Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Review of An Other Cup by Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens)

What Kind of Spirituality Drives this Triple-Platinum Artist?

When the man formerly known as Cat Stevens contacted me, pleading for me to review his new CD, I caved in and said Well, OK. Actually, it was his publicist, but you know how these things go.

I had some reservations about the deal, mostly because of what we all know about Cat Stevens (
Yusuf Islam, as he is now known) from the evening news. Here’s a free PR tip: After 9/11, making a guest appearance on America’s no-fly list isn’t the best way to rejuvenate a recording career. But this blog’s Christian spirituality theme gives me a stated interest in exploring the nebulous “spiritualities” that challenge, surround, and give heightened meaning to The Real Thing.

“Wild World” wasn’t a shabby track back in the day—and there is always “Morning Has Broken”—which song you may think is an anomaly, given Yusuf’s discography (it is). Then there was the title of Yusuf's album. It pushed me over the edge, since An-Other Cup always sounds like a good idea to me.

Thus, my answer in the affirmative and Yusuf’s big sigh of relief. Going in, I had three hurdles that
An Other Cup would have to clear for me to give Mr. Islam a thumbs up.

  1. If you’re going to pull a Cassius Clay, your subsequent career had better justify it. I’m looking for some strong music.
  2. Given the spiritual motif of the album, I want some insight, some reflection—not just platitudes.
  3. This CD is not about coffee. But since I was drawn to the album by the coffee cerulean-sea-filled mug on the cover, this An Other Cup theme had better pan out. Or should I say mug out?
So, how did Yusuf’s An Other Cup stand up against these rigorous criteria?

: Guitar-folk with some horn inflection, flamenco tones. Catchy rhythms. Fun, upbeat (with the exception of “Don’t Let Me Be Understood,” which is pure melodrama). Our canary liked it enough to sing along, which I mean as a compliment (Cricket has a good ear). Yusuf’s voice is still strong. I didn’t hear anything that compared to the early Cat Stevens hits, but on the whole, An Other Cup was a good showing musically.

: Alas, Yusuf fell off the wagon at this point—or maybe The Tube, since he lives in London. Why? I’m not a Muslim, so this album should have given me plenty of material for interesting disagreement and dialogue. However, one song about Mohammed, in which he is never actually named, is the most explicitly religious track on the album. If Yusuf was a Christian artist, I would describe his spiritual content as “watery.” On “In the End,” Yusuf sings, “You can’t bargain with the truth/ ‘Cause one day you’re gonna die/And good’s going high/And evil’s going down – in the end.” Sounds good, but then, who could disagree with such general comeuppance? Later, Yusuf jives, “I think I see the light/I think I see the light.” And that sounds good as well…too bad.

Cup motif:
When he appeared on CBS Sunday Morning in December 2006, Yusuf said, "You know, the cup is there to be filled... with whatever you want to fill it with.” Hmm. None of the songs on the album explain further, or justify Yusuf’s choice to abandon coffee for sparkling water.

My short take:
With it’s overt allusions to Yusuf’s new faith, An Other Cup aspires to be an album with a message. It fails—unless “spirituality is good” can be considered profound communication. Musically, the CD is an enjoyable, breezy listen, and while Yusuf’s coiffure has gotten even wilder, his pipes are still tight. Take this one for what it’s worth.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Five Random Facts About Me

It was several days ago that Kevin Stilley posted something called a "meme," noting that he wasn't a big one for these things, just before linking up half the blogosphere. Funny man. I couldn't find Kevin's original post, but I recall that I was supposed to regale you readers with Five Random Facts About Myself. I am honored. On top of that, I'm rushed for time, and need instant post fodder before my bedtime arrives. So here goes.

Find Random Facts About Me

  1. I love rice cereal. You know, with a little apple juice for flavor, slightly warm? Doesn't get any better.
  2. I dislike sleep. Actually, I hate it. I fight it with my entire being, and awake confused and disgruntled when it gets the better of me.
  3. I can't explain it, but I am fascinated by wires of all types. Especially wires attached to this blogging machine.
  4. My mind often drifts to thoughts of basketball. Specifically, I think about my jump shot. Does it have enough backspin?
  5. I am very funny, and very, very good looking. But you already knew that.
And now I'm supposed to "tag" some other people to participate in this thing. So...
GEORGIE the monkey

You guys saw this coming, right?


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Monday, January 29, 2007

Why Is Coffee a Sin Against God?

Google queries still retain the ability to shock. Why is coffee a sin against God? I'm both amazed and happy you came here asking that question. Let me set you straight:

It's not.

Not against the Christian God, anyway. Smaller gods may have issues with coffee (as opposed to larger concerns, with, say, evil), not this one.
Voila! You are now free enjoy God's good creation. A more serious defense of coffee could be made, but now that you know the fundamental truth (God made coffee, and likes it), greater understanding will follow.

Glad I could resolve this vital theological question.

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We Are Moved

And Aidan didn't waste any time scoping out the new place. While the rest of us were grunting and sweating, throwing out our backs lifting 100 lb. boxes, he scaled the bedroom wall for a better view of the spectacle. Our friend Steve captured the moment with his cell.

And yeah, I'm exaggerating the pain involved in this move. In reality, we broke a speed record, virtually levitating all of our worldly belongings out of the old place and into the new in THREE HOURS. Even my impressive collection of ceramic coffee mugs got moved intact. And no one got hurt, unless you count the self-inflicted injuries accrued by several foolhardy youths who decided to sprint up eight flights of stairs to our apartment, spraining their calf muscles and nearly rupturing their lungs. Or was that just my experience?? Can I get some backup on this?

At any rate, when the Jayhawk game came on at 12:30, we were all kicked back in the new loft, popping pizza and swilling soda. (Can pizza pop? It can if you need to alliterate.) We have moved, and the new place is very, very good. In a few days it will be even better.

Thanks to all you heavily muscled people who assisted (and to those who pretended to be). Thanks to the people who color-coded my wardrobe, even. We love you all. You can come visit anytime, or at least anytime after we unpack most of our life. :)

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Goodbye, Downtown (Weekend Photo)

I snapped this picture from the window of our loft, aiming east across Broadway Boulevard. True, I used shallow focus to shine up the old brick facades across the street, but the sentimentality is real enough...part of us is sad to leave, even though the parking was horrible and there were no trees.

Goodbye, Downtown. Tomorrow we will leave you.

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Do You Laugh in Your Dreams?

Last night I was awakened by the sound of Aidan laughing in his sleep.

To say it made me feel good doesn't quite cover it. Among other things, I think of sleep as the time when nascent thoughts and feelings emerge, often wearing wild clothing. No one is inhibited while they dream. This accounts for the appearance of the weird, the puzzling, the frightening, but not only this...

In the small hours of the morning, I can't think of anything I'd rather hear than my child laughing without knowing it.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Black Market Bose

In Which I Briefly Contemplate an Impulse Purchase Which Would Enhance Our 24 Viewing Experience But Would Probably Not Be Good For My Marriage

I'm putting gas in the car, which has a drinking problem, when a guy in a suburban pulls up next to me. He wants to sell me "a four thousand dollar Bose home theatre system."

"I won it at work and I'm trying to give it away."
"Wow. How much do you want for it?"
"I don't know, I'm just trying to unload it."
I glance toward the passenger seat where Lindsay is sitting, blissfully ignorant of the deal that is about to go down... I sigh.
"Well, I'd better not."
"You know about Bose, right? Little speakers that make [bleeping] awesome hi-fi surround sound?"
"Yeah, I know. But I don't think so. We're moving. Actually, we're trying to downsize."
"Moving! You see. Now is the perfect time, then!"
"Not really."
"Man, I'm just trying to help you out!"

Goodbye, Bose Home Theater System. Even from inside your box, your appeal shone through. Your inner beauty could not be hidden. Rest assured that I am not rejecting you. It is an unfortunate combination of circumstance and bank account that hinders our friendship. Perhaps we will meet again someday, in more favorable circumstances.

Read more:

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Christian Spirituality Means Getting Your Hands Dirty

How dirty? Read this post. I'm not sure we're always prepared for how messy things get when we commit ourselves to loving people. Today at the Mission is quickly becoming a favorite read.

Read more:

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Jayhawks Tie for Lead in Big 12

I just took advantage of a pretty well-behaved Physics class and posted a quick piece on Phog Blog: Four-Way Tie Raises Questions - Like Whose PT Will Collins Steal? This is my first Phog Blog post for awhile, but I can't restrain the college hoops junkie in me indefinitely. KU's solid win over Baylor last night gave me the wherewithal to write something. So go get it.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Review of Pan's Labyrinth (Guest Post)

We are enow yet living in the field
To smother up [these items] in our [boxes],
If any order might be thought upon.
The devil take order now!
- Henry V

Chaos! Dust and disaster! A wall of boxes rises ever higher! I hear the bugle sounding in the blogosphere, but I am hemmed in. I cannot enter the fray.

Fortunately, a new champion has risen in my stead. A good man stands in the gap. I present to you... America's Young Theologian. Are there other would be-fighters? Send me your insignia quickly, but keep in mind that only the bravest men will pass muster. And now all warfare metaphors shall cease. Please pardon the non sequitor that is about to occur.

Enjoy the movie review. :) - Ariel


Review of Pan's Labyrinth

"I consider Children of Men, Pan's Labyrinth, and Babel sister films, three films that speak about similar themes. I think that the theme of ideology as a world between the communication of people is a common theme of the three films."
--Alfonso Cuaron, director of "Children of Men."

Guillermo del Toro sets Pan's Labyrinth in 1944 Spain, and like The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, has a militaristic point of departure for his fantasy. However, Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) never actually departs from this situation. Del Toro's fantasy follows a little girl, Ofelia, as she travels with her pregnant mother to live with her mother's new husband, a harsh man and a captain in Franco's military, in a mountainous rural area of northern Spain. The story weaves her fantasy world - full of fairies, fauns, and magic - with the oppression of the post-war Fascist regime.

Pan's Labyrinth is not a movie for children and one would hope that the viewing public realizes that fantasy and fairy tales need not be a child's affair. With a dark film like Pan's Labyrinth there is the worry that some of the uncomfortably violent scenes would be seen by children, but also that adults would dismiss this as child's play and not see what is a fantastic film. One should remember that fantasy in the end may be more real than a reality that is painted by philosophical and biological materialism. Having already mentioned the Narnia film that came out in 2005, one need only compare the representations of a faun to realise that with del Toro the audience is not in Lewis' quaint wonderland. Cinematically, del Toro would be closer to a Hitchcock who successfully blends humanity's care and brutality. Fairy tales, as del Toro says, "are meant to be tough lessons in life. This [film] is a fable about choice and disobedience. It's about that particular moment we all go through...when we are asked to stop believing, asked to stop choosing who we are, and become who everyone else tells us to be. In a world like the one that we live in, a world where the choices are every day poorer and more pathetic, it's very important to remember that we should not obey, that imagination should not comply."

Guillermo del ToroDel Toro is aware of the political implication of how we imagine, and presents a work of fantasy that does not attempt to straddle the worlds of childhood and adult, producing a story more rich and more subtle than Lewis' Narnia tales. To be clear, I don't think Lewis dumbs down his work to the level of children, though he does shave a little off his prose. However, Lewis' narratives are simple in the sense that Narnia was insufficiently fertile or creative having been imaginatively constrained by Lewis' allegorical impulse, which was the reason Tolkien hated the Narnia books. If one sees that The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe
was a poor film based upon an imaginatively constrained narrative, then it is easy to understand how Pan's Labyrinth goes beyond Lewis' allegory by tying together post-war Franco oppression with fauns, fairies, and royal child who enters the world of mortals. There's a wildness that comes from not knowing where the narrative might lead and this can be seen in the characters as well. A chummy Mr. Tumnus might invite you in for tea, but the faun in del Toro's fantasy resists being easily named, proclaiming, "I've had so many names...Old names that only the wind and the trees can pronounce."

Watching Babel immediately before starting Pan's Labyrinth, made the similarities between the films more apparent. In Babel ideologies that separate various cultures result in mistrust and separation. This alienation is held in tension with the tenuous but loving relationship between parent and child that unites each story line. Pan's Labyrinth has an ideological divide between those characters who reject fantasy and those who embrace imagination. Ofelia's mother discards a magic root that Ofelia had placed beneath her bed and in so doing discards her life. The doctor who responds to the captain, "But captain, obey for obey's sake...That's something only people like you do," realizes that to be human, to be bound to other people, means having the imagination to move beyond the demands of a disordered world.

I enjoyed Pan's Labyrinth more than Babel, and Babel is an excellent film. I've avoided going into more detail so as to avoid spoiling various parts, but I highly recommend Pan's Labyrinth; it is fantastic, horrific, beautiful, and heartfelt. Now I just need to see Children of Men.

--Daniel R. Morehead
Review first posted here.

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Read Books, Know God

Sometimes someone just nails it.

Do our own young people read books? Do they know the pleasures of the solitary reading of a life-changing page? Have they ever lost themselves in a story, framed by their own imaginations rather than by digital images? Have they ever marked up a page, urgently engaged in a debate with the author? Can they even think of a book that has changed the way they see the world . . . or the Christian faith? If not, why not?

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Is "Sehnsuct" a Path to God?

Did C.S. Lewis Get it Wrong?

Charles' title had me at hello: Taking Issue With C.S. Lewis. He begins, "'I'm treading on dangerous ground, but I think C.S. Lewis has something wrong." I find this issue so fascinating that I was tricked into leaving a fairly verbose comment. Go and add your take.

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Conversations, Education, & the Christian Ghetto

You expect them to be personable, to "take an interest." You would like to see a warmth and energy; ideally, there would be a kindness, even a love. A certain maturity of bearing is looked for, such as what you see, to a ludicrously exaggerated degree, in politicians and talk show personalities. That is, you expect them to place their self-awareness at the service of those around them. After all, this is inherent to their job description.

They are ordered to invest, day after day, in those around them, with small prospects of sufficient repayment. They are called upon to communicate empowering knowledge, and to do so in a way that does justice to the knowledge and maneuvers it into unwilling hearts and minds. To oversimplify is to denude reality of its force and nudge their audience closer to a colorless, ingrown life.

So when experience fails to jive with your expectations, you pause and reflect.

"Bubbly" and "chatty" are two adjectives that have never been aimed at me - but when I'm around these people, I make an effort to strike up conversations. I've discovered a surprising dynamic at play. If you catch them alone, they're often willing to talk. To be fair, friendly discussions sometimes take place. But at times there is a note of condescension, as their tones reflect the firm conviction that you are an outsider. They are doing you a favor by acknowledging your presence.

When a group of them are gathered in one place, the atmosphere changes dramatically. I sit there nearby because that is where I am, and I don't care to move - but I'm keenly aware of my bug-on-the-wall status. They warm to each other, exchanging insider stories, telling insider jokes, using insider jargon. I take a bite of my sandwhich and smile, my eyes fixed on the appropriate middle distance. I've been in this situation frequently enough that my occasional interjections have taken on an experimental quality. I say things just for fun, for my own amusement. In return, I get a one-sentence answer or a courtesy nod. Interesting...

I've met them on their own turf, in their own little ghetto. But I wonder: Would these people talk to me if I met them on the street? Would I, no longer the "outsider" in the wider setting of "the world," want to talk to them? Why would I?

It's the society of public school teachers I'm describing. And yes, there are exceptions to my exaggerated rule. But isn't there another lesson here as well?

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Monday, January 22, 2007

We Are Moving. We Are Getting Better.

And We're Leaving Our Downtown Loft for Another Downtown Loft

This week we’re packing up for a move ten minutes further north, which puts us just outside of “downtown Kansas City” proper. That’s cool with me, since I’ll finally qualify for gym membership at the North KC Community Center, the most fully-featured fitness club within a 50 mile radius. As well, we’ll be closer to my seminary and the high school where I teach. We may also get to stop paying taxes to “Kansas City”—money they obviously don’t spend on the roads, which look like the surface of the moon anytime we get an inch of rain. Plus the new place has some extra amenities like grass—as in, you know, sod.

We’re moving to a better place—in terms of square footage, at least—but the parting will be bittersweet. Lindsay and I have lived here for most of the first five years of our marriage, and we’ve had some wonderful times. Events not related to pillow talk have included: decorating the place together, exploring downtown, inviting lots of friends over, and sharing conversations (both naïve and wiser) about how our life would be shaped.

Of course, these walls have witnessed some huge blow-ups too. Angry diatribes. Slammed doors. Discouragement and angst over a remarkably diverse portfolio of life issues. Not to mention the incidental excitement over smashed car windows, pot-smoking neighbors, and a painful lack of vegetation.

So when you move, what gets taken and what gets left behind?

Aidan has been throwing a bewildering array of objects into a gigantic suitcase that is taller than he is (claiming they are his “favorite things”—since when is the coffeemaker his favorite thing?). Apparently his enthusiasm for the new adventure is unbounded, and I’d like to join him.

Are we entering a new era now? Are Christ’s mysterious goals for our lives closer to materializing? They must be. We are.

Moving is an apt metaphor for sanctification, is what I’m saying. I’m nerving myself to claim that we are moving “further up and further in”—deeper into the purposes of God. We have learned some things (albeit things we will relearn periodically, probably) and we’re getting older in Christ.

Who’s to say a change in spatial location can’t reflect a new era of life transformation?

In my mind's eye I can see our new home as a place where I spend less time getting mad at life and more time getting acquainted with Humility. I can see a place where Lindsay, Aidan and I play like kids, all three of us, in a beautifully biblical sense. I can see a place where seriously good conversations happen, and where new stories get written. I can see new friends, and better old ones. I can see brave plans being made and carried out. I can see new paths branching out from the concrete slab at the front door. I can see a place where the taste of Christ's glory is in my heart and on my tongue more often.

Are you listening, God? I'm counting on you to bankroll this.

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Mere Christianity vs. Simply Christian

Comparing C.S. Lewis & N.T. Wright

My plans for the blog over the last couple weeks have been a lot like real life - disrupted by shortages of time and money. (And weren't we all told that the internet was an escape from reality? We need to get back to that.) Nevertheless, BitterSweetLife lurches forward.

I forecasted some topics which are still in the works: Top Ten C.S. Lewis Quotes, More on Childlike Faith, some book reviews. All this is still on the way. To that list you can add a post on Christian Spirituality (what is it, really?) and an attempt on my part to respond to some of your magnificent comments. But in the meantime...

Lindsay and I were recently in a Barnes & Noble, minus AJ, jr., who was at home watching 24, when I picked up N.T. Wright's Simply Christian. As I scanned the back cover, I was both intrigued and scandalized to see comparisons to C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity. And not only comparisons. One reviewer had the puerile audacity to say that Wright's book was "better!" Clearly, investigations would have to be made.

To that end, I was pleasantly surprised to see that none other than
Internet Monk had carried out my investigation for me. Moreover, he has done so in a more diplomatic vein than that which I would have pursued (i.e., "better" than Lewis? Are you high?)

I encourage you to read
Michael Spencer's side-by-side comparison of the two books, then come back here and post your thoughts. I won't give away his conclusion, other than to say that while I may differ slightly, but I appreciate his perspective. Perhaps I'll chime in some more in the comments.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

Baby Digs Basketball (Weekend Photo)

Aidan was diplomatic about the gigantic pile of Christmas gifts he received, but to those who were closest to him, it was pretty obvious what his favorite present was. This photo was snapped moments before he palmed the ball and held at an arm's length, jumping off my lap into the air with a Jordanesque V-kick.

What's that you say? Fisher Price? Huh? What? We're talking Spalding here, dunk you very much.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Subtle Art of Living

Is Life is an Act?

My church planting class this week has pretty much been soaking up my time and mental energy, but I came across a fascinating quote in a new book, Branches to Heaven. What follows flies in the face of common wisdom and strikes me as paradoxical—qualities good enough to earn a second look. Ask yourself:

Have you ever considered whether there may be an obligation in life, or a great challenge, for you to take on a role or assume an identity, based on a persistent concept of the person you ought to be? Furthermore, is it possible that to attempt such a thing would be an act of authenticity rather than duplicity?

Read this slowly.

All these people I admired…were all dramatic personalities, making a strong impact. None of them bore any resemblance to the ordinary, commonplace, faceless citizen. Each had a characteristic style, not merely of writing or thinking but a style of presenting himself to the outside world. They attracted me because in their different ways they all treated life as if it were an art. I do not mean that they posed. They simply recognized, intuitively, that the presence of other people, even the humblest and fewest, constitutes an audience, and towards an audience one has certain duties. They are always giving a performance in the role for which they have cast themselves, making up the play as they go along, and tacitly inviting others to collaborate… It is no mere matter of posing, of permitting oneself to trifle or be insincere. Rather it is the recognition of a duty that is binding on everyone, but one that is instinctively accepted by those who fall into this type… Such people are in fact fulfilling a moral duty. The Creator…has equipped them with a certain identity, and they are all the time delightfully aware of this identity and out to get, and to give, as much fun as possible with it. – John Wain

What are your reactions to this idea? What makes it more interesting is that John Wain (not to be confused with the swaggering gunman) had a specific person in mind when he wrote this characterization. Bet you can't guess who he was talking about.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Best Church Planting Websites Ever

A Tentative List...

If you've read this blog carefully for more than a few weeks, you may be aware of my interest in church planting, urban church planting in particular. Having said that, this post may turn out to be off-topic for some of you--or who knows, you may realize that it pertains to what you're doing, or should be doing, after all. Keep reading, I dare you.

By way of explanation: Starting tomorrow, I'll be attending an immersion-style seminar on North American Church Planting. As part of the prep work for that course (which also involved reading and reviewing three books!), I had to do some online research. This included casing out some web sites designed with church planting in mind. I hate reading bad copy, and I like good design, so I was picky.

My favorite sites combined action-oriented methodology with rock-solid theology, and I thought I'd pass some on to you. (If you're aware of any great sites I missed, please point me to 'em.)

My top three sites:

  1. The Movement - Global City Church Planting: Sponsored by Tim Keller’s church, the site offers articles, mentoring, assessment, with a focus on major urban centers. Highlight: Ministry in the New Global Culture of Major City-Centers, by Keller, whose approach to integrating church with the postmodern mindset is exceptional.
  2. Acts 29 Network: Founded by Mark Driscoll, the network stresses orthodox theology and cultural contextualization with articles, media, and assessment tools. They also suggest that a little entrepreneurial blacktop-hoops swagger in a church planter can't hurt. Highlight: Driscoll's article on "The Ox: Qualifications of an Acts 29 Church Planter."
  3. This is Ed Stetzer’s polished site, featuring discussion forums, links, research and dissertations. There's a wealth of material to explore. Highlight: The Missionary Strategy of the Early Church (pdf), by Stetzer.

Three very good sites:
  1. Gailyn Van Rheenen’s site offers articles that address practical church planting issues with theologically sound suggestions. I'm a big fan of Van Rheenen's take on methods (and not just because our last names have the same first syllable)--theological reflection needs to drive praxis.
  2. Church Planting Village: A formidable array of resources from the North American Mission Board (Southern Baptist) marred by some nonfunctioning links. There's a lot here, but I didn't explore too far because of maintenance issues.
  3. A large collection of articles, many related to church planting, which hone in on “theology and postmodernity.” Authors are diverse (both Mark Driscoll and Brian McLaren appear), with an “emerging” flavor. Based on the dozen or so pieces I read, I'd say you'll have to take the good with the bad--lots of provocative thinking, though.

Best of the rest:
  1. Stadia - New Church Strategies: This network provides assessment and funding, working toward a national, collaborative church planting movement. I like their vision.
  2. Church Planting Solutions: Founded by church planters, this site provides services, advice, and training opportunities for church planters, focusing on logistics and marketing solutions. This site isn't too useful to me at the moment, but who knows, down the road... Anyone need some swank new business cards?

If you scan any of these sites, share your impressions by all means - particularly on the articles I linked. Also, if other sites deserve to be on the "best ever" roll, I'd love to hear about it.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

The Top Ten Books of 2006

In Other Words: Books You Should Read in 2007

As far as the blog goes, I’ve been finding my way slowly so far in 2007. Among the things I’ve been evaluating is the creativity quotient here at BitterSweetLife—that is, how much imagination and ingenuity (translation: time) I want to devote to what I post here.

I haven’t come to the point of resolution on that count yet, but why would I penalize you readers for my indecision? I wouldn’t. So, without further ado, here are the Top Ten Books of 2006. Actually, they are my top ten books of 2006—meaning I read them last year—but that’s pretty much the same thing, right?

Click the text links to read full reviews, where applicable. Click the cover shots to purchase these lovely tomes at Amazon, thereby throwing a few coins into the coffers of this blog at no expense to yourselves. (You can look around, but you won’t find a deal better than that anywhere.)

But go ahead and breathe out. Here, in no particular order, are the books themselves.

  1. Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale – Frederick Buechner. This slim volume holds more wisdom and beauty than some entire systematic theologies. (I won't be calling out any theologians at this point, in case you're wondering.) If I had to name someone as successor to C.S. Lewis, Buechner would be high in the running. I was so impressed after I read Telling the Truth that I couldn't find the words for a review.
  2. All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy. A haunting Western novel that transcends the genre. John Grady is one of the most memorable protagonists I've encountered in the last decade, and I am hoping he will reappear in McCarthy's later books.
  3. The Pilgrim’s Regress - C.S. Lewis. This elaborate allegory is Lewis's first book as a Christian, and one of his lesser-known works, but your efforts will be more than rewarded in this richly-imagined journey toward "the island" - a place we are all looking for.
  4. Gap Creek – Robert Morgan. This gritty, turn-of-the-century novel leaves a clean, sweet aftertaste and Robert Morgan showcases a knack for sustained surprise. Think you know what's going to happen? You're wrong.
  5. As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner. The first full-length Faulkner novel I read, this death & burial saga is lurid, frightening, and haunting in turn. But as you'd expect, it's all exceptional writing (previously unreviewed).
  6. The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway. Who would think that a book so bluntly written could be so piercing? This is the Ecclesiastes-like novel that made Hemingway famous.
  7. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek – Annie Dillard. Dillard takes a concerted, vehement wonder at the created world, and fastens it over a gritty network of empirical facts. The result is part poetry, part fire, and completely masterful.
  8. Peace Like a River – Leif Enger. Perfectly paced narrative, tough but endearing characters, and convincing dialogue make this spiritually-charged adventure story work in a spectacular fashion. Enger's book made me laugh out loud, agonize over the outcome, and, yes, even shed a few tears. (As in the case of Buechner's Telling the Truth, I was too unhinged at the finale to write a review.)
  9. A Certain Justice – P.D. James. I read quite a few of James's mysteries in 2006, but Justice stands out as a favorite: the narrative is seamless, woven with supreme pacing, and James’ villain is the darkest antagonist I’ve encountered in recent years.
  10. Confessions of a Reformission Rev. - Mark Driscoll. Maybe I should have saved the lone "theology" book on this list for another time, but Driscoll deserves mention because of his book's impact. In this autobiographical account of how Mars Hill Church got started, Driscoll merges a theology of church and missions with a compellingly gritty vision of what it means to plant a church in postmodern America, and does so while eschewing all churchy platitudes. Driscoll is a good (and very funny) writer, not a great one - but the content of Confessions is excellent and, for me, very timely.
And now, a bonus. Don't say I never gave you anything for free.
11. The Pacific - Mark Helprin. This brilliant collection of short stories is an ideal antidote to the depression and murky ambiguity that characterizes much short fiction today. Helprin's stories are crowded with real heroes, humor, and beautiful women. They shine with life.

So, did anyone else read anything good in 2006? Answer that question after you grab a few of these titles. ;)

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Coming Soon, Blogger Beta

In the next week or so, if all goes well, I will be making the much-anticipated switch to Blogger Beta. (Or is it Blogger 2.0 by now?) Anyway, keep your eyes open. I'm not anticipating any major glitches, but it's likely that some hacks will stop working and a few of you may need to switch your RSS subscriptions. If you want to play it safe, you can check now: This is the correct RSS feed, which will continue to work. Once I make the switch to Beta, I'll be updating the blog's functionality a little.

Oh yeah, and there are some real posts on the way as well.

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Jayhawks vs. Tigers Tonight

One Wax Job Coming Up

The Jayhawks have Mario Chalmers (my fav), Brandon Rush, Julian Wright and a couple other future NBAers. The Tigers have...Stefhon Hannah. The game's most interesting storyline will probably be the feud between Hannah and Sherron Collins. Here's a position-by-position rundown from the KC Star. Jason King's prediction?

Promising as Mike Anderson’s Tigers have looked at times, they don’t have the horses to beat the Jayhawks. This truly will be 40 Minutes of Hell — for Missouri.
You could almost feel sorry for the Tigers. Almost.

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Saturday, January 13, 2007

Well, I'm Back

Live Oak in New Orleans
With a hat tip to Sam Gamgee, we have returned from the far reaches of Louisiana, thoroughly renewed in mind and spirit and with a lot of gumbo under our belts. Actually, it wasn't as if we were way out in the sticks - just far enough out for comfort. My sister's fiance's family has what amounts to (keep in mind this is a city kid speaking) a small plantation about an hour outside of New Orleans. We had an adventurous, spicy, heart-pumping time.

I was telling Lindsay that this was the most carefree vacation I've had in quite a while. The schedule was structured, but just so it would give enough resistance to be comfortable. We road horses, tore around the property on a four-wheeler, climbed live oaks, and played football and volleyball and hide-and-seek, all accompanied by our intrepid hosts who also doubled as guides and made sure no one got killed in the rapier fights. Somehow we also found time to drive into New Orleans, including the French Quarter, which is remarkably intact, and I read half of Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing. Every couple hours we stopped the running, jumping and reading to eat jambalaya, gumbo, red beans and rice, etc., and drink gallons of coffee with chicory.

While playing hide-and-seek, I rediscovered that frighteningly good feeling you have as a kid when you are sneaking around outside after dark, crawling through patches of shadow, listening to twigs snap, making strategic alliances with your siblings so that maybe they will get tagged instead of you when you are forced to make a run for it - the strange thrill of trying hard not to get caught. I also rediscovered the fact that I play a pretty mean game of hide-and-seek.

We love the new in-laws-to-be. We had a ridiculously good time.

Some of you might also enjoy this earlier post, which features some New Orleans photos. Now I must begin to adjust to the snow and ice which greeted us upon our return home...

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

We're Outta Here

Surprise, surprise. After I delivered my message at church this morning, I had a moment of divine revelation: it was time for a vacation. We'll be leaving for Louisiana, effective immediately, and returning on Friday.

Actually, there was a little more foresight involve in the trip - although not much. I probably won't be around the 'net too much down in the bayous (we're visiting my sister's fiancé’s family) unless we're talking shrimp nets, but I do have some plans for this blog when I get back:

  • More thoughts on child-like faith (now that I have mastered the subject, having preached about it)
  • The Top Ten C.S. Lewis Quotes of All Time (It will be one of the hardest things I've ever done)
  • The Top Ten Books of 2006 (Yeah, I'm digging the top ten lists)
  • A review of Madeleine L'Engle's Walking on Water (Preview: I'm juiced to write)
  • A revamped approach to the link list that will get my friends more traffic (If you think that your blog is both worth a shot and conspicuously absent, let me know...)
  • And much, much more ;)

As always, feel free to speak up if there's some other topic you'd like to see appear here.

We're out.

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Friday, January 05, 2007

GQ Baby at Lunch (Weekend Photo)

Aidan has started styling his hair, but he is still having trouble getting food into his mouth without giving himself a facial. Am I missing something here? I would have thought that putting gel in your hair and roughing it up in haphazard postmodern fashion would require more coordination, not less, than what's required to put graham crackers in your pie hole.

I'm a little concerned at what Aidan's motor skills reveal about his priorities. Style over substance at such a young age? (I hope you're reading this, son.) First it was clandestine trips to Urban Outfitters, now this.

I can only hope that Aidan's humility will catch up with his precocious style sensibilities as he grows in wisdom and stature and favor with his fan club.

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Quick Faith Quiz

Here are a few questions to challenge your faith jones. Answer them correctly, and your spiritual acumen will be obvious to all. Well, maybe not... I'm more interested in simply exploring these queries a little, and don't have "the right answers" in mind. Really. So what do you think:

  1. When Jesus talks about "faith like a child," what does he have in mind?
  2. Is "child-like faith" different from "normal faith?" (Assuming, in this case, that normal faith is the healthy, 100% supernatural stuff that was good enough for Moses, Elijah, David and everyone else who has been, will be, or are being saved by grace.)
  3. Or should we assume that faith like a child is, well, the one kind of faith that God is after?
  4. That is, either you have this kind of faith, which Christ said will inherit the kingdom of heaven, or you don't have faith at all?

I've been given an opportunity to preach at church this Sunday, and I'm leaning toward the topic of "Faith Like a Child" make your suggestions snappy, all right? ;)

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Great Writing Quotes

C.S. Lewis, Annie Dillard, & Augustine Sound Off

One of my resolutions for the new year has to do with writing deliberately and with greater focus. I’m playing with the idea of re-opening the Pandora’s box called “my novel”—which, to point out the obvious, has never really been closed since I opened it in the first place.

I’m not sure what effects such a goal would have on this blog, but as far as BitterSweetLife goes, I want to maintain (recapture?) the tone and content that has characterized it for most of its young life. That may mean, among other things, fewer posts but more thoughtful and creative ones. Whatever I end up doing, looking to some great writers for advice can’t hurt.

To that end, I’m posting some of my favorite quotes on writing. I’d also like to hear from anyone else who’s heading into 2007 with authorial aspirations—be it to get something published, or simple to hone your blogging abilities. So use the link field to point us to your quote(s) and possibly some commentary on where you want your writing to head in the year ahead. The invitation’s open.

And now, here are some great quotes on writing from the likes of C.S. Lewis and Saint Augustine, who would have been prolific bloggers if given the chance. Be inspired, be instructed—and then go pound something out on your own keyboard.

I am the sort of man who writes because he has made progress, and who makes progress by writing. - Augustine

Yet we must say something when those who say the most are saying nothing. - Augustine, The Confessions

Rembrandt and Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Gauguin, possessed, I believe, powerful hearts, not powerful wills. They loved the range of materials they used. The work’s possibilities excite them; the field’s complexities fired their imaginations. The caring suggested the tasks; the tasks suggested the schedules. They learned their fields and then loved them. - Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

What you want is practice, practice, practice. It doesn’t matter what we write (at least this is my view) at our age, so long as we write continually as well as we can. I feel that every time I write a page either of prose or of verse, with real effort, even if it’s thrown into the fire the next minute, I am so much further on. - C.S. Lewis, Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves

I am sure that some are born to write as trees are born to bear leaves: for these, writing is a necessary mode of their own development. If the impulse to write survives the hope of success, then one is among these. If not, then the impulse was at best only pardonable vanity, and it will certainly disappear when the hope is withdrawn. - C.S. Lewis, Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves

Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it. Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life, and you will save it. - C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

And now that you’ve been challenged… I’m convinced that humor is also essential to the writing process:
I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend. During visiting hours, I enter its room with dread and sympathy for its many disorders. I hold its hand and hope it will get better. - Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial "we." - Mark Twain

Don't say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream. - Mark Twain

A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. - Thomas Mann

Finally, remember that lesson that hopefully we all learned in English 101:
Only the hand that erases can write the true thing. - Meister Eckhart

Now, what have you got?

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Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife