Art

 

Mar

31

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

How Christians Are Responding to the Noah Movie

Noah_Russell_CroweI didn’t get the chance to see Noah this weekend, but it appears the movie has done respectably at the box office, enough to fuel future biblically themed epics.

The intriguing thing about Noah is not the movie itself but the Christian response, particularly the evangelical response. I don’t ever recall seeing evangelicals so divided about a film. By and large, we stick together.

Evangelicals en masse rejected Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ. I was just a kid then, but I remember hearing about this “blasphemous” movie. On the other hand, we flocked to Prince of Egypt, an animated though reverent portrayal of Moses’ story. And, of course, The Passion of the Christ stands out as the biggest biblically-themed blockbuster of all time. In the decade since Mel Gibson’s Jesus hit the screen, we shrugged at Evan Almighty, ignored the TV movie of Noah, and rallied around Sherwood Baptist Church’s films.

But then came Noah.

It’s a movie that’s made waves among evangelicals (pun intended), but let’s be honest: we’re not all in the same boat here. In fact, I struggle to remember any film that has drawn so much praise and criticism from churchgoing Christians.

Here’s the rundown of options as I see them, scrolling daily (hourly) across my FaceBook and Twitter feeds:

1. Cheers

I haven’t seen any evangelical leader claim that Noah gets the Bible right, but many have lauded the cultural opportunity this movie affords. Focus on the Family President Jim Daly and pastor Erwin McManus appeared in a video encouraging Christians to attend. Popular film reviewer, Phil Boatwright, pointed out the extra-biblical elements, but recommended it as a discussion-starter:

“Noah is an epic movie experience that engages not only the cerebral but the emotional. On the way to the car, people discuss it… That’s when you know you’ve experienced true art. It’s not just a time-filler before going to some other time-filler. It’s a film that demands debate.”

Christianity Today featured an extensive, seven-page review of the film. It begins with an encouragement for evangelicals to engage this film and then offers five reasons why:

  1. Noah is a good movie made by good filmmakers who pursue important questions and think of movies as art.
  2. Noah is a solid adaptation.
  3. Noah is visually and imaginatively compelling.
  4. Noah re-enchants the ancient world in powerful ways that counteract some of the worst excesses of modernity.
  5. You should actually see it for yourself.

Greg Thornbury, president of The King’s College in New York City, points out two major theological objections but believes the film is path-breaking and will help re-enchant a new generation with the biblical narrative:”

Aronofksy’s Noah is a way of putting ourselves before the Bible’s “dangerous question” as Barth put it. The grim, gritty, and supernatural antediluvian biblical world takes us back into ancient history, of origins. Who are we? What has gone wrong with the world? Where is justice? Is God there? What does he have to say? That ancient world sets us back on our heels and forces us to take stock in this strange new world inside the Bible.

Jerry Johnson, president of the National Religious Broadcasters, offered 5 positives and 5 negatives, and then encouraged Christians to engage rather than boycott:

The main events from the Noah story are depicted in a powerful way on the big screen by name brand actors and quality production. Christians should be ready to engage moviegoers in conversation about biblical and cultural themes that are portrayed in this movie.

2. Jeers

Those who are critical of the movie fall into one of two camps. First, you have the Christians who think the movie fails at the level of storytelling. Brian Godawa (a Christian who’s no stranger to Hollywood productions) thinks the movie fails at fundamental levels:

“On the nose” dialogue. Flat characters that you just don’t care about. A sick twisted hero that you just don’t care about. Look, I know your hero has to have a character flaw, but this is so extreme that you can’t stand Noah, and you just want to leave the theater.

The second category of critics are those who believe it fails because of its unfaithfulness to the biblical story. Ken Ham didn’t mince words:

Friends, last night I watched the Hollywood (Paramount) movie Noah. It is much, much worse than I thought it would be—much worse. The director of the movie, Darren Aronofsky, has been quoted in the media as saying that Noah is “the least biblical biblical film ever made,” and I agree wholeheartedly with him.

Sophia Lee of World sees the film as missing the mark, primarily for being an epic that shows God’s judgment without His mercy:

Expressed only through dreams and nature, Noah‘s God is mythical, impersonal, and devastatingly involved. Any references to God are seen through Noah’s perspective. That’s a good sum-up for the film itself—a wholly human approach to figure out deep yet simple theology with great intellect, emotion, and creativity, yet somehow missing the crux of it. That’s the true tragedy of Noah.

Al Mohler’s response is similar:

The odd elements are not the problem, the movie’s message is. Furthermore, the way that message distorts the Genesis account is a far larger problem when it becomes clear that the misrepresentation extends to the master narrative of the Bible – including the character of God.

3. Mixed

While some are jumping out of their theater seats to applaud Noah and others are taking to social media to express their disdain for this film, a smaller number are greeting this movie with mixed feelings. They are neither ecstatic in support or categoric in their rejection. For example, Joe Carter sees his take as falling somewhere in between the cheers and jeers:

Noah is an art movie masquerading as a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, an incongruous hybrid that is unlikely to satisfy most movie goers. Yet despite all its flaws, Noah is a worthy addition to the deluge apocalypse genre. It’s not a great film—it’s barely a good one—and it certainly isn’t the biblical masterpiece many of us were hoping for.

And my friend Aaron Earls views the film from the perspective of the director, Aranofsky, who is a secular Jew. He concludes his review with an insightful analysis of a backwards-facing Noah, and why Christians are bound to see the film’s theological component as lacking:

Aronofsky can give us a Noah who longs for creation, but he cannot show us a Noah who looks forward to the cross. There is no covenant from the Creator to promise a future redemption. This time, the serpent’s head goes uncrushed.

The ark in this film can only remind us of what was lost and try to salvage as much as possible, it cannot point beyond itself to the place we can run into and find ultimate salvation and the eventual redemption of all of creation – humanity included.

The film raises tremendous and worthy questions about sin and grace, justice and mercy. I’m thankful any time we have a chance to discuss those in culture. We can enjoy it as a film and an opportunity for significant discussions.

But it cannot give us the right answers because this Noah is faced the wrong way. With only creation in view, Noah has its back to the cross, leaving viewers adrift in an ocean of opinions and wishes without any solid ground to provide true hope for what comes next.

Noah found salvation in the ark, but without turning our gaze to the cross, there is no room for us.

What about you? Who saw Noah this weekend? And would you recommend I go or wait until it’s out on DVD?

 
 

Jan

29

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

Christians and Movies: Are We Contextualizing or Compromising?

the_best_reasons_for_going_to_the_movies_by_yourself_126417541Earlier this month, I wondered out loud about the kinds of films evangelicals are watching and reviewing. The responses to “Evangelicals and Hollywood Muck” ran the gamut: some agreed (“Finally!”) while others resisted any attempt to question film-watching as a key aspect of cultural engagement.

I mentioned movie reviews and linked to Christianity Today’s review of The Wolf of Wall Street as an example. Though the post wasn’t primarily about movie reviews but instead the bigger question of how evangelicals develop and maintain standards when it comes to movie-watching, Alissa Wilkinson (the reviewer) interacted with my initial post in her lengthy article “Why We Review R-Rated Films.” Alissa seeks to frame the discussion within the broader context of movies, art and criticism.

So, although I’m not speaking only about movie reviews, and although Alissa’s article is about more than my post, I want to interact with her article’s rationale for reviewing all kinds of films.

Different Responses to Different Films

First off, if you’re looking for a quick history of how the Motion Picture Association of America developed the rating system, you’ll find Alissa’s article to be a good resource. She sums up what brought about the rating system in the first place and how it has developed over time.

Secondly, the article explains that different people have different responses to different kinds of films. This is a self-evident but helpful reminder. She says The Exorcism of Emily Rose is the type of film that she simply cannot tolerate in any form. Other people may find that movies about eating disorders or traumatic experiences trigger painful memories. So far, I’ve been unable to see Lone Survivor. My brother served in Iraq, and though I’ve been invited to watch the movie with friends and family, I cannot bear the thought of seeing a film depict, in brutal honesty, the kind of carnage that today’s warfare leaves behind. My brother’s deployment was nerve-wracking enough the first time. If he gets deployed again, I don’t know how I would handle the tension if scenes from that movie are bouncing around in my mind. All this to say, I recognize that no one is the same. What may be beneficial to one person is a stumbling block or intolerable to another.

The Art of a Good Movie Review

Next, Alissa explains the art of writing a good movie review and why evangelicals should make educated choices about what films to watch. She doesn’t believe it’s a movie reviewer’s place to tell a Christian whether or not they should watch a movie. Movies are something that “helps us understand the world we live in new ways; it teaches us about and records our cultural history; and it helps us keep a pulse on ourselves and our culture.” As such, a good movie review has this goal: “to try to help readers think about movies in new ways, informed by the Christian understanding of the world that undergirds everything we write.”

On the surface, this kind of review is commendable. I am not advocating a simplistic method for reviewing books and movies, where the story is embraced or rejected on the basis of the main characters’ actions (Are they good role models? Did they do bad things?). For example, you may be disgusted by some of the characters in The Brothers Karamazov, but the story is meant to turn your revulsion toward the bigger questions of suffering’s role in redemption. A Christian who critically consumes a cultural artifact will look for the bigger picture, not try to ban Tom Sawyer.

The Way We Tell a Story

So now we come to the example of The Wolf of Wall Street. Alissa writes that the film (despite its filth) still has a “clear moral sense of the universe.” Scorsese is condemning the excess of the characters, not celebrating them. For this reason (along with its artistic merits), the film gets a high rating, even with the lengthy section of caveats where viewers are warned of all the objectionable content.

Alissa would argue that the aesthetics and milieu of the film help reinforce that message. But I wonder if the same kind of self-deception is going on in this film that Alissa points out so perceptively in her review of The Hunger Games – Catching Fire. 

I’m not just frustrated, I’m appalled: all this tie-in merchandise declaws the story of The Hunger Games, in much the same way that the actual affluent Capitol in the books declaws the seriousness of the “real” Hunger Games—a forced gladiatorial battle between teenagers—by staging flashy weeks-long television specials around it in order to distract from the horror of juvenile carnage by making it entertaining.

The Hunger Games is a dystopian story that challenges our culture’s thirst for violence as entertainment, and yet, in its marketing, it has become the very thing it critiques. Alissa is perceptive in pointing this out: “They give us what we ask for. Bread and circuses. Chocolate and theme parks. Remember who the real enemy is.”

I think something similar is going on with The Wolf of Wall Street. How many filmgoers got the subtle “condemnation” of sexual excess that Scorsese was communicating? Like The Hunger Games, I suspect most people walked out of the film remembering the way the story was told, not the underlying critique.

Neighbor Love and Our Viewing Habits

According to Alissa’s article, good movie reviews are a way of loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.

“Loving someone means being able to live life alongside her. It means being able to talk about what matters to her.”

The rationale for watching The Wolf of Wall Street is this: “We knew everyone would be talking about it, and will be for quite a while.” In other words, it’s a cultural artifact that is creating conversations, and Christians need to be part of those conversations.

Loving our neighbor means entering their world and letting them know that we’re interested in what they’re interested in. A good movie review can clue us in on what others are talking about. But this doesn’t mean, when it comes to viewing a film, evangelicals should start defining “neighbor love” as sitting in a dark theater surmising how to use The Wolf of Wall Street as a connection point in our next “spiritual conversation.”

Do We Draw Lines Anywhere?

At this point, I feel like we are heading down a rocky terrain without any brake system working on our vehicle. Without any brake system in place, there is, in principle, no film we could not or would not see.

I’ve seen Hollywood elitists raving about the lesbian love story, Blue is the Warmest Color, which contains lengthy, explicit sex scenes with graphic nudity. Should we watch this film in order to speak knowledgeably about it if it comes up in a discussion with our neighbor?

Likewise, women can’t get enough of 50 Shades of Gray - both the book and the upcoming movie. Will we watch and review 50 Shades? If you’re a woman in a book club that decides to read and discuss this book, are you failing to be a witness by opting out of that discussion? Or are you being a faithful witness precisely because you withdrew?

After all, some would argue that the book is implicitly critiquing Christian Grey’s perversion and the damage it inflicts on others. Is it worth viewing two hours of sexual bondage in order to digest that critique? Most would say no. Why? Because no matter what the ultimate message of the film may be, the aesthetics and milieu (the way the story is told) overwhelm the point.

If we say, “No, that’s too far” to a film like 50 Shades or to watching an NC-17 movie, my question is Why? And why wouldn’t the “too far” rationale apply farther up the hill, before we’re off the cliff and heading toward the abyss?

My goal is not to create an artificial line, a legalistic rule that we cling to as a mark of purity. Instead, it’s a question of discernment, and that’s why I am left wondering: Is there anything to which we would simply say, “No matter how much artistry may be involved in this film, it uses copious amounts of sewage to get across its point. Stay away, for your own health.”

I’m not the only one drawing lines; I just wonder why the lines get drawn where they do. That’s why I believe Christians need a “theology of no” when it comes to certain forms of media. A recent NPR article shows how what was once considered R material is now becoming PG-13 or PG. What was once NC-17 is becoming R. The culture is sliding into decadence, and far too many Christians are sliding right along with the rest of America.

Contextualized or Compromised

Is our bigger problem a lack of contextualization? Or is it that we’ve compromised ourselves without knowing it?

That’s the issue here. And I suppose I worry more that we are failing our neighbor because of our compromise than because we’ve failed to contextualize.

Alissa is right that film watching is a matter of wisdom, not fear. But my great fear is that we are being unwise.

 
 

Jan

06

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

Evangelicals and Hollywood Muck

wolf-of-wall-street-poster2-610x903-1I grew up in a fundamentalist environment. The church I was baptized in believed it was inappropriate for Christians to go to a movie theater. To this day, my grandparents maintain this standard as a bulwark against worldliness.

The library at my Christian school had a variety of books for children, sanitized for Christian consumption. Encyclopedia Brown made the cut, but all the “goshes” and “gee whizzes” were marked out with a heavy black pen. No second-hand cursing allowed.

Films without anything objectionable were allowed at school, but looking back, I see how this analysis was applied simplistically. I still remember watching an old version of The Secret Garden - a movie with no cursing, thank goodness, but with a pseudo-pantheistic worldview that healing power is pulsating through all living things.

As a teenager, I discovered the work of Chuck Colson, Francis Schaeffer, and C. S. Lewis. These men had a different perspective on art and its merits. I began to see artistic analysis differently. I realized Disney movies weren’t safe just because they were “clean,” and PG-13 movies weren’t bad just because they had language or violence. It was possible to watch a movie with a critical eye for the underlying worldview.

I never subscribed to the fundamentalist vision that saw holiness in terms of cultural retreat or worldliness as anything that smacked of cultural engagement. I don’t subscribe to that position today.

But sometimes I wonder if evangelicals have swung the pendulum too far to the other side, to the point where all sorts of entertainment choices are validated in the name of cultural engagement.

Generally speaking, I enjoy the movie reviews I read in Christianity Today and World magazine. They go beyond counting cuss words or flagging objectionable content and offer substantive analysis of a movie’s overall message. But in recent years, I’ve begun to wonder if we’re more open than we should be to whatever Hollywood puts out.

Take, for example, Christianity Today’s recent review of The Wolf of Wall Street. Alyssa Wilkinson devotes nearly half of her review to the graphic depictions of immorality, yet still gives the film 3.5 stars out of 4. Another review counts 22 sex scenes, but can’t be sure since it’s hard to tell when one ends and another begins.

My question is this: at what point do we consider a film irredeemable, or at least unwatchable? At what point do we say it is wrong to participate in certain forms of entertainment?

I understand there are complexities to this issue. Some Christians disagreed with the praise showered on the recent Les Miserables film. I am among the number who thought Les Mis showcased the glory of redemption. It was a movie in which the sordid elements only served to accentuate the beauty of grace and the dehumanizing nature of sin.

Les Miserables is not unlike the accounts we read in our Bibles. Sexual immorality, rape, and violence are part and parcel of the Scriptural narrative. If a movie version of the book of Genesis were made, it wouldn’t be for minors. It seems silly to cross out cuss words from Encyclopedia Brown when first-graders can discover some pretty adult-themed events in their Adventure Bibles.

So, please don’t hear me advocating for a simplistic denunciation of Hollywood films. I am not. But I am concerned that many evangelicals may be expending more energy in avoiding the appearance of being “holier-than-thou” than we do in avoiding evil itself.

Yes, Paul used a popular poet of his day in order to make a point in his gospel presentation. Cultural engagement is important and necessary. But church history shows us that for every culture-engager there’s also a Gregory of Nyssa type who saw the entertainment mindset as decadent and deserving of judgment.

Is there justification for viewing gratuitous violence or sexual content?

At what point does our cultural engagement become just a sophisticated way of being worldly?

I find it hard to imagine the ancient Israelites admiring the artwork on the Asherah poles they were called to tear down. I find it hard to picture the early church fathers attending the games at the Roman coliseum, praising the artistic merits of the arena even as they provide caveats against violence.

Yet now in the 21st century, we are expected to find redeemable qualities in what would only be described by people throughout church history as “filth.”

What’s the point in decrying the exploitation of women in strip clubs and mourning the enslavement of men to pornography when we unashamedly watch films that exploit and enslave?

I do not claim to have this all figured out. But one thing I know: our pursuit of holiness must be the mark against which our pursuit of cultural engagement is measured.

If, like me, you’re conflicted about this issue, maybe it’s because we should be.

 
 

Aug

29

2013

Trevin Wax|3:01 am CT

Wading into the Mystery of Joy: A Conversation Continued with Andrew Peterson

Andrew PetersonYesterday, I posted the first of a two-part interview with singer-songwriter and author Andrew Peterson. We continue our conversation today, with Andrew discussing theological growth in his music, what his next album might be, and his complicated relationship with CCM and Christian radio.

Trevin Wax: As you look at your albums over time, where have you grown theologically?

Andrew Peterson: I’m probably not a good judge of my own work, but I remember when The Far Country came out, a lot of those songs seemed to be about death and heaven, as I understood it.

After the record came out, Randy Alcorn sent me his book, Heaven, which was really interesting. It made me realize that even though I grew up in the Bible Belt, there’s way more about heaven in the Bible than I had thought.

Then I got a letter from a fan who was especially concerned about a line in “Lay Me Down” where I wrote,

“I’ll open up my eyes on the skies I’ve never known
In the place where I belong
And I’ll realize His love is just another word for Home.”

They lovingly rebuked me and said, “That’s not really scriptural. Heaven is going to be a redeemed earth.” I will know those skies. I had never understood that. I guess it was never talked about in a way that excited me.

I began to understand it with C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. I saw the way J.R.R. Tolkien paints this sense of longing in The Lord of the Rings - a longing for something tangible, material, but more somehow. But that letter really spurred me to investigate heaven, which led me to N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope.

If I had to name one area that has grown since my earlier albums, it would be the realization that I’m longing for a redeemed earth; not just an end to suffering but a beginning of a new and richer life. The Kingdom is coming here. That’s where Light for the Lost Boy comes – this ache over the loss of innocence points to our redemption. And not just our redemption. All of creation longs for it, too.

Trevin Wax: What is the theme for your next album?

Andrew Peterson: I want it to be Resurrection Letters, Volume 1, but we’ll see. It’s a matter of finding the guts to write it because I’ve set myself up for failure by titling the older record Resurrection Letters, Volume 2.

I’m afraid people think, “Oh, you must have some master plan,” but I don’t at all. I just knew I had more to say about it and what I wanted to say next was chronologically before what I had written for Volume 2. That barely makes sense, I realize.

Trevin Wax: Is there a specific situation that prompted your song “Dancing in the Minefields,” from Counting Stars?

Andrew Peterson: It was a fight with Jamie after our 15th wedding anniversary. I don’t even remember what it was about, but we were arguing. If you’ve been married any real length of time, you’ve gone through some times where you think, “That hurt worse than I thought it would.”

The point of the song is that we shouldn’t be surprised when something is difficult, when something hurts, because, as I heard someone say, “nothing worth doing is ever easy.” Marriage falls squarely in that category because it is a means of dying to self and even of suffering. I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way, but it is a matter of each spouse learning to die.

Some songs you have to sweat for, but that one felt more like a gift. It happened in a few hours one night and I played it for her in the morning.

Trevin Wax: Occasionally, you have a song on the charts or the radio, but you seem to have an odd relationship with CCM and Christian radio. Where would you place yourself on the spectrum between church music and Christian radio music?

Andrew Peterson: If I thought about that while I was writing songs it would probably paralyze me. People talk about how they want their art to influence culture. I don’t think that is a bad thing to hope for, but I don’t think that’s the best way to write a song. Maybe we should just think about influencing someone’s heart. And even then, you can get yourself in trouble. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes his encounters with this painful longing and his search to understand what it was all about. Music has done that for me. As I read the book, I kept thinking, “I know what that feels like.” There have been moments in my life where I’ve felt close to something but as I turned to grab it, it was gone and I was left with that sadness.

One of the things he said was if you set out to recreate that feeling, that desire, you’re going to fail every time. He said that transcendent experience of longing was not something that you could control. I think a lot of us try to do that with music. We’re trying to create this sense of deep joy in people. It’s not a bad thing, but in some ways, it’s futile. I can’t recreate it for myself. I can’t recreate it for anyone else. That’s the Spirit’s work. It would be like a farmer trying to get his seeds to sprout on demand. All I can do is be obedient to what God has called me to do and create a space where something might happen on an individual level.

If radio is a part of that, I’m happy. I want as many people as possible to hear these songs. Knowing music was the vehicle through which my heart often felt that longing, and does still, getting to be a part of making music that may plant those seeds in someone else’s heart—that’s what thrills me. Writing the books and the music is, in a way, wading into that mystery.

Surprised by Joy is filling my head, since it was just a few hours ago that I finished it, but Lewis said that the whole point is the object of the longing (or desire), not the desire itself. As soon as you start thinking about the desire itself, you’ve missed the point. So, maybe that feeling that a lot of musicians and worship pastors try to recreate, that emotional response, is ultimately an idol. What we’re after is not an experience, but God himself.

 
 

Aug

28

2013

Trevin Wax|3:08 am CT

Reading, Writing and Music: A Conversation with Andrew Peterson

Andrew PetersonLast week, I had the opportunity to catch up with singer-songwriter and author Andrew Peterson before a concert. I’ve been a fan since his first album in 2000, Carried Along, and have continued to follow his music, which has only gotten better, through his latest album Light for the Lost Boy.

Besides his music, Andrew has also written a young adult fantasy series The Wingfeather Saga, the last novel of which Andrew is working on now.

In the first of a two-part interview with the modern-day renaissance man, Andrew shared how he started making music, who is currently inspiring his writing, and what books are on the horizon.

Trevin Wax: What came first for you: your passion for music or your passion for songwriting?

Andrew Peterson: Early on, I loved music and art in general – music, books, comics, paintings, movies. Before DVDs, if my brother and I heard the making of Raiders of the Lost Ark was going to be on television, we would record it on a VHS tape. It wasn’t enough for us to just experience something. We wanted to know how it happened. It awoke a desire in us to look under the hood, so to speak.

That was the case with songs, as well. When I heard songs, I would pore over the lyrics and examine who played what instrument. It was this mystery — how did they make this music? Books were the same way. How did this story work? How did it make me feel the way I felt when I read it?

From the beginning, it was a fascination with the mystery of creating a work of art. I was drawn to that because of the way it made me feel. Part of me that felt dead the rest of the day became alive. C.S. Lewis said that beauty is something we want to enter. We want it to envelope us.

I tried to write a few songs in high school, but they were just “girlfriend songs.” I realized after awhile that there was an emptiness about it. I didn’t know what to write because I was a nominal Christian at the time. Just before college, when Jesus finally made Himself an object in my path — one that I couldn’t avoid — I discovered that I had something to write about.

It was around the time I heard Rich Mullins’ music that songwriting began to occur to me as a type of art. His music was a vehicle for a deepening of my faith. I remember praying one night that I wanted to do music, not for my own glory, but for God’s. And if I could write music to help someone feel the way Rich’s music made me feel, that’s what I wanted to do.

Every time I write, I’m aiming for the peak of a Rich Mullins song. I only ever get to the foothills and I’m reminded of that when I play his songs live. I’ve probably sung “Calling Out Your Name” 150 times and heard it a thousand, but it just occured to me last year what some of the lyrics meant. The lyrics seem to be opening themselves up more with every listen. That’s what makes for a great song, I think.

“The Color Green” uses a beautiful picture of wrens making a home in a dead tree to speak of being born again. The imagery is so rich that you don’t even have time to think about it as it goes by, which is why you listen to it 200 times. There are these unfolding pleasures that I find as I listen to his music that never cease to delight me.

Trevin Wax: Who are you reading right now that is influencing the way you write?

Andrew Peterson: I’ve been reading a lot of C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. I just finished Lewis’s Surprised By Joy and Letters to Malcolm. I also read The Ballad of the White Horse, which is G.K. Chesterton’s epic poem. I keep reading Chesterton because of his joy. He writes with such exuberance. Orthodoxy is the only book I ever finished reading and started over in the same day.

I recently read Defiant Joy, Kevin Belmonte’s biography of Chesterton, and I was so struck by Chesterton’s friendship with George Bernard Shaw, who was an outspoken atheist. I realized that I don’t know how to do that. I don’t have many friends who I disagree with on a deep level.

I was in Northern Ireland a few weeks ago and was warned about the Irish tendency to not take each other seriously — to “slag each other off,” as they put it. I wonder sometimes if that’s an art that’s missing in Christian culture. We don’t know how to disagree and still be friends. I don’t, anyway.

That’s part of what I love about Chesterton. He could move in a very secular English intellectual culture as a Christian, but they had to respect him because of his great mind and — maybe more than anything  — his joy. Lewis, too, was surrounded by those who disagreed with him. I have to think it made him a better man, a more humble man. I’m drawn to these two because of all the culture shifts in America right now. It’s caused me to ask myself, “Where is the Chesterton of today?” Where’s the guy who can go on CNN as a believer and display both intelligence and winsomeness, one that can make me proud to believe what he believes?

I just started N. D. Wilson’s Death by Living. I believe it was Eric Metaxas who said Wilson reminded him of Chesterton. I agree. Wilson has that same sense of exuberance and he uses language in a surprising, sparkling way. Plus, he gave me a first edition of Till We Have Faces, which means we’re friends forever.

Trevin Wax: What does the process of composing music look like for you?

Andrew Peterson: I don’t write until there is a deadline, until the record company says they need something. Every once in awhile, there will be a song that I feel like I need to write. But I actually dread the process. When I’m in it, it’s different, but once I finish I think, Whoa, that was hard. I don’t want to do that anymore for awhile.

I’m also trying to finish my book right now, so that makes writing music more difficult.

Trevin Wax: Are you going to write more after The Warden and the Wolf King concludes The Wingfeather Saga?

Andrew Peterson: I have a couple ideas for some fiction books. I also want to write a non-ficition one, but I’m still thinking through what I want to do with it.

In the second part of our conversation, Andrew discusses theological growth in his music, what his next album might be, and his complicated relationship with CCM and Christian radio. Check it out tomorrow…

 
 

Feb

18

2013

Trevin Wax|3:09 am CT

Fiction-Writing Basics #1: Determine the Point of View

Last month, I announced my next writing project will be fiction. The book will be published by Waterbrook Multnomah (Random House) this fall.

Writing fiction has proved to be a much more difficult experience than writing non-fiction. I had no idea how many layers and levels of re-writes and edits a short novel would require. Neither did I begin with a full understanding of the techniques for writing fiction.

Maybe you’re like me. You like reading novels, and you have thought about writing one of your own.

As you get started on your book, you’ll instinctively sense that some things work and don’t work. But you won’t know why. At least, that was the case for me. I knew something was wrong with a section here or there, but in order to pinpoint the issue, I needed to brush up on some fiction-writing techniques.

In the next few weeks, I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned during this process.

The Crucial “Point of View”

Today, we will look at a crucial element of fiction-writing: the “point of view” for a specific scene.

At first glance, you may think I’m referring to the perspective of the author, the belief systems authors put forth in their work. That is not what fiction editors and writers mean by “point of view.” Instead, POV refers to the scene at hand and the character through whom we are experiencing the moment.

Think of it like a movie, where you place a camera somewhere in the room. From what perspective will the scene’s action be shown?

Different Points of View

There are various ways of determining the point of view for a scene, but they can be summed up in three basic approaches.

1. Omniscient

The omniscient approach operates within the point of view of the narrator. The video camera sees everything. By taking the identity of the “omniscient narrator,” you can write about things in a scene that your main characters are completely unaware of. You take in the whole scene with a God-like perspective.

Many writers in the past have utilized the omniscient point of view in their fiction. Joyce Carol Oates, George Eliot, and Harriet Beecher Stowe (who actually paused the narrative of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to preach to her readers!) told their stories from the narrator’s perspective.

The upside to using the omniscient point of view is that you gain additional perspective on the scene. You are not “trapped” in anyone’s head  or limited by the horizon of any of your characters.

The downside is a loss of intimacy. Your reader takes in the scene, but it’s harder to get to know the people present. What you gain in information, you lose in personal touch.

2. First-Person

The first person approach is written from the perspective of the main character. The video camera is built into the glasses of the main character, so that the narrator and the main character are the same person. The reader experiences everything in the book from the perspective of the main speaker.

Marilynne Robinson used this technique to stunning effect in Gilead, a book written from the perspective of a dying pastor. She opens the book this way:

“I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old.”

The upside to using the “I” point of view is that your reader gets to know the main character by seeing everything through his or her eyes. When the main character is interesting, readers will keep turning the pages.

The downside to writing fiction in first person is that many characters are not strong enough to carry the whole narrative. Readers begin to feel trapped inside the head of one person. In their helpful book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King explain:

“What you gain in intimacy with the first person, you lose in perspective. You can’t know or write about anything your main character couldn’t know, which means you have to have your main character on the spot whenever you want to write an immediate scene. This can limit your plot-development possibilities.”

3. Third-Person

The third-person approach chooses a central character for each scene and envisions the action through the “point of view” of that character. Whenever you need to shift to another character’s point of view, you can insert a linespace and start a new scene from the perspective of the other person in the scene.

It’s safe to say that most fiction books today use this approach. It allows the writer to provide perspective beyond the eyes of one character, while at the same time fostering a certain amount of intimacy by bringing us into the thoughts of the main characters.

An Example

Because I’m new at writing fiction, I chose the third person approach for my book. I designed each chapter as a scene, and then I determined where the video camera would be, (which character’s point of view would dominate the scene).

As an example, an early scene in my upcoming book features three men from three different generations discussing the role of passion and balance in life and theology. The dialogue is the dialogue. It’s not going to change depending on point of view.

But who is the character through whom I want the reader to experience this scene?

- Will it be the twenty-something college graduate undergoing a crisis of faith? (If so, then the scene will be interpreted through the eyes of a guy who feels a little out-of-place, like he’s “in over his head” in this conversation because of his youth and inexperience.)

- Will it be the middle-aged lawyer who directs the choir at church? (If so, then the scene will be interpreted through the eyes of a man who is a close friend to the elderly man, and who is genuinely curious about the young guy in the room.)

- Will it be the homebound retired pastor? (If so, then the scene will be interpreted through the eyes of a man who is accustomed to passionate conversation and who seeks to make the young guy feel at ease.)

The way you determine which point of view to use is by figuring out whose inner thoughts are most important for this scene.

  • Who does the reader need to get to know here?
  • Whose emotions will be most intense, most vulnerable?
  • Whose perspective will shine the most light on the POV character as well as the other people in the scene?

Determining the point of view for a character is one of the basic lessons I learned in writing fiction. Before you start on your own novel, read a few fiction books and notice how the authors handle the POV.

 
 

Jan

29

2013

Trevin Wax|3:29 am CT

New and Notable Musical Offerings

After blogging a few times about the need for conservative Christians to create (and not merely critique), I started receiving emails from blog readers doing just that.

I’ve heard from writers excited about the novel they’ve just finished, poets who make videos for YouTube, rappers infusing their songs with deep theology, songwriters who hope to record an album one day, and musicians who sing and play for the sheer pleasure they get in exercising their God-given talents.

I wish I could review and pass along all the neat things that flow into my inbox. It’s exciting to see the blossoming of art and music from people who love Jesus and want to reflect His glory through their work. It’s one of the reasons I decided to tackle fiction for my next writing project.

Here’s a sampling of some musical contributions that have come to my attention in recent months.

THE GRAY HAVENS

Husband-wife team, David and Licia Radford, have recently released their first EP - Where Eyes Don’t Go, a collection of six songs that borrow allusions from the imaginations of Tolkien and Lewis.

Musically, the style is folk-pop that provides the perfect backdrop to David’s vocal abilities. This album has grown on me the more I’ve listened to it. My favorites  are “Gray Flowers” and “Train Station.”

Click here to purchase Where Eyes Don’t Go.

~~~~~

SONGS OF THE REDEEMED

Grace Community Church in Nashville recently celebrated their 20th anniversary. As part of their celebration, the worship team recorded a new album filled with ancient and contemporary hymns.

The truths in these songs are rich, and the worship team’s treatment enhances the melodies so that the worshipful lyrics lead the listener into thoughtful reflection on the good news of what Christ has done.

~~~~~

THE NARROW PLACE

It’s exciting to watch Lauren Chandler fulfill her passion to make much of Christ through writing and singing music. Her most recent project is The Narrow Place, a collection of songs birthed from and reflecting upon a season of trial in her family’s life and the sustaining faithfulness of God.

Here’s an interview with Lauren about the album.

~~~~~

THE GORILLA POETS

I like when talented writers and musicians diversify and try their hand at new things.

N. D. Wilson is one of my favorite writers (see our conversation on truth and beauty, or his controversial take on The Hunger Games). He and Aaron Rench have collaborated on an album that will tie in with Wilson’s next book – a follow-up to Notes From The Tilt-A-Whirl.

~~~~~

HYMNS – Stephen Miller

The rediscovery and repackaging of ancient hymns continues unabated, especially in the gospel-centered movement. While people like Keith and Kristyn Getty, Matt Boswell, and Matt Papa compose new hymns, others are reworking old hymns for a new day. I’ve enjoyed the music of Red Mountain Church for their rescue of old, primarily unknown hymns from total obscurity.

Stephen Miller, one of the worship leaders at The Journey in St. Louis, has released an album of more-familiar hymns. The arrangements are good, and the instrumentation demonstrates that a church can be decidedly contemporary and yet fond of singing old hymns.

 
 

Jan

02

2013

Trevin Wax|3:10 am CT

A Brief Review of Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables”

Ever since the trailer for the new Les Misérables movie made the rounds online, I’ve been highly anticipating this film. Last weekend, Corina and I went to see it. We were not disappointed, but we were surprised in ways different than expected.

Here are some initial thoughts.

(Caution: Spoilers ahead!)

From Book to Broadway to the Box Office

How does one judge the faithfulness of a screen adaptation of Les Misérables?

Do we judge it based on its fidelity to the book? To the musical? To the spirit of both?

If you’ve read the book, you can imagine the difficulty of translating such a sprawling piece of literature to the big screen. Directors and screenwriters have tried and, in my estimation, failed. (Even Liam Neeson.) It’s simply too hard to pack the emotional punch of Hugo’s masterpiece into a two-hour film.

Unless… you’ve got music on your side. This is where the musical excels. By telling the story musically, the composers capture the spirit of Hugo’s novel without slavishly following every detail.

I am a fan of the book. I am a fan of the musical. Now, finally, I am a fan of the movie. Hooper deserves accolades for pulling it off.

Anne Hathaway as Fantine

Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine has gotten a lot of buzz, deservedly so. Her gut-wrenching version of “I Dreamed a Dream” rescues the song from the sentimentality of Susan Boyle and reminds viewers of the despairing lyrics that work against the soaring melody. Also powerful is the deathbed scene where Fantine longs for her daughter.

Because Hathaway has received so much buzz, I can’t say I was surprised by the emotional depth of her performance. She lived up to the hype, but didn’t exceed expectations (perhaps because expectations were so high). Likewise, Hugh Jackman did a fantastic job capturing the progression of Valjean from sinner to saint.

Marius’ Empty Chairs

What surprised me most was Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Marius. His rendition of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” was so authentic that, for a moment, I felt as if I were in the room with him, feeling the same wave of anger and grief he was experiencing. It was a stunning performance. Corina and I looked at each other after it was over and said, “Unbelievable.”

The Killing of Gavroche

After the tragedy in Connecticut, it was especially difficult to watch the little boy Gavroche get killed at the barricade. The film didn’t belabor the tragedy by showing blood; even so, the sight of a young child being shot and killed was disturbing. (There were audible gasps in the audience when this took place on screen.)

Christian Imagery

I was also surprised by the pervasiveness of Christian imagery in the film. The clearest use of the cross was saved for Valjean’s moment of truth, as he faces the inner conflict of choosing to reveal himself in order to save the life of another man. While Valjean sings these words, he is looking at a crucifix:

Can I condemn this man to slavery
Pretend I do not feel his agony
This innocent who bears my face
Who goes to judgment in my place

Christian Resonance

While Les Misérables was playing, we could hear people weeping. When it was finished, the movie-goers burst into applause.

The “experience” of this movie got me thinking. How many people are moved by Les Misérables without really knowing why?

Is it the portrait of law and grace? Valjean – a man who offers grace without conditions, set against the backdrop of Javert, who in his pride would rather die than be humbled before a thief.

Is it the light of grace shining in darkness? We see the ugliness of sin: theft, hypocrisy, and immorality. The darkness of evil makes the light of love shine all the brighter.

Is it the hope of heaven? As Valjean dies, Fantine sings about how he will soon enter his reward – seeing God. The end of the movie is shot through with eschatology:

Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.
They will live again in the freedom in the garden of the Lord…
Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?

I wonder how many people long for the better world behind the barricade, but don’t know how to get there. Moved to tears by grace-on-display in the character of a man who lays down his life for others,  they miss the connections between this literary classic and the greatest Story ever told.

The music written for the grand narrative of Scripture can’t be contained in a 2 1/2 hour film. It’s sung day after day, week after week, year after year, by millions who walk the fallen soil of this planet, but who have tasted the forgiveness and grace from the One who made Himself nothing that we may be free.

 
 

Nov

01

2012

Trevin Wax|3:57 am CT

A Good Story Put to Music: A Conversation with Andrew Peterson

I’ve been a fan of Andrew Peterson ever since his first album, Carried Along, came out in 2000. “The Chasing Song” and “Nothing to Say” were immediately appealing, but I quickly discovered the rest of his songs were just as thought-provoking and musically compelling.

Twelve years later, Andrew’s music just keeps getting better. His new album Light for the Lost Boy maintains the trademark Peterson folksiness while pushing him into musical territory that heightens the sense of longing and gratitude evident in the lyrics. Andrew graciously agreed to answer a few questions about the new album, the legacy of Rich Mullins, and his popular Christmas tour.

Trevin Wax: Andrew, there’s a theme running through the songs on this album: a loss of innocence combined with a deep yearning for the world to be made right. It’s evident in the first track (“Come Back Soon”) with the line “We wake in the night in the womb of the world,” and the song ends with deliverance. This sense of longing infuses many of the other songs. What in your life has prompted these personal expressions of faith in the Christian’s future hope?

Andrew Peterson: Everybody’s got the same ache; everybody’s carrying around the same sense of dissatisfaction with the state of the world. If they claim otherwise, I just don’t believe them. No matter how happy we are, there’s something nagging at us, something troubling at the periphery of our days, like we’re on a date and having a great time, but we can’t shake the feeling that we left the oven on. Something keeps us from perfect peace.

If we slipped out of the suburbs and affluence into a world where things like iPhones and viral videos don’t really amount to a hill of beans, a world where an actual hill of beans can be the difference between life and death, there would be no question that the world is broken. I’ve always sensed it, but the older I get the starker is the evidence. I see it in my own tired, sinful heart. I see it in my sweet children’s embarkation into adolescence and the grief it will bring. I see it in marriages and churches struggling to preserve their sacred unity.

And yet, even with all this darkness, there’s so much beauty. Why would that be? Why would we hunger for light and truth if we weren’t made for it? And if we were made for it, why must we contend with shadows and lies for the length of our days?

Tolkien said that sadness was part of what made the Lord’s symphony so beautiful, and I happen to agree. Joy untouched by sorrow is mere happiness.

There must be some deeper purpose behind this painfully slow redemption of the world, a purpose that turns the devil’s own tools against him – including our sorrow, which, when we don’t despair, only piques our longing. I believe there will be a reckoning, when Jesus will judge the quick and the dead, but as long as He tarries we ache for that day even as we proclaim it, even as we build the kingdom that is somehow coming and yet is already here.

Trevin Wax: There are a couple of songs directed to those who doubt the truth of Christianity. In these songs (“The Voice of Jesus” and “Don’t You Want to Thank Someone?”) you stress the benevolence of God as He gives us good gifts in the world that point us to Him. What role should the joy and gift of existence play in the spiritual conversations we have with those who doubt?

Andrew Peterson: Chesterton said, “The worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank.” The world is spilling over with goodness.

Jamie and I suffered a few miscarriages early in our marriage, and one of the doctors told us something I’ll never forget. He said that so many millions of things have to go right in every pregnancy in order for a healthy baby to be born, he’s honestly amazed every time it happens.

On a smaller scale, I think about that every time I’m stuck in traffic. There are so many thousands of cars, speeding in opposite directions, mere inches from each other that I’m amazed anybody makes it home.

So many things go right everyday – things like gravity and germination and sunshine – that it’s easy to take them for granted. It’s like we win the lottery every time our heart beats. There’s so much more goodness and beauty than we realize, which is why it’s so easy to see the evil and ugliness. The very existence of beauty, our ability to recognize it and the way it affects us, points to the existence of God.

Trevin Wax: In reviewing this album, Christianity Today said this album “places the mantle of Rich Mullins squarely on Peterson’s shoulders.” How have you been influenced by the legacy of Mullins in his songwriting and singing?

Andrew Peterson: Well, that’s a mantle I’m not sure I’m able to carry, but I take it as the highest sort of compliment.

I have a friend who jokingly says that Rich is “on his board of directors,” and I feel kind of the same way. In the Rabbit Room offices (the creative community I’m a part of here in Nashville), we have pictures of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, George MacDonald, and Chesterton hanging on the walls – our own “board of directors”, if you will – and Rich’s picture is hanging there with them. I truly believe he was one of those fiercely intelligent, gifted, and oddball characters God raises up every generation or so to remind us how beautiful the gospel really is. When I was a nineteen-year-old kid without a clue, Rich’s songs (the good ones) stirred my longing for Jesus like nothing else. They still do.

Trevin Wax: Your annual Christmas tour based on Behold the Lamb is coming up soon. I’ve heard that in the Nashville area that this concert has become something of a Christmas tradition for many. What do you enjoy most about this event?

Andrew Peterson: I enjoy the feeling of God’s pleasure. After thirteen years of putting on this concert, I’m still moved to tears almost every night. That’s partly because I’m a crybaby. But it’s also because the gospel never, ever gets old.

To stand on the stage with dear friends, friends who have been saved by the main character in the tale we’re telling, and sing about this Jesus in who is in all things and in whom all things hold together, is a great gift. It is an answer to the prayer that my nineteen-year-old self prayed when I first heard Rich Mullins’s songs: “God, let me sing about you.”

Every year I wonder when that tour will get old to the audience, or to the band or to me, and every year people keep showing up. That’s not because of us. It’s because human beings were made to delight in the Lord and in the glory of his salvation.

It’s as simple as this: the gospel is a good story. It’s the best story. All I did was put it to music.

 
 

Jul

12

2012

guest|3:31 am CT

Putting the Art Back in “How Great Thou Art”

Kyle Hatfield is a pastor at Ekklesia Eugene in Eugene, Oregon, and blogs at Endangered Minds.

Biblical truth must be proclaimed beautifully because truth is beautiful. This principle has been hammered home on Kingdom People many times and rightfully so. But we must not just stop at crafting beautiful sermons and mind-blowing books. Our praise must be beautiful too, for the One we worship is the source of beauty and truth.

God loves music. He created it. The problem is that sometimes us Christians act like we hate the art of song. That must be the case, for how else could we justify the mass production of what attempts to pass for “Christian” radio these days?

Much like of our books, a large portion of our music is not beautiful. That is a problem, for it does not properly represent the One we adore.

In contrast, the Bible is full of beautiful songs. Here are four things they have that many of our songs today do not:

1. Imagery

Most imagery used in Christian music today is either bland, cliché, or nonexistent. Not every song needs to be densely populated with metaphors and similes, but just take a look at the Psalms—they are full of word pictures. These pictures are important because pictures give flesh to truth.

Many biblical concepts can be somewhat abstract (grace, glory, majesty). Consequently, the truths don’t hit us with as much weight as they should because we cannot fully grasp them. But if we are able to show the truth, then that is something people can take hold of. Word made flesh.

Consider this: It took John Newton five verses to fully describe how amazing grace truly is.

2. Depth

The most common complaint I hear regarding Christian music is that it doesn’t truly reflect the depth of Christian experience—no sin, no struggle, no despair, no doubt, no cross. What is portrayed is a sanitized Christianity where no trials occur.

Instead, Christian music should cover both the joy and grief of the Christian life. In Psalm 79, Asaph cries out to God in suffering and yet is able to praise Him at the same time.

God is not just on the mountaintops but in the valleys too.

3. A God-Centered Focus

Much Christian music focuses on giving everyone a positive self-image or pumping teenagers up to pursue their dreams. It’s a subtle theological shift that reflects the direction many pulpits have also taken.

To magnify the Lord is to display how great He truly is. Can we do that while we are trying to convince the world we are great too?

There is currently one popular song that preaches in the chorus, “You’re someone worth dying for.” I understand what it’s trying to accomplish, but the whole point of the gospel is that we are not worth dying for—that’s why it’s so amazing Jesus still chose to die.

Because He died and we didn’t, all eyes should be on Him, not us.

4. Awe

I believe that many times when we create poorly, it’s because we aren’t fully captivated by the Person and work of Christ. If we were, we’d understand the necessity to find compelling words and ways to declare His glory.

The world has their muses: ambition, passion, money, and sex. Those things drive the world’s art, and they pursue it obsessively.

But Christians actually have the greatest inspiration of all—the Source of beauty, wonder, and majesty. We are part of the most wonderful story ever conceived; we should tell it well. But in order to do so, we must first be gripped by it.

CODA

We need to be more discerning about the music we listen to. No need to be a snob or a jerk. But let’s not settle for the music dished out on the radio or iTunes.

Reward those who are working diligently to reflect God’s beauty (some examples are Josh GarrelsThe FollowersAll Sons and DaughtersLecrae, and Mars Hill Music).

Musicians: Tell your story well. Raise the bar for everyone else.

To be clear, I am not concerned about Christians being seen as “legitimate” artists by the world. In fact, I think to some degree that cannot possibly be the norm, for the message we preach is offensive.

Our goal is not to be popular. Instead, what we need is Christian art that enthralls the soul and stirs the heart to greater worship of the Creator.