I found these questions to be answered with a mix of pastoral care, biblical integrity, and brevity. It's hard to find a resource on this subject that is able to be brief, speak to the heart, but also provide solid biblical thinking on the topic. To that end, this is an incredible resource.

I strongly recommend this book to all lay-Christians, teachers, and the average non-believer who wants to know about the Christian teaching on sexuality. For a practical introduction and overview of this topic, the book feels remarkably comprehensive. It provides solid biblical, theological, and practical answers without getting bogged down in the weeds of anthropology, biblical studies, or theology. It's not a great resource for academics or those hoping for a deep analytical dissection, but that's kind of what makes this so helpful for the lay person.

The teaching of Jesus does two things: it restricts sex and it relativizes its importance. Jesus shows us that in its God-given context the value of sex is far greater than we might have realized – and yet even there it is not ultimate. Sex is a powerful urge, but it is not fundamental to wholeness and human flourishing. Jesus showed that both in his teaching and in his lifestyle. After all, Jesus – the most fully human of all people – remained celibate himself. The gospel shows us that there is forgiveness for all who have sinned sexually. And the gospel also liberates us from the mindset that sex is intrinsic to human fulfillment. The gospel call that no one need cast all their happiness on their sexual fortunes is not bad news, but good news It is not the path to harm but to wholeness.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

2017 Leaman Awards

8:55 PM 0
2017 Leaman Awards
Explore my 2017 Awards by using the PDF viewer below.
Feel free to leave your thoughts on comments.
Feel free to scroll through them or click the full-screen button in the top right of the viewer


Monday, December 18, 2017

Four Reasons The Last Jedi Fails Despite Awesome Ambitions

10:47 PM 0
Four Reasons The Last Jedi Fails Despite Awesome Ambitions


WARNING - SPOILERS AHEAD!!!


I got around to seeing Star Wars: The Last Jedi (C+) tonight and walked away with mixed feelings. First and foremost, I greatly admire the ambition of the film. As much as The Force Awakens plays it safe, this movie decides to strike out its own path. In that regard, I have a lot of love for this film. The production values are second to none, there are some great laughs, and a few thrilling and beautiful moments that are worth the money alone.

The core creative decision to paint the Jedi legacy as not just mixed, but something that needed to be learned from and moved on was a very bold and risky choice for Disney. Allowing the beloved Luke Skywalker to turn into a grizzled old man filled with regret and bitterness from his past failures could have been disastrous. The shocking death of Snoke (with an awesome light saber battle to boot) and the new "force connection" between Rey and Kylo are fascinating decisions that had the power to upset many core fans (and apparently has).

Unfortunately, all of these bold creative decisions are eventually undermined by fatal flaws, creating a disjointed and conflicting film experience. Here are four reasons The Last Jedi ultimately fails despite it's great production and awesome creative ambitions.

1. These creative choices come a movie too late. The Force Awakens, as the first entry in the new trilogy, had the task of setting fan expectations. The film laid out the landscape, setup our main characters, central themes, and key questions. TFA made clear to Star Wars fans that the lore and character backstories would be key to the plot going forward: What's Snoke's background? How did Luke let down Kylo? Why and how is Rey so powerful? Who are her parents? Why does the lightsaber call out to her? Why did Luke leave a map to find him? What role will Captain Phasma play in the future? Who is Maz Kanata? I remember asking these questions of fans only to be told, "Don't worry, they will answer it."

Although the entire new trilogy hit the reset button (destroying the ending of Return of the Jedi IMO) bringing back the rebellion vs empire structure of the originals, it was clear the movie existed in the same universe, with the same rules regarding the force. Rian Johnson's decision to just ignore those above questions or answer them briefly and unceremoniously is less an intentional swerve to the audience and more of a severely disappointing lack of payoff. The audience would never have cared oh so much about Rey and Snoke's backstory if TFA hadn't made such a big deal of it. Hadn't been promised that the goods were eventually coming. This is a continual problem for Abrams backed properties BTW.


Essentially, this film feels like the reboot and reset that TFA should have been if they wanted to go in this direction. I applaud the decision to be bold, but doing it after TFA makes the story disjointed and threatens to alienate an audience you just primed for a particular expectation. This tone and direction would make more sense as the initial entry.

2. The new direction feels more like the arbitrary choice of a writer and not the organic development of a progressing series: The way that TLJ pays off the hanging questions from TFA don't feel natural, as if this was the story all along. Instead, it feels like JJ Abrams was going in one direction and Rian Johnson decided to take it in a different way. On one hand, it's a positive that a director was allowed to imbue his creative vision into the story, but on the other hand, it undercuts the entire narrative thrust of the trilogy. Why should I trust that the next film won't ignore the themes and questions this one was supposed to leave me with?

It feels to me that the filmmakers are hoping the audience will credit them for whatever way they decide to answer characters background.
For example:
Rey in The Force Awakens: Her background is mysteriously connected to the force somehow, don't worry, we'll answer it soon and her power will all make sense.
Audience: Oooh, let's debate for two years on what makes most sense!

Rey in The Last Jedi: Her background is that her parents were nobodies. Don't you get it, the Star Wars universe is democratic now! Force powerful people can come from anywhere!
Audience: Oooh, that's bold. What a great progressive statement!

Rey in the next installment: Kylo was lying to her - he was an untrustworthy narrator - she's actually Han and Leia's daughter!
Audience: Oooh, that's bold, you tricked us! It all makes sense now!

A nice example of a natural progression is shown in Snoke who introduces new force powers to the universe, but we accept it because he was introduced as a more powerful villain than we've ever seen before. That new idea is a natural progression.

The bold new directions this film takes feel less like the natural progression of the story and more like a rewrite that can ultimately get re-written again. In other words, it's arbitrary to whatever they want to do in order to tell the next story. If it's arbitrary, why should I get that involved?

3. The new directions, retroactively diminishes previous characters and movies. I get their desire to make Luke a character in need of redemption; it's basic dramatic writing. I get that Luke's failure with Kylo, his exile, and his ultimate sacrifice provides a nice redemption arc for him in the story. The problem is: it ultimately ruins a core element of his character from the original trilogy - his purity. The core of Luke's character in Return of the Jedi is his absolute unwillingness to strike down Vader in anger and his hope to ultimately redeem him from the dark side. This is Vader he has hope for, the killer of millions!

In order to provide the new trilogy with it's new bad guy and send Luke off in need of redemption, they have Luke betray his core integrity: he considers killing Kylo because he glimpses the possibility of the evil in his future. I'm no Star Wars purist, but this just feels completely off to me. It backtracks the core element of Luke that makes him a hero. He wasn't the best with a light saber, but his essential goodness kept him grounded and a more powerful force to redeem Vader. In fact, there's problems throughout this movie with people "glimpsing" things in the force that always turn out to be wrong - why does ANYONE trust this ability (Snope, Luke, Rey, and Kylo all get this ability wrong)?

Additionally, the desire to move past the Jedi legacy is done with such broad strokes that it doesn't leave us with any clear idea of what exactly about the Jedi legacy was wrong. Was the whole training idea bad? Were all their basic core ideas wrong-headed? Should no one be trained? What exactly did they get wrong? What is the lesson we are too learn? I don't know how I am to walk away from this movie admiring anything about "The Jedi Way" in previous films. How is Rey getting it right where the Jedi way was getting it wrong?

4. There’s so many little problems that add up – there’s eventually a feeling of death by a thousand paper cuts. Nothing major that doesn't plague most modern blockbusters, but little things like this add up so much that it's hard to enjoy the things the film does right:
  • Each film seems to kinda refresh the situation as they please. This film starts with the entire rebellion down to a handful of ships and like 400 people. After the last film they just had a major victory, but now it feels like the writers just hit the reset button again.
  • The bad guys continue to design ships with a critical one flaw. The opening action scene, overall very good, features another major enemy ship taken down by hitting one key spot. This is the fifth movie to do this.
  • How are we supposed to take Hux seriously if a rebel X-wing sits in front of his main ship for minutes and they never fire on him? Then the one ship proceeds to destroy every surface cannon they have? ONE SHIP?
  • The "don't rush into battle, but think and lead" theme for Poe and Finn never really makes a ton of great sense. Often, central conflicts between the leaders and Poe/Finn can be resolved with just a bit of dialogue.
  • Leia using the force in space isn't necessarily bad, but her never doing anything like that with the force before makes it jarring and feeling gimmicky.
  • Yoda being able to actually cause lightning as a force ghost creates tons of questions about why force ghosts haven't been more active in previous installments.
  • There's no clue that Luke has discovered how to force project himself. I'm not against the use of it, but even a clue "I have abilities you've never seen" would make it feel less arbitrary and gimmicky.
  • The entire side plot to the Casino planet is one deus ex machina after another. The social commentary was really groan worthy to me.
  • Why would Maz Kanata recommend as the only one trustworthy a hacker that's so obviously someone who isn't trustworthy? (**Update, a student helped me a bit. I forgot the one Kanata recommended is someone they didn't end up using. Still, running into ANOTHER expert code breaker in jail is perhaps a worse dues ex machina offense**)
  • Why waste Phasma so quickly and unceremoniously?
  • Why was Snoke so powerful? 
  • How did Snoke get to Kylo when Kylo was at the training academy?
  • How did the First Order get so big so quick?
  • How did the rebellion get so small so quick?
  • How is Finn equal to Phasma?
  • Why make such an epic film that is essentially taking place in, what, just a handful of places - 3 of them being inside ships? Hard to remember such an epic modern film feeling so small setting wise.
  • The plot conveniences to setup the "got them on a string" chase are nearly unbearable: they are lighter and faster, our fighters are out of range, they will run out of gas, their little transports are cloaked.
  • Can BB8 be any more convenient?
  • Why make Ren so tactically challenged in the last battle? They have this amazing cannon and all those walkers and they slowly, slowly, slowly, walk up, rarely firing on obvious targets.
  • I get Ren's motivation for killing off the "old" - but what is his motivation for dominating the galaxy? I don't get that.
  • Rose's "saving" of Finn with her line about saving things might be the cheesiest and most groan worthy line of the year. Especially coming right before LUKE SACRIFICES HIMSELF FOR OTHERS!

Any ways, that's just a taste of my experience. It's a shame because I kinda enjoyed a lot of the other stuff going on and I'm now more interested in where the films go from here. If none of these issues bothered you, awesome. This certainly isn't meant to rain on anyone's parade - it's hard to find movies we respond well to. I'm glad you found one.

I, however, really wish they had been this bold starting with the first movie - but now we are left with a Star Wars universe that has become a mix of continuation with the past and a rejection of the past that is more confusing and disjointed than I believe they intended and this casual fan wanted.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

A Higher Standard: Ravi Zacharias Must Do Better

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A Higher Standard: Ravi Zacharias Must Do Better

Christianity Today just posted responses from Ravi Zacharias and Ravi Zacharias Ministries to recent allegations of credentials fraud and inappropriate sexting. Read the full article using the link below:
http://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2017/december/ravi-zacharias-sexting-extortion-lawsuit-doctorate-bio-rzim.html

I'm glad there has finally been a formal response to the allegations leveled against Ravi Zacharias (HERE is an overview). Unfortunately, my heart is extremely heavy because I know deep down that this is not acceptable. These comments are not near specific or transparent enough for global Christian leaders. They are vague and general; giving the impression of comprehensively addressing the allegations without actually focusing on specific facts or claiming any kind of fault/responsibility.

Full disclosure: Ravi Zacharias is one of my favorite Christian authors and apologists. I use his materials and arguments to enrich my own spiritual walk as well as my class curriculum as a Bible teacher. I have no desire for Zacharias and his ministry to be held guilty of something of which they aren't, just so that I can come off as more righteous. My desire here is to hold my Christian leaders accountable. It is precisely because I have used Ravi's materials so widely that I feel responsible to share my commentary.

Regarding the sexting allegations: If Ravi were a private citizen who settled out of court, claimed no liability, then said he couldn't talk more because of non-disclosure agreements, then you might begrudgingly understand. However, Ravi is a global Christian leader that must be transparent about his character - even the appearance of bad character. That no public formal statements (as far as I am aware) were made by him or his ministry until after non-disclosure agreements were signed, that emails/texts were not released that could potentially exonerate him fully, and that the claims of Ravi threatening suicide are never specifically addressed are completely unacceptable.

This has the ring of "Be general enough, say you learned a lesson, then hope it goes away". I hope and pray that what Ravi says in the following statement is actually true:

The question is not whether I solicited or sent any illicit photos or messages to another woman—I did not, and there is no evidence to the contrary—but rather, whether I should have been a willing participant in any extended communication with a woman not my wife. The answer, I can unequivocally say, is no, and I fully accept responsibility.

There is no way to know this because the messages will not be released do to the settlement. Why not be completely transparent if Ravi did absolutely nothing wrong? Why settle out of court if he is as clean as a whistle? If he's not, and it's just a minor faltering, then why not confess it? It doesn't smell right here. Using the following statement as a way to try and conclude the matter is unacceptable, especially since he waited until after the settlement to state his case publicly.

However, at this time, unfortunately I am legally prevented from answering or even discussing the questions and claims being made by some, other than to say that each side paid for their own legal expenses and no ministry funds were used.

Regarding the credentials allegations: Notice how they have skillfully not answered the direct charges about exaggerated ties to Oxford? Again, generally answering the "Dr." claims and refusing to answer specific charges should not be acceptable and is unfortunately a sign that that the ministry and Ravi are either in denial (which makes them ignorant) or are covering up instead of confessing (which makes them liars). Neither is a good outcome.

Let me be clear: I'm not saying that Ravi Zacharias is guilty. I'm saying his responses do not give  clear enough evidence and confidence that he is. I hope that my read of this situation is completely wrong here, for which I will gladly apologize. I hope that Ravi is as innocent as claimed. However, the refusal to state his case before the settlement, be completely transparent, and to specifically address damaging claims should not be acceptable by the Christian community, and more specifically his supporters.

Unfortunately, my fear is that most of my Christian brothers and sisters will read this and move on, not wanting to think of ill of a Christian leader who does a lot for the cause of Christ. We should call for Ravi and his ministry to be more transparent about the entire situation, specifics and all. I want to dismiss these allegations, but Ravi's refusal, or inability, to shine a bright light on everything in his response has forced me to focus on the leftover darkness.

In a world where public figures are falling left and right for unethical conduct, Christian leaders must do everything reasonable to stamp out any appearance of evil. Ravi has not done that here. For the cause of Christ, for the good of their ministry, and for Ravi and his family, I pray the full truth is brought to light.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Part-Time Review: Dunkirk

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Part-Time Review: Dunkirk

Dunkirk is too good a movie to give a poor grade to, but man are there some things about the film I really didn't like. As the critic Walter Chaw in his review put it, "The bits of Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk that are good are so good. The bits of it that are bad are just awful. I'm a Nolan fan." I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment.

I don't have any kind of grand take on the film, my thoughts are more scattered than usual so I'll just bullet point some of my favorite bits and some of my issue (WARNING: SPOILERS ahead)

Liked/Loved:

- Everything about the "air" story is excellent. It's well written, shot, and executed. I know it's vital to the way they wrote the film, but every time they cut back to the "Land" sequences, it was a huge let down for me.

- There's a shot near the end where Hardy's plane is cruising over Dunkirk out of gas and the camera has the plane in a medium shot with the beach and city behind it. It's an absolutely sublime image, and one of the relatively few moments in the film where I felt allowed to just be in awe. One of my favorite moments of any film in the last several years.

- The "sea" sequences are good. I like Rylance and appreciate him as the moral backbone, but his story did feel a bit obvious and telegraphed.

Disliked/Hated:

- The sound in this film is incredibly oppressive. I'm hoping it's just the theater's mix (let me know if you felt it too), but the bass NEVER stopped, never let up. It felt like the intense "THRONG" that was so popular in the slo-mo moments of INCEPTION played throughout the entirety of the film. I get it, I know what they were going for, but it didn't work for me. Just made me feel nauseous and cheap for injecting "tension" in scenes that are typically run of the mill for films (I've seen enough bombings).

- The "plug the holes" sequence in the bottom of the boat made me want to beat my head against the wall due to the characters acting so idiotically.That whole sequence in that beached boat often made no sense and was cut horribly IMO. There is a "audience can figure it out" sense to it, but it also just feels needlessly confusing and frustrating.

- I feel bad for Branagh who spends the whole movie standing in the same place and just looking up at the sky for Spielberg reaction shots and hoping for boats.

- I didn't care for the balance the film aims at between claustrophobia and comprehensiveness in telling the story of Dunkirk. I get making the Germans faceless to an extent, but with no idea about where they were on the perimeter, how long things were actually taking, the movie NEVER ends up feeling like 400,000 men evacuating. It felt like a couple thousand made it out on a fleet of 100 or so civilian boats with maybe 10 or so bombers strafing them every now and then.

- The accidental death turned into a hero war story falls into a weird zone where the film neither seems to be presenting it as positive "kid was really a hero", neutral "you make up your mind", or negative "this is what we gotta do in war for propaganda" - I'm kinda left wondering what the film is saying with it.

- I really disliked the Harry Styles casting. Not because he's a bad actor, not at all, but because it feels like horrible stunt casting (when it probably isn't). Styles isn't an actor, so when you see him, he sticks out, you constantly say, "Oh that's Harry Styles trying to blend in".

Conclusion: When I heard Nolan was doing a film about Dunkirk, my first reaction was confusion, "What is there to tell about that story that hasn't already been done?" The story is locked in location, features lots of waiting, and the drama is in transport, not really actual combat for the most part. I just didn't think there was much to do with it as a war film, beyond things that have already been done in other films.



I think my gut is proved right. Nolan is a master filmmaker so he crafts some incredible sequences and images here. There are some tense and moving moments as well as the war standards done pretty well: sacrifice, courage, and cowardice. In the end, It feels to me like Nolan recognizes there's not much to be said that hasn't already been said before (and better), o he turns to his craft to artificially heighten the experience. It ultimately hurts the film because it feels less like good storytelling and more like the insecure panic of a master creator trying to plead with the audience that he's made something important.


OVERALL GRADE: B

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Part-Time Review: The Resurrection of Gavin Stone

10:55 PM 0
Part-Time Review: The Resurrection of Gavin Stone


The Resurrection of Gavin Stone represents a "Faith" film genre that is showing signs of transitioning from adolescence to young adulthood. It continues to be held back by one-dimensional characters, black & white conflicts, & some cheesy dialogue, but it also takes advantage of a good premise to create some genuinely thoughtful and intelligent dramatic moments.

The central concept here is better than usual. Yes, a wayward soul learns of Jesus is still the center (that's the genre guys), but having him deceptively and selfishly swipe the role as Jesus in a church play is a more direct genre premise than previous faith films were. I think faith films tend to be more successful when they set their stories within the church world, rather than tell more generic stories that the church eventually barges into. One feels more organic, the other just comes off like an expensive "Jesus Juke."

The concept is better told here as well. There is clearly a maturation (production budget effect?) in the basic quality of the filmmaking: acting, camera work, editing, etc. Despite this maturation, like adolescence, the filmmakers still seem unaware that a stark contrast they make one of the thematic layers (Hollywood = bad vs Church = good) betrays their maturation. The way it plays out is too on the nose and can be too easily dismissed as caricaturing a whole segment of society.

Still, the film shows some self-awareness of the wealthy evangelical cultural bubble that's driving the making the film. They even mine some genuine laughs from it. I laughed pretty hard at a couple of the odd evangelical lingo they use draw attention to in this fish out of water story. In particular there's a good sequence where three church guys invite the main character over for some "fellowship" that felt genuine, relatable, and pretty funny.Yet at times the film is also mind-numbingly oblivious to how one-note the portrayal of the church can be. The self-aware jokes are kinda funny, but they never are allowed to have serious self-reflective bite. It reminds me of a nice teen who discovers and points out something funny about their cultural bubble, but then finishes by saying, "I didn't mean it, I was just kidding."

There are some genuinely thoughtful dramatic sequences here as well. I found the finale sequence surprisingly moving and the fact it featured a several themes culminating at the same time was very smartly done. However, I fear much of that will be ignored by the "unconverted" due to the continued reliance on one-dimensional.characters & the obvious need to re-affirm the absolute goodness of the cultural bubble that is producing the film.

That said, this film represents another hopeful step forward for this "faith" genre. We may yet see a few gems made from this film community...or like many in our current culture, we may just be seeing a prolonged hovering between adolescence and young adulthood.



OVERALL GRADE: B-