What I’ve Been Reading, Watching, and Listening to

In a world with an avalanche of information and the potential for experiences coming at us at any given moment, it is important to learn to create filters and discernment processes for the kinds of things we are going in ingest into our souls. Throughout history, the printed word has served as a ferry for all kinds of conversion – intellectual, emotional, spiritual. All of the arts can have this effect as well, and this is an important dimension of all of our spiritualities.

When it comes to discerning what to read, watch or listen to in the precious time we have, it is always helpful to have the suggestions of people who read and experience new information as part of their living. Most of us have a stack of books at our bedside, while some of us have stacks near our reading chair, our cocktail table and any other horizontal surface capable of supporting weight. Most of us also have long lists of films we want to see or music groups we hope to experience. Below are some films, books, talks, and music that I’ve enjoyed over the past few months–I hope it serves as a good starting point as you decide what to read on your journey, especially as we move closer to the months of summer.

Because I often travel quite a bit, I sometimes make use of airplane time to catch up on films I had heard about, but never had time to view. Here are some films I’ve seen recently:

  • Raggamuffin is a 2014 movie about Rich Millins, the popular Christian contemporary musician in the 1980s and 1990s. The movie provides a penetrating exploration of an enormously gifted musician, who lived a tortured life with the scars of his childhood and adolescence, yet continued to write songs that touched the hearts of millions. Mullins became one of the most successful Christian pop stars and had his songs sung by the biggest Christian pop stars, such as Amy Grant and Michael W Smith.
    Despite internal turmoil, deep loneliness, and struggles with addictions and strained relationships, Mullins remained a strongly committed Christian who often spoke boldly and prophetically about the wrong-headedness of the “prosperity” and feel good Gospel message that was so rampant in Evangelical circles in the 80s and 90s. Mullins made millions, and yet, only accepted an annual salary that was determined to be the average salary of an American worker. The rest of the money went to charities and churches. After becoming hugely successful, he went back to school for a music education degree and worked as a music educator with children on a Native American reservation.
    The movie references Mullins relationship with Brennan Manning, a contemplative-activist who had his own life long struggle with alcoholism, which led to his writing of the Raggamuffin Gospel, a book published in 1990 that had the simple message that God’s grace is not dependent upon performance. The book brought God’s mercy to a central location in the Christian message, something that scandalized many people at the time, but proved a source of liberation to many others.
    Mullins was so inspired by Manning that he formed a new band – The Raggamuffin Band – that provided revival-type concerts centered on music dealing with the real interface between everyday human struggles and religion. Mullins’ constant message of religious authenticity, God’s mercy and unconditional love and forgiveness, and the Christian obligation to serve the poor, was an early example of the return of a “social gospel stream” in the evangelical movement that has emerged in the past two decades in modern Evangelicals, particularly the young.
  • Noëlle, is a 2007 movie that was released for the Christmas season. It explores in a fascinating way the role guilt manifests itself in human lives, and the challenge a person has in finding a path to redemption. In the film, a hard-hearted priest, Jonathan Keene arrives in a small fishing village in Cape Cod. His task is to decide whether the small church in the community should be closed due to its dwindling and aging attendance, and the young pastor who has a drinking problem that is on full view to the community. As Keane becomes involved in the lives of the people in the village, his guilt for a decision he made as a young man surfaces in an uncontrollable way. The guilt manifests itself in his recurring vision of a young girl, who appears to him with a look of sadness and longing. The movie moves slowly, but is a unique look at the role guilt plays in redemptive actions and choices, a topic rarely explored in modern film.
  • The 100-Foot Journey is a modern-day fable invites viewers into a meditation on the longest journey any of us ever take – crossing from our world into the world of others. Produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, there is a feel-good quality to the film that can overshadow the very complex issues underlying the narrative. The movie is based on the international best-selling fictional book by Richard Morais, which is based on the middle-aged reflections of an Indian immigrant cook who rose to the top of French haut cuisine, becoming one of the most celebrated chefs in France. The movie follows the book fairly closely: a noisy and close Indian family, running a popular restaurant in Mumbai, is driven from their home because of civil unrest and searches Europe for a place to settle and begin their lives anew. Based more on the father’s intuition (if not superstition) they buy an empty building in a rural area of France that just happens to be located across the street from a highly decorated French restaurant that is run by a haughty and somewhat bigoted Frenchwomen, Madame Mallory, played exquisitely by Helen Mirren. As the Indian family launches their own restaurant 100 feet from Madame Mallory’s famous restaurant, competition, misunderstanding, humor and personal transformation all occur in the collision of cultures, personalities, cuisines, ethnicities and values. The 100-foot journey is a metaphor for the ways in which globalization is forcing the human race to learn how to reach across the divisions that separate us – from the food we like to the way we envision the world.
  • Transcendence is a mind-bending film about the possible outcome of an artificial intelligence (AI) achieving human-like consciousness. Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), a brilliant AI researcher on the verge of death, has his “mind” uploaded into a program and supercomputer by his loving wife (Rebecca Hall) and friend (Paul Bettany), resulting in the apparent creation of a human consciousness operating within a virtual world. Caster, (or is it just something resembling Caster?), has an unlimited ability to assimilate information and reason about it, and sets in motion the building of a new kind of society and world. The film surfaces a host of theological and philosophical issues, and is an excellent meditation on the issues associated with the interface of technology and transcendence. What constitutes the unique capacities that make us human? Could such capacities go digital, and if so, what would happen to our ability to make ethical decisions? Can a computer transcend its hardware and software and have a “soul,” as we have traditionally defined this unique dimension of the human person? Would such a computer supported “soul” exist in reality, which might support the thesis that our humanity is nothing more than electrical impulses and chemical reactions, or would such a computerized soul only create the illusion of its human counterpart? If a computerized soul did exist in reality, however, would this “soul” differ qualitatively from the primary descriptors of the core of our own humanness? Lastly, can love and idealism survive in such a digital environment, and if so, how might it manifest itself? If you give yourself over to the theological and philosophical implications of the narrative, this movie is a mind-bender.
  • St. Vincent is an unpredictable story of a crude, self-absorbed, gambling, boozy, and politically incorrect neighbor (Bill Murray) who agrees to babysit the son of a next-door neighbor (Melissa McCarthy) who is going through a nasty divorce from her two-timing husband. McCarthy’s son is a precocious and almost annoyingly polite child, who is adjusting to a new home and a new school, and a growing awareness that his young life is not in neatly folded corners. Murray’s character, Vincent, is a decorated war hero with an institutionalized wife. He has an intimate relationship with an equally crude Russian stripper, prostitute girlfriend (Naomi Watts). Yet, he finds himself a role model for an impressionable young boy going through a difficult life transition. To a young boy in a religious elementary school, who has been given an assignment to tell the story of a modern day saint, the hideously flawed Vincent seems like something more than a slovenly, burn-out, degenerate. The story explores in very subtle ways the nature of love and caring, and the influences that shape a child’s understanding of a messy, imperfect world. A major message of the film is that human goodness and kindness, and the virtue of fidelity are sometimes found in the most unlikely people and places.
  • The Good Lie. I saw this movie on a long plane ride, a tale of four Sudanese refugee siblings trying to adjust to American culture after a hideously traumatic childhood and adolescence, which included the genocidal murder of their parents and a decade in a refugee camp. Great cross-cultural humor mixed with profound demonstrations of the way character and spiritual grounding can empower the human spirit to rise above virtually any challenge.

Here are some books I’ve read or re-read for both work and pleasure:

  • M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy
  • Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder
  • Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
  • JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit (My son-in-law is a Tolkien fanatic and a quarter of the time I miss or barely catch the meaning of his allusions in conversation. This is the first time I’ve read The Hobbit since I was in high school and I forgot what a captivating and multi-layered work it is.)
  • Stephen Nachmanovitch, Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art (This is one of the most popular required texts in jazz schools throughout the U.S. Nachmanovitch integrates many spiritual traditions into the neuroscience of play and practice and the spiritual traditions of east and west. A great text for anyone who would like to understand why jazz musicians–and other artists–often like to explain what they do as an exercise in “spirituality”)
  • Heather Hendershot, Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture (The conservative evangelical movement has had a remarkable sophistication with the use of technology, which is ironic since the movement often has been highly resistant to modernity and post-modernity. Hendershot gives a good, non-judgmental evaluation of the meaning systems this part of Christianity has created through its engagement of culture)
  • Gerald R. McDermott, One Holy and Happy Society: The Public Theology of Jonathan Edwards (One of the most famous and arguably impactful public theologians in the United States is Edwards. Despite the common error in reducing this important thinker to his most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” this text is a good companion to a much more detailed analysis of Edwards and his very nuanced thought found in George Marsden’s, Jonathan Edwards: A Life)

What I’ve been Listening to:

  • Pharoah Sanders, “Journey to the One.” These are some classic tracks from one of the most famous saxophone players in the world. Sanders mixes very mellow soft improvisation with grittier bebop sounds. While part of a theological education research consultation with Auburn Seminary, our group had the great opportunity to see 74-year-old Sanders perform at Dizzy’s Club at the Lincoln Jazz Center in New York City, one of the most famous jazz clubs in the U.S.
  • Jesse Cook: “The Blue Guitar Sessions.” A famous Canadian jazz/rock/pop guitarist with Latin influences. The album was a Christmas gift from my daughter and son-in-law, along with a print of Pablo Picasso’s famous painting, The Old Guitarist, one of my favorite paintings. I also received an original copy of Wallace Stevens’, The Man with the Blue Guitar.
  • Two talks I found interesting on the most significant popes impacting the shape of 21st century Catholicism are Francis of Rome and Francis of Assisi: A New Springtime for the Church by Leonardo Boff, and The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II — The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy by George Weigel.

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