Hymnus Deo

Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Monday, September 20, 2010

Summer Movies 2010

Summer is nearly officially over, yet we continue to have ninety degree weather here in North Carolina. The leaves are gradually falling, and yet it seems to be more from the lack of rain than anything, said lack being visible in the brown grass that surrounds my house. And with all this dryness and heat, who can think of Fall and all that it brings? For that reason, if no other excuse will work, a Summer movie recap seems in order.

My movie pickings were slim this Summer, in spite of all the offerings. Lack of time and money are always a motivator, of course. I opted not to attend some of the famed remakes (A-Team, Karate Kid), for no other reason than they didn't appeal to me. And I have already reviewed a couple of others (Toy Story 3 and Prince of Persia). I did take the time to catch a couple of films after that, though, so let me make a few comments about them.

The first one was "Despicable Me". This one, interestingly enough, is still in a few theaters around here, in spite of having come out over two months ago. It got rave reviews, which would sort of explain it. From my perspective, however, it is hardly worth the praise it's received. I had found myself intrigued with the trailer for the movie, so I made time on my day off to slip out to the theater to see it. Thankfully, the movie was only about an hour and a half long, because I found it to be an utter waste of time. As is often the case, all the good jokes and gags (which were few) appeared in the trailers for the film, leaving nothing left of interest in the film. The dialogue was flat and boring, and the characters were uninteresting. (Come to think of it, the characters were uninteresting because the dialogue was flat and boring. But I digress.) There were some good themes to the film: a measure of reflection on how bad parenting makes children into bad adults, how approval from a parent is a fundamental human desire, and how love can conquer evil, to give a few examples. Yet while it was clear what the filmmakers were attempting to communicate, the setting and presentation were such as to keep the viewer from actually taking these things all that seriously, and left him with the sense that the filmmakers didn't take them seriously either. There was little depth of feeling to the film, no gravity to give the viewer the sense that these are as weighty themes as they in reality are. The evil characters weren't all that evil - when the main character, Gru, goes from attempting to be the world's most evil villain, to being the loving adoptive parent of three little girls, the only thing the viewer is surprised about is that any adoption agency would be so poorly run as to allow such a situation to transpire. No regeneration was necessary for this pseudo-villain.

In addition, I was particularly bugged by the dialogue from the three "little girls". Their dialogue, as well as the delivery of it, carried a sophistication that seemed way disproportionate with the characters' visual depiction. Perhaps next time the filmmakers should choose less precocious children to play such roles. I found it hard to take those characters seriously as a result.

Some of the music of the film was okay, but it was generally poor as well. The presence of more pop styles of music, especially disco and R&B, neither of which I care for, nor that I would want my children to hear if I were a parent, were frequent in the film. This comes to a head in the last scene of the film, when a ballet recital by the three girls turns into a disco party. This is a common enough occurrence in movies, but the implications are rarely understood. The movement from the one to the other implies that a sort of maturity takes place, carried out in the styles of music. Ballet, and the classical style of music that accompanies it, is treated as the more immature style of music. It's something that is fine for children. But true maturity, it seems, comes in popular music, particularly disco, in this case. In reality, the opposite is true. The cultural setting of disco is no accident, a further proof that musical styles, and aesthetic styles more broadly, aren't neutral. Disco has always carried with it many elements of immature and immoral behavior. Lack of responsibility toward one's actions, manifested in many ways, though most recognizable in things like drug and alcohol addiction, plus sexual promiscuity, is a part of the worldview of which disco is a part. In contrast, ballet and classical music communicate order and self-control, key Biblical virtues (Galatians 5:22-24). True maturity isn't the autonomous freedom of disco, but living within the bounds that God has created in the universe and given to His creatures.

All in all, this movie was simply bad, and it was bad enough that I'm baffled that millions of Americans missed that it was bad. Come to think of it, no, I take that back. I know Americans. This doesn't surprise me at all. It is just more proof that ten thousand Frenchmen can be wrong after all, and, believe it or not, it has nothing to do with the fact that they're French. It turns out I'm not the only person to give "Despicable Me" a bad review anyway, as noted on the Wikipedia page for the movie. But the majority apparently disagreed. Oh well. People liked this movie, they think Lady Gaga is interesting, and they elected Barack Obama to the White House. There's no accounting for taste. And so we move on.

The next movie I went to see was "Salt", featuring Angelina Jolie. I don't see alot of action-thriller types of movies, largely because of the "R" ratings they generally garner. So the fact that this one was "PG-13" was a bit of a draw for me. I thought the trailer was intriguing, and I have found Jolie to be a convincing and interesting actress, especially in action films, though this is often clouded over by an overuse of her sex appeal. Still, I felt comfortable that this wouldn't be something to worry about here, given the rating of the film, so I gave it a go.

It turned out to be a good choice. It wasn't what you would call high art - it is, plain and simple, a shoot 'em up, fast paced spy thriller. And yet there was a beauty to it that kept me interested (no, I'm not referring to Jolie). Jolie's character is accused of being a Russian spy, part of an organization seeking to recover the days of Communist occupation, and the viewer gradually learns whether or not the accusation is false. That suspense in itself is enough to maintain interest. But the film was well done all the way around anyway. Great acting, good soundtrack, visually stimulating - just great.

It is a violent film, of course, appropriate to its rating. Beyond this, there is little for a Christian to quibble with. Jolie does appear in little clothing near the beginning of the film - but with all the appropriate parts covered - in a scene in which she is being held captive in a foreign prison. Consequent to the context, there is nothing sexual about the scene (quite the opposite), and Jolie's sexuality is not exploited at all in the film.

I won't say any more, so as not to give anything away. It's still in the theaters, so if this is the type of film you generally like, you should check it out.

I was then prompted by a friend to go see "Inception". I knew it had received high praise, but as this often means little (see above comments on "Despicable Me"), I wasn't in any hurry. But I finally took the time to check it out.

Before I saw it, one friend commented that everybody she talked to either loved or hated "Inception". I hate to be the one exception here, but I sort of stand in the middle of the road on it. The basic concept of the film is that certain people have the ability to enter a person's mind while they're in a dream state, and to implant ideas in that person's mind. The viewer is then taken on a trippy ride of visual effects for two and a half hours as said mind manipulation is explored. Wrapped up in this is the struggle of the lead character, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, as he deals with his own dream-associated demons of the past.

There is a lot to be said for "Inception". The concept of the film was clever. The struggles of the lead character were interesting. And the visual effects were stunning. But that said, the movie just didn't do anything for me overall. Part of that, I must confess, has to do with my own view of Leonardo DiCaprio. One reason I was in no hurry to see the film was that I find him utterly unconvincing as an actor. I can't really say why that is. Some actors have the ability to convince me that what is happening on the screen is real, and others do not. For whatever reason, DiCaprio falls into the latter category. Unfortunately, he wasn't the only one in this film for whom this was true. Both of the other lead actors failed on that account for me. Even Ellen Page, who I have thought was excellent in other things I've seen her in, just didn't do it here. Perhaps it was the directing, I don't know. Whatever the case may be, it kept me from being fully engaged in the plot.

In addition, the ending, I felt, was fairly predictable. A long, drawn out ending (like DiCaprio's "Titanic", incidentally) resulted in success, with everyone surviving. Perhaps it would have been more interesting if Jack had died - oops, mixing up my films there. At any rate, I found the whole thing fairly boring.

Lastly, and wrapped up with the previous matter of the acting, was the discussions of how dreams work, and how this matter of "inception" took place. And once again, where the blame lies here, I don't know. But the talk about "inception" just came across to me as pretentious and artificial. As I said before, the movie just didn't sell me.

So all in all, it was an okay film. I don't think it nearly deserves the high ratings it has received. But I can't say it was a terrible film. I give it a solid "eh".

A couple of weeks after "Inception", I was scanning the movie offerings online when I ran across a documentary called "Winnebago Man". For whatever reason, my interest was piqued, and I went to see it. The movie was about a twenty year old viral video of outtakes from a Winnebago sales training video, in which the trainer, who is the star of the video, regularly loses his cool and curses up a storm. The documentary follows the filmmaker as he tracks down the "Winnebago Man", whose name is Jack Rebney, to find out what became of him after making the video.

I had never seen the video, but that didn't keep me from enjoying the movie. It was a quite interesting consideration of viral videos, and what causes people to be drawn to them. Rebney's video turns out to be a cult favorite, passed from person to person across the country, long before the invention of the internet. In addition to being a source of humor, it proves to be therapeutic for many, the sort of thing they turn to after having a bad day. Somehow watching someone else in misery is cathartic, allowing people to let go of their own problems.

The main thing that struck me about the video, and how it was used by those who watched it, was how impersonal the whole thing was. The film features all sorts of fans of the Rebney film, their comments on their love of the video, and so on. The end of the film even shows Jack meeting some of his fans at a film festival, and their responses to him. Yet while they express their appreciation, he is clearly only an object to them. His disproportionate anger, his lack of self-control, his own troubles, which go clearly deeper than his immediate circumstances - they are all merely means of the viewer's enjoyment. Take a coliseum, add a gladiator and a couple of tigers, and you have a show. Unlike the fans of the Rebney video, I couldn't get past the fact that this was a man with deep spiritual problems, and the fact that nobody involved in the film seemed to care.

The ending was somewhat moving. This man, wrapped up in his own personal concerns, suddenly found he was a minor celebrity to people he had never met. That he was moved by this fact was noticeable, and that itself was moving to me. And yet here was this man, a spiritual cesspool, without the real solution to his problems. I don't normally react this way to movies, but in this case, I was watching a real man, without Christ. It soured the ending for me, though it provided a place for prayer. Mr. Rebney, the film showed, was a man who had spent much time studying the history of religion. May the true God use his studies to reveal Himself to him.

That is pretty much the summary of my recent movie experiences, with the exception of "What If...", which I will reserve for a separate review. But I close with a question for you, the reader. Is there some movie you have seen recently that you would recommend? If so, let me know. I'll even write a review on request. Just mention it in the comments section, and I'll check it out as I have opportunity.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 88

Q. 88. What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?

A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption are, his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.

A great division exists between modern Evangelicalism and what would rightly be called Historic Christianity, and that division has to do with the question of how God gives salvation to His people. In modern Evangelicalism, individualism is... the operating philosophy. Salvation is about "me & Jesus". The institutional Church, while an okay idea, is secondary, if not a hindrance to spiritual growth. And the main way that a Christian's faith is nourished is through his "quiet time". With such a philosophy, the constant wandering of sheep from fold to fold should surprise no one.

Historic Christianity, on the other hand, sees the individual's salvation as normally connected to the institutional Church. While one's personal time of Bible reading and prayer is a good and normal practice, and while God uses all things in a Christian's life to save him (Romans 8:28), God's primary and normal means of saving a person and nourishing his faith is through the public worship of the Church. The Means of Grace given to the Church by God are public and external to the individual, neither private nor merely internal, though they then work salvation internally for the Christian. Contrary to Evangelicalism, Baptism and the Lord's Supper are not mere acts of devotion and obedience on the part of a Christian, but means by which God delivers the salvation procured by Christ to His people. The public reading and preaching of the Word of God, along with corporate prayer, are salvific, and are central to the life of the Christian in a way that one's personal devotions cannot substitute.

If there is a section of the Catechism that the modern Christian needs to hear, it is the next few questions. Jesus Christ didn't die to save lots of disconnected individuals, but to save a group of people, His Church. There are no Lone Ranger Christians.

Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 89

This, as well as the previous post, is something I posted on Facebook. I have been posting the questions and answers from the Westminster Shorter Catechism on a regular basis, and occasionally offering some commentary on them, which is what you see here. Whether or not I write commentary on any of the other questions is yet to be seen, though I imagine I will.


Q. 89. How is the Word made effectual to salvation?

A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching,
of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners,
and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto

The pastors and theologians at the Westminster Assembly, who composed the Catechism, had a very different view of the Word of God than we tend to have today. With the Church havin...g recently come out of a time in history in which the preaching of the Word was left out of the corporate worship service entirely, they understood how central preaching is to the life of the Church, and how necessary it is for the spiritual nourishment of believers. In the late middle ages, the Latin Mass was the form of worship of the Church in Europe. Latin had long been a language no longer spoken by the common people, and so worshipers who bothered to attend Mass never understood a word spoken by the priests in worship. The common Christian was left to obey the rules of the Church, whether Biblical or unbiblical, with no way of examining Scripture to see if those rules were of God, and with no way of actually learning what Scripture has to say on any matter. In addition, literacy rates with regard to the common language were low. Most people were common laborers, with no need to read, it was thought, and certainly no ability to do so. The Church told people what to believe, and any questioning of the Church was held in the same regard as questioning God Himself.

So when the Reformation of the Church began, a great emphasis on education, as well as a reformation of the corporate worship service, began to take hold. Along with the Reformation came a push toward educating the laity, especially the fathers, that they might be able to instruct their own families in the word of God. The corporate worship service ceased to be carried out in Latin, and was carried out in the local language, so that all could understand and learn, worshiping God with their own minds as well as their lips.

(As a brief aside, let me make an important modern application. Contrary to what some professing believers think today, knowledge is not contrary to true faith. The anti-intellectualism of Revivalism and Fundamentalism is an enemy of Biblical Christianity, and has more in common with late medieval Romanism than with Protestant Christianity.)

Yet to the modern Christian today, this might all seem strange. Why the need for preaching then? We live in a time in which the majority of the population can read for themselves. Can I not read and understand the Bible for myself? Why do I need some preacher telling me what it says?

But contrary to the apparent wisdom of this response, our time does not provide as good an argument against preaching as it might seem. While most can read, it is still true that not all can. Today we see the government schools graduating students who can't read at all. And of those who can read, we see a decrease of comprehension when reading a text. Reading has become a pragmatic activity. We seek to do as little work as possible, for the purpose of gaining as little as it takes to get by in life.

In addition, in our time we are especially lacking when it comes to a proper understanding of legitimate authority. We consider it liberating to not need others telling us what to believe. Yet this is also counter to the teaching of Scripture. From the beginning of the New Testament Church, there have been God ordained teachers, set apart to communicate God's Word to those who would hear. Even Christ Himself set apart the first ministers of the Church, the twelve Apostles, and the Church ever since has done the same, based upon the example of Christ. The ministers of the Church are to be especially educated for the purpose of teaching the laity the Word of God. These ministers are not infallible, or above being questioned. And yet, based on their gifting, education, and calling of God through the Church, they are to be regarded with respect. Once having fulfilled the Church's requirements for ministry, and having been lawfully called by the Church, their call is to be considered of God, and their authority to be from Him. And because they are believed to be called by God, when they preach the Word of God, their words are held to be the Word of God itself, insofar as it conforms to the actual teaching of Scripture.

While there are those today who are abandoning the Church for do-it-yourself religion (or "spirituality", as some prefer to call it), we see churches setting aside the Word, especially the Word preached, for drama presentations, testimonies from lay people, and other such things. Aside from the fact that none of these appear in Scripture within the context of corporate worship, one can't help but wonder what would make a church think they are a sufficient substitute for the means of communicating truth that God has given, that being the preaching of God's Word. Whatever the answer to that might be, a simple looking to the decreasing Biblical knowledge of professing Christians should reveal that perhaps these trends aren't the wisest. In conjunction with this is the trend toward the use of video and images in worship. And yet God spoke the world into existence (Genesis 1). Words in Scripture precede images in the order of creation, and as Scripture bears throughout, in the order of priority. To give up words - that is, the Word - is to give up the means of converting power inherent in the world. Images serve no use apart from the Word. They are empty symbols, and can at best give the illusion of salvation. And even with words, those words must contain the Word of God in substance.

While testimonies can encourage people, they are often given by those lacking in substantial Biblical knowledge. We, after all, tend to assign people to that task when they are young, immature Christians, and we do so based on their excitedness. Yet not only do new Christians have a severe deficit of informational knowledge when it comes to the Bible, they are lacking in the appropriate maturity by which to understand it, and by which to instruct others. The result is a case of the blind leading the blind, leaving large portions of congregations merely lying in ditches.

With all this before us, our best hope is to return to the God-chosen means of godly, mature, educated men, reading and preaching Holy Scripture to us. We should rightly ask this question: is the failure to be strengthened by the Word to be found in the Word, or in us (Mark 6:5-6)?

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Reflections on Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 90

Q. 90. How is the Word to be read and heard, that it may become effectual to salvation?

A. That the Word may become effectual to salvation, we must attend thereunto with diligence, preparation, and prayer; receive it with faith and love, lay it up in our hearts, and practice it in our lives.

Too often today, our approach to the worship of the God of the universe is more than a bit casual. But this would make sense. After all, if the worship of the church is carried out in a flippant manner, it should be no wonder that the congregation would approach it flippantly. We cruise into church, coffee in hand, and schmooze for a few minutes until given the signal by the band or some "worship leader" that it is time to settle down and remember why we're there. And any notion of preparation for worship is out of the realm of thought.

Yet traditionally, the sacred nature of worship has been better understood, and has led those attending corporate worship to approach it with greater care than the contemporary church tends to exhibit today. Preparation for worship has begun at home, even during the week prior to coming to worship on the Sabbath. There is no activity comparable to the corporate worship of God, it has been understood, and while He is with me wherever I may be, and I may worship Him in all that I do, there is something unique and special about gathering with His saints to lift our voices up jointly in praise and adoration of Him. I live my life always before Him - and yet the culmination of all that living before Him is in union with His people. And so I am ever conscious, no matter what day it is or what I am doing, that that day is coming, the day to gather with His Church.

Once coming to worship, the minutes before the beginning of service has been used as a time of silent prayer and meditation. Our God is a Holy God. He is high and exalted, and there is none other like Him. And this reality has shaped the whole atmosphere of the worship service, even the time just before it.

This preparation has special bearing on how we approach the reading and the preaching of the Word of God. We all own Bibles, and by the grace of God we still live in a society where we remain largely free to read it as we wish. And so we grow accustomed to it, like an old friend that we take for granted will always be there, no matter how much we neglect him. Yet this casualness is a failure of our own, not of God's Word. It is a sin to be confessed and repented of.

The reading and the preaching of God's word holds a central place in corporate worship. Without the Word of God, after all, nothing in the universe would exist, let alone corporate worship. He creates by His Word, and He sustains the universe by His Word (Hebrews 1:3). It is by His Word that he raises the dead, both spiritually and, as He will when Christ returns, physically. And it is by His Word that He upholds and strengthens His Church during our sojourn now. We hear God's chosen minister reading the text of Scripture to us, and as God's representative, we hear him explain and apply the text so that we might better live in obedience to God. We are to prepare; we are to listen with diligence; we are to obey it. And so hearing the reading and preaching of the Word is an act of worship. We are not to be passive with regard to the Word. We are not an audience, as at a concert. God calls us to be mentally engaged when His Word is presented to us. And while it is always presented in authority and power, it is especially so when presented by an ordained minister of God, during the time He has set apart for that purpose. We then leave, having heard from the King's emissary, and go out as servants of the King, to do His bidding alone.

As the Catechism question states, the effectiveness of the Word of God in our lives relies upon our approaching it properly. In a time when the Evangelical church drifts further and further morally from the standards of Holy Scripture, perhaps we should consider whether it is not because we do not duly approach His Word, particularly when we present it and receive it in corporate worship. If we truly want to see people saved, and we want to redeem society for Christ, we would do well to consider this matter with care.