The Soloist

My dad reads, a lot. When he was in Tanzania for three months last year he read something like 12 or 13 books. Put simply: the dude likes to read. One of the great things about knowing someone who reads this much is that they often tell you about the books they’ve recently read, and in the event that any of the books sound interesting, you can usually borrow them. Several months ago my dad told me about a book he had just read about a newspaper columnist in L.A. who met a homeless man who was a former Juliard music student, and thanks to their friendship and the power of the press (the man wrote about his new friend in the Los Angeles Times) the homeless man slowly got back on his feet…kinda — it’s a true story, so it doesn’t have a perfect/happy Hollywood ending (even though the events transpired in the shadows of the Hollywood hills).

The book is The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music, and it’s on sale at Amazon right now for only $3.99. If title or the storyline sound familiar, that’s because it was recently made into a movie (starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr.) and it comes out this Friday. Here’s the trailer:

The real stars of the story – Nathaniel Ayers (mentally ill musician who has lived on the street of L.A. for years) and Steve Lopez (columnist for the L.A. Times whose articles about Nathaniel — and the response they received — inspired him to write the book) – were on 60 Minutes a few weeks ago.

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Up | the new Pixar movie

If you’re anything like me, you’re a big fan of Pixar movies. (Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo are among my all-time favs.) There’s just something incredible about how they develop characters and tell stories, and they always include touching moments of friendship (with forgiveness often being a major theme). Seriously, how amazing and unexpected is it that we’ve learned life lessons from toys, bugs, monsters, fish, super heroes, cars and rats. (I intentionally left “robots” off that list because I still haven’t seen Wall-E.)

pixar-friends

The newest sure-to-become-an-instant-classic from Pixar is called Up, and it’s scheduled to come out at the beginning of this summer (May 29, 2009). So far, it looks, well…different. But honestly, didn’t talking cars, gentle monsters and a family of clumsy super heroes all seem a bit different at first too?

According to Pixar’s website, Up is about a man named Carl Fredricksen who “spent his entire life dreaming of exploring the globe. But at age 78, life seems to have passed him by, until a twist of fate (and a persistent 8-year old Wilderness Explorer named Russell) gives him a new lease on life.” The movie promises to “take audiences on a thrilling journey where the unlikely pair encounter wild terrain, unexpected villains and jungle creatures.”

Just like with all the other Pixar movies, I have no idea what to expect, but I think it’s safe to assume Carl and Russell are the next unlikely duo whose friendship will teach me lessons I never realized I needed to learn, and after getting to know them and learning from them, I’ll know that I’m somehow better for it.

Here’s the trailer:

Feel free to share your thoughts on all-things Pixar, explain why one of their movies in particualr is your favorite, and if you’ve never heard about the lunch meeting where the ideas for all the current Pixar movies were born – from Toy Story (1995) to Wall-E (2008) – do a google search for “pixar’s legendary lunch meeting.” It’s an amazing story of creativity and collaboration.

Update: I went to see Wall-E tonight and really liked it.

shadows of virtue : living generously

I spoke at Journey again tonight. This time about living generously and sacrificially. We’re in the last few weeks of a church-wide series called 40 Days of Community, and for the last six weeks we have been discovering how much better we are together (through small groups, service projects, community events and worship). It has been a great fall, and tonight’s theme offered us thoughts, inspiration and a challenge to respond to God’s love and Jesus’ sacrifice for us by living generously, as individuals and as a community, with God’s love as our guide.

I will include portions of the message text below, but the reason I’m writing about it here is because much of the message was delivered through select scenes of a documentary that I want people to know about. It’s called The Shadows of Virtue, and it was made a Minnesotan named Chad Amour. Released a few years ago now, the film takes a close look at how God’s love compels us to respond to issues in the world and to the needs of God’s people.

Here’s the trailer:

To learn more about The Shadows of Virtue, visit humdingerpictures.com.

Here is an excerpt of the message (listen here).

“Living Generously” by Andy Jolivette | Journey, 11/2/08

What does it mean to be sacrificial?
What does it mean to be generous with our lives?

We can’t be sacrificial all the time, can we?

What do we have to give?
What can we give up?

Does God want us to be sacrificial and generous?
Absolutely, but how much?

These are all very relevant questions, but they all come from the same route questions, “what do I have to do?” and “how much is enough?” They also severely miss the point of what we read in the Gospel of Matthew last week.

In Matthew 22, Jesus talks about one of the greatest commandments being to “love our neighbor as ourself,” and it’s probably safe to assume that this kind of love toward others includes being generous, and at times even sacrificing a bit of ourselves and what we have, for others.

So while the questions “what does it mean to live sacrificially?” and “how generous should we be?” are very honest questions, they are also very difficult to answer. (The honest ones usually are.) But seriously, can anyone tell us when our generosity is generous enough? or when we’ve sacrificed an acceptable amount?

The short answer to these difficult questions is this: there’s no way of knowing, so it doesn’t even make sense to respond with specifics, but we can trust that every day we will be faced with opportunities to be generous, greedy or something in between, and all we can do is try to be as generous as possible – as often as possible.

Many will point to Jesus as the example or standard, but we all know that is not really fair. Sure, we want to “be like,” “give like” and “love like” Jesus, but who of us is capable of living up to this standard? I’m not saying don’t try (if “WWJD” bracelets works for you, keep wearing them the rest of your life!), but we also need to be realistic.

Remember that even Jesus only gave his life for us once – it’s not something he did everyday – on other days he went for long walks, met new people and listened to their problems, went on fishing trips, and just hung out with his friends. At times he even separated himself from others because apparently even Jesus needed to be alone and get away from other people sometime.

Not to minimize Christ’s life and ministry, but if we’re truly going to look to the Gospel’s revelation of Jesus as our guide for living generously and sacrificially, we need to look at the whole story and recognize that even Jesus’ life included days when he wasn’t so obviously “sacrificial” or “generous” (at least not in ways that would inspire people to write worship songs about him) – but overall, no one could deny that Jesus was a generous man whose life was sacrificially given for others, for you and for me, for all of us.

I contend to you that Christ’s example for us is not just that we be blindly, or even constantly sacrificial, but that we become more consistently and even strategically generous and sacrificial.

In short, we need to live on purpose…with a purpose. We need to live out Jesus’ words in Matthew 25: Loving God with all our hearts, minds and souls; and loving our neighbors as ourselves.

That might mean freely giving away our time, our skills, our possessions or our money, or it could just mean not buying so many clothes and lattes so we can afford to be more generous in other ways. It could even mean calling a friend who we know needs to talk, but who drains our energy every time we talk to them. Regardless of how we choose to live generously and what we choose to sacrifice, we can be assured of one thing…living like this will always require living in opposition of our own desires to do what is best/easiest for us.

Living generously and sacrificially will always require love, not just any love, but the love of Christ – God’s perfect and unfailing love that has been given to us as a free gift – the love we’ve been called to share with the world. Love is a difficult thing to understand no matter how you look at it, and it’s an even more difficult thing to accept and share with others.

So here’s the challenge for all of us…

  1. Take time this week (more than 10 minutes) to think about how you could sacrifice a bit of what you have (time and energy, not just money) and be generous in a way that will truly benefit others.
  2. Make a plan for how you can make it happen (be strategic, purposeful).
  3. Do it (don’t just talk about it, be about it…the longer you wait, the less likely you are to actually do it).
  4. Don’t tell anyone what you did. (This is probably the hardest step, but remember it’s not about looking good to others, or even feeling good about yourself, it’s about loving someone else for no other reason than to remind them that they have “unsurpassable worth”).

Religulous in Next-Wave

My pre-review of Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous was published in this month’s issue of Next-Wave Church & Culture E-zine. Next-Wave is a cool publication I discovered when one of my former seminary professors wrote an article on the theology of the TV show Lost for their June issue, and my theological review of the new Coldplay album was published in the August issue. The editor’s at Next-Wave titled my most recent article “I Might Go See Religulous” and ran it next to another article about the same film, that one titled “I Did Go See Religulous.” I really like the juxtaposition between the two articles; one written by a person (me) thinking about seeing the film, the other by someone who has just seen it. And perhaps the coolest part is who that other person is… Dan Kimball (pastor, speaker, and author of The Emerging Church, Emerging Worship, and most recently, They Like Jesus but Not the Church).

Here are links if you want to check them out,

If you like the articles, please leave a comment (or vote for them) on the Next-Wave website.

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By the way, I saw Religulous last week and although it was quite predictable in format and content (especially the people Maher chose to interview), I thought it offered a humorous look at an otherwise serious topic (especially because of the people Maher chose to interview). I actually really enjoyed it, with the exception of the last 5 minutes when Maher shares his belief that “all religions must die” and religious leaders are basically brainwashing people. As someone who is part of a religion and is somewhat of a “religous leader,” I took offense to those comments. Regardless of how much I agreed/disagreed with, I would definitely recommend that people of all faiths (especially pastors and ministry leaders!) see this film, because although it offers a rather harsh critique of the current state of our religion, churches and fellow believers…it is often right on! Which should scare us but also inspire us…to honestly and humbly think about what we believe and how we express those beliefs to others (both in organized and unorganized settings). But that’s just my two cents. You should see it for yourself and then share your thoughts if you’d like.

religulous

There’s a new documentary that came out in theaters recently (Oct. 3) called Religulous (“religion” + “ridiculous”). Bill Maher stars as the film’s “host,” guiding viewers on an exploration of organized religion in our world today – offering plenty of his opinions along the way – and it was directed by Larry Charles, who also directed Borat … so you probably already know enough to determine whether this documentary will be wildly, or simply mildly offensive to you.

Apparently aware of the film’s potent potential for offense, the front page of the official website offers visitors two options; the typical “enter site” link (which happens to be on the left side of the page) and the unusual “enter kosher site” link (which just happens to be on the right). I’m not Jewish, so I entered the regular site and watched the trailer. For what it’s worth, the website does boast that it’s “one of the funniest and most offensive documentaries ever made.” At least they’re honest, right?

Let me be clear on a few things: I’m serious about my faith and I consider myself part of a religion. Maybe it’s because I try not to take myself too seriously, but this film looks really funny. If I end up seeing it, I’m guessing I will find myself nodding in agreement with a lot of the jokes being made on religions and religious people…even the ones about Christianity (and it’s not all a spoof on Christianity by the way, Maher takes shots at other religions as well).

Going beyond a just an awareness of his irreverance, Maher seems to take pride in his atheistic/anti-religion stance. While I can’t speak for other religions or Christianity as a whole, if Maher’s goal was simply to expose that uncertainty must be involved for any system of faith or belief to work (or make sense), then I would agree completely with him, but I haven’t seen the movie yet to know if that’s one of the points that he is trying to make. (I have seen this clip of Maher on Larry King talking about religion, this new movie, and even Rick Warren.)

Although Religulous probably fits best in the documentary genre of “look how stupid those [fill in the blank] people are,” from what I have seen and read so far it seems much more Bowling for Columbine and much less Jesus Camp. I mean, sure, Maher pokes fun at religious fanatics (like the guy who plays Jesus at the “Holy Land” theme park in Florida) and if the movie poster is any indication, I’m guesing they mock a few examples of light-hearted religious ridiculousness (like the stories in the news a few years ago about a man who burnt a fish stick and thought it looked like Jesus or the woman who reportedly sold a grilled-cheese sandwich on eBay that bore the image of the Virgin Mary…final bid: $28,000), but clearly, the film is about much more than just making fun of sacred sandwiches and Christian theme parks (since religious folks wouldn’t be offended by a movie that only makes fun of fanatics and others who have found ways to pimp religion to make a few dollars).

If nothing else, Religulous offers a slap in the face to religious leaders and people of faith – whatever flavor of belief they prefer. The film provides humor as a way of helping people realize that it might be a good idea to be capable of responding to basic questions about their faith and, although it’s not necessarily a requirement to “validate” their faith (depending on the religion), we should all possess enough understanding to express what we believe in a way that doesn’t make us sound like the butt of a joke. I’m definitely not saying people need to act like they have it all figured out – since I don’t believe that is possible – but at least take some time to think things through, being honest with yourself and others about what you think and believe so that when/if the questions are too big or your understanding is too limited, you have the marbles to say “I don’t know.” Because let’s be honest, that’s where faith comes in…not as an excuse for not knowing things, but as a way of admitting the limits of our understanding and the vasness of God’s. It also forces us to put trust and faith in a God who reveals himself to us in ways that are often mysterious at best, since the reality of life and faith seems to be that sometimes, we’re simply left wondering in awe at the mystery of God, but even this confusion is an expression of faith and worship. Having doubts is okay. Not having all the answers doesn’t mean we don’t believe, or even that we believe less. Doubts and confusion simply remind us of our need for faith…our need for God.

So what is the point of Religulous? Why did Bill Maher decide to point out that religious people don’t have things figured out any more than other people? I’m not sure yet, but I think he’s probably right in a lot of ways, he just doesn’t happen to be a person who can get over the fact that believing doesn’t always mean knowing (and he’s a guy who likes to know stuff).

Here’s the trailer:

Would you pay money to watch this movie?

call+response

“Never forget justice is what love looks like in public.”

These powerful words are proclaimed by Cornel West in a new documentary titled Call+Response, a film highlighting the virtually unknown reality that there are more slaves today than at any other time in human history. (By the film creators estimate there are currently 27 million human slaves throughout the world).

Considered to be “the first feature rockumentary,” Call+Response features some of today’s most prominent political and cultural figures (including Cornel West, Madeleine Albright, Ashley Judd and Nicholas Kristof) along with performances by Grammy-winning and critically acclaimed music artists (including Moby, Natasha Bedingfield, Cold War Kids, Matisyahu, Imogen Heap, Talib Kweli, Switchfoot and Five For Fighting).

The goal of those involved in the film is simple: abolish slavery in our lifetime.

Is their goal possible? I’m not sure. I think it will only happen if “their” goal becomes “your/our” goal, but the mix of intellect and influence that all these celebs offer to the project – along with their sincere concern about such an unthinkable issue – gives me hope that enough people will not only receive a “Call” to watch this film, but also feel called to be part of the “Response” to do something.

I want to believe that Cornel West’s words will become true in reality and not just spoken in truth…that a movement of justice as a public expression of love will sweep across the world, defeating all forms of hatred and injustice and transforming people’s hearts in the process.

Is this realistic hope or just wishful thinking?

Does it really matter?

What do we have to lose in trying? Is it possible to fail if we never give up?

What does the Lord require of you?
To act justly
and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with God.  (Micah 6:8)

Call+Response is opening in select cities on October 10th. For my friends in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area*, it will be playing at the AMC Arbor Lakes Theater (Maple Grove) from October 17-19 and the Landmark Lagoon (Uptown) from October 20-23.

To learn more about the film, including a list of cities where it will be in theaters, visit callandresponse.com.

Here’s the trailer:

* If anyone would like to get a group together to watch the film, feel free to use the comments section below to make that happen.

once

If you haven’t seen the Irish indie film Once yet, it’s definitely worth renting this weekend (or whenever). I saw it a few weeks ago and found it to be one of those movies where you’re not ready to talk much right afterward…so you just sit in the silence of your thoughts while the credits roll and the closing music plays quietly. I don’t want to ruin the movie because I think it’s probably better if you go into it without knowing much, but in case you need a small preview to help convince you to go rent it, here’s the video for the song “Falling Slowly” by the film’s co-stars Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová (the song that just won an Oscar for Best Original Song in a Motion Picture).

What struck me most about Once is how simple it is — I heard it only cost around $150,000 to make and they filmed it in 17 days using Handycams — yet, after the first few minutes you hardly notice that the production quality is comparable to a lot of videos on youtube because the characters and their stories (especially their music) are so intensely real. Shortly after watching the film I went on iTunes to download “Falling Slowly” and read a few comments people left about the soundtrack, including one by a user who goes by the name “nycsuarez” that I think speaks to the heart of why the film and it’s music have been resonating with so many people. It said:

There’s something that millions of dollars, the finest – most beautiful actors, the fanciest camera work and the experienced aural work of a top Hollywood composer/soundtrack supervisor can’t buy – and that’s emotion. And authenticity. And beauty. Virtually everything contained with the film “Once” and it’s accompanying soundtrack speak to all that filmmakers and Hollywood should aspire…every song both contributes to the plot of the film, to the structure of the story and the emotions felt by both characters and individuals lucky enough to experience this great cinematic achievement.

Comments like this address not only what worked well in the film emotion, authenticity, beauty — but they also make a fairly harsh criticism of most other Hollywood films. While thinking about nycsuarez’s comment, I realized they could have just as easily come from a person who has been going to churches for years and just finally found a specific church that approaches faith, life and worship with a realness that most other churches seem to be lacking (honesty, authenticity, they don’t take themselves too seriously, but they take God and faith very seriously). Perhaps it’s a stretch to say that Once gives a new perspective for us to see the church with, but the film definitely offers a new outlook on what is “needed” to make something meaningful, significant and/or real. It didn’t take millions of dollars and Hollywood’s best actors, producers and studios to make a film that has gained a lot of recognition and acclaim. Similarly, churches don’t need expensive sound systems, the best media tools, cool lighting effects or hip worship bands in order to usher people into the presence of God in meaningful ways. Sure, I think those things are cool and sometimes they can help enhance the worship experience, but all that is really needed are people who are open to God’s call and willing to serve the world and invite others to come together to experience the transforming hope, love and forgiveness that is found in Jesus Christ. What do you say Church? Let’s stop making it more difficult than it needs to be. Let’s allow films like Once to remind us how to be the people of God, gathered together as broken pieces and bound together by love. It’s time to become the Church, Christ’s beautiful bride. And as Stevie Wonder would sing, “Isn’t she lovely?”