Coram Deo ~

Looking at contemporary culture from a Christian worldview


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My Review of Gifted

Gifted, rated PG-13
***

Gifted is a pleasing film about self-sacrifice and the importance of family.
This film is directed by Marc Webb ((500) Days of Summer, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2), and written by Tom Flynn. It features a solid cast and some strong performances. Although set in Florida, it was actually filmed mostly on Bull Street in Savannah, Georgia.
Frank Adler (played by Chris Evans of Captain America films), is a former university professor who now repairs boats in Florida. When his sister, a genius mathematician, took her life seven years ago Frank took the responsibility to raise her infant daughter Mary (Mckenna Grace). The two have a great relationship, living in a small home with their one-eyed cat Fred. In one touching scene, Mary asks Frank if there is a God and whether Jesus is God.
But Mary isn’t happy at all that Frank is making her go to public school (first grade) after home schooling her. Mary also has an excellent relationship with their neighbor Roberta (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer).
It doesn’t take Mary’s teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) long to realize that, like her mother, Mary is extremely gifted in mathematics. The school principal offers Frank a scholarship for Mary to go to a school where Mary would be challenged, but Frank refuses, saying that he only wants Mary to have a normal life.
Then Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan, Sherlock) Frank’s manipulative mother, shows up from Boston. Frank and Evelyn are not particularly close and we hear about Evelyn’s contentious relationship with his sister. This all leads to a custody battle between the two over Mary.
I enjoyed this well-acted film. There were strong performances from Evans, Grace and Duncan; Spencer delivered her usual solid performance in a small role.
The film does include some adult language, including the abuse of God’s name. Frank and Bonnie have a relationship, and it is inferred that they have sex (nothing explicit is shown).


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Encouragement in the Midst of Loss

Lately, I’ve become aware of a number of losses in my life. Perhaps this describes you in this season as well. This is not to be unexpected in a post-Genesis 3 fallen world. Still, there are many losses that I am aware of in recent days, including:

  • The news that a dear friend, who has bravely battled cancer for years, has gone into hospice care.
  • Saying good bye to dear friends from church as they move to Tennessee.
  • Saying good bye to two team members that, even though I had only worked with them for about four months, I very much enjoyed getting to know them and they will be missed.
  • Hearing that a dear woman from church has had a recurrence of cancer after more than twenty years.
  • Walking with dear friends from church as one of them walks the path of Alzheimer’s disease.
  • The upcoming one year anniversary of my father-in-law’s home-going.
  • Meeting a new team member who is walking with a brother battling cancer.
  • Hearing of a close relative’s loss of their dog that was dear to them.
  • Good friends who experienced three deaths in ten days, including two parents.

I hate cancer. I hate death. I hate good-byes.

And yet for the believer, we know that this life is as bad as it will get. We have much to look forward to. We have hope. Hope of no more cancer. Hope of no more tears. Hope of reuniting, with not only friends who have moved away, but of loved ones who have died. No more waiting on medical tests to find out if the cancer has spread. No more suffering.

John in Revelation 21:4 tells us:
He will wipe away every tear from their (yes our!) eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.      

But until Heaven, how are we to persevere in this fallen and broken world, when life is so hard and there is so much loss all around us? Consider some of this encouragement from Scripture:

  • For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.  Romans 8:18
  • Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. Romans 5:3-4
  • Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. John 14:1
  • Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.  Isaiah 41:10
  • Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.  Psalm 23:4
  • But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.  1 Thessalonians 4:13-14
  • Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.  John 14:27
  • Casting all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you.  1 Peter 5:7
  • “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”  2 Corinthians 4:16-18.

And of course there are so many more passages from Scripture that provide us comfort and encouragement in the midst of loss. What other verses or passages from the Bible have provided you comfort in the midst of loss?

There are signs of new life as the Midwest embraces spring. As I write this, farmers are in their fields preparing their land for planting. Soon, there will be small little corn and bean plants in perfectly shaped rows emerging in our rich black soil. The redbuds and crabapple trees today are just stunning. There are new buds on our maple tree and fresh green growth on our evergreens around our patio. God is faithful. He will be with you, in the good times and bad.


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MUSIC REVIEWS and NEWS


Triplicate – Bob Dylan
****

You can never put Bob Dylan in a box. He will always surprise you. After 2015’s Shadows in the Night, he followed up with 2016’s Fallen Angels, a similar album of his unique interpretation of standards that had been recorded by Frank Sinatra. His last album of newly written material was 2012’s Tempest. So after winning the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, what does the 75-year old legend follow Fallen Angels up with, just over 10 months following that album? One might expect a stunning new album of songs about the state of our nation (racial tension, election of Trump, etc.). But Dylan rarely does what we expect him to do.  Instead he returns with the excellent Triplicate, his 38th studio album, a 30-song, three-album (his first triple album), project of newly recorded covers of mostly pre-World War II/rock and roll music songs known as the Great American Songbook.
Dylan, his touring band – guitarists Charlie Sexton and Dean Parks, bassist Tony Garnier, drummer George Recile and steel guitarist Donnie Herron – and arranger James Harper, went to Hollywood’s Capitol studios to record live (vocals recorded with instrumentation) hand-chosen songs from American songwriters such as Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, Harold Hupfield, and Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh. The project is thematically-arranged in three 10-song albums titled “’Til the Sun Goes Down,” “Devil Dolls” and “Comin’ Home Late”, each 32 minutes in length, which Dylan has said is the number of completion, a lucky number, and symbolic of light.  Dylan has stated that the albums came out at the same time because thematically they are interconnected, one being the sequel to the other and each one resolving the previous one.
Interestingly, Sinatra released Trilogy in 1980, a three-album which too had a different theme for each album, “The Past,” “The Present” and “The Future.” The new project was produced by Dylan, under his usual pseudonym Jack Frost.
The 30 songs on Triplicate include classics such as “Stardust”, “As Time Goes By,” “September of My Years,” “Stormy Weather” and “Sentimental Journey” as well as less well-known songs such as Alec Wilder and Edwin Finckel’s “Where Is the One” and Jack Lawrence’s “It’s Funny to Everyone But Me.”
While many of the songs are slow ballads, often solemn and about loss, there are also a handful of more upbeat songs here as well. Dylan’s now road-weary voice, always an incredible instrument in itself, and which sounded really rough on Tempest, seems perfectly fitted for these songs and arrangements. He delivers vocal performances on these last three standards albums that I never thought I would hear from him again. Listen to his vocal and phrasing on “My One and Only Love”, for example. His touring band never gets in the way of Dylan’s heart-felt vocals within Harper’s intimate arrangements. Herron’s steel guitar is a highlight throughout. Horns are used sparingly, but effectively on songs such as “The Best is Yet to Come”, “Sentimental Journey”, and “My One and Only Love”.
I preferred the more upbeat songs on the album, with some of my favorites being “The Best is Yet to Come”, “Stardust”, “Day in and Day Out”, “It’s Funny to Everyone But Me”, “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plans” and “That Old Feeling”. Dylan ends the album with “Why Was I Born?” written by Kern and Hammerstein in 1929. It includes the introspective lyrics “Why was I born? Why am I living? What do I get? What am I giving?”
While I would prefer new music from Dylan, I enjoyed and appreciated Triplicate, songs that Dylan says are meant for “the man on the street, the common man, the everyday person”. Will you enjoy it? My assessment is that if you enjoyed Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels, you’ll enjoy Triplicate. If you didn’t, you’ll probably want to pass on this one, though I would encourage you give it a listen before immediately dismissing it. Continue reading


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BOOK REVIEWS and NEWS


J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone by Iain H. Murray. Banner of Truth. 275 pages. 2016
****

I was excited to read this new biography of J.C. Ryle, a respected 1800’s theologian/author, published on the 200th anniversary of his birth by Iain Murray, an author who I always enjoy reading. Ryle was born into a family that were leaders in the emerging new merchant class in Macclesfield, England, his grandfather having built a prosperous silk mill, and upon his death left an immense fortune to his son, John, J.C. Ryle’s father. John would become one of the best-known figures in the county, being elected to Parliament.
J.C. was raised in the greatest comfort and luxury, and had everything that money could buy, but his father took little notice of his children.  He would be sent to a private preparatory school for three and a half years, twenty miles from home.  He would next go to Eton College, which was twenty-one miles west of London, where he spent nearly seven years and begin his love of the sport of cricket. In 1834 he entered Christ Church, Oxford, where he spent three years. During his first 18 years he writes of being barely exposed to biblical Christianity in his home.
He did not know the exact date of his conversion, but his turning point took place in 1834. He would return from Oxford a different man.
He was attracted to the legal profession in London, where he stayed for just six months due to poor health.  His father’s bank would be ruined and all of his wealth would be lost – his properties, bank, and silk mill. J.C. writes of his life being turned upside down and thrown into confusion, stating had he not been a Christian at this time, he may have committed suicide.
He became a clergyman because that would bring him some income. At Exbury, he would visit each home in his parish at least once a month, but stated that he didn’t really learn how to preach until he was 50.
Resigning due to poor health, he would be offered the rectory of St Thomas, Winchester, serving some 3,000 people in 1843, where he would stay for only five months.
He would meet and marry Matilda in 1845. She would die just three years later of lung disease. He would marry Jessy in 1850, who would become ill six months into the marriage, dying just ten years into the marriage. He would again become a widower with five children.  He then married Henrietta in 1861, and they would enjoy long years of happiness together before her death in 1889.
Of the significance of Ryle’s writing (tracts, addresses, books), Murray writes that they must be appreciated in their wider historical context. He states that at the beginning of the nineteenth century there were few popular writers in the Church of England.  Most of his books came about in the same way: Holiness in 1877, Old Paths in 1878, Practical Religion in 1879, Coming Events and Present Duties in 1879. All brought together material previously published as separate tracts. By 1888 it is said that between 200 and 300 tracts of various lengths had been published, with over 12 million issued. From his first tract at Helmingham in 1844, the primary intention was evangelistic and pastoral. He produced a large amount of writing in his difficult years at Helmingham. Murray writes that he could produce so much of enduring value, and that in the midst of many trials, is indication enough that he was himself being fed from rich sources. Ryle would become the vicar at Stradbroke in 1861.
In 1869, he would become a rural dean of Hoxne which involved a measure of oversight for twenty-five other parishes, and in February 1872 he was made an honorary canon of Norwich.
At age 63. Ryle would become the Bishop of Liverpool. Murray writes of challenges that Ryle faced in his leadership. For the sake of unity and better relationships with other Churchman, he urged toleration over what was not fundamental. He encouraged attendance at mixed gatherings such as Convocations and Church Congresses.
One of the greatest disappointments in his life, would be his son Herbert aligning with the opposition theologically. His father saw the strength and unity of the Church in a return to definite evangelical doctrines. Herbert saw the Church attaining peace and unity by the allowance of a broad doctrinal liberty. Murray writes that despite their differences, the bond between father and son had not failed, and that they would remain close.
Ryle was to express regret that he had not come to Liverpool as a younger man when he would have been able to do more. By the beginning of 1899 Ryle’s health was in evident decline. On January 8, 1899, he preached at St. Nathaniel’s on John 17:15. It would be his last time in that pulpit. Passing his 84th birthday on May 10, he would die on June 10.
The book includes appendices on extracts from Ryle and on son Herbert. Continue reading


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THIS & THAT and Favorite Quotes of the Week

  • We recently took a trip to Chicago to see Hamilton the musical written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and inspired by the 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton written by Ron Chernow. See my review of the book here. In 2016, Hamilton received a record-setting 16 Tony nominations, winning 11, including Best Musical, and was also the recipient of the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theatre Album and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The Chicago performance was amazing, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. The performance featured an outstanding cast, led by Wayne Brady in the role of Aaron Burr. Did you know that Burr’s grandfather was the great theologian and pastor Jonathan Edwards? Additional tickets for the Chicago production have put on sale through January 7. Check them out here.
  • Ministry Update. I wanted to briefly give you an update on a few things I’m working on. The first draft of a short book, tentatively titled God Values Your Work, was completed a few months ago, and is being reviewed by my editor. I have two opportunities to speak on faith and work in June. One will be on discipleship at work and the other will be encouraging church leaders to help those they minister to see the value of their work and how they can integrate their faith and work. Would appreciate your prayers for the book and the speaking opportunities that the Lord would be glorified.

  • Rule # 6: Redeem Your Time. Tim Challies offers this rule in his series of “8 Rules for Growing in Godliness”. He writes “Just as money is endowed to a college to further particular programs or support certain kinds of students, time is given to us to accomplish specific purposes.”
  • 5 Productivity Tips for the Busy Mom. Tim Challies shares productivity lessons he and his wife shared during a time when their lives were veering out of control.
  • Tim Keller on Why You Should Catechize Your Children. Tim Keller discusses in this new videowhy Christians should catechize our children in the 21st century.
  • Looking for Real Happiness in a World of Worry. Randy Alcorn writes “Worry is the product of high stakes and low control, coupled with expecting the worst. There’s no greater enemy of happiness.”
  • Known By Our Gratitude. How can we alter our perspectives and be known for what we are for, instead of what we are against? What this message from Ann Voskamp, in which she unpacks what can dynamically transform our communities.
  • How Calvinists Miss the Key to Happiness. Tony Reinke writes “At root, the joy of Calvinism is a joy purchased by Christ and emerges from the ever-present Spirit within us.”

PUTTING SIN TO DEATH:

  • How to Mortify Sin. Sinclair Ferguson writes “The first thing to do is: Turn to the Scriptures. Yes, turn to John Owen (never a bad idea!), or to some other counselor dead or alive. But remember that we have not been left only to good human resources in this area. We need to be taught from “the mouth of God” so that the principles we are learning to apply carry with them both the authority of God and the promise of God to make them work.”
  • When Feeling Temptation’s Lure. Scotty Smith prays “Thank you for your promise, that for everytemptation we face in life—every one of them, you will always provide a way out. Show us what that looks like today, even in this very moment.”
  • The Dead End of Sexual Sin. Rosaria Butterfield writes “In the writings of John Owen, I was shown how and why the promises of sexual fulfillment on my own terms were the antithesis of what I had once fervently believed. Instead of liberty, my sexual sin was enslavement. This seventeenth-century Puritan revealed to me how my lesbian desires and sensibilities were dead-end joy killers.”
  • Lies at the Heart of Addiction. David Murray writes “It doesn’t matter what kind of addiction it is—drink, drugs, food, gambling, porn, spending, tanning, people-pleasing, people-critiquing, control, digital technology, etc.—lies are at the heart of them all.”
  • 10 Ugly and Updated Numbers about Pornography Use. Tim Challies writes “These numbers prove statistically what we already known anecdotally—that pornography is a significant issue afflicting our society and our church.”

Doug Michael’s Cartoon of the Week

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My Review of Risen

Risen, PG-13
***

Risen is a well-made Christian film that would be a good one to watch with family and friends this Easter weekend.
This 2016 film, directed and co-written (with Paul Aiello) by Kevin Reynolds (The Count of Monte CristoWaterworld), gives us a different perspective on the greatest story ever told. The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus (here referred to as Yeshua, well-portrayed by Cliff Curtis) is told through the eyes of a skeptic. And while I tend to be wary of faith-based films due to their often emotional manipulation and lack of quality, the trailer for this film had reflected that it might be a step above the norm in this genre. After seeing the film, I found it, with a budget of $20 million, to be well-acted with good use of scenery and sets, and an effective musical score. And unlike 2014’s Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings, Christians will find that it respects the biblical account of the death and resurrection of Christ.
The film, set in Judaea in 33 A.D., takes the point of view of a fictional character Clavius, a powerful Roman Military Tribune, who we see praying to his gods, played by Joseph Fiennes (who has played Martin Luther in 2003’s Luther, and will portray runner/missionary Eric Liddell in the upcoming film On Wings of Eagles). Clavius serves under and is often summoned to the presence of Pontius Pilate, played by Oscar nominated actor Peter Firth. He is driven by ambition, and seeks power and wealth, telling Pilate that he desires “an end to travail, a day without death, peace.”
The film begins with Clavius’ troops brutally defeating Jewish rebels. Pilate then summons Clavius about a Nazarene leader (Yeshua) who has claimed to be God. He is being crucified and Pilate tells him to quickly finish the work because the Emperor is coming for a visit. We see a sword pierce Yeshua’s side, and Clavius watch him die before turning the body over to Joseph of Arimathea for burial in a private tomb.
Since there are rumors Yeshua will rise from the dead, and the Jewish leaders fear his followers will steal his body and claim that he rose, Clavius seals the tomb and assigns two soldiers to guard it. When the body is missing from the tomb on the third day, Pilate orders Clavius and his assistant Lucius (Tom Felton, best known for his role as Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films), to quickly find the body and end the rumors of Yeshua’s resurrection.
The film, which moves at a slow pace, follows Clavius’ search for Yeshua’s body as he interrogates Mary Magdalene (Maria Botto) and Bartholomew (Stephen Hagan) and encounters Peter (Stewart Scudamore). As his investigation proceeds, we begin to see Clavius changing.
I thoroughly enjoyed this well-made telling of the story of the days before and after the death of Christ. The violence at the beginning of the film and some disturbing images of dead bodies earn the film its PG-13 rating. Risen is available on DVD and video streaming outlets. Enjoy it with family and friends this Easter weekend.


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My Review of The Case for Christ

The Case for Christ, rated PG
***

The Case for Christ is a well-made film based on a true story. It would be an excellent film to watch this Easter weekend.
This film tells the true story of award winning Chicago Tribune journalist Lee Strobel’s spiritual journey. Strobel, played by Mike Vogel (The Help), is a committed atheist. His wife Leslie, played by Erika Christensen (Parenthood), was raised in the church, but has since fallen away. One night in a Chicago restaurant, their young daughter Alison, played by Hayley Rosenwasser, nearly chokes to death. A nurse named Alfie Davis, played by L. Scott Caldwell (Mercy Street, Lost), is in the restaurant and comes to the child’s aid, saving her life. Alfie tells Leslie that she hadn’t planned to be at the restaurant, but Jesus had changed her plans that evening. Leslie becomes friends with Alfie, who invites her to her church (Willow Creek), and she eventually becomes a Christian, much to the displeasure of her husband.
Kenny London, played by Mike Pniewski (The Good Wife, Madam Secretary), is the religion editor at the Tribune. He is a Christian, and he challenges Lee to use his reporting skills to investigate Christianity. He tells him that the truth of Christianity rests or falls on the resurrection of Jesus. If Lee can disprove the resurrection, he can disprove Christianity. So Lee sets about using his investigative skills to disprove the resurrection and as a result, Christianity. He is convinced that Christianity can’t be supported by facts, and he sets out to prove just that. And Strobel is certainly no slouch. He earned his Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Missouri and his Master of Studies in Law at Yale Law School.
As he begins to investigate the resurrection and his wife’s faith grows, we see him become frustrated, angry and drinking a lot. At the same time, we see Leslie pray for her husband’s salvation and her love for Lee, who is not very lovable, continues to grow.
The movie focuses much on the relationship between Lee and Leslie and how Leslie’s newfound faith rocks Lee. He decides the only way he can save his marriage, and to get his old wife back, is to get Jesus out of Leslie’s life. Along the way, in a parallel storyline, we see Lee’s investigative work on James Dixon’s alleged shooting of a police office.
The film boasts a solid cast. Lee has a complicated relationship with his father Walter, portrayed by Oscar nominee Robert Forster (Jackie Brown). Frankie Faison (The Good Wife), portrays Joe, his editor at the Tribune. Oscar winner (Network) Faye Dunaway portrays Dr. Roberta Waters, appearing in one scene. Ray, portrayed by fellow atheist Brett Rice (Foxcatcher), mentors Lee on investigating the claims of Christianity. Tom Nowicki portrays Dr. Alexander Metherell (The Blind Side, Flight), who Lee consults about the so-called “Swoon Theory” of the crucifixion.
The film is directed by Jon Gunn, and is written by Brian Bird (Captive), based on Strobel’s best-selling book The Case for Christ. Themes in the film include the search for truth, faith, love, friendship, faith and prayer.
Most faith-based films I’ve seen over the years have not been well done. Budgets are low and the writing and acting has often been sub-standard. This film is a pleasant exception. Although I would have preferred for the film to focus more on the evidence that Lee encountered in his investigation of the resurrection rather than on his relationship with Leslie, I can still give it a strong recommendation.