Friday, December 25, 2015

The Christmas Story According to Luke

It happened in those days that a proclamation went out from President Augustus that every citizen must register. This was the first registration while Quirinius was Secretary of War. So everybody went to register, each going to his own hometown. Joseph too went up from south Georgia from the city of Valdosta, to his home in north Georgia, a place named Gainesville, to register with his bride Mary, who by now was heavily pregnant. While they were there, her time came, and she gave birth to her first boy. She wrapped him in a blanket and laid him in an apple box. (There was no room for them at the hospital.)

Now there were some farmers in that section who were up late at night tending their baby chicks. And a messenger from the Lord appeared to them, and evidence of the Lord was shining all about them. It nearly scared the life out of them. And the messenger said to them, "Don't be afraid; for listen, I'm bringing you good news of a great joy in which all people will share. Today your deliverer was born in the city of David's family. He is the Leader. He is the Lord. And here's a clue for you: you will find the baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in an apple box." And all of a sudden there was with the messenger a crowd of angels singing God's praises and saying,
"Glory in the highest to God, And on Earth, peace to mankind, The object of his favor."
When the messengers went away from them into the sky, the farmers said to one another, "Let's go to Gainesville and see how all this the Lord has showed us has turned out." So they went just as fast as they could, and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in an apple box. Seeing this, they related the story of what had been told them about this little fellow. The people were simply amazed as they listened to what the farmers told them. And Mary clung to all these words, turning them over and over in her memories. The farmers went back home, giving God the credit and singing his praises for all they had seen and heard, exactly as it had been described to them.

And when the day came for him to be christened, they named him Jesus, as he was called by the angel before he was conceived.

 -- Luke 2:1-21, The Cotton Patch Gospels (translated by Clarence Jordan)

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Wideness of God's Kingdom

Looking around the sanctuary during tonight's Christmas Eve service, everyone was there: old and young, rich and poor, unlettered and cultured, gay and straight, infirm and healthy (there might've even been Dodger and Seahawks fans there). And in the midst of singing classic Christmas hymns, I couldn't help think that I was catching a glimpse of God's Kingdom ("A Glimpse of God's Kingdom").

Saturday, December 19, 2015

A Few Thoughts on Christmas and the Christian Life

Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before! What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store. What if Christmas... perhaps... means a little bit more!

One can never have enough socks. Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn't get a single pair. People will insist on giving me books.

In the old days, it was not called the Holiday Season; the Christians called it 'Christmas' and went to church; the Jews called it 'Hanukkah' and went to synagogue; the atheists went to parties and drank. People passing each other on the street would say 'Merry Christmas!' or 'Happy Hanukkah!' or (to the atheists) 'Look out for the wall!

I once heard a Protestant clergywoman say to an ecumenical assembly, "We all know there was no Virgin Birth. Mary was just an unwed, pregnant teenager, and God told her it was okay. That's the message we need to give girls today, that God loves them, and forget all this nonsense about a Virgin Birth." A gasp went up; people shook their heads. This was the first (and only) gratuitously offensive remark made at a convention marked by great theological diversity. When it came, I happened to be sitting some Russian Orthodox, who were offended theologically, and black Baptists, whose sense of theological affront was mixed with social concern. They were not at all pleased to hear a well-educated, middle-class white woman say that what we need to tell pregnant teenagers is, "It's okay."

I realized that my own anger at the woman's arrogance had deep personal roots. I was taken back to my teenage years, when the "demythologizing" of Christianity that I had encountered in a misguided study of modern theology had led me to conclude that there was little in the religion for me... Now, more than thirty years later, I sat in a room full of Christians and thought, My God, they're still at it, still trying to leach every bit of mystery out of this religion, still substituting the most trite language imaginable. You're okay, the boy you screwed when you were both too drunk too stand is okay, all God chooses to say about it is, it's okay.

The job of any preacher, it seems to me, is not to dismiss the Annunciation because it doesn't appeal to modern prejudices but to remind congregations why it might still be an important story.

[The] genius of God [is] to dwell where we would least likely to look... within the depths of our own being, our own shallowness, our own darkness, our own humanity. That’s the genius of God.

How many observe Christ's birthday! How few, His precepts.

It is not enough to limit your love to your own nation, to your own group. You must respond with love even to those outside of it.... This concept enables people to live together not as nations, but as the human race.

America is in the powerful and perilous position of being the Empire of our day... The stories of the first Christmas are pervasively anti-imperial. In our setting, what does it mean to affirm with the Christmas stories that Jesus is the Son of God (and the emperor is not), that Jesus is the savior of the world (and the emperor is not), that Jesus is Lord (and the emperor is not), that Jesus is the way to peace on earth (and the emperor is not).

Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the unwanted, care for the ill, love your enemies, and do unto others as you would have done unto you. 

If you want to know if somebody is Christian, just ask them to complete this sentence: Jesus said, 'I was hungry, you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you...' And if they don't say, 'welcomed me in,' they are either a terrorist, or they are running for president.

Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn't think so. People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they're cattle. Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you'll ever be.

Where refugees seek deliverance that never comes
And the heart consumes itself as if it would live,
Where children age before their time
And life wears down the edges of the mind,
Where the old man sits with mind grown cold,
While bones and sinew, blood and cell, go slowly down to death,
Where fear companions each day's life,
And Perfect Love seems long delayed.

Christmas is waiting to be born:
In you, in me, in all mankind.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

Monday, December 14, 2015

A Glimpse of the Kingdom

Last year ("Tis the Season") I confessed that I am one of those who doesn't mind the "commercialization of Christmas." I love the Christmas season. I love watching Christmas movies, listening to Christmas carols, and walking through bedecked malls full of kids climbing onto the laps of Santas. Reflecting on the fact that I'm clearly not alone in this, I argued that I think the Christmas season's popularity lies in the fact that it evokes a desire to be better people and live in a better world, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Nevertheless, the season's rampant consumerism is in need of a corrective, and that's where the Church comes in (or at least should come in). As the pastor of our church noted a couple of weeks ago, one of the Church's role, if not its key role, during the Christmas season is to offer people a glimpse of God's coming kingdom, a "place" where all are invited, the hungry are fed, the oppressed are set free, and peacemakers are called children of God. No easy task, to be sure. But one very much in need.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The 12 Days of Christmas Don't Start Tomorrow

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the 12 Days of Christmas are not the 12 days before Christmas but the 12 days after, running from December 25th to January 5th (although in some traditions the twelve days run from December 26th to January 6th). It culminates with Epiphany, which commemorates when the Wise Men present gifts to the young Jesus, who may have been as old as two years old at the time (the Bible's unclear how long it takes them to track Jesus down). Some households celebrate Christmastide by giving gifts on all of the 12 days, but this is more the exception than the rule.

Of course, when most people think of "The 12 Days of Christmas,"they think of the song. The song's origin is unclear, but one story that has little historical support but is still fun to consider is that it originated as a Catholic "Catechism Song" in England during a time when Catholicism was "discouraged" (1558-1829). According to this tradition,
  • The "true love" in the song refers to God, while the "me" refers to those who receive the gifts mentioned in the song from God
  • The "partridge in a pear tree" refers to Jesus Christ whose death on a tree (i.e., the cross) was a gift from God
  • The "two turtle doves" refer to the Old and New Testaments - another gift from God
  • The "three French hens" refer to "faith," "hope" and "love" three gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 13)
  • The "four calling birds" refer to the four Gospels, which sing "the song of salvation through Jesus Christ" 
  • The "five golden rings" refer to the first five books of the Old Testament, also known as the Torah. 
  • The "six geese a-laying" refer to the six days of creation
  • The "seven swans a swimming" refer to the "seven gifts of the Holy Spirit." (1 Corinthians 12:8-11) 
  • The "eight maids a milking" refer to the eight beatitudes
  • The "nine ladies dancing" refer to the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) 
  • The "ten lords a-leaping" refer to the Ten Commandments
  • The "eleven pipers piping" refer to the eleven faithful disciples
  • The "twelve drummers drumming" refer to the twelve points of the Apostles' Creed
For a more scholarly (but almost certainly less entertaining) take on the song's origins see its Wikipedia article.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Who is Our Neighbor?

Clarence Jordan was a farmer and New Testament scholar, who in 1942 co-founded Koinonia Farm, an intentional religious community located in southwest Georgia that practiced racial integration in a time when it was highly unpopular to do so and played an instrumental role in the founding of Habitat for Humanity. When the Civil Rights movement gained steam in the 1950s and 60s, Koinonia was repeatedly harassed by locals by means of boycotts, bombings, and drive-by shootings.

Jordan was also well known for his books, the Cotton Patch Gospels, in which the Gospel stories are set in the deep South. For a time they became quite popular (they're still in print) and were later turned into a musical for which Harry Chapin wrote the music and lyrics. As an example, consider the Cotton Patch version of The Annunciation (Luke 1:26-29):
During the sixth month of her pregnancy the messenger Gabriel wa sent from God to a city in Georgia by the name of Valdosta, to a young lady named Mary. She was engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, from one of the old-line families. The messenger went in to her and said, "Hello, you blessed one. THE LORD IS WITH YOU!" She was nearly bowled over by this, and wondered what to make of such a greeting.
Or again, consider the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37):
[The teacher of the adult Bible class asked Jesus] "Just who is my neighbor?" 
Then Jesus laid into him and said, "A man was going from Atlanta to Albany and some gangsters held him up. When they had robbed him of his wallet and brand-new suit, they beat him up and drove off in his car, leaving him unconscious on the shoulder of the highway. Now it just so happened that a white preacher was going down that same highway. When he was the fellow, he stepped on the gas and went scooting by. Shortly afterwards a white Gospel song leader came down the road, and when he saw what had happened, he too stepped on the gas. Then a black man traveling that way came upon the fellow and what he saw moved him to tears. He stopped and bound up his wounds as best he could, drew some water from his water-jug to wipe away the blood and then laid him on the back seat. He drove on into Albany and took him to the hospital and said to the nurse, 'You all take good care of this white man I found on the highway. Here's the only two dollars I got, but you all keep account of what he owes, and if he can't pay it, I'll settle up with you when I make a pay-day.' 
"Now if you had been the man held up by the gangsters, which of these three--the white preacher, the white song leader, or the black man--would you consider to have been your neighbor?" 
The teacher of the adult Bible class said, "Why, of course, the nig--I mean, er...well, er... the one who treated me kindly." 
Jesus said, "Well, then, you get going and start living like that"
The Rev. Lance Allen, an acquaintance of mine from high school and currently pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Santa Ana, California, recently channeled Clarence Jordan in composing a contemporary paraphrase of the Good Samaritan:
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from New York to Washington D.C., when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A minister happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a rabbi, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Muslim, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man in his own car, brought him to a hospital and took care of him. The next day he took out his wallet and paid the hospital bill. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ 
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
Amen and amen.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

15 Great Holiday (Holy Day) Movies

1. A Charlie Brown Christmas (Charles Schultz)

This year is the 50th anniversary since "A Charlie Brown Christmas" first appeared on TV. I think it's the best of the Charlie Brown movies (although "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" is a close second). It's one of the few Christmas movies that actually refers to the biblical story. After Charlie Brown asks, "Can anyone tell me what Christmas is all about?", Linus quotes Luke 2:8-14:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.'"
Then Linus concludes, "... and that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown." Yes, that is what Christmas is all about (Note how he lets go of his blanket as he says, "Fear not!" -- Thanks to Walter Taylor for pointing that out).

2. A Christmas Carol (George C. Scott, David Warner, Susannah York, Roger Rees)

There are several great versions of Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," but this is my favorite. When George C. Scott's Ebenezer Scrooge yells, "Mr. Cratchit!", there's little doubt that he holds poor Bob in contempt. Plus, Scott is (was) such a great actor. That said, several other versions are worth considering, such as the one starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge ("A Christmas Carol"). When I was kid, I was especially taken with "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol." An alternative is listening to Jonathan Winters's reading of Dickens's book, which is also quite good.

3. A Christmas Story (Peter Billingsley, Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon)

Adapted from a memoir by Jean Shepherd (who narrates the film), the movie is primarily about Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley), a young boy living in Indiana in the 1940s who desperately wants a Red Rider BB gun for Christmas and tries to convince his parents, teachers, and Santa that it's the perfect gift for him, while they counter that he'll shoot his eye out. In 2012, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." It isn't one of my favorites, but I'm clearly in a minority on this. Hence, it's inclusion on the list.

4. Christmas with the Kranks (Tim Allen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Dan Akroyd)

It's too bad that the movie's producers didn't keep the title of John Grisham's book on which the movie is based: "Skipping Christmas" (see picture at right). I think the movie's title leads people to expect one kind of movie when in fact it's something quite different. It tells the story of a couple (Luther and Nora Krank) who, because their daughter (Blair) is going to be Peru for Christmas, working for the Peace Corps, decide to skip Christmas (i.e., don't buy a Christmas tree, hold their annual Christmas party, decorate their house, etc.), and use the money they save to go on a cruise. Their decision to skip Christmas doesn't sit well their neighbors (especially Dan Akroyd), who pressure them to get into the holiday spirit. A battle, of sorts, plays out between the Kranks and their neighbors. Then Luther and Nora get a call from Blair and learn that she's coming home for Christmas after all, and they now have less than 24 hours to prepare for their annual party. How the neighborhood comes together to pull this off and what Luther does with their cruise tickets speaks volumes about the true meaning of Christmas.

5. Die Hard (Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson)

OK. Not your traditional Christmas movie, but it takes place on Christmas Eve, is a battle between good and evil, and includes some traditional (and not so traditional) Christmas songs. It stars Bruce Willis (when he still had hair) as NY police detective John McClane, who flies to LA to reconcile with his wife. He meets her at her company's Christmas party, but while he's changing clothes in the men's room, the party's taken over by a terrorist group (headed by Hans Gruber -- played by Alan Rickman, who a few years later played Severus Snape in the Harry Potter movies), which holds them hostage, all except for McClane, who sneaks away before they know he's there. The rest of the movie is the battle between McClane (good) and Gruber (evil) and includes a lot of classic lines ("Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs..." -- see picture above).

6. Elf (Will Ferrell, Bob Newhart, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel)

This movie is too fun. Will Ferrell is great as someone (Buddy) who thinks he's one of Santa's elves but is actually a human being who, through a twist of fate, was adopted by an elf (Bob Newhart) when just a baby. Unfortunately, he's not a very good at elf things (e.g., making toys), and once he learns that he's not an elf, he heads to New York where his biological father (James Caan) lives. There he falls in love with Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), helps NY recapture the Christmas spirit, and has a heck of a lot of fun along the way (well, most of the time). The movie is also educational. We learn, for instance, that the four main elvish food groups are candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup. There's also allusions to other Christmas classics like "Rudolph, the Red Nose Reindeer" and "Miracle on 34th Street" (see #12 and #13 below).

7. The Family Man (Nicholas Cage, Tea Leoni, Don Cheadle)

One of my favorites. It's is a cross between "It's a Wonderful Life" and "A Christmas Carol." It tells the story of Jack Campbell (JC = Jesus Christ?; his boss/advisor is named Peter), played by Nicholas Cage, who chooses to spend the year after graduating from college in London as an investment banker rather remaining in New York with his girl friend (Tea Leoni). Not surprisingly, the relationship doesn't last, and when the movie begins (13 years later), he's a very successful investment banker who loves money and fine things, but cares little for women or family. However, when he wakes up one Christmas morning, he's living the life he would've lived if he hadn't gone to London. He's married (to Tea Leoni), has two kids, and works as a car tire salesman (for his wife's father - Big Ed). Although he initially despises this life, he eventually comes to love it more than the one in which he drove fast cars, wore designer suits, and had his pick of women. The movie's climax occurs after he wakes up back in his old life, tracks down his old girlfriend, and tries to convince her not to leave New York to take a job in Paris.

8. The Holiday (Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Jack Black, Eli Wallach)

This movie tells the story of two women (Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet) who, suffering from guy-problems, swap homes with each other (they don't know on another -- they "meet" through an on-line home exchange website) where they each meet someone and fall in love. Diaz's character (Amanda) lives in LA, is a producer of movie trailers, and breaks up with her boy friend after she discovers that he's cheated on her. Winslet (Iris) is a journalist working in London, who's in love with someone who wants to keep her around but doesn't want to commit. When she learns that he's engaged to another journalist, she becomes suicidal, but luckily chooses to spend the holidays in LA instead. A side story concerns elderly gentleman (Eli Wallach--the "ugly" from "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"), who lives near Amanda and whom Iris befriends. It turns out that Wallach is a widowed and retired screen writer whom the screen writer's guild wants to honor. He doesn't want to attend, but Iris talks him into it. Personally, I think Wallach should have won a best supporting actor for his role. A pleasant surprise about the movie is that shows that Jack Black can actually act. It's too bad he doesn't get more parts like this. Also, Iris's cottage (see above) is featured in the final episode of "Burn Notice."

9. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Boris Karloff)

One of the best holiday movies ever (the animated version, that is, not the one that Opie Taylor directed several years later). In it the Grinch, a cave-dwelling creature with a heart "two sizes too small," lives on Mount Crumpit, a steep mountain above Whoville, home of the Whos. His only companion is his faithful dog, Max. Every year from his perch atop Mount Crumpit, the Grinch hears the "clangy" noisy Christmas festivities that take place in Whoville. Annoyed and unable to understand why the Whos are so happy, he sneaks into town on Christmas Eve and takes all of their Christmas presents, decorations, and food in order to prevent Christmas from coming. However, when Christmas morning arrives, the Whos still celebrate Christmas even though all their presents and decorations have been stolen. Realizing that Christmas is more than gifts and presents, the Grinch's heart grows three times in size, and he returns all the presents and trimmings and joins the Whos for the Christmas feast.

10. It's a Wonderful Life (Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Henry Travers, Lionel Barrymore)

I'm not sure how much I need to say about this movie since it is so well known. Briefly, it stars Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, a man who has repeatedly given up his dreams in order to help the dreams of others, and whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve (because of a financial disaster not of his own doing) brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers), who has yet to earn his wings (he's an angel second class). However, by showing what the world would have been like if George had never been born, Clarence keeps George from committing suicide (and thereby earning his wings). George sees that his life hasn't been a waste but has in fact touched (and improved) the lives of almost all those around him in Bedford Falls. He is, as his younger brother Harry puts it, "The richest man in town." Although the movie opened to mixed reviews, it has become a perennial Christmas classic that captures the true meaning of Christmas. There is a scene at the railroad station when George Bailey learns that his younger brother is not going to take over the family business so that George can go to college. For about 5 seconds, Stewart says nothing; his (i.e., George's) disappointment and frustration only shows in his facial expressions. It's a wonderful example of why Jimmy Stewart is one of the greatest actors of all time. For more on the movie, see the following post ("It's a Wonderful Life").

11. Love Actually (Numerous)

Love Actually is a 2003 British Christmas-themed romantic comedy explores different aspects of love through several separate stories involving a wide variety of individuals. As the movie progresses, we learn that many of these individuals are linked together. The movie begins five weeks before Christmas and is played out in a weekly countdown to Christmas, followed by an epilogue that takes place a month later. The movie includes a bevy of British stars, including Rowan Atkinson, Colin Firth, Martin Freeman, Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley, Laura Linney, Martine McCutcheon, Liam Neeson, Bill Nighy, Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, and Alan Rickman.

12. Miracle on 34th Street (Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Natalie Wood)

Although the 1994 remake of this movie, starring Sir Richard Attenborough (as Santa Claus), Dylan McDermott, and Elizabeth Perkins, is decent, it doesn't come close to the original with Maureen O'Hara and a very young Natalie Wood. The story takes place between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day and focuses on the impact of the Santa Claus hired to work at the Macy's on 34th St. in NY City, who claims to be the real Santa and acts accordingly. For example, he some times he ignores instructions to steer parents to goods that Macy's sells like the time he directs one shopper to another store for a toy fire engine that Macy's doesn't have in stock. And he tells another mother that Macy's rival Gimbels has better skates for her daughter. The film won Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Edmund Gwenn), Best Writing, Original Story (Valentine Davies) and Best Writing, Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Picture but lost to Gentleman's Agreement (how many folks watch that movie any more? I haven't even heard of it!).

13. Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer (Burl Ives)

When I was a kid, I couldn't wait for this to come on TV. I only got to see it once a year, and it was a big deal when it came on. Not just for me, but for most of my friends. Now, of course, you can get it (and virtually any other Christmas movie) on DVD or Blue Ray, or download it from iTunes or Amazon, so it (and other Christmas movies) has lost its "specialness." Nevertheless, I still love watching this retelling of the original Robert L. May story ("Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer"), in which Rudolph's rejection by his peers (for his shiny nose) leads him to run away from home with by a similarly-outcast elf (Hermey) whose dreams of becoming a dentist. These two eventually join up with a prospector named Yukon Cornelius, and after a battle with the Abominable Snowman, they return home to the North Pole just in time for Rudolph to lead Santa's sleigh through a terrible snow storm, thus keeping Christmas from being cancelled.

14. The Santa Clause (Tim Allen, Judge Reinhold, Eric Lloyd, David Krumholtz)

Tim Allen stars as Scott Calvin, a cynical, divorced, advertising executive for a toy company, who accidentally causes a guy dressed like Santa Claus to fall to his death from his roof on Christmas Eve. Scott and his son Charlie (who is spending Christmas Eve with Scott) discover a sleigh with eight reindeer on the roof, and they conclude that the man must have been Santa Claus. They also find a card in the Santa's suit, instructing that if something should happen to him, that whoever finds the clothes, should put them on and get in the sleigh. Charlie convinces Scott to follow these instructions, and the reindeer take Scott to children's houses around the world to finish Santa's deliveries. After fthis, the sleigh takes them to the North Pole where they learn that Scott is the new Santa (because of the clause in the instruction card they found -- that is, the "Santa Clause") and convince his former wife that he's the new Kris Kringle.

15. White Christmas (Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen)

What more can you say about this one? It's got Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas" (not once, but twice); it has Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen dancing (several times); it has George Clooney's aunt singing and dancing; and it tells a nice, heart-warming story that some may think is a bit corny. But, to paraphrase Kate Winslet's character in The Holiday (see above), sometimes corny is just what the doctor ordered. The song, "Count Your Blessings" (written by Irving Berlin), was nominated for an Oscar (White Christmas won the Oscar 12 years before for the movie, Holiday Inn), but my favorite (aside from White Christmas) is Snow, sung by Crosby, Kaye, Clooney, and Vera-Ellen on the train from Miami to Vermont (pictured above).

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Has Trump Finally Crossed the Line? (We Can Only Hope)

Throughout his campaign for the Republican nomination, Donald Trump has repeatedly pushed the boundaries in terms of outrageous statements, from calling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, to declaring that John McCain is not a war hero, and that Fox's Megyn Kelly might be menstruating. And many political conservatives have been appalled at his rhetoric. For instance, when several GOP presidential candidates "tried to outbid each other in being tough on Syrian refugees," Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer noted that "this descent into xenophobia was led, as usual, by Donald Trump" ("The Syrian immigration cul-de-sac"). And Krauthammer's conservative partner in crime, George Will, recently referred to one of Trump's speeches as "coarse, vulgar and nasty" ("After Paris, we should look to Chris Christie")

Unfortunately, many in the GOP have remained far too silent concerning Trump's inflammatory rhetoric and policy positions. We can only hope that when Trump stated that the U.S. should ban Muslims from entering the United States, he finally crossed a line that will bring most political conservatives out of the woodwork. Early evidence suggests that it has. Here is a sampling of reaction from prominent Republicans to Trump's plan to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. (in alphabetical order -- hopefully):

Donald Trump is unhinged. His "policy" proposals are not serious.
-- Jeb Bush

I think this whole notion that somehow we can just say no more Muslims, just ban a whole religion, goes against everything we stand for and believe in. I mean, religious freedom has been a very important part of our history and where we came from.
-- Dick Cheney

This is the kind of thing that people say when they have no experience and don't know what they're talking about. We do not need to endorse that type of activity, nor should we.
-- Chris Christie

That does not reflect serious thought. Just when you think he can’t stoop lower, he does.
-- Jeff Flake, GOP Senator, AZ

@Realdonaldtrump has gone from making absurd comments to being downright dangerous with his bombastic rhetoric. He’s putting at risk the lives of interpreters, American supporters, diplomats, & the troops in the region by making these bigoted comments. Every candidate for president needs to do the right thing & condemn @Realdonaldtrump's statement.
-- Lindsey Graham

There are going to be newspapers throughout the world that are going to read 'Republican front-runner doesn't want Muslims to visit America.' It will make it easier for Democrats to portray the GOP as hostile to any minority. Ultimately, I think Donald Trump is the best asset Hillary Clinton has.
-- Doug Heye, GOP strategist and former adviser to the Iowa Republican Party

-- Jennifer Horn, Chair, New Hampshire GOP

This is just more of the outrageous divisiveness that characterizes his every breath and another reason why he is entirely unsuited to lead the United States.
-- John Kasich

It's just foolishness. It's been a long series of statements like this that have been just foolish.
-- John McCain

As a conservative who truly cares about religious liberty, Donald Trump’s bad idea and rhetoric sends a shiver down my spine. American exceptionalism means always defending our inalienable rights, not attacking them when it’s politically convenient.
-- Matt Moore, Chair, South Carolina GOP

Anyone who cares an iota about religious liberty will denounce the reckless, demogogic [sic] @realDonaldTrump plan for Muslims.
-- Russell Moore, Evangelical leader

We need to aggressively take on radical Islamic terrorism but not at the expense of our American values.
-- Reince Priebus, Republican National Committee Chairman

I disagree with Donald Trump's latest proposal. His habit of making offensive and outlandish statements will not bring Americans together.
-- Marco Rubio

This is not conservatism. What was proposed yesterday is not what this party stands for. And more importantly it’s not what this country stands for.
-- Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House of Representatives

Somebody needs come up and remind them what this nation is and what we're about and how we dream, the way we were founded, and what our Constitution is. He's not representing any of that. He's representing the worst, darkest part of all that is America.
-- Shephard Smith, Fox News commentator

Note: Although most Democrats are praying that he doesn't win the nomination, I'm fairly certain the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, is hoping he does because Trump's negative favorability rating is so high for the population as a whole (an SNL skit this past weekend also suggested as much). I suppose an even more attractive scenario for Democrats is that Trump doesn't win the nomination, blames the Republican establishment, and then runs as an independent.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Have a Happy, Happy, Happy, Happy Chanukah!

Chanukah began yesterday. As many of you know, it commemorates the rededication of the Jewish (Second) Temple in Jerusalem during the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire. It's observed for eight nights and days, starting on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, which can occur at any time from late November to late December. It's popularity (at least in secular culture) has grown considerably in recent years, but its origins and traditions remain obscure for most.

To help in this regard, a recent Research on Religion podcast ("Elie Estrin on the History and Traditions of Chanukah") interviews Rabbi Elie Estrie, director of the University of Washington’s Chabad and chaplain with the 627th Air Base Group at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, about Chanukah's history and tradition. Here's a brief summary of the podcast (from the Research on Religion website):
With Chanukah season upon us, we invite Rabbi Elie Estrin, director of the University of Washington’s Chabad, to explain the history, meaning, and traditions of the holiday. We cover recent archaeological discoveries in Israel, different ways Chanukah has been celebrated over time, and what it is like celebrating Jewish holidays in a predominately Christian nation. For those not familiar with Chanukah, this is a wonderful introduction and Rabbi Estrin also connects it to the importance of religious liberty in our contemporary world.
You can listen to the podcast at the Research on Religion website ("Elie Estrin on the History and Traditions of Chanukah") or download it from iTunes. Of course, I can't leave this post without a nod to Adam Sandler's, "The Chanukah Song."

Have a Happy, Happy, Happy, Happy Chanukah!

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Taking Knives to a Gun Fight

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, some (including several of our presidential candidates) are arguing that if more people were allowed to carry concealed weapons, they'd be able to fight back and thus reduce the possibility (or perhaps the lethality) of terrorist attacks.

But, do they really think terrorists are that stupid? Study after study has found that the average terrorist (not just the leaders) tends to be well educated, to have come from a middle class background, and to have attended a secular, rather than a religious, school as a child ("The Root Causes of Terrorism"). Thus, if they to attack a venue where they believe people are carrying concealed weapons, they won't bring semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15s (see picture above) used in the San Bernardino shooting. That'd be like bring knives to a gun fight. Instead, they'll come with suicide vests (or similar devices) that they'll trigger before anyone's the wiser.

Friday, December 4, 2015

101 of the Best Holiday Songs

If a singer's career lasts long enough, they will almost certainly cut a Christmas album. Even Neil Diamond has (he's released three), and he's Jewish! I grant that the continuous playing of Christmas songs (and movies) can be a bit much this time of year, but one again I am caught up in the spirit of the season ("'Tis the Season") and listening to the songs the season has to offer. In keeping with that spirit, below are some of my favorite versions of 101 holiday songs. There are a few changes from last year, and like last year, they include links to iTunes Preview, which contains a link to iTunes, so you can listen to (or at least preview) the songs. They (hopefully) appear in alphabetical order:
  1. Adestes Fideles - Frank Sinatra
  2. All I Want for Christmas Is You - Mariah Carey
  3. Almost There - Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant
  4. Angels We Have Heard on High -- Glee Cast
  5. Auld Lang Syne - Colbie Caillat
  6. Ave Maria - The Carpenters
  7. Away in a Manger/Child in a Manger - Michael W. Smith
  8. Baby, It's Cold Outside - Dean Martin
  9. Believe - Josh Groban
  10. Blue Christmas - Elvis Presley
  11. Breath of Christmas - Amy Grant
  12. Carol of the Bells - The Carpenters
  13. Carols Sing - Michael W. Smith
  14. Celebrate Me Home - Kenny Loggins
  15. The Chanukah Song - Adam Sandler
  16. Christ is Born - The Carpenters
  17. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) - U2
  18. Christmas Can't Be Very Far Away - Amy Grant
  19. Christmas Canon - Trans-Siberian Orchestra
  20. Christmas Hymn - Amy Grant
  21. Christmas in Your Arms - Alabama
  22. Christmas in Heaven - Scotty McCreery
  23. Christmas is Coming - Vince Guaraldi Trio
  24. Christmas Island - Jimmy Buffett
  25. The Christmas Shoes - NewSong
  26. The Christmas Song - Nat King Cole
  27. Christmas Time is Here - Vince Guaraldi Trio
  28. Christmas Waltz - Michael W. Smith
  29. Christmas Was Meant for Children - Sandi Patti
  30. Christmastime - Michael W. Smith
  31. Cold December Night - Michael Bublé
  32. Deck the Rooftop - Glee Cast
  33. Do You Hear What I Hear? - Whitney Houston
  34. Do They Know It's Christmas - Glee Cast
  35. Emmanuel, God With Us - Amy Grant
  36. Extraordinary Merry Christmas - Glee Cast
  37. Feliz Navidad - José Feliciano
  38. The First Noel - Josh Groban & Faith Hill
  39. Frosty the Snowman - Jimmy Durante
  40. Go Tell It On The Mountain - James Taylor
  41. God is With Us - Casting Crowns
  42. Going Home For Christmas - Phil Coulter
  43. Good King Wenceslas - The Piano Guys
  44. Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer - Elmo & Patsy
  45. Greensleeves - Vince Guaraldi Trio
  46. Grown Up Christmas List - Amy Grant
  47. The Happiest Christmas - Michael W. Smith
  48. Happy Xmas (The War is Over) - John Lennon
  49. Hark the Herald Angels Sing - Diamond Rio
  50. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas - Vonda Shepard
  51. Hey Santa - Carnie and Wendy Wilson
  52. High Plains (Christmas on the High-Line) - Philip Aaberg
  53. This Holiday Night - Margo Rey
  54. Holly Jolly Christmas - Burl Ives
  55. I Believe in Father Christmas - Emerson, Lake & Palmer
  56. I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day - Casting Crowns
  57. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus - John Mellencamp
  58. I Saw Three Ships - Craig Duncan
  59. I Wonder As I Wander - Sandi Patti
  60. I'll Be Home for Christmas - Michael Bublé
  61. In the Bleak Midwinter - Phil Coulter
  62. It Snowed - Meaghan Smith
  63. It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year - Andy Williams
  64. I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm - Frank Sinatra
  65. Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring - Amy Grant
  66. Jingle Bell Rock - Bobby Helms
  67. Jingle Bells - Michael Bublé
  68. Joy to the World - Amy Grant
  69. Last Christmas - Glee Cast
  70. Let it Snow - Dean Martin
  71. Linus and Lucy - Vince Guaraldi Trio
  72. Little Alter Boy - The Carpenters
  73. Little Drummer Boy - Bob Seger
  74. Manger 6 - Bob Rivers and Twisted Radio
  75. Merry Christmas Baby - Bruce Springsteen
  76. Merry Christmas Darling - The Carpenters
  77. Mister Santa - Amy Grant
  78. Mistletoe and Holly - Frank Sinatra
  79. Nothin' New for New Years - Harry Connick, Jr. & George Jones
  80. The Nutcracker Suite - Various
  81. Pat-a-pan - Various
  82. Please Come Home For Christmas - The Eagles
  83. River - Joni Mitchell
  84. Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer - Burl Ives
  85. Santa Claus in Coming to Town - Bruce Springsteen
  86. Santa Baby - Madonna
  87. Skating - Vince Guaraldi Trio
  88. Silent Night - Sarah McLachlan
  89. Sleigh Ride - The Carpenters
  90. Snoopy's Christmas - The Royal Guardsmen
  91. Snow - Bing Crosby, Danny Kay, Peggy Lee, and Trudy Stevens
  92. Song For A Winter's Night - Sarah McLachlan
  93. Sweet Little Jesus Boy - Casting Crowns
  94. Tennessee Christmas - Amy Grant
  95. There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays - Perry Como
  96. This Christmas - Vonda Shepard
  97. Walkin' Round in Women's Underwear - Bob Rivers and Twisted Radio
  98. What are You Doing New Year's Eve? - Ella Fitzgerald
  99. Where Are You Christmas? - Faith Hill
  100. White Christmas - Bing Crosby
  101. You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch - Thurl Ravenscroft

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Starbucks' "War" Against Christmas

As most readers probably already know, some Christians have accused Starbucks of being anti-Christmas because of the minimalist cups it is using this holiday season (see above). You may have seen the video produced by Joshua Feuerstein (who evidently has quite a following) in which he reveals Starbucks' "clear and sinister conspiracy" against Christmas (see below):

Really? As a clergy acquaintance of mine put it, if we think we should boycott organizations and other entities that remove Christ from Christmas, then perhaps we should boycott the gospels of Mark and John because they don't include stories about Jesus's birth. Moreover, aren't there other things we should be worrying about? Perhaps, we can take a cue from former President Jimmy Carter who, driven by his Christian faith, has sought to make the world a better and much safer place for all. That strikes me as what the "meaning of Christmas" is all about. Not worry about the designs of Starbucks cups.

Note: Feuerstein must be loving Peets Coffee, whose cups are replete with symbols associated with Christmas (although many have pagan, not Christian, roots).

P.S: I was in a Starbucks recently that was selling Advent calendars. Kinda Christmasy, don't you think?

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Timothy McVeigh was not a Christian Terrorist

In light of the terrorist attacks in Paris, many of the Republican Presidential candidates have openly opposed letting Syrian refugees into the United States (except those who are Christians). And Donald Trump has stated that he favors the surveillance of U.S. mosques, a database of Syrian refugees, and possibly the creation of a registry for all Muslims (sometimes it feels like we've returned to the McCarthy era or that we're about to -- and I wasn't even alive back then). Implicit in these policy positions is the assumption that Christians are less violent than Muslims.

As a response to all this, many people have been quick to point out that Christians have not always lived up to Jesus's understanding of God's Kingdom (which should not be confused with heaven). And a favorite poster boy, at least among secularists and theologically liberal Christians, is Timothy McVeigh. However, although McVeigh attended Roman Catholic mass regularly in his youth, he abandoned the church as an adult. At the time of the Oklahoma City bombing, he had not darkened the door of a church in years. In fact, in his biography he declared that science was his religion, that he did not believe in the afterlife, and certainly did not believe in hell. And on the day before his execution he declared that he was an agnostic. He was, in short, what researchers today refer to as a religious "none" ("God is Alive and Well in the U.S.")

Some point to the fact that he took Last Rites from a Roman Catholic priest just before his execution as evidence that he was a Christian, but given his previous statements, this seems more like a covering of one's bases than a profession of belief. In fact, when McVeigh was asked what he would do if it turned out he was wrong about the afterlife and hell, he remarked that he would “improvise, adapt, and overcome, just like they taught him in the Army.”

I find it curious, though, why some Christians are so eager to claim McVeigh as "one of their own." I certainly am not. I suspect that their motivation is more political than theological (never let facts get in way of a convenient ideology). However, as my previous post illustrates ("Refugees and Terrorism"), one doesn't need to invoke Timothy McVeigh to oppose the overblown rhetoric (and misguided policy positions) of Donald Trump and others.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Refugees and Terrorism

Currently, it is quite fashionable for the Republican candidates for President to oppose letting refugees from Syria into the United States. Quite a few Republican governors feel the same way, and today the U.S. House of Representatives just passed a bill that will make it next to impossible for Iraqi and Syrian refugees to enter the United States. Amid reports that one of the terrorists involved in the terrorist attacks in Paris last week, their reasoning is understandable. It is based on the assumption that if we prevent Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the United States, we lower the probability that we will experience a terrorist attack.

Although their logic is understandable (and rational), I think it is flawed. Why? For the very simple reason that if al-Qaeda, ISIS, or some other terrorist organization wants to insert one of its operatives into the United States, they will. It will most likely be someone who is not on a terrorist-watch or no-fly list and possesses a legal passport. Someone, in other words, who the authorities would not consider a threat. This is not to suggest that groups such as ISIS will not take advantage of the refugee crisis if opportunities present themselves (e.g., it appears that the terrorist who coordinated the Paris bombing was from Belgium who had traveled to Syria and then snuck back into Europe by joining refugees pouring into Greece). Rather, it is to argue that even if higher restrictions on refugees are put in to place, it is unlikely to make the U.S. less vulnerable to a terrorist attack.

Perhaps more concerning is the effect that this bill and rhetoric will have on Muslim perception of the United States and the West. The last thing we need to do (if we're interested in stemming the tide of people joining ISIS) is to create the impression that we (i.e., those of us in the West) are hostile to people of the Islamic faith. Unfortunately, I can't help but think that remarks by Jeb Bush, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz are doing just that. We can only hope that Muslims around the world realize that not all Americans and Western Europeans think like they do.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

What Are Christians to Make of Communion?

What are Christians to make of communion? We call it by numerous names: Lord's Supper, Eucharist, Breaking of Bread, Blessed Sacrament, Holy Communion. Some of us believe that Jesus is somehow present in the bread and the wine; others of us think the celebration simply recalls the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples. Drawing on the work of my professors at Vanderbilt (David Buttrick -- see citation below), I'd like to suggest that communion functions (and indeed functioned for the first disciples) as a witness to what Jesus called the reign (or Kingdom) of God. It does not do this apart from the Church but as an integral part of it. In particular,
  1. Congregations are called to be a living witness to God's reign as exemplified in Jesus' life and teachings
  2. Preaching is one avenue for conveying what this reign looks like (or at least should like)
  3. However, because it's hard for congregations to be a living witness, communion, with its attendant images of a table where all are welcome and no one is turned away, serves as a secondary witness.
In other words, communion isn't simply a remembrance of the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples, but rather it recalls all of the images associated with an open table, whether they are from ancient Israel, Jesus' table fellowship with his disciples, or the numerous parables he told about God's heavenly banquet:
How did the Lord's Supper function in the hermeneutic consciousness of the first disciples? What were the mental associations they grasped the significance of the meal? Obviously, a meal will be understood by recalling previous prototype meals. The list is astonishing. As good Jews, the disciples would have recalled Passover, remembered Covenant ritual, dreamed the Messianic Banquet bash promised on Mt. Zion. More, as disciples surely they would remember past eating and drinking with Jesus, thought of his feasts with sinners, perhaps the glut of wine at Cana, the feeding of the hungry five thousand with borrowed loaves and fishes, the solemn bread breaking on the eve of his death, resurrection parties, the sayings so full of Kingdom banquet talk (Buttrick, "A Sketchbook: Preaching and Worship," p. 35).
In other words, by symbolically capturing the nature of God's Kingdom, communion can step-in when and where the Church falls short.

All of this raises the question as to how often should we celebrate communion? My immediate response is, "As often as possible." Symbolically recalling what it means to witness to God's reign is not something Christians should do occasionally. This does not necessarily mean that we should celebrate it weekly (although that isn't necessarily a bad idea), but it does suggest that we should celebrate it frequently enough so that God's reign is regularly held up for all to see.

David G. Buttrick, 1982. "A Sketchbook: Preaching and Worship." Reformed Liturgy and Music, pp. 33-37.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Mystery of Faith and the Catholic Church

When I was compiling my annotated "Geniuses for Jesus" post last year, I couldn't help but notice how many intellectuals either were or had converted to Roman Catholicism: Stephen Barr (physicist), Dorothy Day (activist), René Girard (philosopher), Alasdair MacIntyre (philosopher), Gabriel Marcel (philosopher), Flannery O'Connor (writer), John Sexton (professor and President of NYU), Charles Taylor (philosopher), J. R. R. Tolkien (professor and writer). At the time I wondered (briefly) if this had to do with the Catholic Church's ability, primarily through the liturgy, to capture the mystery of faith, that is, that aspect of belief and practice that cannot be summarized in a theological treatise or biblical commentary.

Of course, my list of geniuses isn't a random sample, so one can't make too much of it and probably why I didn't pursue this line of inquiry at the time. However, when I attended the memorial mass of a good friend this past summer, I began wondering about it again. The singing, almost chanting, prior to the service evoked a sense of awe that's difficult to capture with words. In fact, I almost didn't want the priest to begin talking, not because he didn't have anything worthwhile to say (he did), but because it seemed to break the spell of the moment.

All of which made me wonder whether the Roman Catholic Church should seriously think about returning, at least in part, to the Latin mass. Not the homily, of course, but some of the liturgy. There is, in fact, a movement to do so, and anecdotal evidence suggests that Catholic parishes that use the Latin mass are highly successful (i.e., in attracting worshippers). One of the best attended Roman Catholic churches in Silicon Valley is Our Lady of Peace, which celebrates the Latin Mass and attracted worshippers from up to 100 miles away ("Parish Dreads Change"), and more and more parishes are implementing the Latin Mass ("Latin Mass resurgent 50 years after Vatican II"). To be sure, not everyone will be attracted to the Latin Mass, but what this apparent resurgence points to is that a significant portion of the religious market is.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Election Update

It's been a while since I wrote about next year's Presidential election. Hillary Clinton seems on course to wrap up the Democratic Party nomination, and in spite of the attention paid by the media to Ben Carson and Donald Trump, I think that Marco Rubio has the inside track ("The Republican Establishment Inches Toward Marco Rubio"). He is climbing in the polls, and more importantly, he's picking up endorsements while the other candidates are not, and at this point in an election, endorsements are a better predictor of who wins the nomination than polls ("The Party Decides" "The Endorsement Primary").

Perhaps a more interesting question concerns next year's general election. Currently, it appears that it's Clinton's election to lose, but it's unclear what state the economy will be in this time then ("We Have (Almost) No Idea What The Economy Will Look Like On Election Day"). If it's humming along, then Hillary has a good chance of wining, but if it tanks between now and then, we could be watching Marco Rubio take the oath of office in January of 2017.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Take and Read: The Boys in the Boat

If you haven't read it yet, get it, and read it now: The Boys in the Boat: Nine American and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Olympics. It's the story about the University of Washington eight-oared rowing team that represented the U.S. in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

And it's one heck of a great story. One learns, for instance, that in the 1930s, rowing was one of the nation's most popular sports with millions following the Olympic race on the radio (75,000 people attended the race in Berlin). One also learns about one of the boat's rowers, Joe Rantz, who was abandoned by his family at an early age and forced to fend for himself. It tells how he survived, paid for his way through school, met and married the girl of his dreams, and how rowing helped him regain his sense of self and trust of others. One also learns a bit about the art of rowing: in particular, about the importance of the rowers finding their "swing," and the strategic role that the coxswain plays in the pace of the boat. Finally, one learns about how for the games Hitler and the Nazis into an adult playground for the games, hiding all evidence of their terrible treatment of Jews, gypsies, gays and lesbians, and Jehovah Witnesses.

But most of all, one learns about the nine boys in the boat, who (as the book's website notes) were
The sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers from the American West, the boys took on and defeated successive echelons of privilege and power... Against the grim backdrop of the Great Depression, they reaffirmed the American notion that merit, in the end, outweighs birthright. They reminded the country of what can be done when everyone quite literally pulls together. And they provided hope that in the titanic struggle that lay just ahead, the ruthless might of the Nazis would not prevail over American grit, determination, and optimism.
You don't need to be a rowing fan (I'm not) to be riveted by the tale. I listened to the audio version (read by the actor, Edward Herrmann, who is excellent), and the miles flew by. The retelling of the final race in Berlin, as well as the National college championship race a couple of months before, are hard to put down (or in my case, turn off). I can't recommend the book enough. If I hadn't read it already, I'd put it on my Christmas list. You should put it on yours.

Note: The Weinstein Company has acquired the film rights to the story, and the actor and director Kenneth Branagh is set to direct it. I hope it's good. In fact, I hope it's great because it's a great story. Still, I'm skeptical that the movie can capture all that went on in the minds of the rowers (and their coaches).

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Proximate and Distal Causes of Niner Woes

Philosophers, theorists, and scientists often draw a distinction between proximate and ultimate (distal) causes. A proximate cause is what is immediately responsible for causing a particular phenomenon whereas the ultimate cause is what is believed to be the real reason it occurred. For instance, a severe rain storm may cause flooding and would be considered the flooding's proximate cause. However, some might argue that climate change is what lies behind the rain storm's severity in the first place and thus the flooding's ultimate cause.

Niner owner and general manager, Jed York and Trent Baalke, would like us to think that Colin Kaepernick is the cause of the Niners' woes this season. And to be sure, Kap's season has been anything but stellar. After throwing four picks against the Arizona Cardinals, his passing has been tentative and remarkably inaccurate. However, Kap is at best the proximate cause of the Niners' problems, but he isn't the reason why the Niner's offensive line is terrible or why so many players bolted the team (either by retiring or signing with another team) after York and Baalke forced the "mutual parting" of Jim Harbaugh.

No, the ultimate cause of the Niner's woes lies squarely with York and Baalke, but it's unlikely they'll take responsibility for their ineptitude. And since it is unlikely that Kap will be back, you can only wonder whose "fault" it will be next year: Jim Tomsula? Carlos Hyde? Jarryd Hayne (oh that's right, the Niners released their only feel-good story this season yesterday)?

I think the Niners are in a similar state that the Golden State Warriors were in when Chris Cohan owned the team. They had a lot of talented players over the years but only reached the playoffs twice. Unfortunately, I think it's unlikely that the Yorks will sell the team, which could mean several years Niner mediocrity. I suppose there is a small chance that York will wake up one day, realize that he knows next to nothing about football and that his sidekick, Trent Baalke, doesn't know a whole lot more, and hire someone who does. A fan can dream.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Is Kap the Problem?

I'm not a huge Colin Kaepernick fan, but as one of the 49er faithful, I've always hoped he'd play well. That clearly isn't happening this season. Some argue that his skills have declined, and that is the likely explanation, but it's also possible that the rest of the league simply adjusted for his strengths, and he hasn't readjusted his game. In other words, if teams were defending him like they did four years ago, he might still be putting up the numbers he did when he first became the Niners' starting quarterback.

If you've been paying attention to the news, you may have heard the rumors that Kap has lost the locker room (i.e., no one respects him anymore), that he's a loner, an island, someone who keeps to himself, wears headphones, and doesn't interact with his teammates. It's unclear the origin of these rumors (both players and coaches insist that they aren't true), but as Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News pointed out few days ago ("The 49ers’ obvious, unnecessary and repeated contradictions as they move to point all blame to Colin Kaepernick"), the whispering campaign against Kap is eerily similar to that of the one waged last year against then 49er head coach, Jim Harbaugh (he too had lost the locker room, or so we were told). All of which makes you wonder whether the ultimate source of the rumors are 49er owner Jed York and/or 49er general manager Trent Baalke. Kawakami believes that York and Baalke are simply looking for another scapegoat on whom to blame the 49ers woes rather than take responsibility themselves. It's time, as Mark Purdy notes ("49ers headquarters just a big junior high of rumors and gossip"), for York and Baalke to grow up and start acting like adults.