Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Creatures of Habit

Creatures of habit,
Day after day
Go about life,
The same old way.

Nothing disturbs
Their orderly routine
All must be neat,
And all must be clean.

They’re making their lists
And checking them twice,
Trying to make sure
Their work will suffice.

Impatient by nature
They don’t suffer fools
Gladly or otherwise
Because of the rules.

A place for everything
For all there’s a place
Don’t touch the guest towels
But please wash your face.

They insist on living
Orderly lives,
And of course only marry
Orderly wives.

Their homes antiseptic
Their cars always clean,
Their food always healthy
Their meat always lean.

Like ants in an ant hill,
Repeating their tasks
Rest in repetition
Ignore the mask.

Chaos is forbidden
Experiment absurd
Don’t ask for creative
Don’t mention the word.
Creatures of habit,
By whose design?
Is this just human,
Or is it divine?

What if we found
That ordering our sphere,
Is just a misnomer
For controlling our fear?

Fear of the truth,
Fear of falling
Fear of the unknown,
Fear of our calling

Fearing to let go,
Fearing to try,
Fearing to live,
And fearing to die.

An unknown poet said it
Muse in the machine
It suggests new direction
By which we come clean.

“It’s the heart afraid of breaking.
That never learns to dance,
It’s the dream afraid of waking
That never takes a chance.

“It’s the one who won’t be taken
Who cannot seem to give,
And the soul afraid of dying,
That never learns to live.”

Perhaps if we surrender
Control of our lives,
And offer ourselves
To all seeing eyes

We’ll find a new freedom
Though not out of bounds
For when he controls us
The order’s profound.

Let go of the death grip,
You have on your life
Inhibit your habits
Without artifice.

Accept serendipity,
Free by design
Eat the new manna
Drink the new wine.

Come to the manger
Kneel at the throne
Realize your ruler
Won’t leave you alone.

Celebrate Christmas
Deliverance declare
You’re freed to inhabit
A creature’s full share.

Dec. 1 2005

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" though first published in 1813 was in fact written in 1796-97 and originally entitled "First Impressions". It has consistently been Jane Austen's most popular novel and portrays life in the genteel but rural English society of the late 18th and early 19th century. It tells in a memorable way the story of the initial misunderstandings and later mutual enlightenment between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. The title "Pride and Prejudice" refers particularly to the ways in which Elizabeth and Darcy first view each other, but it applies equally to the way a class-oriented society works and gets in the way of people of different socio-economic strata really getting to know each other.

Jane Austen's gave her own opinion of the work, in a letter to her sister Cassandra immediately after its publication stressing: "Upon the whole... I am well satisfied enough. The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants [i.e. needs] shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story: an essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparté, or anything that would form a contrast and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and general epigrammatism of the general style".

This story is indeed bright, and mostly cheerful, in a way that the recently released "Oliver Twist" is not. Though there are some cads in Jane Austen's masterpiece, there is no real wickedness to be confronted, unlike in "Oliver Twist". It is no easy thing to successfully film a classic novel, but I am happy to say that this film nearly lives up to the level of the novel itself, and is well worth repeated viewings. It is beautifully shot in the English countryside, and all the major actors are superb including Kira Knightley who plays Lizzy Bennet, and Donald Sutherland who plays her father in a truly fetching way. Judy Dentsch is also her usual formidable self, playing a part very akin to the approach she took to playing the Queen in one of her last period pieces-- that is, as "la femme tres formidable."

The movie is just over two hours in length and gives the viewer plenty of time to evaluate what it must have been like to be a woman without money in a highly patriarchal and class conscious society. Barring some miracle it meant being a woman "without prospects". Though Austen was no feminist in the modern sense, she does an excellent job of portraying the plight of women caught in such a world, and bargained for between the suitor and the father of the family. Fortunately for Lizzy, she had a kind and goodly father who wanted the best for his five girls.

It is easy to become beguiled by the lavish and beautiful settings, manor houses, countryside, gorgeous apparel and the like, not to mention the beautiful way this movie is filmed. It should surely win an award for cinematography especially for the ball room dancing scenes. But this is a story with substance, not just style, and one must not get too distracted by the beauty of the package. This is a story about how love overcomes pride and prejudices, and even mistaken or false first impressions. Indeed, it is a story about how love conquers all.

There is as a well a Christian message hidden in this story, besides the obvious message about the transformative power of love, because there is a Reverend Collins in this movie, who while not an upper class twit, is nonetheless a twit totally in the thrall of his patroness who has granted him his "living" a nice parsonage and a lovely parish church. He is indeed a kept man, and it reminds us of how Christian ministers can become captives to the social systems of their day, and find themselves running to the beck and call of the wealthy persons who make their "living" possible. It is not a flattery image that emerges of clergy completely co-opted by the larger social culture, but then this was not just a vice of 18th and 19th century clergy--- we see it a plenty today, especially in the larger and mega-churches in North America. When sermons are seen as a means to ethically civilize and pacify the clientele so that society may remain as inequitable as it always was, then we see the extent to which the Gospel can become captive to the larger agendas of the culture, indeed can become the chief purveyors of those often anti-Christian values. As Pogo once said "I have seen the enemy, and he is us."

But lest I get too carried away with moralizing about bad and unethical homiletical moralizing, I must say that this is a movie all Christians can and should see to understand better the power of love, and also the way the Gospel can be neutralized in "such a civilized manner". It is appropriate for all audiences of any age as it completely eschews any violence, bad language, or gratuitous sex. In fact the climax of the movie is a simple and beautiful kiss, which reminds us that less is often so much more in a well-told tale. These sorts of movies are rare these days, and deserve to be supported. We may hope that Hollywood will have the "sense and sensibility" to film another of Austen's classics soon.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Walking a Fine Line

In what could be called the Caucasian equivalent of the movie "Ray" we now have the bi-op of the recently deceased Johnny Cash on film. The star role is played effectively and accurately by Joaquin Phoenix, and equally effectively co-stars Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash. The movie runs over two hours, allowing the story to percolate along at its own pace, and like the movie "Ray" we leave the central figure at or near the apex of his career, in this case at the juncture where June finally relents and agrees to marry Johnny after being propositioned on stage in 1968. The landmark "Live at Folson Prison" album was already a major hit, and by this time Cash, with the help of Carter had licked his addiction to prescription drugs. The similarities to the story of Ray Charles are striking, and remarkable.

The movie begins much like "Ray" did with a brief recounting of Cash's upbringing in Dyess Arkansas, part of a sharecropping family with a stern father and a devout hymn-singing mother. It becomes clear early on in the movie how much damage parental favoritism can do to a child, for the father has no tolerance for his younger son's love for music, and clearly favors the more practical older brother Jack, as the star of the family. When there is a horrible accident at the sawmill in which the older son is killed, the father at least partially blames Johnny for being off fishing rather than being present with his brother at that tragic moment. It was a childhood episode that was to haunt Cash throughout his life.

One of the fasacinating aspects of this movie is the faithful recreation of the early days in Memphis at Sun Records in the mid and later 50s when Elvis, and Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison, and Carl Perkins, and June Carter, and the youngest of them all Johnny Cash were all making hit recording and touring together on the Sun Records tours. It reminds us that long before there was Beatle mania there was already rock-a billy mania focused on various of these rising American stars. Both Phoenix and Witherspoon do a fine job of actually singing in this movie and not merely lip-syncing and this makes the movie all the more believable and compelling.

One of the aspects of the story which unfortunately does not get enough play is the Christian faith of both Johnny Cash and June Carter throughout the various vicissitudes of their lives. This is unfortunate as it was one of the main things that sustained them through many hard times. But of course since the story stops in 1968, we miss most of the real Christian period of Cash's and Carter's lives. The movie tries to walk a fine line between not hiding the Christian factor and not overplaying it either.

There can be little doubt, that in a year when excellent dramas are thin on the ground that this movie is bound to get some Oscar nods. It shows in great and painful detail how hard it is to live life on the road and be true to one's Christian commitments. And this is a lesson worth remembering whether one is a traveling business person, a musician, or a politician.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Money

Now that we are well and truly into the Harry Potter saga (and to judge from the sales for this one over its first week, lots more people are paying money in order to pay attention), it will be well if we take stock of the story and its relative merits. But in order to do so, I must set up a dual frame of reference.

I was riding through Philadelphia this past week and noticed two things-- a house in which Edgar Allan Poe once lived in, with a giant statue of a raven just outside of it, and the ubiquitous billboards advertising the coming Narnia movie. Both of these things are of relevance in analyzing Harry Potter. Having read Poe's stories when I was much younger, I must say that the Harry Potter stories are mostly tame by comparison when it comes to darkness and the dance macabre. When you compare the two bodies of work you wonder why there was so much angst in the Christian community when the Harry Potter novels first came out, and then the movies began to appear. We have been reading dark stories for a long time indeed, even dark children's stories, and there are some merits to doing so--- namely it helps us recognize evil when we see it. In neither the Harry Potter stories nor in Poe's stories (even in the "Pit and the Pendulum") is evil ever portrayed as good, or as finally triumphing over the good.

But as for the comparison with "the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" of course we must reserve judgment until it comes out, but one can say for sure that it will take some doing for it to top this episode in the Harry Potter saga. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire has all the elements of a classic story. It has darkness and light, it has humor and suspense, the story is allowed to develop at its own pace, and the characters are stretched by various events to be their best selves. It has a wonderful supporting cast, surprising turns of events, especially at the end, and in the midst of all this we see the three central characters beginning to come of age and grow up. Yet the shortcomings of even Harry Potter are occasionally in evidence as well (he almost fails to rescue a fellow competitor from Hogwart's who is a good lad). It is not a fairy story, it is a mystery.

This particular story is more about plot development than about potion development, and the focus is not really on school life at Hogwarts. Rather the focus is on a three school competition to demonstrate who is the greatest wizard of all. But it is the dark forces lurking around the edges of the competition that provide the compelling subplot and bring Harry face to face with evil incarnate. There is however comic relief in the person of Rita Skeeter, the gossip columnist for the Daily Prophet who's interviews with Harry and others are nothing short of hilarious.

The visuals for this movie are consistently darker than the previous episodes, but with good reason, and there is a nice meshing of CG effects with live action of the cast. One never feels that one is slipping back and forth between a real drama and a cartoon, which is always the danger if the CG is over done or poorly done. Best of all, this movies leaves you wanting to see more and looking forward to the next episode. It does not seek to tie up all the loose ends, yet there is a strong sense of resolution of the plot as the movie winds down to its last few scenes.

At well over two hours this is the longest of the Potter movies, but none of this movie could be called filler or superfluous. It is no small task to do cinematic justice to an interesting and challenging novel that is full of magic and mystery, but this effort of director Newell can be said to have succeeded admirably. Indeed, this movie will bear repeated viewings with profit, but it is a much more adult tale than the previous episodes and a few scenes may be a bit too intense for smaller children. On the whole this is a movie that helps us see the line between good and evil rather clearly, and helps us make the right sort of choices along the way.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Anne Rice's Christ the Lord

Christ the Lord--- Out of Egypt, Anne Rice (N.Y.: Knopf, 2005)

Anne Rice has, by now become something of a household name through the enormous sales of her novels since her first one appeared in 1974, and so it comes as no surprise that this year saw another Anne Rice novel appear on the market. What is a surprise, bordering on shock, considering that Rice has been the Queen of Vampire novels, is that this novel is and loving and reverent story about Jesus as a child. More specifically it is largely the tale of one year of Jesus’ life, from the ages of 7-8, a period not covered by any of the canonical Gospels. Where then does she get her material? A small amount of the novel is based on some later apocryphal stories from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and certain assumptions (about Mary and Joseph) derived from the Proto-Evangelium of James, but most of the tale derives from Rice’ own fertile imagination as applied to the copious amount of reading she has done about the history and social circumstances and Jewish religious life of the period.
The novel is a tale of average length (301 pages), to which is appended an author’s note in which Rice gets to critique liberal Jesus scholars, amongst others. Rice also tells us the story of her conversion and return to Roman Catholicism, which also entailed a return to investigate questions which had haunted her all her life—how did Christianity actually come about and why did the Roman Empire fall? In 2002, we are told, she says “I put aside everything else and decided to focus entirely on answering the questions that had dogged me all my life. The decision came in July of that year. I had been reading the Bible constantly…and decided that I would give myself utterly to the task of trying to understand Jesus himself and how Christianity emerged. I wanted to write the life of Jesus Christ. I had known that years ago. But now I was ready. Ready to do violence to my career. I wanted to write the book in the first person. Nothing else mattered. I consecrated the book to Christ. I consecrated myself and my work to Christ.” ( p. 309).
Rice informs us that her inspiration came in part from reading Paula Fredricksen’s much praised Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews and she resolved that she wanted to present the real Jewish Jesus, the Jesus enmeshed in the life of pious early Jews who debated things like ritual purity issues, and whose life cycle moved between family and providing for family and pilgrimages up to Jerusalem to strengthen their faith. Yet in some respects Rice’s Jesus is one that Fredricksen would not recognize, as Rice is perfectly clear in her portrayal of Jesus as both divine and human, and most definitely as the only begotten Son of God born of the virgin Mary. Jesus is a very unique and peculiar sort of early Jew as it turns out. The problem is-- as a child he doesn’t really much know it, or understand it. The novel is in essence about the mental journey Jesus makes over the course of a traumatic year which also involved much actual traveling (leaving Egypt, coming to Nazareth, visiting Jerusalem both before and after arriving in Nazareth) as he comes to realize who he is as he pieces together that the “Christmas story” is in fact all about him! One of the key texts, interestingly enough, which helped determine for Anne Rice how she would depict Jesus was the famous ‘kenosis’ text in Phil. 2.5-11—the text about the pre-existent one who stripped or emptied himself of his divine pre-rogatives in order to live fully as a human being. To Rice this in turn meant that Jesus as a child did not naturally think of himself as divine, though he learned early on that he had some specially powers of healing or harming. Jesus throughout this novel must learn his true identity from consulting his family, including his ‘brother’ James, and even an ancient rabbi in the Temple in Jerusalem, in order to piece together the story. Only once he has gotten most of the story in mind does his mother finally sit him down and help him fill in the gaps. Until then Mary and Joseph had told him not to think about or discuss such things. To my surprise, this sort of presentation of the divine incognito in so far as it affected Jesus’ own self-consciousness, turns out to be quite effective. Jesus is presented as precocious of course, and a deeply spiritual and emotional child as well. But Rice deliberately underplays the supernatural element in her attempt to show how the child Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature, and favor with God and humankind” as Luke put’s it in Lk. 2.52.
There are some historical curiosities to Rice’s presentation even though it is clear that she has read a lot of scholarly work in preparation for writing this novel, and equally clear that she relied in equal parts on conservative Catholic and Protestant scholars. The detailed reading she has done has not however altered her own Catholic belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary and this belief strongly colors her presentation of Mary throughout. To her credit however, Mary does not take center stage in this novel, in fact, she gets a bit less space than Joseph. It is a portrayal that most Protestants could embrace for the most part. The historical curiosities include the starting assumptions. The novel begins with Jesus still, at age seven, living in Alexandria with his parents, and once Herod dies they resolve to return at once to the Holy Land, going to Nazareth by way of Jerusalem. There are several problems here. Firstly, Herod died only a couple of years after Jesus’ birth, not seven years. Both Jesus’ birth, and Herod’s demise transpired before the turn of the common era. Secondly, the revolt described as part of what the Holy family experienced when they arrived in the Holy Land, was a revolt led by Judas the Galilean and others that actually transpired near the end of Herod Archelaeus’ reign in A.D. 6, not at the turn of the era when the Holy family would have come home. For example the sacking of Sepphoris surely took place well after the time the Holy family went to Nazareth. Mt. 2.21-23 is quite emphatic that they returned during the reign of Archaelaeus were afraid to go to Judea, and so instead went to Galilee. The text as it stands suggests that the Holy family never went to Judea during the reign of Archelaeus, but rather studiously avoided it. This being the case, neither the social tension and revolutionary potential in the novel nor the several trips up to Judea while Herod’s son reigns matches up with the Matthean account and the probable historical chronology of things. It is however interesting to see her portrayal of Jews living under occupation. At one juncture Joseph is speaking with his brother as they are living in Nazareth and says “In this house we are in the land of Israel” and after everyone laughed his brother says “Yes… and outside the door, it’s the Empire.” (p. 233). It is an effective way of revealing how Jews must have felt about the ambivalent situation .
Another of the historical curiosities is the attention Rice gives to the mixed-language milieu theory. In her view the Holy family spoke Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, Greek especially because of their extended stay in Egypt. But alas, nothing in the historical record suggests they did have such an extended stay in Egypt--- probably no more than a couple of years at the most. I do not doubt that Jesus and his family knew some Greek, they would have had to know some to do business in or near Sepphoris for work purposes. But it is doubtful that Jesus of Joseph studied TANAK in Greek, and of course the notion of Jesus studying with Philo in Alexandria as a 6-7 year old boy is a pleasant, but improbable conceit. We do not even know for sure if Alexandria is the specific locale that the Holy family stayed in while there, though it is quite possible.
Of course Protestants will find very odd the huge extended family image Rice conjures up in order to account for all the children under Mary and Joseph’s roof. James, on the one hand is said to be the son of Joseph by prior marriage (ala the Proto-Evangelium of James) and so Jesus older ‘brother’. But this of course means he has no blood-kinship with Jesus at all, which makes it especially odd that he should be called Jesus’ brother not only in this novel, but in the NT. The other children are said to be cousins, and Joseph’s family is depicted as involving Joseph’s and Mary’s brothers and their families, all living under one roof in Nazareth—something no text of the NT even remotely suggests. Rice decides to develop the “Joseph” motif as a way of explaining the dynamic between James and Jesus. By this I mean James is depicted as envious of Jesus and his messianic status, and knowing more about it than Jesus until the end of the story. He is also depicted as repenting and offering sacrifice for this sin of envy at the end of the story. How we get from this depiction to Jn. 7.4-5 is hard to imagine. Also interesting is the depiction of little Salome, Jesus’ favorite younger cousin with whom he resonants throughout the novel in a chaste and spiritual way. One thing is for sure--- modern day Gnostics will not be pleased with the earthiness, Jewishness, and ritual focus of this Jesus and this Holy family any more than ancient Gnostics were. Jesus is depicted as quite specifically the Jewish messiah, the fulfiller of the prophecies, not the dispenser of esoteric knowledge to the elite and elect everywhere.
There are many things to commend about this novel. It is not an easy thing to write from a child’s point of view, and on a lesser scale reading this is rather like reading Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury . Secondly, from that worldview, Jesus turns out to be a rather fearful and very emotional child—loving, but also needing love and support as children do. One wonders if the ‘fear factor’ is overplayed a bit, or perhaps that too is part of the divine incognito. Jesus in any case is clearly not all that comfortable with his divine powers, and it wears him out when he uses them. Jesus is also depicted as a visionary, who even encounters the Devil in his dreams, though this is not a major theme, and interestingly it is not mainly how Jesus comes to find out who he is.

We may be thankful that Rice does not depict the early life of Jesus as a bucolic and untroubled revery. And like any good writer, she leaves many questions unanswered making this an enjoyable odyssey of the mind of child Jesus, though provocative at points. Perhaps we may expect and look forward to further novels on this subject. If so, there is even less historical fodder for the period of Jesus’ life between the time he was 12 and in the temple and the time he was 30 and began his ministry. But considering the fact there is really nothing written about Jesus as seven prior to this novel, I doubt the paucity of historical data will slow Rice down, so fertile is her imagination.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Making Child's Play of the Movies

Two recent films which either involve or directly target children have been much ballyhooed, but in the case of one of them, Chicken Little, it is hard to see why. Chicken Little is yet another animated version of a classic story, only this time, for good measure the story of Chicken Little has been taken a further step--- by combining it with a plot line from ET, War of the Worlds, and even an old Star Trek episode ( "The Trouble with Tribbles"). There are the usual elements in this movie: 1) our hero is small, and not taken seriously after his "sky is falling" gaff. Even his father seems ashamed of him; 2) when the plot lacks punch bring in old rock and roll songs and pump up the volume; 3) let the underdog (and under-achieving) hero finally win something, and then 4) he is emboldened to save the world in the process. Oh yes, did I mention a budding romance between the ugly duckling and Chicken Little? Now this film, at least in its initial p.r. was advertized as classic Disney, and very funny. But in fact it lacks the sort of humour of films like Alladin and The Emperor's New Groove, not least because it lacks Robin Williams. This is hardly a new classic, and in fact the War of the World's scenes are probably too intense for small children. Disney has done much better than this in the past. There is finally, also some odd inconsistency to the appearance of the movie. Whereas as the main characters and much of the look seems three -D, parts of the background scenes however appear to be quite flat and non-descript. It is unfortunate.

Of a whole different order is "The Dreamer" a story set here in Lexington and Versailles Kentucky, and based to some degree on a true story, of a horse who broke and leg, and yet healed and came back to win a major race. Lest we write this sort of rags to riches script off as trite or too familiar (a female version of Seabiscuit?), this movie is carried by some very strong performances by Dakota Fanning (of 'Because of Winn Dixie' fame), Kurt Russell as her Dad the horse trainer, Kris Kristofferson as Kurt's father, and there are also nice lesser parts played by Elizabeth Shue and David Morse. This movie has the real pathos of a family struggling to survive financially and yet wanting to nurture their only child's dreams. It is beautifully filmed , and is certainly a movie any and all families should take their children to see. The inter-personal dynamics in the family seem real and are well developed, and the story line, while rather predictable is in the feel good category. There may not be a better film out there for families in the last several months of this year--- unless it is "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe".

Monday, November 14, 2005

Etan's Story

He met me there at the airport holding his yellow CBS bag. His English was faltering, and my modern Israeli Hebrew even less good, yet we immediately we made human contact. There was something poignant about him. He was young, almost a baby face, and yet there was a hardness to him despite his sweet smile. Though he enjoyed flirting with the CBS correspondent who was doing our interviews for the Christmas show, this seemed like bravado covering what was brooding beneath the surface. But what could it be? For a week Etan drove us around Israel, and we had fun together--- ate together, laughed together, worked hard together. And we enjoyed watching his vociferous arguments with his fellow Israeli Zohar, which were often much ado about nothing-- just for the heck of it.

But as the week wore on and we got to know Etan a bit a little bit of what was beneath the surface bubbled to the top. I should have recognized the signs before. Etan had pointed out where the tank museum was on the way into Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, but only later I figured out after getting beyond the jet lag that Etan had already served considerable time in the Israeli army--- and it had left a big mark, indeed I would say a scar on this young man. He was not bitter, but there was a sadness about him, and he had had to grow up much too fast.

You see Etan had seen the worst of the worst at Jenin. If you do not know your modern history of Israel you should look up the story of what happened there. Etan had fought at Jenin. Quietly, and with no vainglory at all, he told of the day that he was attacking a particular Palestinian house thought to harbor Hamas radicals. He had pulled out a grenade, and had pulled the pin almost entirely out when he remembered he had a duty to yell that there was an incoming explosive, in case there were innocents within who deserved a chance to get out of the way. He told me "but we had been fighting hard, and yet something made me put that pin back in the grenade and look inside the house first." Inside the house he found nothing but women and children who had been locked into the house by their own people so that they could claim the Israeli's had commited a horrible atrocity at Jenin. It made him physically sick, and yet he was so thankful that something had stopped him from throwing that grenade. I had no doubt that "something" was God. Then he asked--- what kind of people would do this to their own families in order to shame us before the world? It was a very good question and shows that the whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been complex with evil and good on both sides.

Later when Etan had gathered himself, he said to me-- "I love my country and this is why I fight, but honestly, if someone would tell me there was a place for us Jews in the middle of a desert where everyone would leave us alone and no one else would claim the territory and we wouldn't have to hurt anyone by mistake, I would move there today. It is not about living on this piece of dirt for me. It is about shalom."

I was deeply moved by his testimony. He had grown up fast and hard as a teen in the Israeli army, and he had seen the worst that humanity can do, and yet there was still a little hopefulness left in him. The human spirit, created in God's image is resilient, and I am thankful that Etan listened to that still small voice on that crucial day in Jenin. He said "If I had not stopped and looked on that day, I would never have slept again." It's a hard thing to be a soldier with an actual conscience because all war is hell, and yet this story shows what a difference it can make in a case by case basis.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and pray for my new friend Etan.

Saturday, November 12, 2005


Once in a while there is actually a TV series that is worth watching every episode of, and indeed watching them repeatedly. And wouldn't you know it, the network that aired it (FOX) canceled the show before it had even been on the air eight weeks. "Firefly" is a remarkably fun space western (the premise being that space is the final frontier, and it runs like life out on the old frontier) that is now available on DVD at a reasonable price, and due to the cult following of the show, it even managed to be made into a movie this fall, named after the spaceship itself--- Serenity.

Josh Whedon is the creator of this innovative drama and it is crammed full of interesting characters (a teen age psychic named River whose brain has been altered, or a macho gunman named Jayne!), and also interesting plot twists. One of the most interesting features of the series is that the crew of this ship includes a chaplain-- called Shepherd. He brings Bible ideas into the story, a storyline which already includes both pathos and humour as well as enough action to make it dramatic. One of the themes explored with some consistency is--- if the government of the universe is a renegade Alliance, then are fugitives and smugglers the real good guys here? The answer is in fact yes. Another theme explored is the role of women, particularly prostitutes in a frontier society. The soundtrack takes us back to the old west, but the old west was never as wild or wildly interesting as this show. Perhaps someday networks will recognize quality when they see it, and bother to put their p.r. behind quality programming. In the meantime we may be thankful that this show is available on DVD.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Journal from Jerusalem

For just over a week now I have been in Israel and Jordan, and am about to head to Egypt. Like various of my previous trips there have been the usual hassles and pleasant surprises. This trip has been different from my usual tours in that I a filming a Christmas special, The Mystery of Christmas for CBS, which involves filming in Jerusalem, Bethelehem, Capernaum, Nazareth, Petra and Egypt. We are dealing with both the Lukan and Matthean birth narratives, various scholarly views represented. The crew I am working with consists of Jews, Moslems and Christians and the team camraderie has been excellent.

It has been sad once again to hear about the plight of Palestinian Christians caught in the big squeeze between Jews and Moslems trying to marginalize them. Especially painful has been seeing the new huge concrete barriers around Bethlelem and elsewhere boxing in the Palestinians. As Robert Frost says--- something there is that doesn't love a wall. There have been some small rounds of terrorism by both Jews and Moslems while I have been here. It is a sad state of affairs, though all in all we are better off than in the days of Arafat and Netanyahu.

One of the things that most surprises and depresses me is the distorted way the news is reported in the U.S. Palestinian Christians and their plight are hardly ever mentioned. There is plenty enough blame to go around but today when I went to the St. George Cathedral in Jerusalem there was much prayer and attempt to heal the wounds. One person I especially enjoyed working with was Issa, a Palestinian Christian born in Bethlehem, who still lives under an old Jordanian passport (remembering that everything east of Jerusalem was Jordan until 1967). He was born in Bethlehem and has lived here all his life. Yet he is treated as if he were a foreigner or resident alien in his own home land. It is of course wrong, especially since this has been his family's home for many generations. But equally wrong is the terrorism sponsored by Hamas or Al Quaeda. As a Christian I can condone neither kind of ostracizing or violence.

I would urge you all to read more widely about the situation in Israel, and not take American news channels at their word. There is much propaganda and nonsense. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, for some day we will all be accountable for what we did or failed to do when it comes to our fellow Christians in this land. They are for sure--- 'the least of these my brethren' when it comes to the worldwide Christian community.