Sunday, January 27, 2013

Book Review: "The Utter Relief of Holiness" -- questions, options and prayer

Author: John Eldredge, 2013 (FaithWords)

"What is Christianity supposed to do to a person?" asks John Eldredge in the opening chapter of his brand new book, "The Utter Relief of Holiness" (p.7). He doesn't wait long to give us the answer: "restore him as a human being" (p.12). In this way, Eldredge taps into our innate desire for wholeness, for restoration. The weight of our brokenness and sin brings us down and stifles our joy. But then he combines wholeness and holiness, linking them inextricably together. Most of us don't spend much time thinking about holiness, partly because it seems a hopeless ideal, but in his Edlredge's view this limits our restoration. Toward the end of this grand opening chapter, he says:
Ask the anorexic young girl how she would feel if she simply no longer struggled with food, diet, exercise -- if she simply never even gave it another thought. Ask the man consumed with jealousy how he would feel if woke one day to discover that all he once felt jealous over was simply gone. Ask the raging person what it would be like to be free of rage or the alcoholic what it would be like to be completely free from addiction. Take the things you struggle with and ask yourself, 'What would life be like if I never struggled with his again?" It would be an utter relief. An absolute relief. (p. 18)
This utter relief is tied to utter holiness, as he goes on to explain.

While the first chapter is a great hook, the next three chapters in the first half tend to drag a little. But just when I thought this book might be a snoozer, Eldredge jerked me awake with a one-page chapter that had a set of key questions. This chapter is worth the price of the book:
What are you repenting of? I mean, right now, this week, what is it that you are repenting of these days? If you don't have a ready answer, how can you be taking holiness seriously? (p.63)
This series of questions stopped me dead in my reading tracks. If I am not actively repenting of something, I am not repenting, and either have not sinned and so don't need repentance (not true) or am wallowing in my sin and ignoring holiness. If the latter, then I am certainly not moving towards wholeness.

This chapter turns the corner, and the second half of the book describes the way to holiness. Eldredge does a fine job, now that he has the reader's attention, of showing what God has done for us, using Scripture heavily throughout. Indeed, it is almost a mini-theology at some points.

Two points stand out from this compelling second half. The first is that we can choose holiness: "What God did for you and in you through Jesus Christ gives you an option" (p.110). He reinforces this point: "The Big Lie of sin is that it is inevitable. . . . Now we have an option" (p.120).

The second point is one we all innately experience: sin has worked its way into our lives, forming beachheads and strongholds. We all have our own stubborn sins, our strangleholds, our idols. But with Jesus, we have the option to fight sin. But as he says, "You will have to give up precious idols, and that is almost always painful" (p.153).

"Utter Relief" is a thin book. At 180 pages not including the appendix, it is a very fast read. But its thickness belies its depth. It provides not only pensive thoughts on wholeness and holiness, but practical theology on what to do. No self-help book though, this is firmly centered on Jesus. Indeed, it offers a couple of prayers that could and probably should form the basis for our own daily prayer. Eldredge, noted for his bestseller "Wild at Heart," has penned another classic here. We may be wild at heart, but with our new heart given to us by God in Jesus, we can become whole and holy: what an utter relief!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one or more of the products or services mentioned above for free in hope that I would mention it on my blog. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Hope Springs -- relational stagnation and its resolution

Director: David Frankel, 2012 (PG-13)

“You Can Have the Marriage You Want.” This is the book that propels the plot in this so-called geriatric romantic comedy. And it is a title that will force us to reflect on our own marriages to reflect on exactly what marriage we really do want.

In this first pairing of Oscar-winners Meryl Streep (The Deer Hunter) and Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln), Streep plays Kay who has been married to Arnold (Jones) for 31 years. They are a perfectly normal middle-aged couple whose marriage has frozen into a rut. Gone is the romance of younger years. In its place is routine and relational stagnation.

Every day begins with Kay cooking bacon and eggs for Arnold, who buries his nose in the paper barely acknowledging Kay’s presence. He goes off to work with a peck on the cheek and hardly a word. He returns to find dinner waiting, golf on TV where he falls asleep in his recliner. And then scale the stairs to depart into separate bedrooms. No touch, no hugs, no sex.

Early in the film, one of Kay’s coworkers tells her ”marriages don’t change.” Kay clearly wants more. She is ready to change. But Arnold is satisfied with the status quo, despite the distance that the currents of parenthood, busyness and business have created.

When Kay discovers the book mentioned earlier, she researchers the author, Dr. Feld (Steve Carrell, Date Night). He offers an intensive week-long couple’s counseling session. This takes place in his hometown of Great Hope Springs up in Maine. When Kaye cashes in her own CD to pay the $4000, hope springs in her heart. But tax accountant Arnold, ever a cynical tightwad, complains and refuses to go. But the money is spent, so he decides to make the best of it.

The movie really takes off when the couple take their places on the counselor’s coach. While Carrell plays his role dead-pan, with minimal emotion, Jones and Streep give their characters believable and accessible feelings. She is lonely. He is angry and afraid. We can understand her loneliness, but we never discover why Arnold is so angry and crabby.

Dr Feld quietly challenges them to face each other again, to reflect on what brought them together in the first place. He soon discovers a lack of physical relationship, and begins to give them sexual challenges that escalate from touching to oral sex. There are some awkward scenes in the movie, but what detracts the most is the loud manipulative soundtrack that seeks to flag the emotional mood swings even while the veteran actors are trying to show through their craft.

I imagine all marriages devolve to some degree into routine, perhaps mediocrity, some even into monotony. How do we handle the emotional drifts of time? Frankel’s film seems to offer some solutions. Clearly, sharing our feelings and opening the communication channels is critical. What this does is makes us vulnerable to the other partner.

Without vulnerability, intimacy is impeded or even voided. Arnold was not willing to do this. He was comfortable with his life and had retreated into a shell of his own making, like a hermit crab. That may be what he wants, even what we want, but what does his spouse want?

Kay summarizes her situation to Dr Feld: “He is everything. But I’m, I’m really lonely. And to be with someone when you’re not really with him can … it’s … I think I might be less lonely … alone.” How sad. To be in the same room, even the same relationship, as your life-partner and not really be there at all. Loneliness becomes the dagger that pierces the heart of many a marriage that fails.

How do we disarm this dagger? We practice the art of being present. We determine to take time to talk, and not just about the trivialities of our days. We commit to communicate the depths of our hearts. We vow to make the other more important to us than anything else we might treasure. As Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). Make your spouse your most-treasured relationship.

Of course, the film focuses on sex, and sex is indeed an important part of marriage. Both men and women need physical intimacy. When the heart grows cold sex gets old. The Apostle Paul knew this, and gave this advice to married couples, talking about sexual union: “Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer” (1 Cor. 7:5). The Bible also says, “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure” (Heb. 13:4). Pure here does not mean absent. Sex was created by God to be enjoyed by married couples and there seems to be no time limit. Age may slow things down and bring on changes but it doesn’t have to bring cessation. That is the path to separation.

As a fully-fledged card-carrying member of AARP, with more than a quarter century of marriage behind me (to the most wonderful wife I can imagine) I find myself putting myself in Arnold’s shoes. No, my wife and I don’t sleep in separate rooms. And we do enjoy the physical dimensions of marriage. But I wonder how vulnerable I am, how much I really share of my inner feelings. Could I give more to my wife and my marriage?

When Arnold is about to give up, Dr Feld challenges him with the question, “Have you given it your best?” How about you? If you haven’t, then what kind of marriage do you really want? The best marriage requires that we give it our best in all areas. When we do this, hope will spring eternal for you.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey -- adventures and ordinary life

Director: Peter Jackson, 2012 (PG-13)

After Peter Jackson’s stellar movie adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, the bar was set high for The Hobbit. Sadly, Jackson  fails to reach these heights with part one of this new trilogy. But that is not to say that the film does not entertain. It does. But not as much as before. This is partly due to his decision to make a trilogy of a simple book (rather than three books); and partly due to his decision to make this less like the children’s story that it is based on and more like a prequel to his Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings.

As before, Jackson gives us a short story from Middle Earth as a prologue to the film and to set the context. The Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor thrives with activity, as dwarves mine gold and precious jewels. All is well until the king’s love of gold becomes “a sickness of the mind” and he pursues more and more gold simply to possess it. Greed has gone wild. And as his vast resources of gold expand, the fearsome dragon Smaug discovers this treasure and destroys the underground palace and takes up residence in the mountain. The dwarves are forced out of their kingdom, becoming homeless vagrants whose pride turns inward into anger as they roam over mountain and vale, eking out a barren existence.

This prolog itself offers an initial point of ethical consideration. The love of gold here is described as a sickness. In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul says something similar: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). Here it is not so much a sickness as a root of sin. When this love takes hold, our hearts become dark and prone to sin. Greed leads to loss of perspective, as was the case for the dwarf king, and loss of morality. Indeed, greed is listed by Jesus as one among many sins that includes sexual immorality, theft, murder and adultery (Mk. 7:21-23). It can end in no good, as in Erebor.

For the hobbit, though, the film begins exactly where The Fellowship of the Ring began: in Bilbo Baggins home at Bag End in Hobbiton on the eve of Bilbo’s 111th birthday. Ian Holm briefly reprises his role as the older Bilbo, writing the story of his adventure, before we go back 60 years to actually witness his adventure.

The first act has Gandalf the Gray (Ian McKellen) showing up at the door of the young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). He tells Bilbo, “I’m looking for someone to share in an adventure.” The hobbit seems an unlikely choice, as he prefers nothing more than his cozy home, his books and his food. But Gandalf goes on: “You’ll have a tale to tell when you come back.” Bilbo asks, “You can promise that I will come back?” Gandalf replies, “No. And if you do, you will not be the same.”

Here is the second and crucial theme for this film: adventure. Bilbo loves his life at home too much. Gandalf even tells him, “When did your doilies and your mother’s dishes become so important to you?” He is in a comfort zone of predictability and safety. He does not desire the danger of the unknown. But this adventure is going to change him, to allow a part of Bilbo that is latent to emerge so that he might become stronger, deeper, more courageous.

How often do we retreat into our Hobbit-homes when adventure comes knocking? If we are honest, I think we all have our comfort zones where we can retreat and cocoon. But we don’t grow in comfort; we stagnate. Adventure brings with it trials. And the Apostle James had this to say about trials: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (Jas. 1:2-4). Adventure can craft character. Like a sculptor working on a block of marble, God can use such adventure to chisel away our unbelief and leave us strong and mature in our faith. We must welcome adventure like an old wizard friend!

But this first act is long and weak. It brings a baker’s dozen dwarves to Bilbo’s door, led by exiled king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). These thirteen are tough to keep track of, even though so much time is spent on their initial impromptu party at Bag End. By the time Bilbo has agreed to become the final member of their fellowship, and they are off on their ponies, an hour has passed.

Once they are on their way, the film picks up. The final two acts breaks into segments almost exactly the same as The Fellowship of the Ring. Act two has them riding through the glens of Middle Earth, encountering trolls and orcs, concluding in Rivendell where the Elves proffer some advice and counsel to the band of wanderers. The third act features a battle of stone giants before the group descends into the bowels of the Misty Mountains where they encounter goblins.

Jackson turns the mood somber in these two acts. The gaity and merriness of the feasting at Bag End transform into dread. While the book contained a certain lightness, the film mirrors the Lord of the Rings. A darkness has settled on the land, and it is evident in the film. Indeed, one would not know that this was a children’s tale from the movie. There is simply too much fighting, too many goblins and orcs. It is not as if we had not seen this before. As remarkable as The Fellowship of the Ring was, this feels like a copycat makeover. Even the fighting becomes repetitive and somewhat boring.

The best scene occurs deep below the Misty Mountains. While the dwarfs are fighting the goblins, Bilbo comes face to face with Gollum (Andy Serkis), that most pathetic of creatures who covets his “Precious,” the ring that will form the heart of the later trilogy. Bilbo’s life-and-death battle of wills with Gollum demonstrates his growth. And when he subsequently spares Gollum’s life, an act of volitional mercy that will intersect Frodo’s life later, we realize there is maturity in Bilbo that not even Thorin possesses.

In the face of so much evil permeating Middle Earth, why did Gandalf bring Bilbo? This is a question that the Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) asks Gandalf and he gives her a specific answer: “Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay... small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? That's because I am afraid and it gives me courage.”

Gandalf reminds us that even though great adventure can result in great victories, it is in the ordinariness of life that we most often come face to face with evil. We can respond to the unkindnesses of men and inequities of life with bitterness and cynicism. We can seek revenge, an eye for an eye. Or we can return evil with good. We can show love and mercy to those who would not expect it. Jesus told us to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). In so doing, we keep the darkness at bay. Paul gave similar advice: “ ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:20-21). Who knows who might be alongside watching you, seeking courage from your simple and ordinary acts. Treat each day as an unexpected journey that might lead to a new adventure but will certainly lead to opportunities to en-courage others through acts of kindness and mercy.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

CT's Critics' Choice Movie Awards of 2012

Last week it was Christianity Today's top 10 "most redeeming" films of 2012. This week it is the "Critics' Choice", their list of the top 10 films of 2012 (according to their movie critics). Their top 3 films are depicted in the graphic here, and there is some overlap.

Two of the top three films show up in both lists. You may have some different selections in your list, but I would imagine Lincoln shows up in your top 10. Snubbed at the Golden Globe Awards, this film is sure to emancipate a number of silver trophies in Hollywood next month.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Win a Free Copy of "The Utter Relief of Holiness" by John Eldredge

John Eldredge, author of the bestseller "Wild at Heart," just published his latest book, and I have a copy to give away. Here's an excerpt from the jacket:
Ask the raging person what it would be like to be free of rage or the alcoholic what it would be like to be completely free from addiction. Take the things you struggle with and ask yourself, 'What would life be like if I never struggled with his again?" It would be an utter relief. An absolute relief. . . . Here is a book that explores the beauty of the genuine goodness available to us in Jesus Christ, and guides us through the process whereby God makes us whole and holy by his love. You will be relieved. Utterly.
If you want to enter to win a copy of this book, just enter a comment below sharing why you want to read the book. It can be a sentence or a paragraph, it doesn't matter. Just make sure I have an email address so I can contact you if you win. I will make a random drawing from all who submit a comment and notify the winner by email who can then provide a mailing address where the book can be sent.

Submissions are open till noon Pacific time next Friday, January 18th.

Good luck! I am excited to read your reasons for wanting to read the book. And my review will be posted around the drawing date.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

CT's Most Redeeming Films of 2012

Just before tomorrow's announcement of the Oscar nominees, yesterday Christianity Today released their top 10 "most redeeming" films of 2012. At the top of their list is the love-it or hate-it musical, Les Miserables. Critics are evenly divided on this film. I never saw it but the lovely ladies in the Baggs family loved it. I can, however, vouch for numbers 2, 7, 8 and 10. Indeed, one of these is my favorite film of 2012. Next week CT releases their "Critic's Choice Awards" list, which is their big list.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Bourne Ultimatum -- back to the beginning

Director: Paul Greenglass, 2007 (PG-13)

The Bourne Supremacy ended in New York with Bourne (Matt Damon) calling Pam Landry (Joan Allen) and telling her, “Get some rest, Pam. You look tired.” With this, we all thought the series was over. Bourne had found out who he was, or at least what he was. But Bourne is a product of Hollywood, and where there’s a cash cow there’s more gold to be milked. (Just as we thought that The Bourne Ultimatum was the end of the Bourne films, only to be surprised by this year’s The Bourne Legacy that does not even feature Jason Bourne!) So we get another Jason Bourne film that is similar to the middle installment but perhaps the best of the three.

To make this happen, returning director Greengrass sets the first two acts of this one before that earlier phone call and builds up to a radical reinterpretation of those closing lines.

After escaping from Moscow following the car chase, shown in Supremacy, Bourne comes to Paris to visit Marie’s surviving brother much like he visited a surviving orphan in Moscow. These scenes show his heart and compassion, but that is all we get for this film. After this, he is all focus.  That’s because he reads an article by an English reporter (Paddy Considine, Hot Fuzz) that focuses on Treadstone and Bourne.

Travelling to London, he asks Ross, “Who’s your source? What’s his name?” But CIA agents are on to Ross, triggered by the code name Treadstone. “Look, what’s going on? Why are these people after me?” Ross replies. “Because you found something. You talked to someone inside Treadstone, someone who was there at the beginning.”  It was Blackbriar, a Treadstone upgrade.

In the first film, The Bourne Identity, Bourne woke up without a memory. He needed to answer the question, “Who am I?” And he did. He discovered he was Jason Bourne, an American assassin. In Supremacy, still plagued by his pas, he wanted to answer the question, “Who was I?” And he did. He realized he was someone other than Jason Bourne, a David Webb. But he knows nothing of his life as Webb. Now, in this final film, he has to go back to the beginning, to answer, “How was I reborn?”

As before, the movie features full-on fights and fast-paced chases. Like before they are filmed with hand-held cameras to give a shaky, you-were-here feel. From Paris to London, from London to Madrid, from Madrid to Tangier, international locations abound. But we cut back and forth to New York to see the CIA heads who are pulling the puppet strings. Where Identity and Supremacy had two bad agents, Conklin and Abbott, here we get Noah Vosen (David Strathairn, Lincoln) and Director Kramer (Scott Glenn, The Silence of the Lambs). Returning are Pam Landry and Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), the only person other than Bourne who is in all three films.

The scooter chase in Tangier culminates in a foot chase across rooftops. If we think this is white knuckle stuff, improbable as it might be, the car chase in New York, which replicates the Moscow chase is a total thrill ride.

When we get to the conversation between Bourne and Landry, Bourne knows he will come face to face with his creator very soon. He will find out how he was remade as Bourne. And though the phone dialog matches that in Supremacy, it was actually reshot for this new film.

We, too, discovered who we are, in the post on Identity. We are God’s creation, made by him in his image. We looked at who we were, in the review of Supremacy. We are now enemies of God. But how did that happen? How were we twisted from our original image? And what can we do to be reborn?

To answer these questions, we have to go back to the beginning, not to Blackbrier the off-books op, but to Eden the in-book narrative. After God created mankind, Satan visited the original pair of humans in his black op undercover mission. Taking the form of a serpent, he twisted God’s words, giving misinformation to Eve, causing her to disobey God’s word and violate her mission (Gen. 3). Having tasted the forbidden fruit, she persuaded Adam to do likewise. These two joined the enemy’s team through this original sin. Cast out of Eden, God cursed all three. Where life existed, death now reigned. The image of God was marred, not totally destroyed. But marred enough that we no longer recognize God. David Webb was gone; Jason Bourne took his place.

In that original cursing, though, God offered a glimmer or hope: the so-called protoevangel. To the snake, he said: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15). This is a foretelling of Eve’s offspring through Mary: Jesus. The son of God, the second person of the Trinity, he would one day leave the throne-room of heaven and come to earth as a human. His covert mission was to walk as one of us, live as one of us, and then die as one of us. But his death was not his alone; it was for us. He sacrificed himself on that cross, dying in our place for sins he did not commit (1 Pet. 2:22).

While he was alive, he told Nicodemus, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (Jn. 3:3). The only way we can be brought back into relationship with God is to be reborn. This can only occur by faith: “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (Jn. 1:12).

Like David Webb we can only take on this new identity voluntarily. It cannot be coerced. We must be re-Bourne!

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Bourne Supremacy -- Who was I?

Director: Paul Greengrass, 2004 (PG-13)

The Bourne Identity closed with a pseudo happy ending. Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) and Marie (Franke Potente) reconnected on a Greek island. This positively utopian picture of relational bliss carries over to the sequel. Now Bourne and Marie are enjoying the almost idyllic life of a couple, living on the beach in Goa, southern India. But Bourne is haunted by fragments of memories that show up in his dreams, which he records in a journal. One page of this journal summarizes the key theme of this installment: Who was I? His past won’t come into focus. He knows who he is: Jason Bourne, but not really who he was.

This life is shattered when a killer, Kirill (Karl Urban, Star Trek) comes after Bourne. Senses heightened for self-preservation, Bourne notices and a car chase ensues. When Marie is killed, Bourne’s life of passivity is over. He is back in the saddle, once more chasing and being chased. He is after the killer while the CIA is after him.

An early scene has a CIA operation in Berlin, supervised by Pam Landry (Joan Allen), go badly wrong. With two agents down, and Bourne’s fingerprints literally all over the kill, the Americans think their rogue agent is back with a vengeance.

The film is much like its predecessor. Back are Brian Cox as Ward Abbott, the mastermind behind Treadstone, as well as Julia Stiles as Nicky Persons, the CIA agent from Paris. The high-octane action moves from India to Berlin and onto Moscow, with scenes in New York and Washington interspersed so we know what is going in with the CIA hunt. This time the principal car chase occurs in Moscow, and director Paul Greengrass uses hand-held cameras to give a documentary-like feel to the film. Despite this, the film feels slightly inferior to the original. But Bourne does finally find out who he was.

Who was he? You’ll have to see the film to find this out. But the question resonates as a follow-on question to that asked in the first film, Who am I? We all want to discover our identity. To find out who we are, we must first find out who we were.

Who was I? Again, the Bible answers this question. As we look in the mirror of its pages, we discover a dark secret: “we were God’s enemies” (Rom. 5:10). The apostle Paul paints a gloomy picture, much like the camerawork in this film: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins” (Eph. 2:1). He goes on, “Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). And the psalmist puts it even more bluntly: “Everyone has turned away, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Psa. 53:3). Like our anti-hero killer Bourne and the killers after him, all pursue evil.

If we, like Bourne, find out who we were and realize we dislike what we see, what can we do? Do we, simply try to bring closure to one or more events in our past and then move on? Do we reconcile ourselves to a life lived in fear, always looking over our shoulder for the enemy? Or is there a solution to our dilemma? Can we make peace with God and with ourselves? We may find the answer in The Bourne Ultimatum.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs