I happily come across more pieces of culture than I know what to do with each year (or month, or week, or day) that speak to the Christian Message. This is a good problem to have–it means a blog like Mbird or a preacher like me will never run out of new material. Not using it can feel burdensome though, because I want to talk about it all—and sometimes I just procrastinate and never get around to it. I lumped some highlights together here in truncated form, keeping this list limited to the top ten (maybe 11) things I wanted to blog about but never got around to in 2013.
1) Mike Birbiglia. I devoted a lot of energy this year to exploring connections between theological and comedic/humorous dimensions with special emphasis on stand up comedy. One comedian I’ve really enjoyed the past few years is Mike Birbiglia. I highly recommend his movie Sleepwalk with Me (you may have heard the story featured on NPR’s This American Life). Birbiglia is in a similar league as Jim Gaffigan: Not too crass, yet not so squeaky clean as to lose his street cred or ability to connect with his audience. If anyone wants to go with me to his show in Charleston, SC in April, please let me know.
2) Michael Gungor. If you don’t know Gungor, they fall under the contemporary Christian-music-that-doesn’t-stink category. In fact, my wife recently stumbled across a must-read blog post from 2011 written by the band’s namesake and leader, Michael Gungor, that has some amazing things to say about the Christian music industry. Actually, his criticism is applicable to the wider Christian subculture. This particular blog post is currently living a viral second life for some reason, so Gungor just posted a new response to the recent feedback he is receiving in which he reneges on some of the emotional gut-spilling in his original post. Gungor the band has been on my radar screen for a while, but it took binge-watching all their music videos online to get me truly excited, especially the one below (watch the guy playing the cello very closely). I’m not too into contemporary Christian rock for a lot of the reasons Gungor attests to in his original blog post, but I can listen to stuff like this all day.
When you remove the soul from music and transplant the body parts (chord changes, instrumentation, dress, lights, and everything but the soul…) and parade it around with some more ‘positive’ lyrics posing as Christian music, then what you have is a musical zombie. It looks like a human..- It eats like a human… It still walks and makes noise and resembles a human, but it’s not. It’s a zombie. It has no soul. It just uses it’s human body for its own purposes.
3) Sideshow Alley. This website is amazing. It features videos of bands, most notably Mumford & Sons, performing live/acoustic in and around either Melbourne or New York City alleys and backyards. Totally unadorned, totally unmediated, totally humble, totally awesome. The site is doing what a lot of us in the Mock-osphere are attempting to do with our writing and public speaking—in fresh and down-to-earth ways. My favorites beyond the M&S video are the ones by The Tiger and Me, First Aid Kit, and The Nymphs.
4) Extra Yarn. In addition to comedy, another budding interest for me is children’s literature, which is mostly a result of my life situation. I’m a father of two young daughters, and I (attempt to) minister to young families. Basically I’m trying to think about how I can apply some of the same principles we employ here at Mockingbird but with young children, connecting the Gospel to the realities of their everyday lives. Mostly the quest has led me to inspiring children’s literature of the Maurice Sendak or Shel Silverstein variety. This year one of my favorites was Extra Yarn, which I recommend reading. I found this video version of the tale for our purposes, but it doesn’t quite do justice to the book.
5) The Hammer of God by Bo Giertz. My favorite grownup book that I read this year. We’ve covered it before, but not for a while. The Hammer of God is really a timeless classic. If you haven’t read it, consider making it your next piece of fiction. There are very few explicitly Christian novels I can recommend besides Redeeming Love (only half joking), but this one is at the top of the list, especially for anyone working in formal ministry. Yet it is a worthy read for anyone. The three stories in the book explore a lot of the same themes and categories we play with here (namely law and gospel), and it demonstrates what these theological categories can look like when the rubber meets the road of Christian psyches. The video here is a robotic reading of one of the best quotes from the book.
One does not choose a Redeemer for oneself, you understand, nor give one’s heart to him. The heart is a rusty old can on a junk heap. A fine birthday gift, indeed! But a wonderful Lord passes by, and has mercy on the wretched tin can, sticks his walking cane through it, and rescues it from the junk pile and takes it home with him. (from The Hammer of God)
6) Go On. One of my recent favorite guilty pleasures, Matthew Perry’s newest show Go On, was unfortunately cancelled following its first season. Dang! OK, the show wasn’t earth-shatteringly amazing (hence “guilty pleasure”), but it was a sitcom about a support group for goodness sakes. It toyed with ideas of recovery in comedic form on primetime TV. No wonder it was cancelled?! Here is a scene from the pilot when Perry’s character meets his new grief support group after his wife dies prematurely.
7) Call the Midwife. For my money, Call the Midwife is the best British show right now, better than Downton Abbey as of late. It is based on the memoirs of an actual midwife who lived and worked in a very poor working-class neighborhood of London following World War II. The show does an amazing job exploring themes of judgement and love in each episode, and it never fails to jerk tears. Plus I like that some facet of the Church of England makes an appearance in each episode, including some amazing scenes of Anglican nuns chanting plainsong. The Christmas special from last season (2012) was one of the best pieces of televisions I’ve seen recently, and if you haven’t read the piece Lynn MacDougall posted on it earlier this year, now’s your chance. This clip is from that episode.
8) Drunk History. OK, Drunk History can be crass. I had a lot trouble finding a PG-ish clip to share with you here. But if you are able to look beyond the swearing and the fact that the people you are watching are wasted, you might realize it is one of the best things out there right now (see especially the Lewis & Clark and the Dolly Parton episodes). I believe I’ve learned more history from watching this show (however accurate/inaccurate?) than I did from years and years of history classes. I at least pay attention to everything—you had me at “drunk history.” There is something to be said, again, about the unmediated and humorous quality of such a production. As a viewer, my defenses are lowered. I hesitate to tell you this, but I have honestly asked myself how I can learn from Drunk History to improve my Bible storytelling. Of course I never do and never would drink alcohol before getting in the pulpit (that’s a little too down to earth even for me), but certainly we would do well to loosen up in telling these narratives (as long as one doesn’t do violence to the text) for the sake of connecting with an audience.
9) Adventure Playgrounds. I stumbled across the concept of adventure playgrounds via Transom, a podcast quite similar to NPR’s This American Life. Basically, adventure playgrounds are a largely British phenomenon, though some exist in the States, that allow children to play with unconventional material bordering on junkyards. The result? Kids love it, they rarely injure themselves, and they learn more about the world and themselves than they do in the “safe” playgrounds we’ve grown accustomed to. I’ve included the audio from the podcast here, which is relatively short and well worth a listen.
Better a broken bone than a broken spirit.
—Lady Allen of Hurtwood (1897 – 1976)
10) Antoinette Tuff. Perhaps the most amazing/grace-infused news story you may have missed this year was when school clerk Antoinette Tuff talked a mentally unstable young man out of committing a school massacre in Georgia. I saved this entry for last because the video clip of her 9-1-1 phone recording is a tad long. If you have the time, listen to the whole thing. It’s almost unbelievable, but it really happened.
BONUS: She Reads Truth. This one comes from my wife, not me, so I generally trust the source. She Reads Truth is her new favorite blog/devotional, and she swears it is theologically copacetic. It’s written by women for women, but I hear men might like it, too.
We believe the Word of God is relevant for today. Whether it’s marriage, social justice, friendship, parenting, or life in general, we don’t think the Bible is archaic and useless. … We believe that as strong as the law is, as hard as the tough words are to swallow, His grace and goodness and love are stronger still. Because of that, we’re not scared to write about His word. It is safe for us, it is good for us, [it] is His love for us written out. (from the She Reads Truth belief statement)