Oscars Recap: One Flew Over the Oscars Nest

ImageOnce upon a time, I was an Oscars junkie. I loved everything about the evening: the red carpet build up, the opening monologue, the early acting awards, the major technical awards, the best picture nominee clip packages, the musical numbers, the forced pairings, the uneven feel to the entire proceedings. As a movie nerd, the Oscars were my holy grail, because it allowed me to measure my tastes and judgment against the Hollywood elite. More often than not, I found we had different sensibilities, but on those occasions when Oscar and I agreed, I felt like one of the in-crowd, affirmed for my aesthetic perspicacity.

Over the years, Oscar and I have grown apart. Part of it is life situation: being a parent, there aren’t that many nights when you have the energy to trot out to the local multiplex and catch a flick. And even when those nights do come around, finances are an issue. When it costs $25 just to get in, the number of trips to the cinema drops dramatically.

But the real reason I quit going to the movies is because they kind of pushed me to the side.

I’ll be honest, I’m not a huge fan of cussing and nudity in movies. Even more recently, graphic violence has also turned me off. Even watching the clip package for Django Unchained on last night’s Oscars left me feeling queasy. Maybe it’s my old age. Maybe it’s things like Newtown. Maybe it’s just the fact that I see enough blood and guts in my news feed every day. I don’t know. And while I know that not all movies are slammed full of cussing and nudity and exploding body parts, I know that some of the ones feted as the best of the best last night had plenty of one or the other.

I didn’t see Silver Linings Playbook because multiple friends said that the F-bomb was prevalent. I didn’t see Django because of the violence (and, let’s face it, Tarantinian dialogue is often fraught with choice words). Same with Zero Dark Thirty (even though I enjoyed Bigelow’s Hurt Locker). I didn’t get around to Lincoln because…well, I never got around to it. Life of Pi seemed like a great rental (no offense to Ang Lee and his golden statue). I wanted to see Argo, but got warned off because of language. Les Miserables was a non-starter for me (I don’t really like movie musicals, no matter how awesome it is to see someone as all-around talented as Hugh Jackman). And honestly, no one I knew had even seen Beasts of the Southern Wild or Amour.

I don’t mind the occasional coarse word or two; I get that PG language isn’t always used in real life. And lest you think this is one of those “bash Hollywood as being out of touch with the mainstream of America”, I’ll tell you that I hear and see those words quite prevalently in the everyday language of our younger generation. So it’s not like I’m a prude when it comes to the reality of American speech.

I’m the same way with violence (less so on nudity). I get it as an artistic choice. And I don’t think we need to scrub movies of anything that might be offensive (otherwise, we’d miss out on some fantastic and thought-provoking work).

What I’m saying is that my life and my values make the Oscars an also-ran. What once would have been appointment TV is now a cultural temperature reading at best and an intellectual curiosity at worst. Even if Morgan Freeman hosted, I’d probably only watch it in pieces, flipping back and forth for the big awards. Last night merely confirmed that fact for me.

I’ll be blunt and say I found Seth MacFarlane tedious at best. EW.com’s Owen Gleiberman has a better assessment of his hosting gig (and overall telecast) than I could ever produce, and his note about the broadcast vacillating between snark and sincerity is spot on. I guess for me, the snark took center stage, and for the first time I found it not only unfunny but unpalatable as well.

It would be hypocritical of me to take people to task for their snarky comments when I spent the majority of my time live-tweeting my own attempts at humor and sarcasm during the telecast. I have no problem with sarcasm as a whole; I understand that in our day and age it’s the stock and trade of our popular culture, and some people carry it to the edges. It’s one thing when you’re using snark to push the boundaries of our corporate fuddy-duddiness as a way of encouraging us to relax and laugh more. It’s another thing when you use it as a blade to slice people out of genuine dislike. Last night, I felt like MacFarlane was slinging his blade very wide.

But hey, that’s the point of this post: what someone thought would make for a good Oscars telecast was outside my comfort zone, which just proves that both the Academy and I have changed. We’re no longer simpatico.

And that’s cool. I saw several people bashing on Twitter last night, and while I can agree with the perspective that might have driven some of the tweets, I can’t agree with the tweets themselves. It does no good to lambaste Hollywood with the same snark it lambastes others. Everyone loses.

My three favorite moments were the last three awards: Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook), Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln) and Best Picture (Ben Affleck, George Clooney, Grant Heslov – Argo). Each of the winners showed a humanity that was touching; whether it was Lawrence’s unfortunate trip up the stairs, Day-Lewis’ uncharacteristic humor, or Affleck’s barely contained joy, each moment reminded you of what the movies have always represented: the chance to flesh out dreams.

That’s what I miss from the overall Oscars ceremony: the human reminder that dreams can come true, on film and on that awards stage.

Maybe that’s the beginning point of my disconnect with Hollywood: I miss the humanity.


Understanding Our Current Culture

**This is the manuscript from my sermon/lesson/seminar that I gave at my church last night. It was a bit heavy on the details, so a few people asked me to post it on the blog today. I’ve not edited it any, so it’s a bit long, but if you want to get the crux of it, just skip to the positive signs from our current culture. There is a lot to be hopeful for in the years to come.

millennialsActs 17:16-34

I could spend a ton of time just dissecting this passage – it’s one of the favorites of Christian apologists everywhere – but I want to focus on a few key elements that I believe are applicable to Christianity today.

First of all, we read that Paul, while waiting for his compatriots, was in the marketplace in Athens. He wasn’t cloistered away from the world; he was moving around the city, looking, learning, listening. And what he saw provoked his spirit within him. Here’s what we should take away from this: we need to be aware of what’s going on in the world. Current events on the local, national, and global scale. We need to not just hear from the pulpit that the times, they are a changing; we need to be the eyes and ears on the ground informing the pulpit of what’s going on in our communities.

Take a moment and think: what are some of the changes that you’ve observed about your community? What are some of the changes you’ve observed about the USA? The world?

We need to be awake and aware of what’s going on around us, from the kids on our ball team to the soldiers in Afghanistan. And then we need to let what we see/hear/ observe provoke (stir, ignite) our spirits to act in the name of Christ.

Second, we read that Paul reasoned with the devout Jews and the philosophers. Reasoned means that Paul had thorough discussions with them; he engaged them on topics (and, knowing Paul, it was probably a wide range of topics) and discussed them from both the Christian and non-Christian angles. Remember – Paul wasn’t always a believer in Christ. He had knowledge and understanding of things beyond the church, and he applied that knowledge when he spoke with people.

But Paul always brought the conversation back to the Gospel. There wasn’t a topic that Paul couldn’t steer back to Jesus. Not in a non-sequitur way, where he just stopped talking about a topic and started talking about Christ, but in a way that showed the fullness of Paul’s faith: everything under the sun can be brought around to God because everything under the sun was made by God. There is a connection between life and faith that is powerful, if we will reveal it to those who can’t see it.

Finally, Paul was in tune with the cultural expressions of his day. He knew the Greek poets (Epimenides [v.28a] and Aratus [v. 28c]) and used them in his message about the Gospel. He was aware of the different gods being worshipped in the Athenian marketplace and wasn’t afraid to discuss them. He was familiar with the philosophical and rhetorical communication so common among the Areopagites, and used them to great effect in his speech to them.

Did Paul convert everyone? No. Did some ridicule him? Yes. But there were those who were persuaded by a brief encounter with Paul (Dionysius and Damaris) to abandon their ingrained cultural beliefs and accept the Gospel for their lives.

Part of the church’s mission and calling is to understand and witness to the culture in which it finds itself. While history compels us to often look back at the time of Rome as one of decadence and depravity, if we’re honest historically we can see a time of great opportunity. There was a vast interest in thought and philosophy, even religious discussion. It was a time of great leaps in technology and science. It was a time of uncertainty and fear.

In many ways, it was a time very much like the one we currently inhabit here in the U.S. Only our society is not responding to the Gospel the way Rome did. Many scholars and researchers have tried to explain why our culture is abandoning the Gospel as opposed to embracing it the way Rome did in the first century, and there are some things to consider: age, history, and abuse of power work against Christianity now, whereas with Paul, the faith was so new as to be an intellectual curiosity. We have progressed to heretofore unknown scientific understanding of the physical makeup of our universe, and have been subjected to the idea that divine impulse is not required for our existence.

We face a tough road. But part of why the faith isn’t as robust as it used to be is because the Christian church has – in many ways – removed itself from the marketplace, stopped reasoning with its contemporaries, and forgotten that everything can be connected to God.

Or, if I may be so blunt, we’ve gotten lazy. We’ve assumed that the world will come to us, instead of us going to them. That is wrong. Jesus said that there is no who seek Him, not even one. So we as a church must reset our minds and hearts to this truth: the only way to win the world to Christ is to take Christ to the world.

But what does that mean, take Christ to the world? Take Him where? Take Him how? I want to take just a few minutes to help you understand the marketplace, to understand our current culture, because if we can at least start there, we will discover the unlimited opportunities we have to share the Good News of Christ.

Keep in mind, these are generalizations of the broader culture. And while generalizations are just that – generalizations – there are some distinct features about the current culture that are very different from the church’s perception. Often, we talk about and focus on the negative side of things and lament the degradation or abandonment of past values. But the reality  is that the current culture, in many ways, offers the insightful church plenty of opportunities to bring in the younger generation. Thom and Jess Rainer, in their 2011 book “The Millennials” highlight some of the key positive characteristics of the current culture and the generation that drives it:

  • The importance of family. Though most people are waiting until their later 20s and even 30s to get married, the commitment to marriage is deeper than ever. With the Millennial generation being significantly impacted by divorce, they are resolved to not enter into marriages that won’t last, are committed to making marriages work, and are advocates (or at the very least, non-obstructionist) for the idea of same-sex marriage.
  • The importance of guidance. Many of the younger generation want older adults involved in their lives to offer guidance, wisdom and perspective. The primary folks they want mentoring them are their own parents; younger Americans desire to have parents who can be counted upon for more than just providing for physical needs. If parents aren’t able to step up to the plate (for whatever reason) the Millennial generation has no problem seeking out people with whom they can establish vital, life-long connections.
  • The importance of their input on the future. Millennials don’t expect a free ride, and are in many cases contemptuous of that idea. They want to roll up their sleeves, get involved in the issues and challenges before them, and contribute ideas and solutions that help bring about resolution. They also want to be involved in projects and ministries that matter – that address problems in the real world, and help make the world a better place.
  • The importance of priorities. This is not a workaholic generation. They are not going to put in the 60-80 hour work weeks of generations past, mainly because they saw how those types of conditions led to the destruction of their parents’ marriages. They are also not going to invest in ministries and activities that they don’t see as productive. Time is their number one currency, and they will invest in things that they understand as having great value, and not invest in things that are simply done “because they’ve always been done.” Vision and leadership are essential to getting them invested. This also translates into the importance of having a clear vision and expectation for those who follow that vision.
  • The importance of communication. Some people decry the rise of the smartphone, Twitter, Facebook, etc. And there are some real dangers in this Internet Age that have to be accounted for. But this generation thrives on the ability to have access to information and communication at their fingertips. They are not shy about sharing their thoughts, engaging in dialogue, or seeking out expert answers to questions they may have. To reach them may not require “face time” in the traditional sense (home visits, etc), but it certainly requires leaders and mentors who are available via technology, and use that tech wisely.
  • The importance of caring. This ties back in with their view of contributing to the future of the planet, but Millennials put a priority on caring. Naturally, being human, caring in the long term/big picture is much easier to establish and practice than caring in the short term/near picture. But at heart, this generation wants to take care of the planet, their neighbor, and their loved ones in the best way possible.
  • The importance of authenticity. This generation distrusts institutions and authority, and with good reason. Millennials simply do not respond well to some one saying, “I’m in charge and I told you so.” They push back when they perceive error; they question as a way of learning; they desire someone to tell them the truth, not just about spiritual things, but about how deeply those spiritual things impact the everyday life. They want people who can admit their mistakes, own up to their need for grace, and offer grace and compassion without condescension. They will allow you to make judgments on their decisions if you have proven yourself to be someone they can trust. And that trust takes time to build.
  • The unimportance of religion. The Millennial generation, this current culture, is the fastest growing population of “Nones” in recent history. Over 30 percent of the Millennial generation self-identifies as being non-religious, which includes everything from atheism to agnosticism to having no official ties to any particular type of religious organization. Church is not an obligation to which they will hold out of respect. They will not live by a certain ethical standard simply because a religious leader says so. But they will respond to spirituality, which can be a bad word, but offers an in-road to reach them. The idea of a Savior who knows them, loves them, and has a plan for their life is a powerful idea, especially when coupled with the transformative power of the Gospel (that Jesus doesn’t command you to do things to be saved; he saves you to do things).

While not everyone you meet will have all of these characteristics, a great many of the people you see each day at work, in the store, at the ball field, at the gym, in the bank, or on your street share at least a few of these traits. What we are called to do is be like Paul – to look, listen, and learn which people have which traits, and then engage them at that point. We don’t have to have all the answers, but we do have to believe that our faith in Christ can provide answers that are better than the world’s.

That’s really another message for another time, but I don’t want to leave you without a starting place. I’d like to recommend six books you can read over the course of this year that would do a lot to help you take advantage of the current culture.

  • Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
  • The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel
  • Is God Just a Human Invention? by Sean McDowell
  • The Millennials by Thom and Jess Rainer
  • You Lost Me by David Kinnaman
  • The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard

I want you to pray for God to awaken in you an awareness of the world around you, to give you eyes to see opportunity instead of obstacle, to give you a heart for reaching out to the world instead of waiting for the world to come to you.

Father God, may we your people take seriously again your command to GO and reach the world.

A Letter to My Children: The Debt Ceiling, Politicians, and My Failure as a Father

Dear Ella and Jon –

Both of your great-grandfathers served in World War II in the European theater. Pop Emmette, your Nonna’s father, was assigned to a postmasters’ outfit in France just before the final collapse of Berlin. Pop Harold, your Poppy’s dad, was a quartermaster with the Army who helped with the final supply lines for the troops who ended the European front of the war.

I’m telling you this because last night, as the current president Barack Obama, took to the airwaves to speak about a deadlock in debt ceiling negotiations (which is a fancy way of saying that the USA is about to run out of money) I realized the death of the America in which I came of age. Both of your great-grandfathers were contributors to that America, one that held certain ideals about the nation itself and what it took to make it great. Their generation, by no means perfect, was at the very least rooted in a system of shared belief that the good of the many outweighed the wants of the few. They fought for this belief and applied it in their lives, and expected those around them, including the politicians sent to represent them in Washington D.C., to do the same.

I’m no historian, but I would argue that the same belief your great-grandfathers harbored has been a dominant piece of the American ethos since the inception of this nation. It was the ignition for the American Revolution, it was the self-destructive impulse behind the Civil War, and it was the rallying cry that rescued the nation from the Great Depression and ushered us to victory in the Second World War. Our historical documents are loaded with language about the “good of the people” and our rhetoric for 235 years has been that we are a nation of many who stand as one.

It’s even our national motto: E Pluribus Unum. From the many, one.

But that America is dead now. It no longer exists, and I spent the better part of last night trying to figure out who should bear the responsibility for the death blow.

I was tempted to blame the politicians who are currently in office, the egotistical buttheads who stand in front of their media pulpits and proclaim that they are working for the will of the American people when in reality they are working for a select group of individuals who share the same political ideology. The list of these demagogues is long and undistinguished, and all are guilty: President Obama, Rep. John Boehner, Rep. Eric Cantor, Sen. Harry Reid, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, and so on. Almost anyone that your father can currently see on TV or read about in the papers is someone who has shunted the good of the American people to the side in order to doggedly pursue their own personal vision of what America should be. Party affiliation, long a lament of the voting populace, has replaced the needs of the country, so that a relatively simple matter of raising our debt ceiling in order to preserve the economy for the short term while simultaneously working on a long term solution for our reckless spending has turned into a game of political chicken. The two parties are staring at each other, neither willing to concede anything because they can’t bring themselves to let the other party “win.”

And at this point, “win” is a loose term.

Instead, these people who are supposed to do what’s good for the nation both in the near and long terms are about to cause a systemic default on our financial obligations that could very well kill the economy in ways we’ve never even considered.

At a time when the economy is already barely breathing.

This would be like your dad arguing with your mom over what type of medicine you should be treated with while you were dying because you needed medicine.

What makes it even worse is the smug self-righteousness with which these politicians address the nation, telling us that what they are doing is what we want them to do. You will be old enough to understand this one day, so I’m going to go ahead and tell you: the people who have your best interests at heart actually shut up and listen to what you have to say. Even when they make decisions that go against your wishes, they at least cared enough to listen. You’ve grown up with this – you haven’t always liked the decisions your mother and I made, but as soon as you were old enough to share your thoughts and preferences with us, we allowed you to have your say and weighed it against the larger picture. When it made sense to do what you wanted, we capitulated and gave you the gift of empowerment (which is no small thing, let me tell you…). When it didn’t make sense, we did what was best for you and gave you the courtesy of an explanation.

The people currently in office don’t do either of those things, and as a grown-up adult with a voice and plenty of thoughts on the matter, it pisses me off to no end. It makes me mad. It actually makes me think fondly of the American Revolution and wonder if we might revisit such a drastic recourse.

I’m spit-balling, mind you – I make no bones about the fact that I wouldn’t even attempt to pick up a rifle at Walmart and challenge the US Government to a fight. But the dream is nice, and that’s sad; when your only outlet for your frustrations would seem to be dreaming of violent revolution, that says something about the system under which you’re living.

Which brings me to the point of my letter: the politicians are not to blame for the mess you will inherit.

I am.

And so is everyone else who has voted these types of politicians into power for the past thirty years.

You see, in a democratic system, the people choose who represent them. We get to shuffle into a soulless little box every few years and punch a button to decide the players who will decide our collective national fate. Once upon a time, this system worked, mainly because the people who voted wouldn’t stand for jack-legged egotists in office. Sure, they voted in a few windbags from time to time, but for the most part the men (and for a while, it was only men) elected to office held the idea and ideals of this nation to be their guiding principles. They believed, as your great-grandfathers did, that the many outweighed the few. They argued over the best approach to this goal, as any group of distinct individuals will, but more often than not they came to great compromises that propelled this nation forward as a vanguard. You can see the relics of this across the nation because we used to build monuments to our political leaders – the Washington monument, the Lincoln memorial, the Jefferson memorial; heck, we even sandblasted the living crap out of a South Dakota mountain so we could put the faces of four great American statesmen on its slope. We spent countless dollars erected these edifices to remind ourselves not only of the men and women who shaped our heritage, but of that heritage itself.

Nowadays, we wouldn’t waste money on a politician’s statue. We’ve discovered the subversive joys of naming waste-water reclamation facilities after them, which tells you how far things have fallen.

And yet they’ve fallen this far because we’ve let them. We’ve become something I can’t quite define, something that is frightening to consider. It’s hard to pinpoint why we’ve become a nation of cynics and skeptics, though one would suggest it’s the repeated exposure to leaders who suck, which only brings us back to the question of why the hell did we elect them then? When did we quit caring about who went to Washington? When did we collectively decide to roll over and let a narrow group of people on both sides of the aisle speak for the vast majority of us?

It would require a great deal of collective brainpower from sociologists, historians, political scientists, psychologists and Dionne Warwick to come up with a decent answer.

But I’d sure love to read it. For me, I just fall back on the old standard of blaming it all on Watergate. Or Dan Quayle.

Maybe one of you, or someone from your generation, will be the first to undertake such a massive study – the examination of the death of the American people’s collective idealism – and if so, I hope you find something substantial. Because to be honest, it seems from my vantage point to be nothing more than our own selfishness coming back to haunt us. We take what we get because we don’t care to fully participate. We tell ourselves that our vote doesn’t count because the weasels will still get elected, thereby ensuring that the weasels still get elected. If we do vote, we don’t do any research, or we simply wait until some paper or website or magazine produces a “how to vote” list, which, if you think about the history of this nation and all we fought against, is antithetical to what it means to be an American.

Mostly though, we just whine and gripe and moan. Kind of like this blog post – it serves no real purpose towards change. It’s just a way for me to get my two-cents out there and feel all justified at my anger.

If I really cared, I’d get my but down to whatever civic office is responsible for this sort of thing and register myself as a candidate for the next election. Or I’d begin a new political party, something like the Common Sense Party, or Bull Winkle Party, or Whigs, and petition some of the best and brightest people I know, people who would actually go to Washington and guide themselves by the old American ethos to do what is best for the country without being concerned about re-election.

Unfortunately, it seems I really am at fault for the mess we’re in. For that, I am truly sorry. My only hope is that I can raise you to be better than I am, and that you will be a generation that actually believes and cares enough to set things right.

I have failed you. But I believe you will not fail yourselves.

With my apologies, love and hope,