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5 movies you SLEPT ON in 2018 — and how to watch them now

It happens every year. Some movies don’t get the press they deserve and others become known only after the awards season ends. While in one of these cases it is an outrage that it received no Academy Award nominations (Leave No Trace), the other four simply did not get enough recognition to be considered. Here are five movies that I think deserved awards but got SLEPT ON, and how to view them.

Lean on Pete

Image result for lean on pete poster

Andrew Haigh directed this movie with enough empathy that a sociopath could feel moved by the end. With an unsuspecting, tired premise (boy and his horse run away from home on an adventure across the Wild West), the plot quickly moves into its own territory. Haigh explores teen homelessness, what a distant father does to masculinity, and having to grieve without support. He does this in a script that easily beats half the Adapted Screenplay nominees. Charlie Plummer gives a stellar acting performance (he won Best Young Actor @ Venice IFF) and is supported by the also-stellar Steve Buscemi and Chloe Sevigny. Steve Buscemi deserved the Best Supporting Actor nomination for this, much more than Sam Rockwell playing George W. Bush. Lean on Pete joins the next movie on this list in somehow creating a whole world of transcendence, a world hinting at another world lurking just around the corner or behind the next mountain range. Magical. Was it the camera angles, the shot lengths? I couldn’t tell how Haigh achieved this effect, but when you watch it, you will feel it. Sadly, Lean on Pete got SLEPT ON this year.

How to Watch: Amazon Prime, free. iTunes, $3.99.

 

Leave No Trace

Image result for leave no trace poster

Will and his 13 year old daughter Tom live off the grid in a forest. Unfortunately for them, the State considers this not just an alternative lifestyle but rather homelessness. When they are discovered, they must adjust to life in civilized society. Along the way director Debra Granik captures the most visually beautiful film of 2018, and her leads (Ben Foster and Australian newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) gave knock. out. performances. marked by subtlety and tension. The cinematography by Michael McDonough and original screenplay by Granik were deserving of full Oscar wins, not to mention nominations, but sadly Leave No Trace got SLEPT ON this year.

How to Watch: Amazon Prime, free. iTunes, $5.99.

 

Eighth Grade

Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade (2018)

Packing in all the cringe he possibly — and I mean possibly — could, director Bo Burnham captured the true essence of the middle school vibe. Hilarious, but also deeply concerning, Eighth Grade will give you an eye into the pressures teens face today. Social media and easy-to-access technology have changed the landscape so much that the middle school experience of Kayla (Elsie Fisher) barely looks like mine. All the same awkwardness, all the same pettiness, but in a whole new world. Despite receiving zero Oscar nominations, Eighth Grade won the Indie Spirit Awards for Best First Screenplay, and was far better than Green Book, winner of the original screenplay Oscar. Though in fairness, Green Book didn’t deserve that award either. Elsie Fisher’s performance and the film’s painful clarity make it worth watching, if not as a research piece then at minimum as great comedy. However, with exactly zero Academy Award nominations, Eighth Grade got SLEPT ON this year.

How to Watch: Amazon Prime, free. iTunes, $4.99.

 

Beautiful Boy

Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet in Beautiful Boy (2018)

This film from Belgian director Felix van Groeningen follows a father (Steve Carell) and son (Timothée Chalamet) as the son’s methamphetamine addiction tears their relationship apart. Heavy drug use — rock bottom — sobriety — critical situation that threatens the tentative stability of newfound sobriety — right back into heavy drug use. We see this cycle unfold four or five times in the fast two hour run-time, and it gets more painful with each. Timothée Chalamet played a difficult role and did it flawlessly, and the artistic directing was also great, evoking a certain light, airy wistfulness while the characters’ lives go to hell. I strongly recommend this film, though it is not for the light at heart. Some critics did not like the editing style in Beautiful Boy which I understand though personally I loved it. But that held it back from getting the major awards recognition that it deserved. For this lame reason and no others, it got SLEPT ON this year.

How to Watch: Amazon Prime, free. Nowhere else, as Amazon produced it.

 

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Image result for won't you be my neighbor poster

Mr. Rogers! This documentary made the shortlist for Best Documentary Feature but then… didn’t… get nominated? I’m not sure what happened there, since this was better than all the other documentaries besides Minding the Gap. Following the career of Fred Rogers, this happy little film weaves between Roger’s social commentary (having a black co-star in a children’s program in the 1960’s), the big moments of happiness, the political success of his 1969 Congressional testimony, his doubts about the show, and the religious philosophy that supported his work. You will laugh, you will smile, you will cry, and you will be a better person for having watched Will You Be My Neighbor? Don’t be a fool and ignore this movie, like the Academy, which SLEPT ON it this year.

How to Watch: Because HBO picked it up, you can either pay the full $14.99 to buy it, or you can use your one week HBO free trial (via Hulu or Amazon Prime) and make sure to cancel before the week ends. That way, it’s free.

More links yet

Highlights: Brett McCracken on engaging art, Wesley Hill’s critique of Bolz-Weber’s book, an editorial comparing the Trump Org to a classic organized crime mob, and an essay on the essence of African Traditional Religion.


• The content on TGC has changed since I started reading two years ago. More practical living, more women’s ministry, more on vocation and calling, less on nerdy theology and deep biblical studies. (This comes at a time, seminary, when my life feels more nerdy and less practical). But someone whose writing I cannot enjoy enough is Brett McCracken. Consider this week’s Make ‘Christian’ Engagement with the Arts More . . . Christian. He is reviewing a book by Jeremy Begbie about theological aesthetics, something that fits really nicely with my interest in film. Strong recommend. (But maybe first, try out his more accessible piece The Christ-like Gaze in Film).

• Continuing with last week’s review of Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, we have Wesley Hill’s critique in Christianity Today:

It would be easy, at this juncture, to point a finger at the thinness of much of what is labeled “progressive” theology these days in order to account for the flaws in Shameless. In this progressive Christianity, it often seems that a spirituality of the goodness of creation downplays—or bypasses altogether—any serious consideration of our fallenness. Popular progressive ways of distinguishing the Mosaic law and the legalisms of the apostle Paul from the good news that Jesus preached, with the former considered nitpicky and vindictive and the latter portrayed as no-strings-attached, often verge on anti-Judaism and drive a wedge between Jesus and the spokespersons he appointed to carry on his ministry. And what the theologian D. Stephen Long has called “a commitment to ‘progressive revelation,’ where some theologians proclaim with thoroughgoing certitude what God is doing in the world today and how it differs with what God was thought to have worked in previous times,” often permits present experience to seem clear as glass compared to the murky complexity of ancient Scripture. And, indeed, all these lamentable progressive tendencies are present in abundance in Shameless.

But the harder task would be for more conservative, traditionalist readers like me—who still think that sexual purity is a scriptural (and therefore indispensable) category and that the biblical rules against, say, premarital and extramarital sex are still binding on believers today—to take Shameless as an occasion to practice some self-scrutiny and ask ourselves whether our own failings and hypocrisies might be part of what gives a book like this its powerful appeal.

• Best opinions from Washington Post opinion section on Thursday of last week:

1. The court’s opinion was right on this case. But the concurrence was even righter.

2. The mob analogy got a whole lot stronger. 

3. The Supreme Court’s struggles on the Peace Cross case reflect a bigger challenge.

4. Conservative Christians are counting on the Supreme Court to stall their cultural losses

5. Amy Klobuchar’s defenders mistake the promise of feminism.

• Sam Allberry has a new book out on Christian singleness. Here’s an open letter to the church on singleness he wrote, presumably as promo for the book, and a positive review from TGC.

• New Global, Orthodox Identity for United Methodists Surprises Many, but it shouldn’t be surprising, nor is there an Orthodox identity ’emerging’ in a global sense. Most of the fault lines was along United States / non-US delegates. There is no new common identity, only a denominational structure that ties together two disparate (geographically, theologically) groups. Nobody should be surprised at a major split in 2020.

• What’s the worst job ever? After reading THE TRAUMA FLOOR: The secret lives of Facebook moderators in America, I think I know the answer. My goodness, I wouldn’t take this job for 5x that pay. (Follow-up: Slatestarcodex wrote a good push-back piece).

• Henrietta Harris from Booooooom.com’s artist spotlight this week:

Henrietta Harris

Henrietta Harris

Henrietta Harris

• Slatestarcodex’s culture wars thread is dead (but also reincarnated elsewhere). He gives some fascinating insights into the whole “civil discourse is dead” thing, like this:

The fact is, it’s very easy to moderate comment sections. It’s very easy to remove spam, bots, racial slurs, low-effort trolls, and abuse. I do it single-handedly on this blog’s 2000+ weekly comments. r/slatestarcodex’s volunteer team of six moderators did it every day on the CW Thread, and you can scroll through week after week of multiple-thousand-post culture war thread and see how thorough a job they did.

But once you remove all those things, you’re left with people honestly and civilly arguing for their opinions. And that’s the scariest thing of all.

Some people think society should tolerate pedophilia, are obsessed with this, and can rattle off a laundry list of studies that they say justify their opinion. Some people think police officers are enforcers of oppression and this makes them valid targets for violence. Some people think immigrants are destroying the cultural cohesion necessary for a free and prosperous country. Some people think transwomen are a tool of the patriarchy trying to appropriate female spaces. Some people think Charles Murray and The Bell Curve were right about everything. Some people think Islam represents an existential threat to the West. Some people think women are biologically less likely to be good at or interested in technology. Some people think men are biologically more violent and dangerous to children. Some people just really worry a lot about the Freemasons.

Each of these views has adherents who are, no offense, smarter than you are. Each of these views has, at times, won over entire cultures so completely that disagreeing with them then was as unthinkable as agreeing with them is today. I disagree with most of them but don’t want to be too harsh on any of them. Reasoning correctly about these things is excruciatingly hard, trusting consensus opinion would have led you horrifyingly wrong throughout most of the past, and other options, if they exist, are obscure and full of pitfalls. I tend to go with philosophers from Voltaire to Mill to Popper who say the only solution is to let everybody have their say and then try to figure it out in the marketplace of ideas.

But none of those luminaries had to deal with online comment sections.

• Unsurprisingly, Wikipedia has had to semi-lock their article on Fortnite until 2020 because of vandalism. View some of the glorious revisions here, and press ctrl+f “vandalism” and click prev to feast your eyes.

• From Church Life Journal The Essence of African Traditional Religion. Very good, read the whole thing.

Even more links

Providing a valuable public service here, folks. That’s what I’m doing with these links posts. How could you continue to function in your everyday life without my links. There is simply no way. Not in the age of Trump, or the age of Millennials, or the age of Terror, or whatever age we are in these days. Have I already made the joke where I call these ‘gourmet links’? If not, that’s what this week’s links are. Gourmet. Make sure to read the first one, the one about teens and mental health, and the one on Workism.

• Being Biblical™: When the Bible Becomes a Brand:

Many people have been horribly scarred by biblical™ culture. Countless young people, hurt by the failed promises of the biblical™ ideology, with its attendant practices and unhealthy communities, of their upbringing, have abandoned Christian faith for non-Christian worldviews. These have often merely damaged them in other ways, offering alternative ideologies, rather than genuine engagement with reality. We need to abandon the biblical™ trademark and to recover the challenge of discerning and applying Scripture to our lives and worlds. We need to grow in a scripturally oriented wisdom in the pursuit of the great human project, which we have in common with all who are wrestling with the concrete reality in which God addresses us.

• Worst headline (and concept piece) of the week: The Best Combs a Presidential Candidate Could Use to Eat a Salad. Remember that the next election isn’t for another 21 months. An excerpt:

Still, the alleged comb use itself is hilariously absurd. Did Klobuchar wash the comb before eating? Don’t all airplanes have forks on board? Is it even possible to eat a salad with a comb?

Klobuchar’s purported choice of replacement utensil might not have been as uncommon as it sounds. As a high-school swimmer rushing through the locker room, I too once found myself hungry and forkless, and resorted to eating a cup of Greek yogurt with a comb. But a salad is a different textural animal entirely. It’s layered and varied, and sometimes there are croutons.

• Critiquing Nadia Bolz-Weber’s new book on sexuality, we have, from Mere Orthodoxy, A Christian Ethic of Sex in a Pornographic Age:

Those who are ‘in Christ’ are called to not only cultivate but traverse the limits and possibilities of human desire, and arguably more than any humans on earth. By striving to be pure in heart – however unfashionable or prudish that might sound in Late Modernity – we so prepare for the beatific vision, a sight our exhausted age of restless searching pines after, even if unknowingly.

We need scripts that form us “to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple” (Psalm 27:4), and that cultivate habits, appetites, and dispositions that comport with the fidelity requisite for a life of celibacy, or, for instance, where we or our spouses are persons with disabilities in our fragile, mortal bodies.

• Brian Tallerico (from RogerEbert.com) gives his ranking of Oscar Best Picture winners from 2000-on. Take special note of the film in last place.

• On teens and mental health from The Atlantic.

• Also from The Atlantic, a piece that continues the theme from last month’s Millennials: The Burnout Generation. Enjoy Workism is Making Americans Miserable.

• From Marissa Voytenko, a collection titled Examen. See the full set here.

Examen I

Examen XV

Examen VI

• Brett McCracken on The Favourite and Roma:

The radical self-denial and service of Cleo in Roma, like the feet-washing posture of Jesus (John 13:1–17), provides a picture of power in vivid contrast to that in The Favourite. The latter captures power as pre- and post-Christian societies construe it: self-interest, self-preservation, winner take all, only the strong survive. The former presents power through weakness, through self-denial and sacrificial love.

Good points all around here. But I also wonder about the way that McCracken tries to distance himself from The Favourite. Can’t we just acknowledge that it represents an opposing viewpoint, and then enjoy it as a creative presentation of that viewpoint? This reminds me of the controversy over the professor who assigned a blasphemous book at a Catholic college. In short, he said, yeah it was a terrible book, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read it? That we can’t grow from seeing where the author goes wrong? Seems simple to me but this way of thinking gets steamrolled in Christian circles, for the reasons in the Being Biblical™ essay.

• Jared Wilson with 3 Principles for Christian Political Engagement.

My 2019 Oscar Picks

What a year for movies, and what a disappointment that became this year’s Oscar nominations. The good, the bad, the ugly, and the downright-snubbed. Several films were left out (Leave No Trace being the most egregious), and others made it that should NOT have (Bohemian Rhapsody for BP, Vice for BP, Skin for live short, Animal Behavior for animated short). I watched all the movies for Best Picture, all 15 short films, four of the five documentaries, and a few other stray 2018 movies that scored nominations. That means that, for the first time, I’m able to have an informed opinion! But not on all the categories. Where I haven’t seen the majority of the nominees, I haven’t voted. That leaves me with 19 selections.

These are preferences for what should win, not predictions for what will win. The only one I will rank fully is Best Picture. As a courtesy, though, I have listed my second favorite in each award.  Speaking of favorites…

 

Related image

Best Picture: The Favourite, then, A Star is Born

Image result for the favourite

Best Picture, Ranked:

1. The Favourite
2. A Star is Born
3. Roma
4. Black Panther
5. BlacKkKlansman
6. Green Book
7. Vice
8. Bohemain Rhapsody

Actor in a Leading Role
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody, then, Christian Bale, Vice

Actress in a Leading Role
Olivia Colman, The Favourite, then, Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born

Actress in a Supporting Role
Emma Stone, The Favourite, then, Amy Adams, Vice

Actor in a Supporting Role
Mahershala Ali, Green Book, then, Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman

Directing
Alfonso Cuarón, then, Yorgos Lanthimos

Adapted Screenplay only 2/5 😦
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
BlacKkKlansman, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee
Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins
A Star Is Born, Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, and Will Fetters

Original Screenplay
First Reformed, Paul Schrader, then, Roma, Alfonso Cuarón

Foreign Language Film only 1/5 😦
Capernaum, Lebanon
Cold War, Poland
Never Look Away, Germany
Roma, Mexico
Shoplifters, Japan

Animated Feature only 1/5 😦
Incredibles 2
Isle of Dogs
Mirai
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Original Score
Black Panther, then, Mary Poppins Returns

Original Song
“Shallow,” A Star Is Born, then, “I’ll Fight,” RBG

Documentary Short
Period. End of Sentence., then, Black Sheep

Cinematography 
The Favourite, Robbie Ryan, then, A Star Is Born, Matthew Libatique

Best Documentary Feature
Minding the Gap, then, RBG

Production Design
Black Panther, then, Roma

Sound Mixing
Black Panther, then, A Star Is Born

Costume Design
The Favourite, then, Black Panther

Film Editing
BlacKkKlansman, then, Vice

Sound Editing
Black Panther, then, A Quiet Place

Animated Short Film
Late Afternoon, then, Bao

Live Action Short
Marguerite, then, Fauve

Makeup and Hairstyle only 1/3 😦
Border
Mary Queen of Scots
Vice

Visual Effects only 1/5 😦
Avengers: Infinity War
Christopher Robin
First Man
Ready Player One
Solo: A Star Wars Story

 

Thanks for reading! Be sure to comment all the reasons why I’m wrong!

Image result for the favourite dancing gif

Some more links

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• If you want an example of how the church should respond to #Metoo or #Churchtoo, the select SBC leaders in this write-up will do. Russell Moore’s full response is here and you must read it.

• Looking for the best theology books of 2018? Jonathan Ogden’s best albums of 2018? NPR’s best albums of 2018? (They have an… unexpected taste). The Times’s best books, fiction and non-fiction, of 2018? How about Obama’s favorite books, movies, and music of 2018?

• The Democrats lost the Senate in 2018, despite a ‘blue wave,’ due to a brutally unfair election map. Now, the tables are turning in 2020.

• Things my marriage and family counseling class didn’t prepare me for: DNA testing customer service. Things a DNA testing customer service class doesn’t prepare you for: marriage and family counseling.

• T.K. Coleman: Be a coach, not a cult leader:

When you get your kicks from being seen as the great and glorious guru, you become the kind of leader who instructs people in a way that makes them more dependent on your guidance. After people meet with you, they mostly feel in awe of how phenomenal you are. They see you as a rock star.

When you get your kicks from helping people wake up to the possibility of their own brilliance, you become the kind of leader who inspires people in a way that makes them less reliant on you, more trusting of their inner judgment, and always open to learning from new people. After people meet with you, they mostly feel appreciation for the increased sense of clarity and confidence they have. They see you as an ally.

This is the fundamental difference between a coach and a cult leader.

The Lifesized Embroidered Figures of Liisa Hietanen:

• YES, THIS: Trevin Wax: You Don’t Have to Have a Well-Formed Opinion on Everything:

In order to de-escalate tensions in our society and lower the temperature of our civil discourse, we can demonstrate the humility that says: “I haven’t really studied that issue,” or “I’m not an expert on the most important facts and considerations in that debate,” or “I don’t think I’ve weighed the different sides and looked into all the relevant points yet, and so I don’t have a strong opinion.”

• “Progressives are emulating Trump and reality is leaking from American life.”

9 Artists on How to Make a Living From Your Art

Data Maps the Impact of Where a Child Grows Up. Lifetime success rates of children raised in certain areas, geo-located and you can sort by race, gender, legal status, income, and so on. Social Mobility is declining; this data is unusually open source; solutions are localized.

• This week only: see the Oscar nominated documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening on PBS online. Only 76 minutes.

With Reverence and Humility

The Garden at Les Lauves, 1906 - Paul Cezanne

Found this today in a commentary on Romans 1. Take these words from Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones to heart.


Let us learn these simple lessons as we move on. We put the creature before the Creator whenever we put any single idea of our own before the revelation of Scripture. I feel like repeating that. To put any idea of our own before Scripture is to be guilty of this very sin of putting the creature before the Creator, our ideas rather than what the Bible says, or what God has revealed. ‘Ah’, we say, ‘but I don’t understand that; I don’t see how God would be fair if He did this and that’. That may be what you say; and it may be what you think. The question is, What is revealed? What does God say about Himself? My friends, we are not meant to understand all we read in the Scriptures. It is beyond us. Our minds are too small, and we are born in sin. We come to this as little children, not to comprehend it all, but to worship and to praise, and to receive it. And if we start putting our ideas or difficulties or thoughts or feelings before the Scripture, we have already partly become guilty of this terrible, serious charge of putting and worshipping the creature before the Creator.

Let us, therefore, always approach the Word of God with reverence and with humility. Let us never come to read it without praying to be enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Let us come to learn, not to have our prejudices confirmed, or to turn something down. Let us come with open minds. Let us receive the words, lest in our modern fashion we may be guilty of this very thing which the Apostle charges those people of ancient times [Romans 1:21-23]. And above all, let us ever, as we think of Him and talk about Him, remember who He is and what He is. We forget that sometimes, do we not? Perhaps something has been going wrong — we may find ourselves like that man in the seventy-third Psalm, who had been having a hard time while the ungodly were very prosperous and begin to say, ‘Why does God . . .?’ Oh, my dear friends, the next time that thought or feeling arises in your breast, stop for a moment and remember that you are thinking and speaking about the uncorruptible God, this glorious Being, glorious in His holiness, infinity, and majesty! Let us put our hands upon our mouths and be content to wait until He reveals His purpose to us. How dangerous it is to speak, without thinking, about God, the Creator ‘who is blessed forever, Amen.’ Let us stop for a moment! God forbid that we should ever be guilty of speaking about God in a manner that is unworthy!


Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans 1: The Gospel of God, 387, commenting on Romans 1:18-23.

Painting (unrelated): Paul Cézanne, The Garden at Les Lauves, 1906.

Some Links

Starting today I am going to compile the interesting things I have found on the internet into a list of weekly links. Lots of other people do this because, I figure, it is fun and anyways why not. Maybe I’ll do biweekly links, or maybe I’ll say fortnightly links because Engaging the Culture. Either way, here we go. Use the email subscription box (in the page footer) to get these in your inbox.

• Malcolm Gladwell writes about Marijuana (h/t Rooted top articles of January):

A few years ago, the National Academy of Medicine convened a panel of sixteen leading medical experts to analyze the scientific literature on cannabis. The report they prepared, which came out in January of 2017, runs to four hundred and sixty-eight pages. It contains no bombshells or surprises, which perhaps explains why it went largely unnoticed. It simply stated, over and over again, that a drug North Americans have become enthusiastic about remains a mystery.

• More of this please, from TGC, DG, &co. How to Be a Friend at All Times (Even When You Don’t Have Time):

Instead of retreating from friendships when life is busy, or lamenting my lack of picture-perfect friendships, I’m seeking to engage my friends and love them at all times—even when I don’t have time.

• Ross Douthat from NYT recommends these on the Catholic clergy abuse scandal. I am halfway through the first article. It is, appropriately, very long. There is so much I didn’t realize about all this.

• Speaking of articles to read back to back: Trump, the first president in a century with no dog, explains why: ‘I don’t have any time. and, conversely, that Trump spends 9 hours per day in ‘executive time’ which is unstructured free time with no work being done. Square that circle, Mick Mulvaney.

• One more time with back-to-back-ers: I’m a geophysicist. My signature fieldwork uniform is bright pink. and, New Illinois hunting law allows hunters to wear blaze pink.

• This (long) essay sparked joy: The Art of Looking: Eleven Ways of Viewing the Multiple Realities of Our Everyday Wonderland.

• The Art of Jacob van Loon 

Jacob van Loon

Jacob van Loon

Jacob van Loon

• Plastic water bottles have an expiration date not because the water expires but because the plastic “will eventually start leeching chemicals into the water.” (h/t Daniel)

• Graphic, very uncomfortable but very necessary, article from ProPublica: In Immigrant Children’s Shelters, Sexual Assault Cases Are Open and Shut:

Across the country, kids are reporting sexual assaults in immigrant children’s shelters. Alex decided to come forward. He told the shelter two older teens dragged him into a bedroom. There was surveillance video. But Alex’s case wasn’t investigated. His isn’t the only one.

• FiveThirtyEight: 6 Things To Listen For When The 2020 Democrats Talk About Policy. Numbers 4 and 6 especially.

• Quite the concept album.

A Word for God

[A paper for my Intercultural Ministry class at Trinity, responding to this case study from Paul Hiebert.]

Ivan threw up his hands. “What is more important-” he asked his colleague, “that people think of God as ‘ultimate reality.’ or that they think of him as a’ person’ with whom they can communicate? Each of these, by itself, is a half-truth. Yet somehow it seems to me that we must choose between two words that carry these two meanings when we translate the word God into Telugu. What shall we do?”

After joining the Union Bible Society, Ivan had been asked to assist in a new translation of the Bible into Telugu. After settling down in the city of Hyderabad, he began to work with Yesudas, a high-caste convert who was also assigned to the project. Together the two had worked out many of the difficult problems they faced in translating the Bible into this South Indian language. But the most stubborn one remained unsolved. What word would they use for” God”? The choice they made was critical, for the nature of God lies at the very heart of the biblical message. To use the wrong term for “God” would seriously distort the Christian message. But although there are many Telugu terms for “god,” none conveyed the biblical meaning.

At first Ivan suggested,” Let’s use the term deva. That is the word the people use when they speak of ‘god’ in general terms.”

But Yesudas pointed out, “The devas are the highest form of personal beings, but they are not the ultimate reality. Like all things in the universe, they are maya, or passing phenomena. In the end, they, too, will be absorbed into the ultimate reality or Brahman. Moreover, they do both good and evil. They fight wars with each other and with the demons, commit adultery, and tell lies. Finally, in Hinduism ‘all life is one.’ In other words, gods, humans, animals, and plants all have the same kind of life. Consequently, devas are not fundamentally different from humans. They are more powerful and live in the heavens. But they sin, and when they do, they are reborn as humans, or animals, or even ants.” Yesudas added. “Hindus claim that devas often come to earth as avatars to help humans in need, but because there is no difference between them it is like kings helping their commoners or saints helping their disciples. We, therefore, can use neither deva or avatar, for both destroy the biblical meaning of the ‘incarnation.'”

“If that is the case, why not use the term parameshwara?” Ivan suggested. “That means ‘highest of the deities.'”

Yesudas replied, “Yes, but this carries the same connotations as deva. In fact. all Telugu words for ‘god’ implicitly carry these Hindu beliefs! We have no word that means a supreme being who is the ultimate reality and the creator of the universe. Moreover, there is no concept of ‘creation ‘ as found in the Bible. The world itself is an illusion that does not really exist. ”

Ivan took another approach to the problem. “Why not use the concept of brahman itself? After all, brahman is ultimate reality-that which existed before all else and will exist when all else has ceased to be.”

Yesudas objected. “Brahman,” he said, “may be ultimate reality, but it is a force, not a person. True, some philosophers speak of sarguna brahman, of brahman in a personal form. But even he is only a manifestation of nirguna brahman, which is an insular, impersonal force. It makes no sense to say that nirguna brahman reveals itself to gods and humans, just as it makes no sense to say that a dreamer speaks as a real person in his dream. Similarly, humans have no way of knowing about or communicating with nirguna brahman. Moreover, nothing really exists outside of brahman. The heavens and earth are not creations that exist apart from it. They are projections of brahman in much the same way that a dream is a projection of the dreamer. So, in fact, we are all simply manifestations of the same ultimate reality. This destroys the biblical idea of a creator and a real but contingent creation.”

“What shall we do then?” asked Ivan. “Perhaps we could use the English word God or the Greek word Theos and introduce it into the translation. In time the word would become familiar, and it would not carry within it the implicit Hindu theology found in Telugu words.”

“How can we do that?” asked Yesudas. “When we preach in the villages, no one will understand those foreign words. We must use words the people understand . Isn’t that what the early church did when it took the Greek words for ‘god’ and gave them new Christian meanings?”

Ivan counterd, “Even if we do use deva or brahman and try to give them a Christian meaning, they will still be given Hindu meanings by the Hindus. And since the Hindus make up ninety percent of the population, how can a small Christian community maintain its own definitions of these words when the linguistic pressures for accepting the Hindu connotations are so great?”

“Well,” said Yesudas, “we’re back to square one. Should we use deva, or brahman, or ‘God’? We have to use one of these.”

The two discussed the matter for a long time, for they knew that their choice would influence both the evangelistic outreach of the church and also the extent to which the church would understand and be faithful to the biblical concept of God in the next fifty or hundred years. Finally they decided to . . .

###

How can we translate words from one culture and language to another? The answer is less straightforward than it may seem. There is a word in English for “hand,” so there must be a word in our destination language that means the same thing; just find that word, substitute it in, and repeat for each word in the sentence. But languages do not work this way, and words do not work this way. This is the problem faced by Ivan and Yesudas, translators working with Union Bible Society to produce a New Testament translation in Tegulu, a south Indian native language.

This “most stubborn problem” must be solved in some way, because “the nature of God lies at the very heart of the biblical message. To use the wrong term for “God” would seriously distort the Christian message.” But the problem is not solved easily. Ivan “threw up his hands… what shall we do?” he asks, exasperated, leading them to “discuss the matter for a long time.” In the Tegulu language, they have two words that come close to the English word God. Those words are Brahman and deva. The word Brahman communicates “ultimate reality — that which existed before all else and will exist when all else has ceased to be.” This sounds like the Christian concept of God. But, critically, it leaves out the personal aspect of God. Christians believe in a God who answers prayers, who has thoughts, who has a discrete will, who even experiences something analogous to emotions. The word deva communicates these aspects of “God” that Brahman does not. However, devas are “not ultimate reality, but passing phenomena… they “do both good and evil. They fight wars with each other and with the demons, commit adultery, and tell lies.” They also “are not fundamentally different from humans” because “all life is one” in Hinduism, so they can be demoted to humans in reincarnation just as humans can be promoted to devas. Yesudas notes that this relationship “destroys the biblical meaning of the ‘incarnation.’” The words Brahman and Devas are reciprocal failures to convey the English word “God.”

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Photo by Varun Tandon on Unsplash

What deeper issue is at stake in this dilemma? The first is the location of meaning in a word. Do words have intrinsic meaning? Or do words take meaning only in their use in a sentence? If words have meaning in themselves, then our language has a sustained set of meanings that are combined according to these meanings. But if words do not have meaning in themselves, then any word can be anything. At this point, many are prone to employ a colorful argument: if words don’t mean “what they mean,” then all language is impossible and nothing means anything! But this slippery slope ignores that people employ words in consistent usages. Even if the meaning of a word is located outside the word, in its use in a clause, it does not for that reason become wholly meaningless and its communicative function wholly arbitrary.

For example, the word “bump” has changed because it has taken a metaphorical usage among social media users. Before, it meant something like “to knock something or someone aside by physical contact.” But now, it has gained an additional meaning that goes like, “to highlight something from the past that had faded from memory.” If meaning is located inside the word — whether the theory is (1) Platonism, where the word’s meaning exists as a universal highest form, or (2) theological neo-Platonism, where the word’s meaning exists as an unchanging concept in the mind of an unchanging God, or (3) Kantian linguistics, where we deduce that the word’s meaning exists as the result of transcending the noumenal realm through universally-accessible reason — whatever school of thought is taken, they cannot explain that words meanings change in time. Instead, they generate an ethical imperative: you must not change the meaning of words.

In contrast to these essentialist linguistic schemes, a nominalist scheme denies that words have meaning because this meaning cannot be justified ontologically. (In the Medieval period, this had more startling metaphysical implications than just linguistic implications). But I think that these nominalist understandings are also reducing the problem of language. By denying that language has any foundation at all, it escapes the trappings of the other responses, but it fails to provide any constructive answer of its own. Language doesn’t have meaning… so… what? What then? Rather than answer the problem incorrectly, it withholds an answer at all.

My (and my numerous Greek and Hebrew professors’) way of navigating through these extremes is to claim that lexical use is real, observable, and enduring within a cultural context. A good lexicographer will try to catalogue all of these uses, and that’s… that. Their work is done. There is no hunt for an objective meaning to the word, as that is unnecessary, and there is flexibility allowed for change in meaning of a word over time, as that is necessary. (It does take much more work than offering a single definition).

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Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

How does this perspective bear fruit in the dilemma that Ivan and Yesudas face? They do not need to concern themselves with finding the correct translation because the proper focus is to find the correct lexical use. Thankfully, the Bible contains many sentences in which the lexical use of “God” implies an attribute of God in context. Consider God’s appearance to Moses:

Exodus 3:13 Moses said to ____, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The ____ of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

14 ____ said to him, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

In this example, the reader receives new contextual information about God: the passage can imply many of the same things that the Tegulu term Brahman implies. And yet, because God is speaking, it implies some of the characteristics of deva. Consider another example, from James:

James 1:17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the ______ of the Heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

Here the translators must render a Tegulu word for the English word “Father,” which faces the same complications as God because the target culture may interpret “Father” as a biological and material figure. However, when reading this word according to its use in the sentence, the reader gathers that the “Father” does not change (the Brahman tendency) and yet shows his personal agency by giving gifts and by “choosing to give us birth” (the Deva tendency). These examples demonstrate that the lexical use of a word defines its meaning for the reader, even if the word itself does not communicate anything (and even is replaced with a blank).

This works for the simple reason that “God” is always used in some lexical way. There is no sentence with the word “God” and no other words around it. Sentences require an actor and action, and from these we can always learn something about God. What do the Biblical writers predicate of God? We can learn much from this. Similarly, no preacher to the Tegulu speaking population will ever use the word “God” devoid of some context in their preaching. If the Jewish concept of God is basically opposed to the Hindu conception of God, then we should not expect any word to correctly translate the English “God” into Tegulu. In fact, the Jewish concept of God functions as a polemic against exactly the type of conception of God that the Tegulu speakers believe in, such that without the preacher also polemicizing against that conception of God, the audience will not understand the Jewish idea. Rather than fixing our attention on translating the English word God into a Tegulu equivalent that accurately codes our beliefs about God, the translators must popularize verses like Exodus 3:14 and James 1:17, to mention only two. By popularizing these sentences, the lexical use of God as both personal and transcendent will begin to take hold in the minds of the Tegulu speaking people.

There are additional ways to popularize this lexical use. I suggested an example in my discussion board post where we learn the poetic or literary forms that the Tegulu use (they may use in-rhyme more than end-rhyme, or find alliteration more exciting than meter, or something) and popularize the preferred lexical use in that literary form. My favorite example does this into rap from the Twitter account “Augustine of Hiphop.” He raps,

It follows from the faith,
Na it ain’t no eccentricity,
His whatness and his thatness,
they the same: sweet simplicity.

In addition to using the Biblical text to popularize the correct understanding of the meaning of “God,” missionaries like Ivan and Yesudas should consider these additional phrases.

All things considered, how should they translate the word “God”? Brahman and deva would take the same amount of corrective preaching to reach the lexical use of the English word “God.” But instead of trying to shift the lexical categories for these words, a better approach would use “God” as a calque – or better, use Adonai or Jehovah as loanword proper noun names for God, and the Tegulu speaking people will start fresh in understanding the transcendent, unchanging, personal, responsive God who we represent with this silly little English word “God.”

Don’t Lurk

Your biology class lectures happen in an open field. Philosophy class is done while you rock climb. Your major classes are held during competitive team sports. While you practice archery, a professor explains how to write good thesis statements. Who knows the things you can learn about while white water rafting?

Can you imagine a college like this?

Everything is FUN!

Everything is EXCITING!

Nothing is BORING! 

 

A professor told us about this school — supposedly real, though I don’t care enough to research where this college is located or if this characterization is accurate — in class one day. And my mind wandered to how awesome this school would be. How I would be so, so much more happy in this kind of environment than where I am now. But my professor took a different angle. One that has stuck with me.

He said, “You would be so bored, so fast. In a few weeks, you would be over it. College isn’t about entertaining yourself with fun activities; it’s about creating something.”

Yes! This is true… but I am bored, too. Normal college got so boring, so fast. It only took weeks for me to be over it. So maybe I’m making in my own life the mistake that Fun Outdoorsy School is making at an institutional level?

Question: what makes college so boring? Answer: that we aren’t creating anything, anything meaningful. Creative work is our original calling. God has created us to “image” him back to the creation. We do this by working and tending things in this world, ruling over and taking dominion of the created order.

Genesis 1:26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27 So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” …

2:15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. …

19 Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

A task of ordering, shaping, dominating, tending, sorting, and ultimately, creating. It is only because of the Fall that this ordering, working, sorting task becomes tedious and painful. God curses humanity (represented by Adam):

3:17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”

This curse applies to all people because Adam and Eve represented all people in this narrative. And so, we too feel the “thorns and thistles” of frustration, pain, suffering, and meaninglessness while we try to fulfill our calling from God to create. But it wasn’t meant to be this way! This is a diversion from the original purpose! We were made to “image” the glory of God in all that we do. And so this creative work is basic to finding meaning in life and to being fulfilled as a human being.

Another angle, less theology this time: Social Media has three types of people. Content Creators are the 1% of users who make and share new content of their own. Interactors are the next 9% who comment, like, or share other people’s content, but they don’t make things of their own. Lurkers are the next 90% who intake Content Creators’ work and Interactors’ interaction with that work, but do nothing with it besides see and enjoy it. They do not share, they do not comment, and they make nothing of their own.

Here are pictures.

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The same thing is true in college. In high school you are a Lurker just intaking ideas and information. But college makes you start to Interact with ideas, critique them, argue about their merits, and share them with underclassmen who are starting to wade into the discussions. The ultimate goal is to make you a Content Creator, someone who knows enough about the topic to really contribute new work that other people can take in. This means you have to specialize in one thing, because a 22-year-old doesn’t have the knowledge to speak into more than one debate at a time. So you pick a major and start to work, and work, and work, until you can produce new, quality work of your own.

That’s the point of college. The more time you spend creating something, the less tedious and frustrating and boring it will be. Those classes you hate? They are so painful because you have decided they won’t help you in your creative project. Even if you aren’t sure what that project is, you have a sense, and this History of Chinese Politics class just ain’t it.

(It could be that the class really isn’t helpful, and Liberal Arts colleges suck. Or maybe you just have a bad attitude and refuse to see how the class will help. Probably both.)

All of college boils down to Neil Gaiman’s dictum, “Make Good Art.” But instead of art, it can be anything. Make good biology research. Make good athletic training preparation. Make good philosophy writing. But whatever you do — whatever you do — do not Lurk. Find meaning and fulfillment by doing what you are created to do: create.

🛴

Check out my new playlist on Spotify, “🛴”.

This playlist is ideal for long solo car rides, for background music while studying, and for walking quickly (to the beat!) during the winter, and so, not lollygagging in the cold.

Photo is Albert Einstein as a boy. My friends suggest that either I’m secretly adopted and am his grandson, or that I am his reincarnation. Okay.

The title, 🛴, was the clear favorite over a distant second, 🎠.

Enjoy.