Sunday, December 30, 2007

Gotthammer's Best of 2007

I used to be Old Faithful when it came to compiling a top ten list of films I'd seen each year, as they were released in that year. I saw less than 10 films in a movie theater in 2007; I see them only occasionally on DVD as well. There are too many images I don't want my 2 year old son taking in at his age, and by the time he's gone to bed, the best Jenica and I can manage is to watch an episode of whatever television show we're wading through on DVD.

Because of my graduate studies, I do read a lot. And because, up until June, I was a pastor, I read a lot of books on Christianity, both practical and theoretical. Due to my volunteer work at the Gathering, I continue to read fresh works in this area. My scholarship freed me up to do some free reading as well, and my ever-present I-pod Nano and a subscription to provide me with the opportunity to read while I'm shoveling snow or mowing the lawn.

So this year, instead of a "best movies" list, I've compiled a general "best of" list. These are the things I obsessed, ranted, and raved about in 2007. Few were products of the year, but their criteria for the list is that I experienced them for the first time in 2007.

Favorite Films
Pan's Labyrinth. It was the movie I watched the most times over following that first viewing in February in theater. It was the major case study for my thesis on Fairy Tale Film. I've watched the film multiple times, both with and without director Guillermo Del Toro's commentary. I've watched all the special features. And yet strangely, when Jenica and I had time for a movie this past week, I chose to watch Pan's Labyrinth, yet again.
300. The source of both rants and raves. This was easily one of the topics most likely to set me off on a lengthy diatribe about nationalism, Orientalism, and academic snobbery. Equally likely was that I'd just gush like a fan-boy, depending on your inclination towards or against the film.
The Host. Godzilla with brains; this movie was a wonderful tale with multiple layers of meaning. Even as I write this out I want to go watch it again.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. One of the strangest movies I've ever seen; simultaneously disturbing and enticing. The Czech New Wave is certainly an interesting film phenomenon.
Beowulf. An experience in 3D, and the film I'm most looking forward to using in lectures someday, since Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary created a screenplay that plays with both sides of the academic pissing match which surrounds the original poem.

Favorite Reads:
His Majesty's Dragon
by Naomi Novik- I don't think I can improve upon Time Magazine's review of this book: "Enthralling reading--it's like Jane Austen playing Dungeons and Dragons with Eragon's Christopher Paolini."
Velvet Elvis and Sex God by Rob Bell - I like the way this man thinks. I wish he was my pastor, but by reading his books, I get a little bit of that anyhow.
World War Z by Max Brooks - It's the end of the world as we know it, and Max Brooks weaves some rather intriguing social and political commentary into what is simply just a great book about zombies.
Baltimore by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden. One part Dracula, one part Frankenstein, one part Creature from the Black Lagoon with Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales thrown in for good measure. An excellent piece of Gothic fiction.

Favorite Television
Avatar: the Last Airbender: This children's animated series kicks more ass than most of the adult live action fare out there. The story arc is epic, the characters are great, and the artwork is spectacular. It's just a solid work of fantasy, and utterly original in a sea of Sponge Bob and Naruto clones.
Battlestar Galactica: One of those series where I wish I'd had the idea. The reimagining of the 80's series was brilliant; the post Blade Runner Galactica is about more than just shooting Cylons in space. Its about asking what it means to be human.
Heroes: I like to consider this series the sequel to M. Night Shyamalan's "Unbreakable." What would happen if superheroes really existed? Favorite Hero? Hiro, without a doubt. Don't we all love Hiro?

Favorite Songs
Hall of Heroes by Battlelore
Tale of the Sea Maiden by Leaves' Eyes
Liam by In Extremo
Believer by Kill Hannah
Come by After Forever
Collapse and Rescue - Steve Jablonsky
Kyla Cries Cologne - Fair to Midland

Favorite Albums
Rival Factions: Project 86
Fables from a Mayfly: Fair to Midland
Year Zero - Nine Inch Nails

Pet Peeve of the Year: Zeitgeist. It's the number one search that Gotthammer gets hits from, but it still pisses me off (my monthly hits went from the hundreds to the thousands after I posted about it), especially given some of the reading I've done since my initial posting on the subject. That said, it did produce my favorite personal quote of the year, which is "Sheep and shitheads come in all shapes and sizes, and Christianity does not have the monopoly on either."

Things I did for the first time: Won a scholarship, appeared semi-regularly on a television show, wrote an article for a magazine other than Youthworker Journal, wrote a thesis, wired lighting and plug-ins, finished writing a book, and played with my band out of town in a bar in a hotel (which is where we stayed).

I'll be putting together another yearly update from the E-town Perschon's in the next week or so, but until then, a very Happy New Year to you all!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

My Unlimited Article

It hasn't hit the newsstands yet, but it's on the world wide web.

Back in early fall, I got a phone call from Dan Rubenstein, the editor for Unlimited Magazine, a new periodical from Venture Publishing Inc. He wanted to do an article on how traditional faiths were trying new approaches; in the course of our conversation, he asked me if I'd ever written anything. When I said yes, he asked if I'd be interested in writing an article about my own experience as a pastor and a rock musician.

What a crazy opportunity. No one ever asks a minister to tell his story in a magazine that featured Extreme Fighting in its first issue. And if they do, they usually ask someone like Leonard Sweet. I can't really express how grateful I've been for the opportunity to tell this part of my story. And in such a public forum.

You can read the article over here. And if you see Unlimited when you're at can read it there too. But I'm sure all the folks over at Venture would appreciate it if you purchased it first.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Darkest Day of the Year

20 years ago I got up while it was still dark, packed up my dad's Yamaha 6 channel amplified mixing board, speakers, a blank cassette (it wasn't actually blank - it had the Statler Brothers' Christmas on it, and I would pay for this mistake later in the weekend), and drove to Redcliff, a town just across the South Saskatchewan River from Medicine Hat, the city I grew up in. Having carefully navigated my way to the address on a piece of paper, I came to a house I'd never rang the doorbell at, to pick up Albert Hauck, a friend from my high school German class and the new drummer for my band.

My band. It was a pretentious thing to say, because I personally had no musical ability outside being a tone deaf singer and 2 years of piano, neither Royal Conservatory grade years. I just loved music, and had played my first live show two months earlier at a church in rural Saskatchewan with a group of friends I'd met at camp. It had given me a taste of what it would be like to really perform. And I wanted more.

Albert and I loaded up the drums, and drove to Temple Baptist church, where we met up with Craig Learmont, who I'd known since we appeared as the bad boys in our elementary school production of "Pinocchio." There's an irony to Craig and I playing bad boys together, as we were anything but growing up together, although Craig's dad was convinced I was a bad influence on his son. Craig played keyboards, and guitar, and pretty much anything he had a week to mess around on musically. I was there because I owned the recording equipment, and had that charismatic aspect that garnered comments like "Mike is a natural leader" on my report cards since Grade 2.

It was December 21, the Winter solstice. The Darkest Day of the Year, though I didn't know it that day. It remains the brightest day of 1987, the day I can remember with greater clarity than any other day that year. It was spent writing some songs and recording them. 3 versions of one song, "Modern Day Pharisee," which has no surviving recording to attest it ever existed, though I'm pretty sure Craig and I could force it out of our memory banks and into the air if forced to at gunpoint. The quality was terrible, but I didn't much care. We were recording music, creating something together as a band. And that's all I cared about.

It was the first step in a 20 year journey that isn't complete. In those 20 years, I learned to sing, to play both bass and 6 string guitar (both acoustic and electric), and boned up on my keyboarding skills enough to write my own compositions on piano which were impressive enough that my piano teacher in college had me perform a piece at our recital. I wrote music for 3 musicals, played in 7 different musical groups, recorded 2 cassettes, 7 CD's and an odd assortment of unreleased tunes.

Since that Darkest Day of the Year in 1987, music has been a huge part of my life. And I want to commemorate those 20 years somehow. In an interesting moment of synchronicity, Unlimited Magazine had me write a feature article on my experiences as a rock musician and a pastor for the upcoming January/February issue, so in one way there is already something to mark the 20 years by. But I'd been planning something else since this year began. Each month of the next year, I'll be posting one memoir of these 20 years of music. 20 years of the Green Rabbit, but that's another story.

For today, I'll let a tune suffice. One song from "Through a Glass Darkly," the first CD I recorded in 1994 with the band Craig and Albert would help form and then leave, Athan Asia. It's a song I wrote in 1993 about the a figurative Darkest Day in 1987, and then the literal one in December of that year, when "3 live corpses walked into the cellar."

Did you hear the voices singing about the Kingdom of Heaven?


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

DVD Review: The Polar Express 9.5/10

People watch Rankin Bass Christmas specials with jerky stop-motion animation every year, and yet somehow Polar Express has been relegated as the "bad animation" whipping boy for the 21st Century's Christmas favorites? Having read (and looked at the pictures) the children's book, I think the animation suits the mood perfectly, and several of the set pieces are hauntingly beautiful. The film is strongest when aboard its namesake, but the moments at the North Pole remain enchanting enough. If it weren't for the sudden cameo of a certain pop star, it would be a perfect Christmas movie. Tom Hanks' characterizations are fantastic, and the theme of belief and faith seasonally appropriate. Highly recommended, especially if you have children who love trains. A Christmas favorite for our family.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Book Review: Hogfather - 7/10

Not Pratchett's funniest or best Discworld novel, but when considered against other possible holiday reads, especially within the fantasy genre, this one's a gem. I read it this December of as a placebo for not being able to see the film version made in the UK. The plot is simple; the Hogfather, Discworld's equivalent to Santa, has gone missing, and the hilariously deadpan Death has decided to take his place on Hogswatch night. Highly recommended if you're looking for something festive and are a fan of fantasy, British humor, Douglas Adams, or Christopher Moore. As with most of Pratchett's Discworld books, no prior knowledge of the other books in the series is necessary; it helps enrich, but does not hinder enjoyment.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Reflection: Ave Maria

There are two commonly held Nativity stories in the canonical Christian scriptures, but I'm fond of thinking of Revelation 12 as the third one. I imagine John sitting in his cell thinking about how he wrote a gospel without one, and deciding he'd throw it into his Apocalypse as a deleted scene. As with the rest of the book of Revelation, it's a Nativity with powerful symbolism.

A great Sign appeared in Heaven: a Woman dressed all in sunlight, standing on the moon, and crowned with Twelve Stars. She was giving birth to a Child and cried out in the pain of childbirth. And then another Sign alongside the first: a huge and fiery Dragon! It had seven heads and ten horns, a crown on each of the seven heads. With one flick of its tail it knocked a third of the Stars from the sky and dumped them on earth. The Dragon crouched before the Woman in childbirth, poised to eat up the Child when it came. The Woman gave birth to a Son who will shepherd all nations with an iron rod. Her Son was seized and placed safely before God on his Throne. The Woman herself escaped to the desert to a place of safety prepared by God, all comforts provided her for 1,260 days. - Revelation 12: 1-6, The Message

There's a Christmas special for WETA workshop to produce in there I think.

I gave a seminar at a conference this past year on the book of Revelation. My goal with the 90 minute session was to provide a summary of the book as well as some keys to discerning how to read it. There are a number of ways Christian theologians approach John's Revelation; I'm what's called a preterist-idealist. I think the book was written for a very specific audience, primarily first century Christians. I also think the symbolism is primarily aimed at them. However, I also believe that if we understand the first century context of the symbolism of the book, we can discern some powerful concepts for what it means to be Christian in the 21st century.

One of the first century keys in Revelation 12 is the number 12. The woman wears a crown with 12 stars on it. The 12 stars on her crown are a rather easy symbol to decode and can be defined from withing the context of Revelation itself. As G.K. Beale notes in his commentary on Revelation, "Other references to crowns" are connotations of the people of God (the "saints"), as are the stars, which represent the 12 tribes of Israel, or 12 apostles, or both. The people of God, at any rate; the stars themselves are symbols of "angelic representatives in heaven of the seven churches on earth" in Revelation 1 (626-27).

While our immediate assumption, given that this woman gives birth to a Messianic child would be to say she represents Mary, most scholars would disagree. It's unlikely this woman represents the historical or personal mother of the Messiah. We should think of her as the apocalyptic, or theological significance Mary points to as the mother of Jesus. In other words, Mary is what's happening on the mundane level...but the woman in Revelation 12 is the theological significance of Mary's actions. So we could say that the Woman is not Mary, but Mary is the Woman.

And yet Mary is a powerful representation of the Woman who represents the People of God. She is a virgin, innocent and pure. Both Israel and the Christian Church are portrayed as a woman, beautiful and beloved, but sometimes unfaithful. Mary herself was not unfaithful, but was certainly perceived as such. She bore the appearance of the harlot, though she was a virgin. In this way, Mary is a summary of Israel at its best and worst. She is the handmaiden of the Lrod, the willing servant, the beautiful virgin; "I have loved you with an enduring Israel" (Jeremiah 31:3-4). And yet to her neighbors, she must certainly have seemed unfaithful.

The Woman is not Mary. But Mary is the Woman. Rather, the Woman is the People of God.

You and I.

So now we might say, the Woman is not you or I. But we are the Woman. Therefore, as Walter Wangerin has said, we are part of the sisterhood of Mary.

You see, Mary is also a model for people who are not part of the pure, inside track. She was certainly Jewish, but not of the actual "line of David" as her husband Joseph was. She is kin to Tamar the Canaanite, Rahab of Jericho, Ruth the Moabite and Bathsheba, wife to a Hittite, who all married into the line of David from the outside. All of these women are included in Matthew's genealogy of Jesus. Wangerin tells us that "Hebrew genealogies almost never mentioned women. Yet Matthew names four in the ancestry of Christ. Not one of them is here by birth. Each becomes a matriarch of Jesus rather by her character and by God's grace. This is the sisterhood Mary is about to enter" (53).

It is also the sisterhood we are called to join.

We are called to join the sisterhood of Mary, and to allow the same apocalyptic, theological significance to inform our lives. Wangerin rephrases Gabriel's question to Mary in Luke's Gospel in this way; "Will you be the door of the Lord into this place?"

Doorways from other worlds are always gateways to hell in popular culture. If someone is opening a gateway in a movie, it's usually going somewhere bad. Or letting in a demon. It's all H.P. Lovecraft's fault as far as I'm concerned. Every gateway opened in a Lovecraft story is bad news. And if a virgin conceives a child in popular film or novels nowadays, it isn't the Lord who's been overshadowing. It's always Satan. Or a minion. Or a close neighbor with black robes. Regardless, the question posed to us given these two is, "which kind of doorway are you?"

We are called to incarnate Jesus every day. To be doors for the Lord into whatever place we are in. To be like Mary, and say "may it be to me as you have said" in response to Gabriel's question.

Protestants aren't into Mary so much. Smacks of papal whatever. Me, I'm post-Protestant, in that I'm not sure what the hell I'd be protesting about Catholicism, or perhaps I'm uber-Protestant in that I protest Protestantism as well as Catholicism. Or neither. Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn. And I like the Christmas song Ave Maria. And I think Mary is a helluva role model for me and anyone else interested in incarnating Christ.

So I got to thinking, what if saying "Ave Maria" didn't so much mean that I'm actually praying to Mary, but rather recognizing the Mary in myself and others? It would be like saying Namaste, which is a Buddhist greeting that recognizes the common divinity in myself and others. So this Christmas, when I say or sing "Ave Maria", I'm not saying it just to the woman who gave birth to a baby in Bethlehem. I'm saying it to the Woman in Revelation 12, of whom Mary is a part...a representative. But then again, you are as well. And so am I. So when I say "Ave Maria" this Christmas, I'm saying it to you. And I'm saying it to me.

I'm saying, "Hail YOU who are highly favored. The Lord is with YOU. Will you be the door of the Lord into this place?"

Ave Maria.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Reflection: God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay...

To my knowledge, "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" is the only Christmas Carol which reflects the only phrase repeated more then twice in the Nativity narratives from the Bible; "fear not." Every angelic manifestation in both Luke and Matthew's accounts of the birth of Christ is followed by those two words. Apparently something about the appearance of an angel is something which inspires fear. These are apparently not the angels one sees in Precious Moments illustrations or on the covers of all those Angel spirituality books which were all the rage about ten years ago. They're not fat little cherub baby angels, or Cupid with his bow. They're not Hallmark greeting angels. They're angels drawn by H.R. Giger, or Simon Bisley. Bisley's a regular artist for Heavy Metal magazine; his work is generally characterized by weapons as disproportionate as the physical statistics of the scantily clad warrior women wielding them. He's done a book of illustrations based on stories from the Bible, and I think his angels are the sort which would have to say, "Fear not" after they show up.

The angel who appeared to the shepherds "watching their flocks by night" is said to have had the glory of the Lord shining around him. The way most modern worship treats the concept of the glory of the Lord, you'd think it was something pastel in color, and perhaps vanilla hazelnut in flavor. The maker's of last year's movie The Nativity either had the lowest budget ever for representing the glory of the Lord, or were under the impression that it resembled a curly haired man backlit by a bright light. Backlit hair is what causes the shepherds to be "sore afraid"? Those words in the Greek are megas and phobios, which any English speaking person can recognize modern equivalents; mega phobia. Super Sized Scary. In Exodus 24:17 the glory of the Lord appeared as a "consuming fire on the top of the mountain," and was so frightening the nation of Israel refused to approach the base of the mountain. In Isaiah chapter 6, the prophet's reaction to seeing a manifestation of the Lord in the temple solicited a "woe is me!" response, an ancient world equivalent to "I'm totally fucked!" Ezekiel say only "the appearance of the likeness of the Glory of the Lord," a sort of Glory Lite, and he ended up flat on his face in terror. So I'm thinking there's more going on here than cheap backlighting, or a bright light shining through a window. I'd suppose it looks more like Aang, the protagonist of Avatar: The Last Airbender when he goes into his Avatar state. It produces a "Sore Afraid" reaction in the characters who are witness to it.
These fear-inspiring angels are often overlooked in the Christmas story, to our detriment. Their presence in the story is evidence of the apocalyptic nature of the Nativity narratives. This isn't to say they have something to do with the end of the world. That's how we commonly understand the word "Apocalypse" now, but it isn't what Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature is primarily concerned with. N.T. Wright has said that to speak of something in an apocalyptic manner is to invest "space-time reality with its full, that is, its theological significance."

The birth of Jesus is spoken of in an apocalyptic fashion in Revelation 12, where a child is born to a woman, and a giant red dragon immediately tries to kill the child off. Scholars are in strong agreement that the child is the Messiah, so it's sort of like a really intense version of the Christmas story with an insane effects budget. And it mirrors King Herod's attempt to murder Jesus by killing all the children under the age of 3 in the Matthew account. The story also echoes Moses' escape from Pharaoh as a baby. A commentary on Revelation 12 notes that "Many ancient mythologies contain a story of an evil usurper who is doomed to be vanquished by a yet unknown prince. The usurper tries to escape his destiny by killing the prince when he is born. But the prince is unexpectedly snatched away from danger until he is old enough to kill the fiend and claim his rightful inheritance and throne." This motif in stories about Jesus' birth tells us that the story is about more than just a birth. This is apocalyptic.

Science fiction writer Philip Jose Farmer writes that " sometimes applied to writings or paintings in which great forces--supernatural or natural--are at work, usually evil work, and great things are occurring. Cities are toppling, the earth is opening vast mouths and swallowing up armies, huge and hideous monsters stride the world, the sun is turning black or expanding into a giant star, hordes of half-human, half-beast things are torturing naked people, the stars are dripping blood. In short, things on a vast scale are threatening the world. And there is always the feeling, even in the non-biblical writings and paintings of good and evil in earthshaking conflict. Hell has broken loose and only an archangel, or a hero, or God himself can defeat it. Nowadays, there is the feeling that the archangel or hero won't show; it's all over with the world. But in the earlier days of the apocalyptic works, the savior would appear when needed."

Mary is having a baby. It is an event that, while dangerous in the first century B.C.E., wasn't uncommon. It wasn't out of the ordinary. Yet the Nativity writers, and the author of Revelation have invested the event with its "theological significance." So Mary is not just having a baby...she is giving birth to the savior of the world. The angelic annunciations signal that this is no ordinary child. And the ones who sing the birth of Christ are part of the angelic "host". The Greek word used there, stratia, refers to an army, or band of soldiers. These are warrior angels...who sing. Which wasn't weird, given that the musicians marched with the army in Biblical Israel.

Warrior angels, a crazed king attempting to assassinate an infant Messiah, red dragons as stand-ins for the devil...sounds like a fight is brewing.

My wife and I were in Mazatlan, Mexico for Christmas in 1996, where we saw a unique Nativity Creche. It had all the usual suspects; Mary, Joseph, the baby in the manger, the Shepherds, and the Wise Men. And in the unusual suspect. A red devil, looking really pissed off. At first, I was taken aback...but upon further reflection, I realized it made perfect sense.

To free all those who trust in him from Satan's power and might...

A fight brewing indeed.

In "The Novels of Charles Williams," Thomas Howard quotes T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland, equating "the fear in a handful of dust" with the "enormous and alarming significance lying just under the surface of even the most ordinary things." While scientists would approach this from the vantage point of sub-atomic activity in a handful of dust, prophets remind us that heaven and hell are potentially present in every action we take. "The sarcastic lift of an eyebrow carries a seed of murder since it bespeaks my wish to diminish someone else's existence. To open a door for a man carrying luggage recalls the Cross since it is a small case in point of putting the other person first. We live in the middle of all this but it is so routine that it is hard to stay alive to it."

Christmas takes us out of the routine, shakes us up, and reminds us to live in an apocalyptic fashion, to invest our lives with theological significance. We aren't simply donating to charity or being patient with a grocery-clerk-in-training, we're fighting on behalf of Heaven. Likewise, we aren't only being greedy pigs at Christmas or yelling at the grocery-clerk-in-training, we're advancing the cause of Hell. I don't want to be sensational when I say this. I'm not advocating a "devil under every rock" sort of spirituality, or a "angels everywhere" conceptualization of the universe, but simply to allow the Nativity narratives to remind us to view our lives through a more cosmic lense, and see that our actions bear significance, even when they are little ones. After all, an avalanche can be started by the movement of pebbles. We are invited to engage in the apocalyptic conflict, because, as Greg Boyd writes in God at War, "For biblical authos, to wage war against such things as injustice, oppresision greed and apathy toward the needy was to a cosmic war that had engulfed the earth." Or, as John McClane put it in one of my favorite Christmas movies, "if you're not a part of the solution, you're a part of the problem."