Ghost Notes

Ghost Notes
A collections of original songs I wrote in 2015, and recorded with the FreeWay Musical Collective. Click the album image to listen.

inversions

Recorded in 2014, these songs are sort of a chronicle of my journey through a pastoral burn-out last winter. They deal with themes of mental-health, spiritual burn-out and depression, but also with the inexorable presence of God in the midst of darkness. Click the album art to download.

soundings

soundings
click image to download
"soundings" is a collection of songs I recorded in September/October of 2013. Dealing with themes of hope, ache, trust and spiritual loss, the songs on this album express various facets of my journey with God.

bridges

bridges
Click to download.
"Bridges" is a collection of original songs I wrote in the summer of 2011, during a soul-searching trip I took out to Alberta; a sort of long twilight in the dark night of the soul. I share it here in hopes these musical reflections on my own spiritual journey might be an encouragement to others: the sun does rise, blood-red but beautiful.

echoes

echoes
Prayers, poems and songs (2005-2009). Click to download
"echoes" is a collection of songs I wrote during my time studying at Briercrest Seminary (2004-2009). It's called "echoes" partly because these songs are "echoes" of times spent with God from my songwriting past, but also because there are musical "echoes" of hymns, songs or poems sprinkled throughout the album. Listen closely and you'll hear them.

Accidentals

This collection of mostly blues/rock/folk inspired songs was recorded in the spring and summer of 2015. I call it "accidentals" because all of the songs on this project were tunes I have had kicking around in my notebooks for many years but had never found a "home" for on previous albums. You can click the image to download the whole album.

blogs I follow

random reads

Book Reviews

Book Reviews
The Shallows, Nicholas Carr
In this very readable, very thought provoking analysis of electronic communciations technology and its impact on our brains and culture, Nicholas Carr brings together media theory (think Marshall McLuhan), history (think Gutenberg) and neuroscience (think discoveries in brain plasticity) to show how computer technology is shaping us in ways of which we are only dimly aware. He argues that such technologies reduce our capacity for deep, creative and sustained linear thought (or at least have the potential to do so) and predispose us to the fragmented, the cursive and the superficial. Worth the read.

Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf

Ecstasy and Intimacy: When the Holy Spirit Meets the Human Spirit, Edith Humphrey
A fascinating and engaging introduction to spiritual theology-- or the theology of spirituality, as the case may be. This book is a very scholarly, devotional, christo-centric, ecumenical and trinitarian overview of what it means for Christians to live in the Spirit and with the Spirit within. Bracing and enlightening.

Leading with a Limp, Dan Allender

five smooth stones for pastoral work, Eugene Peterson

From Darkness to Light: How One Became a Christian in the Early Church, Anne Fields

Life in the Ancient Near East, Daniel C. Snell
Snell's Life in the Ancient Near East offers a social history of the ANE, tracing the earliest settlement of Mesopotamia, the development of agriculture, first cities, ancient economy and the emergence of empire. Bringing together a rich variety of data gleaned both from the archaeological record and extant historical texts, he tells the history of this cradle of civilization with a special eye for the "human" element - focusing on the forces and factors that would have directly affected the daily life of the various strata of society. Worth a read generally, but all the more for someone with a particular interest in the biblical stories that find their setting and draw their characters and themes from the same provenience.


The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene

Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament, Richard Davidson
Davidson's Old Testament theology of human sexuality is stunning in its achievement, challenging in its content, and edifying in its conclusions. Davidson addresses every-- and I do mean every-- Old Testament text that deals (even obliquely) with human sexuality, and, through detailed exegesis, careful synthesis, and deep interaction with the scholarly research, develops a detailed picture of the Old Testament's vision for redeemed human sexuality. 700 pages of Biblical scholarship at its best.


Eaarth, Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben's Eaarth, is a call for us to wake up smell the ecological coffee...while we can still brew it. Unlike his previous work, or any writing on ecology I've yet read, however, Eaarth does not argue that catastrophe is pending. Instead, he argues that catastrophe has arrived, and that our all talk about "going green to avert disaster," "and "saving the planet" is woefully obsolete. In ecological terms, the planet as we once knew it is gone, he argues, and rather than trying to "avert" disaster, we need to start figuring out how to live in the disaster that's happened. Key themes he identifies as important for life on planet Eaarth resonnated with me as profoundly Christian ways of being (disaster or no). We must stop assuming that "bigger" is better; we must acknowledge limits on economic and technological growth; we must get reacquainted with the land; we need eschew self-sufficency and nurture community.

Love Wins, Rob Bell
So fast and furious has the furor over this book been, that any review will inevitably feel redundant or tardy. Given the crowd on the band wagon by now, I actually had no intention of hopping on myself, but my kids got it for me for Father's Day. About 15 pages in, I realized that I could probably finish it in on good push, so I got it over with. My thoughts: probably the most over-hyped book I ever read; I loved it and found it frustratingly under-developed at the same time; while he raises some important issues, his handling of them reads like a yoda-meets-Tom-Wright account of salvation; nothing C. S. Lewis hasn't already said more clearly and more cleverly; I'm glad he wrote it, and I'm glad the Evangelical world has errupted over it the way it has, and I hope a much more spirited and generous and optimistic understanding of soteriology and eschatology will infuse the evangelical church's mission as a result.

Rediscovering Paul, David Capes et. al.
Rediscovering Paul is a hepful overview of Paul's life, times and theology. While at times I felt it might have gone deeper, or expressed its ideas more clearly, it provides some interesting and inspiring insights into the man behind the letters. Among these is its discussion of the communal aspect of first century letter writing, and the influence of one's community on one's personal sense of identity, and how those issues might have played out in Paul's writings. Another challenging issue that it tackles is the whole process of letter writing in the Greco-Roman world, especially as regards the role a scribe often played in shaping the text, smoothing out the langugae or providing stock phrases, etc.


Lavondyss, Robert Holdstock
If you've read George MacDonald's Lilith, then think of Lavondyss as sort of a Lilith-for-Non-Christians. It's the convoluted labyrinth of a story about a young girl called Tallis and her adventures in a magical wood that brings the Jungian archetypes buried deep in our subconscious to life. Dense with questions about Jungian psychology, and the spiritually-thin-places of the world, and death and myth and magic and story, it's pretty tough slugging at times, but thought provoking and challenging. At times I felt like I was reading the Narnia book C. S. Lewis might have written if he had pursued the "stab of northerness" in directions other than the Christian Faith where he found it eternally satisfied.

Jesus and Money, Ben Witherington III
My friend John Vlainic once ranked Ben Witheringon as one of the strongest Biblical scholars in the Wesleyan tradtion working today. This thin but powerful volume is evidence to support such an accolade. I opened it expecting (judging by the cover) either a how-to book on Christian finances, or (judging by the other books I've read on Christ and Money) a hodge-podge of Bible verses taken out of context and mushed together as proof texts about the tithe. I got neither; instead, Ben Witherington walks slowly, thoughtful and exegetically through the breadth of Biblical teaching, with special sensitivity to the cultural context of the various texts, the tension between Old and New Testament teaching on the topic, and the differences between modern and ancient economies. If I were to recommend one book to develop a biblical theology of money, it would be this one.

The Gravedigger File, Os Guinness
My first taste of Os Guinness, and, if you don't mind a mangled metaphor, it went down like a bracing pint of... well... Guinness. Grave Digger file is sort of a "Screwtape Letters" project on a church-wide scale. In concept, the book is a series of "training files" for an undercover agent attempting to undermine and ultimately sabotage the Western Church, delivered from the pen of a seasoned saboteur to a young agent recently assigned to Los Angeles. In plot, the young agent ultimately defects, and delivers the "Gravedigger File" into the hands of a Christian, urging him to alert the Church to the operation. It is bursting with "things that make you go hmmm..." and deserves a second, careful read with pen in hand, ready to mine it for its scintillating and eminently quotable lines.

Music for the Start of Advent (2)

And further to yesterday's musical reflections on the start of Advent, I thought I'd re-post this song I wrote a while ago about waiting for the Second Coming. It's called "Wish You Were Here."

It wasn't originally written with Advent in mind, but it is perhaps fitting for this time of year, inasmuch as the Advent season is really about preparing for his Second Coming, even as we prepare to celebrate his First Coming ("O Come O Come Emmanuel," for instance, is not really about remembering "the first Noel" as much as it is about our longing for the consummation of the "true meaning of Noel," when Emmanuel comes again, to establish his kingdom in all its fullness, God himself with us forever, in answer to the deepest longing of every hopeful heart (just read Revelation 21:3 and compare it to Matthew 1:23, if you`re not convinced).)
Anyways, while I let those theological musings simmer like so much Christmas cider, here`s the song:

Wish You Were Here

Helprin on Preparedness and Guidance

It might just be the fact that I was reading it at 1:30 in the morning yesterday, but this exchange from Mark Helprin's very excellent novel, A Soldier of the Great War hit me deeply. To set the scene: Alessandro (who studied aesthetics prior to the outbreak of World War I) is a soldier of the Italian army condemned to be executed for deserting his post (his commander had been murdered and he knew he would be framed and condemned for this crime anyways); Ludovico is his Marxist cellmate.


Ludovico ... was informed that he would be tried on Thursday with fourteen others of his brigade. The judicial apparatus was now working without pause: thousands of new prisoners were headed for Stella Maris, and the cells had to be cleared.


Ludovico now began what appeared to be a series of desperate calculations. It was as if he felt that in a clarified understanding of the workings of economics he could make himself comfortable with the notion of eternity-but due to the minimal relation of economics and eternity, he was forced to calculate faster and faster, and to no avail.


"Marxism won't carry you into the next world," Alessandro said. And then he asked, "How can you reserve your most sacred beliefs for a descriptive system, and one that is imperfect at that? I can't imagine myself believing in trigonometry or accounting, and yet you guide your soul according to a theory of economics."


"It won't fail me as surely as your system will fail you."


"I don't have a system."


"Theology is a system."


"Not my theology."


"Then what is it?"


"What is it? It is the overwhelming combination of all that I've seen, felt, and cannot explain, that has stayed with me and refuses to depart, that drives me again and again to a faith of which I am not sure, that is alluring because it will not stoop to be defined by so inadequate creature as a man. Unlike Marxism, it is ineffable, and it cannot be explained in words."


I've not finished the novel, but I can say that Alessandro slept soundly that night, and walked unflinchingly to face the firing squad the next morning.

Music for the Start of the Advent Season

Yesterday marked the start of the Advent season.

I won't wax vehement here about the way Evangelicalism tends to run rough-shod over the Advent Season, jumping the Christmas Cheer gun and celebrating the Baby Jesus with carols and "Reason for the Season" banners and what not, all in the lead up to December 25, and then ceremoniously dropping the whole thing December 27th, after the presents are all open. Except to say that, traditionally, Advent is supposed to be about the delayed gratification of waiting-- waiting for Christmas, waiting for His Coming, waiting for the light; and the "Christmas Season" for which the Baby Jesus is "the Reason" are the twelve days between Christmas day and the Feast of Epiphany on January 6, (the twelve days of "Partridge in a Pear Tree" fame). But since we don't do delayed gratification (or sacred calendars for that matter) all that well any more, the theological significance of the Advent season gets discretely glossed over and we let the department stores tell us when to start celebrating Christmas.

But I said I wouldn't wax vehement.

Instead, in the interest of rekindling appreciation for this season of "holding our breath," I thought I'd post some Advent Carols I recorded a couple of years ago. Enjoy; and happy waiting.
This is a piano arrangement of O Come O Come Emmanuel that I worked on last year:



And this is my "version" of the Advent carol "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus" (set to the tune of "As the Deer," set to an alternate guitar arrangement I've been experimenting with for a while).

Seasons Greetings from the Prophet Isaiah

A bit of "pilot error" in the pulpit this morning meant that the sermon this week didn't get recorded (translation: I forgot to turn on my lapel mike ... oops). Anyways,since I can't post the audio, I thought maybe I'd post a short excerpt from the manscript of my sermon, instead. My text was Isaiah 9:1-7 ("For to us a child is born"), and the sermon included these reflections on the incarnation:


"And incarnation is good news for us, today. Because incarnation means that God has entered fully into our gloom, whatever it is; God has entered lovingly into our darkness, wherever it is; God has entered completely under the shadow of death, for us, wherever that shadow might fall.

And incarnation means that there is now no part of your life that he hasn’t taken onto himself—no corner of “being human” that he hasn’t swept out for you—no stone of your flesh-and-blood reality that he hasn’t turned over with his love.

And incarnation means that the word “God-forsaken” no longer now has any meaning for us.

Because when God became flesh like that—in all the weakness of a newborn baby—when he came to us like that—he proved to us that there is now no place in heaven, or on earth, or under the earth that could ever cut you off from the love and light of God. I mean, if God himself came as a homeless baby born to an unwed mother in the straw and muck of sheep pen—well—is there any place left that might now separate you from him?

For to us a child is born—and whatever your deepest expectations are—delivery from despair—victory over hurt—the end of injustice—the healing of wrongs—the restoration of what’s broken—the renewal of what’s wasted—whatever your greatest expectations are, Isaiah says: God meets those expectations in the most unlikely way imaginable: through great humility of a newborn child. "

Prayer for the Offering (6)

God, we think of the wise King you inspired so long ago,
How he spoke this proverb:
“Better a little with the fear of the Lord / Than great wealth with turmoil.
There’s an edge to that wise saying, Lord,
that hasn’t grown dull in 3000 years:
those words still cut to the heart of the matter today.

“Better a little with the fear of the Lord / Than great wealth with turmoil.”
We confess Lord, that this world is in deep turmoil
because of our endless striving for great wealth.
And we confess Lord, how the idea that we might be content
with what we have, so long as it’s coupled with the fear of the Lord--
the notion that deep reverence and awed respect for you
might be the true and only source of our life and sustenance and happiness-
That suggestion cuts against the grain, Lord.

So as we participate in this offering today,
We’re going to need the wisdom of Solomon, here.
Grant us the Wisdom to put you before all things and over all things
and the wisdom to let go of our tumultuous accumulation.
God, teach us to say these words
with perfect honesty and clear sincerity today:
“Better a little with the fear of the Lord
Than great wealth with turmoil?”
Because it’s in Jesus’ name and for his sake we pray.
Amen.

***

God, we think about your word, where the ancient writer you inspired challenges us with these words: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And so we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”

And then he told us specifically what that laying down of our lives would look like. He said: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him.”

God those are sobering words.

But we want to know the love of God in us. And we want to love each other, not with fine sounding words or empty speech, but like that same writer said: with actions, and with truth.

So God, can you continue to shape us as that kind of a people today: people who show in word and deed together that the love of God really is in us. People who—when they see their brothers or sisters in need—they overflow with your compassion, your mercy, your love?

And as we set aside some of our material possessions today, to help in those concrete moments when we see a brother or sister in need, God, we pray in advance for the people you want to bless with these gifts—because you already know the needs that this money will meet— may it find its place in your good plan to show the world what the love of Jesus looks like, because it's in his name and for his sake we pray.

Amen.

****

Father in Heaven,
As we prepare our hearts to worship through our tithes and offerings, we remember the story your Son Jesus told us, about a farmer who sowed seed: how some of the seed fell on rocky soil and wouldn’t grow, and some was snatched away by birds, and some was choked out by weeds.

Later Jesus explained that the seed was the message about your love, and the weeds that choked it out were the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth, and the desire for other things.

God we’re remembering this story today because we’re about to make an offering of money, and we don’t want the desire for stuff or the deceitfulness of wealth to choke out the message of love that Jesus is speaking over us now. So God, can you do some weeding in us? Uproot anything in us that might try to choke out his message for us today, weed out every false desire and every empty ambition in us, so that his word might bear fruit in us.

We ask this in Jesus’ name and for his sake.

Amen.

"Lift Up Your Head" (or: Me and My Gidjak)

A few years ago my parents visited my aunt and uncle, when they were working in the middle eastern country of Tajikistan. Knowing I have a curious spirit when it comes to musical instruments from far away places, they brought me home a gidjak. A gidjak is an instrument that resembles a violin, but you play it upright, resting it on your knee. Its sound is a bit of a curiosity: something like a violin, but less pitchy and more humming. You can find out more about the gidjak (and hear one being played by someone who knows what he's doing) here.

Anyways, after watching a few youtube videos to get an idea of how it's played, I thought I'd try my hand at writing a song for my gidjak. After much trial and error, here's what I came up with. And as you listen, please rest assured: I have no pending plans to quit my day job.



Lift Up Your Head

Brown land, like a cracked and calloused hand
Dry land, flesh of stone and bone of sand
Lift up your head

Long night, like the ash of phoenix flight
Dark night, red the dawn the longing light
Lift up your head

Lift up your head and see, the lamb was slain to set you free
The phoenix flame will rise again and perch upon the holy tree
Lift up your head behold, the child you welcomed once of old
With myrrh and frankincense and gold
Is now the resurrected Lord
He comes to heal your land
Lift up your head

Ancient place, like a lined and noble face
Antique place, mist of myrrh and tear of grace
Lift up your head

Night skies like the gleam of veiled eyes
Eastern skies, see afar his star arise
Lift up your head

Lift up your head and see, the lamb was slain to set you free
The phoenix flame will rise again and perch upon the holy tree
Lift up your head behold, the child you welcomed once of old
With myrrh and frankincense and gold
Is now the resurrected Lord
He comes to heal your land
Lift up your head

10 Lessons Learned Blogging

The other day I was talking to a friend who was thinking about starting a blog but didn't know if, or where to start. After the chat I was still mulling over some of the lessons I've learned in the last year and a bit of blogging (real practical lessons, mind you, not philosophical epiphanies or lead-in-to-a-joke kind of lessons).


In what follows I defer completely to those who have been doing this longer, but here are some practical rules of thumb I've found helpful.

1. Decide why you're doing it before you do. In my experience, blogging can be a sort of love-hate experience (especially if you're committed to items 2-5 below). The blog, in one sense, is never satisfied. Unlike a paper, or a sermon, or a story, it's never "done," and next week the post you just spent hours crafting will feel kinda stale and you'll have to start all over again. Knowing why I started doing this, after all, helps on those days when it feels it would be easier to just pull the plug.


2. Keep them short. This was a real tough one for me, starting a blog straight out of seminary and all, but the discipline of keeping my blog posts to around 500 words has (I think) improved my writing generally. It's curious, but I find writing a 500 word post harder than a rambling 1100-er. Go figure.

3. Keep it coming. This is a tough one too, but I've found that consistent posting is a really helpful discipline (he says after eight days of silence....); it develps the habit of regular writing, and once you find the groove, it makes the general experience of blogging more pleasant.

4. Plan ahead. Keeping a running list of possible post ideas as they come to you really helps with #3, especially when that computer screen is staring you down, a week since your last post, and you still don't know where to start.

5. Write ahead. This helps a lot with #3, too. I took a couple of weeks a while back and hammered out ten or twelve short back-up posts which I keep on file for those weeks when the well's dry or I don't have much time to put down the bucket.

6. Take breaks. Rather than just letting things peter out, I've tried to take intentional hiatuses (hiatai ?) from blogging when I find my creativity or energy is flagging, setting a specific stop-and-re-start date for myself. The few times I've done this I find I come back blogging with renewed enthusiasm.

7. Use Dropbox. Dropbox is an easy-to-use online file sharing service and about the quickest way I've found to include additional content (files, word documents, pdfs, video games, etc) in your posts. Just put it in your dropbox and then include a link on the blog. Done.

8. Use videos for podcasts. When I started I wanted to embed audio files in some of my posts. Doing some research I discovered this is a lot more tricky than it sounds. I found lots of ways to embed audio using html code, but the problem was it didn't always work, depending on the browser you were using. Often it "forced" the music which is really annoying. And you always needed off-site hosting. The simplest solution I've come up with is to convert my audio to a video file, setting it as the sound track to a blank black screen. You can then upload it simply and cleanly straight to the blog using the "add video" feature, and Blogger's video driver takes care of the rest (because I prefer the way it looks, I go in after and adjust the dimensions of the driver in the html code, just to make it more resemble an audio file).

9. Have regular "features." Another one for the sake of #3. Keeping a few "regular features" (e.g. a "movie of the month," book reviews, etc.) helps you with built in post ideas for when the idea-pickings are scarce.

10. Keep lists. Lists are among the most fun, illuminating and interesting posts to write, especially when it's been eight days or so, and you're still staring blankly at the sceen . (Take my post on the 10 lessons I learned blogging, for instance.)

With definitions like these, who needs obfuscation?

Is it just me, or is the following "working definition" of "missional church" frustratingly tautological?

So a working definition of missional church is a community of God's people that defines itself, and organizes its life around, its real purpose of being an agent of God's mission to the world. In other words, the church's true and authentic organizing principle is mission. When the church is in mission, it is the true church. The church is not only a product of that mission but is obligated and destined to extend it by whatever means possible. The mission of God flows directly through every believer and every community of faith that adheres to Jesus.
Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, p. 82
Don't get me wrong, the rest of the book is edifying and thought provoking; and even in the above quote, I take his point that the church needs to define itself in terms of the Missio Dei. But to say, in essence, that a "missional church" is nothing more or less than a "church that is missional" just brings us full circle, with no clearer understanding than when we started of who we are and what we're called to do and be as Jesus' people. It leaves me wondering if, twenty years from now, books on emergent ecclessiology won't seem like the lava lamps of the ministry book shelf, dated novelties casting their dim but colourful light through shifting blobs of ideas like "missional" and "incarnational community" that swirl around like so much luminous goop.

A Remembrance Day Prayer

This is the prophet Micah’s vision of what God’s reign will look like when it comes in all its fullness:

In the last days the mountain of the LORD's temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and peoples will stream to it.

Many nations will come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths." The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.

Father in Heaven.
Your word so vividly and so compellingly reminds us
that war is not your plan for things, and that one day—
when all the nations of the earth stream into your loving presence
to learn your way and to follow your plan for things—
one day we’ll stop training for war.
We’ll trade our guns in for gardening tools, and our bombs for bread baskets.

O God, as we long for that day with all that is in us,
we remember that it hasn’t come yet in all its fullness.
Brother still rises up against brother.
Nation still takes up sword against nation.
And training for war is still a reality in this hurting world.

So God in this time set aside for remembrance,
We pray for all those who have been touched by the trauma of war,
Those who have suffered in the past,
Those who suffer today,
And those who will suffer because of war in the days to come,
regardless what side of the battle-line they’re standing on,
we pray for them.

God, we pray for veterans of war,
bless them according to your wisdom
for the sacrifices they’ve made in the name of love, freedom, peace,
and human dignity.

We pray for soldiers who are involved in armed conflicts today;
protect those who are in danger,
give wisdom to those who lead,
heal those who are wounded body or spirit,
and bring them home safely.

We pray for the families of soldiers, too;
be with those who are lonely,
comfort those who are grieving,
and reassure those who are scared
for the safety of their loved ones.

We pray for all those who put themselves in harm’s way
for the safety and peace of others—
we pray for the men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces,
for our police officers in the Durham Regional police,
we pray for emergency response workers, firefighters, EMTs—
protect them all in your wisdom as they give of themselves to protect us.

And God, like your son taught us to, we pray for our enemies near and far—
or for those we’ve been taught, maybe, to think of as our enemies—
O God who knows the hearts of all people,
be gracious towards them according to your wisdom,
let justice and mercy prevail in every conflict,
bring a swift and peaceful resolution to all enmity,
and let the Shalom of God reign.

We pray these things in the name of the Prince of Peace today;
Your all-wise, all-loving Son who taught us
that it’s the Peacemakers who are the blessed ones,
because they will be called sons God.

Let us be called sons of God like that we pray,

in his name and for his sake. Amen.

The Documentarathon

And speaking of cultural exegesis, last week a visit to the local Rogers Video for some family movie-night fodder saw me leaving the store with a handful of documentaries (along with the afore-mentioned movie-night flicks). Over the last few days I've been working my way through them, and looking at the world with slightly different eyes as a result. These are some thoughts on what I watched last week:


Food Inc. This unflinching look at the industrial food industry leaves you with a creeping feeling in the pit of your gut and a lot of difficult questions about where our food comes from and how it arrives on our plate. Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food and Bill McKibben's Deep Economy had already briefed me on the argument that the modern food industry has created some pretty serious moral, environmental and health crises for us, but the film's aerial shots of huge feed lots and its footage of mass-production "chicken factories" were no less disturbing for all their being expected. What Food Inc. added to the discussion was its look at how the interests of big money pretty consistently trump the interests of human well-being in policy- and law- making when it comes to the American food supply.

In Debt We Trust. One of two films I watched about the credit crisis in the United States, In Debt We Trust puts a human face on the realities of predatory lending and deregulation in the American credit card industry. Produced in 2006, mere months before the "bubble" actually burst, it makes some ominous predictions about a coming economic collapse that have turned out to be hauntingly accurate. For all the gargantuan numbers it tosses around, at times In Debt We Trust seems to over simplify the issues, painting a black-and-white picture of a Darth-Vader-esque credit card industry swallowing its innocent victims whole, who, through no fault of their own, find themselves swimming in a sea of inexplicable and inescapable debt. I don't doubt that the credit card industry is just as brutal, greedy and callous as the film makes it out to be, nor do I deny that this represents a serious moral crisis with global implications. I wonder, however, if the existence of a 926 billion dollar credit card debt in America is actually just the symptom of a deeper cultural malaise--the rampant materialism, the spiritual vacuity, the creeping shadow of ennui, the ego-centric sense of entitlement, the impulse to bury our heads in the illusory sand of the entertainment culture-- stuff like that-- stuff that we're all culpable for and capable of, not just the evil credit card industry that's willing to loan us the money (at 30% interest, of course) so that we can pay for it. To its detriment as a documentary, In Debt We Trust never asks any serious questions about this cultural malaise, preferring instead to point a single self-righteous finger at the corrupt politicians and bloated bankers.


Maxed-Out. Maxed-Out repeats the same gargantuan numbers, interviews many of the same economic analysts, and even includes some of the same footage as In Debt We Trust. Its interview of two collection agency guys is down-right creepy (like when the one compares his work of harrasing helpless debtors to a competitive athlete who's found a way to make a game he loves to play pay the bills), and some of the stories are really heart-wrenching, stories of people with the tread-marks of an unregulated credit card industry on their necks and spirits. The palette with which Maxed Out paints the picture, however, is bit less black-and-white than In Debt; and to its credit, it doesn't attempt any of the failed lunges at tongue-in-cheek satire that make In Debt feel sort of silly at times.

In the cool-down time of my little week-long documentarathon, I've been thinking a lot about St. Paul's declaration in the book of Colossians that God has triumphed over the powers and authorities in the cross. Walter Wink argues that when the Bible talks about "the powers" like this, it's referring to the invisible structures of human society, the spiritual dimmensions of the political, economic and cultural institutions that we put in place to help us control and define our life together, and that inevitably turn around and start to control and define us instead. Wink suggests (very compellingly) that when Paul says this kind of thing about God "disarming" the powers, he means that through the Cross and the Spirit of Christ, humans can be set free from these "invisible structures" in a way that allows us to see them for what they really are, and redeem them with the wisdom and love of God. If Wink is right, then the cultural malaise, the political corruption and the corporate greed illustrated in movies like Maxed Out and Food Inc are concrete examples of "the spiritual powers" in our world; and if St. Paul is right, then the Word and Spirit of Christ offers us the best, and only real solution to the deep social crises that these films are attempting to disarm.

The God who remembered to forget

Hebrews 10:15-18. The God who remembered to forget