Thinking Out Loud

August 29, 2016

Pushed Off the News Cycle

Filed under: Christianity, current events, media — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:56 am

Eyewitness News

Growing up in Toronto, television consumption was often dominated by the three network stations from Buffalo, New York. On the half hour, programs were punctuated by bumpers for the local newscast, and stereotypically the lead item on Channel 7’s Eyewitness News involved a fire in Lackawanna, Cheektowaga, or West Seneca. This provided great fodder for standup comics on the Canadian side; with some of the humor having to do with the unique names of the city’s suburbs.

Lately, I’ve noticed that the U.S. network newscasts at 6:30 have also been adopting more of a local news approach. The “If it bleeds it leads” idea was not as common in earlier decades, with the networks taking more of a big picture view of the news. A remnant of that can be seen on PBS, which still steers away from fires or plane crashes.

Some of the reason for this has to do with the number of weather related stories which have been relentless over the past three years. I’ve written about that subject here and here, albeit more devotionally.

There can be no doubt however that the U.S. federal election is also pushing a large number of stories and reports off the news cycle. What business mergers, medical advances, environmental initiatives or social trends are we not hearing about because every significant quotation from Donald or Hillary needs to be included?

Someone once said if you want to know what happened the previous day, but if you want a broader perspective on what those happenings mean and why they matter you purchase a weekly news magazine. Unfortunately, both are falling victim to the need to use sensationalism to sell more copies. Occasionally, even the latter will be accused of tabloid journalism.

What are we to do? I would say look more deeply to find the stories that are getting pushed off. Blogs and Twitter help fill in the gaps, as do those one-paragraph state-by-state reports in USAToday.

And try to find the good news stories that we often don’t hear in a season of primaries, caucuses and campaigning.

 

August 27, 2016

Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Podcasts and the Stewardship of Your Time

podcastsIt started about a month ago when my friend Martin pointed out to me that my new smartphone had a feature whereby I could bypass the keyboard and simply dictate messages and email responses. I quickly became aware that it’s easy to be verbose when you’re talking compared to finger-typing, which is often more concise.

But it also started several months before that when I realized how many of the bloggers I follow have simply switched over to doing podcasts. Why write it all out when you can simply press the record button and start rambling?

So for obvious reasons, today’s blog post here will be shorter.

I think we’re all really getting sucked down a giant hole where too much time is being spent on social media to the point where other things are not happening or getting done. The time it will take you to read this if much, much less than it would be if I decided to do this as a podcast. I know that because I’ve seen the comparative length of emails and texts that result from the speech feature on my phone.

As Christians, the stewardship of our time is important. In the old KJV, Ephesians 5:16 was rendered using the phrase, “Redeeming the time.” More recent translators went with:

  • Make every minute count (CEV, NASB, and others)
  • Make the best use of your time (J. B. Phillips)
  • Don’t waste your time on useless work (Eugene Peterson)
  • Make the most of every living and breathing moment (The Voice)

The time factor figures into social media, but even more into addictive online behavior such as porn-related and game-related activity.

But the podcast thing is important because many of these run 50 minutes to two hours and have become very trendy. So here are some podcast-specific suggestions:

  1. Be really discerning which ones you want to invest your time with
  2. Don’t do every episode, choose the one with guests and topics of interest
  3. Fast forward through banter and sections of lesser concern
  4. Limit daily or weekly consumption
  5. Keep a balance between spoken and written content you consume

…Keeping this short, as promised! Go make the most out of your day.


This discussion continues today at Christianity 201.

August 16, 2016

Once Again, God’s Not Dead

God's Not Dead 2 BillboardReleasing today on DVD, this is, by my count, the third movie in a highly successful franchise for Pure Flix Entertainment, if you count the first God’s Not Dead from 2014 and then 2015’s Do You Believe? Like Snakes on a Plane, the film’s intention is clear from the outset; you know what you’re expecting.

With Do You Believe? I remarked at the time that there were more characters, more plot lines to follow and a lot more on-screen action compared with GND1 . With God’s Not Dead 2, there is less activity. This is a more cerebral film providing food for thought for the skeptic as well as the already converted. In some respects, I felt this 2016 movie was more ‘preaching to the choir,’ though I’ll grant that its potential to impact the unbeliever is still present.

With the two previous films, I observed that one of the major wins was the ability to transcend Christian clichés and awkward screen moments. This time around, I decided that a certain number of each may be inevitable if one is going to portray authentic Christians doing Christian things.

There were also what some might consider gratuitous appearances by two Christian apologists, J. Warner Wallace and Lee Strobel, but their presence was essential to a major plot point, though it’s unclear how the lawyer in the courtroom scene in which they appear was able to snag them. (Gary Habermas and Rice Broocks also appear.)

Melissa Joan Hart realistically plays the central character in the movie, a teacher under threat of losing not only her job, but everything else in a punitive action hoping to curb the presence of Christianity in the classroom once and for all. Her crime isn’t so much quoting what Matthew attributes to Jesus as it is doing so from memory, with conviction and being able to cite chapter and verse.

Jesse Metcalfe is cast as her somewhat inexperienced atheist lawyer who might not get the whole Jesus thing, but understands clearly the issues the case raises.

Hayley Orrantia of The Goldbergs TV series is student who is the supposed victim in the legal case in which her parents are the plaintiffs. Other cast members include Pat Boone, and Duck Dynasty‘s Sadie Robertson. And yes, The Newsboys are back. 

Boone also gets this line early in the film, “That’s the thing about atheism, it doesn’t take away the pain, it just takes away the hope.” Another key line is in the graphic above, a billboard which — in a real life imitates the film moment — was refused space at the Republican National Convention last month as being “too political and way too incendiary.”

Having fewer plot lines and characters to track than Do You Believe? made this more enjoyable, but with this third film in three years, I do wonder if the genre is being overworked. On the other hand, fiction is a great vehicle for apologetics — including some of my favorite books — and so I was fully engaged as the movie developed. 

Note: If you’re watching the DVD, be sure to continue through the closing credits for what is either an interesting sequel-begging scene, or a nod to the composers who end their pieces with an unresolved chord.


Movie has been provided courtesy of Sony Home Entertainment Canada and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc.

I received a screening link, features on the full DVD include:

  • Deleted Scenes
  • Man, Myth, Messiah with Rice Broocks
  • Between Heaven and Hollywood with David A.R. White
  • Visual Effects of God’s Not Dead 2
  • Filming in Arkansas
  • First Liberty
  • Trailers
  • English and Spanish Audio
  • English and Spanish Subtitles

 

 

July 14, 2016

Miracles Happen: A Review of Miracles From Heaven

Miracles from Heaven DVD

This review contains spoilers…

Miracles from Heaven is a movie based on the real life story of Kevin and Christy Beam, and in particular their daughter Anna who contracted a rare gastric disease in which her central nervous system stopped sending signals to her intestines, making it impossible for her to process food. Her pediatric specialist does not offer the family much in the way of hope.

But one afternoon while climbing a tree with her older sister, she suffers the equivalent of a three-story fall. Miraculously, she has little more than a concussion. There are no broken bones, no spinal injury.

Even more amazing is when it becomes apparent that the fall has caused a jump re-start of her nervous system and thereby kickstarted her intestinal tract. At the time of filming, the real-life Anna has not been sick in three years…

…DVD releases create a unique challenge for the reviewer. With the theater run played out, the basic plot line is already known, and I’m a little freer here with information than if it was the theatrical version we were considering. We have a general idea where the movie is going and simply mark the various steps toward its conclusion. This isn’t an intricate plot, and so the emotional level of the movie is somewhat steady throughout the first two-thirds of the film.

On this however, my wife and I had different reactions. At the beginning I noted to her that they seemed to be moving rather quickly, with some scenes rather abruptly jump-cutting to the next. But she felt the the movie dragged in places and could have moved faster.

It’s also difficult to watch as a parent. You empathize with the tremendous stress the entire family is experiencing. And as someone who isn’t a fan of medical drama, the hospital scenes are more documentary than entertainment.

But it’s hard not to be invested in the final third of the movie when Anna’s miracle happens. We long for happy endings, and this movie does not disappoint. There’s also an element at the end which is similar to the movie Heaven is For Real which released from the same production company; in fact there is an edition of the DVD available in which Heaven and Miracles are bundled into a single package.

The film’s purpose is not to discuss the validity of miracles in an age of science and skepticism, however there are some realistic moments where the possibility of facing this story with doubt and disbelief are brought to the surface. (On this I am reminded of the blind man in John 9:25 who is faced with people wanting to know the why and the how: “One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!“)

Christy Beam’s faith is fragile, perhaps even non-existent at points in the journey. It’s understandable, given the situation the family faces, not only with the daughter’s illness, but also the financial stress. Some of the people in her church, like Job’s comforters, don’t exactly help either. While those people are southern stereotypes, the portrayal of her church seems realistic.

I did not see Heaven is for Real but I’m glad I got to see this one. The DVD released officially on Tuesday. Enjoy the preview below or learn more at MiraclesFromHeaven-Movie.com .

 

 

Thanks to Sony Entertainment Canada and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. for providing a pre-release screening link to this movie.

July 9, 2016

Media to Fill Your Home

It’s been awhile, but this is the third time for this article here, this time with revisions…

I’ve previously written here about how we’re big fans of sermon audio when we travel, and as someone who works in a Christian bookstore environment, it’s a given that I’m a huge booster of Christian books and music.

But today I want to approach this from a slightly different perspective. Many times I’ve written about the battle that goes on for our thought life, and how this takes place on a moment by moment basis. Back in June, I posted a great analysis of the types of thoughts, that are going on in our heads at any given point in time.

I don’t spend a lot of time commuting, but I am increasingly aware of the contrast that exists between the mental processes that take place when I omit to turn on the radio — which is mostly presets for Christian stations — and drive in silence, versus the times I have worship songs playing. This is a giant contrast in my thoughts and attitude, not a mild difference.

Listening to Bible Teaching

I frequently listen to sermons from Willow Creek, The Meeting House, Woodland Hills and North Point, in addition to live sermons at church, and the occasional streaming of conferences.

Life was not always so.

I can remember asking my parents why they had to constantly listen to more preacher programs. Their media of choice was WDCX, an FM station in Buffalo, and WHLD, a Buffalo AM outlet. Of course, my choice would have been Top 40 rock station 1050 CHUM in Toronto. I think that was the real issue.

But today, although I hunger to learn and grow and discover more about Christ through what others have learned, I also am acutely aware of what happens in the absence of Christian media in the home.

Bible teaching can come in other forms besides radio and television. There are the aforementioned sermons-on-demand and live-streaming church services on the internet, plus many pastors often do a separate podcast. But there are still audio CDs of sermons kicking around, and of course books.

Reading Christian Books

One of my latest rants is that, in the average 21st Century family, I’m not sure the kids have ever seen dad sitting in a chair reading, and here I’m speaking of reading anything, a newspaper or magazine would suffice. How much more is it important to take time out and immerse yourself in the Bible, devotional material and study resources. If you missed it, I encourage you to read an article we did on Bill Hybels’ “Chair Time” concept.

Listening to Christian Music

For some Christ-followers, the dominant form of uplifting, inspirational and wholesome media is Christian music; which may consist of hymns, mass choirs, southern gospel, adult contemporary, Christian rock in all its various genres, and the current favorite, modern worship.

Again, these can be accessed in various forms. Some choose mp3 files which can be played back in the car and in the home. Many people are still buying music CDs. Christian music song videos abound on video sharing sites like YouTube. There is an abundance of Christian radio available online, and here in North America, most people live within range of a broadcast station that plays music, teaching or a mix of both.

But I have to say that as a worship leader, nothing compares to the songs what you experience in a worship environment with your faith family. Even today, I hear a song and I’ll remember which church I was in when I heard it and who was leading worship that day. Or I’ll be reading a scripture and I’ll recognize the verse as a line from a worship lyric. If you happen to be blessed with a gift that allows you to play in the worship band, a particular song can get stuck in your head for hours, and in a good way.

For a listing of some of my favorite songs with video, visit the sidebar in the right margin at Christianity 201.

Christian Movies

Our family was never a movie-culture family. We’ve been to the cineplex less than a dozen times, ever. But the production of Christian cinema has exploded over the last few years, and if you’re the type who enjoys gathering everyone around the home theater there are now some really decent films from which to choose, plus you’re supporting a genre that has tremendous outreach potential. You can purchase DVDs — great for loaning out after you’re done — or stream movies live.

Listening to God

These varied media I find to be a positive alternative to anything else, and in fact fulfill a direct instruction from scripture:

Phillips – Col. 3: 16-17 Let Christ’s teaching live in your hearts, making you rich in the true wisdom. Teach and help one another along the right road with your psalms and hymns and Christian songs, singing God’s praises with joyful hearts.

What will control your thought life this week?

June 20, 2016

Profile: Artist James Ruddle

James Ruddle Henderson Bridge

Henderson MuralThis one has an interesting story. It started with our oldest son, who moved into a townhouse complex about two blocks from where he had been living before, at Tyndale University. As we got to know the area we noticed a very large mural under a railway bridge, and on one occasion, walking to get some pizza, we took some pictures. My youngest son tried to match the pose of one figure — he missed the whole leg crossing thing — but put it on his Facebook page. (The picture at the top only shows half of it, the rest wraps around the corner.)

But it just so happened he was standing next to the name of the artist who had painted the mural; no small feat considering the size of the thing. One of his friends posted, “James Ruddle is an awesome Christian artist! Love his work.”

It was like someone activated the push-button starter on the journalist in me. I was determined to know more. So I checked out JamesRuddle.com and clicking on ‘Community Projects’ found the story of how the bridge mural was painted over six days.

Then I clicked on ‘Christian Art,’ which was, after all, the object of my search, only to discover we’ve encountered him before here on the blog, just not by name. He was the artistic director for the centerpiece of “The Gospel” a video we featured here to highlight the performing arts efforts of a local church east of Toronto, C4; which also became an art installation in the main lobby of the church.

C4 Church - Gospel Video Cross

The video bears another look, so…

His Wikipedia page also caught my interest, describing the time he spent 72 hours in a box to paint the walls and ceiling of the McMaster University Student Center. A story on a large triptych in a local church describes his unusual technique which blends both art and welding skills.

James is definitely a one-of-a-kind artist. You can follow his various projects on Twitter @jamesruddle and on his YouTube channel, The James Show (where you can see his blowtorch technique in action) and at Deviant Art (where you can see his latest project, portraits of the Royal Family.)


It’s amazing how your story can partially overlap on someone else’s journey. Two of the churches mentioned in links in this piece — Carruther’s Creek (aka C4) and Forest Brook Community Church — are both located in the eastern part of the Greater Toronto Area, and are both churches that until recently we would get to visit every summer. We attended C4 for two years, and were married in the church for which Forest Brook is a ‘daughter-church.’ (They didn’t speak of ‘plants’ back then, but rather used the more interesting term, ‘hiving off.’) If you know someone who lives in Scarborough, Pickering, Ajax, Whitby or doesn’t mind driving a distance; we recommend both churches.

June 2, 2016

Largest Independent Wholesale Distributor of Christian Books to Close

After several days of speculation, Send the Light Distribution (STL) of Bristol, Tennessee confirmed on Tuesday night that it will be shutting down in a brief email and website posting:

STL Closing

While you probably never heard of STL, they were a key conduit in getting Christian products to the brick-and-mortar retail community, with more than 10,000 wholesale customers. Despite this, the announcement this week has been greatly under-reported in Christian-focused media.

Send the Light DistributionSTL provided one-stop shopping for bookstores who would otherwise need to deal with each individual publisher. Of the more than 500 vendors who work with STL — which included book, curriculum, Bible, music, DVD and giftware creators — nearly a third were exclusive, meaning that STL was their warehouse, under the subsidiary Advocate Distribution banner, which allowed an equal playing field with books released by major publishers such as Thomas Nelson, Zondervan, Baker Books, etc.)

Those independent publishers must now scramble to find new avenues of distribution, though the options are very limited.

The first option is Anchor Distributors of New Kensington, Pennsylvania, which has had a strong Charismatic emphasis which may temper the enthusiasm of STL’s more conservative publishers, although many of those are already represented in the company’s inventory. Anchor recently purchased Word Alive, a Canadian Christian book wholesaler, and is now the only remaining Christian distributor.

(A well-known company in Cambridge, Mass., Christian Book Distributors, primarily sells to consumers, not to bookstores. Despite having the word distributors in its name, it is not considered a wholesale supplier.)

The other option is Ingram Publisher Services which is part of Ingram Content Group, the world’s largest independent book distributor, which deals in a wide swath of printed materials including books from other religions, erotic literature, etc. which would be equally repulsive to STL’s conservative clients. Furthermore, Ingram recently slashed the wholesale discount to smaller stores unable to meet its new $5K minimum.  (Full disclosure: …including the store this writer is associated with. While we still have access, we no longer can afford to pay a premium price for products and still remain sustainable.) (Point of information: Other publishers and distributors don’t do this, though the size of individual orders can affect discounts received; some smaller stores could view Ingram’s actions in this as simply hostile.)

Given the choice, Anchor would be the better option.  Without new distribution avenues, stores dealing in print books may be forced to tell customers that a favorite author is no longer available.

The closing of STL also ends Great Value Books (GVB) a company which began as OM Lit, a fundraising arm of Operation Mobilization.  STL had recently folded GVB into its primary warehouse. Bargain books are great deals for customers and can also contribute positively to a bookstore’s bottom line.

The closing of STL also affects another segment of the Christian population: Homeschoolers. Unless someone steps up to buy it, HomeSchoolCatalog.org will end when STL shuts down. As it did for bookstores, the homeschool division allowed families to purchase all their supplies from a single source.

So why the closure? In an article at CT yesterday, STL president Glenn Bailey stated, “When companies get creative and find new and better ways to do things, like Amazon Prime … at the end of the day, that kind of thing also destroys the current or past way that business had been done.”

But some see this as just a delayed ripple effect of the bankruptcy last year of Family Christian Stores. Literary agent Steve Laube disagrees, telling CT: “If their demise had been six months ago, I would have made the correlation [to the FCS bankruptcy]. But today it is merely a reflection of the shift in retail buying patterns. Ironically, it doesn’t mean books aren’t selling, when in fact they are. Instead it only means they are being purchased in a different place.”

For publishers and bookstore owners alike, this is a sad time. We wish them — and the nearly 100 employees at STL — the best and encourage you to pray for all who are impacted by this.

 

 

 

 

 

May 10, 2016

The Bible Project: An Overview of the Book of Joshua

Last night I discovered that although we very briefly alluded to The Bible Project in one of the link lists, we haven’t really said much about it. So today, we solve the problem by giving you a sample of what it’s all about. A video is worth a thousand words, right?

The Bible Project is the work of Dr. Timothy Mackie. You can learn more about him by listening to an episode of the Deconstructionists Podcast as well as at JoinTheBibleProject.com or by going to directly to (or subscribing to) their YouTube channel.

So without further introduction here’s a look at Joshua. (We’re also posting Joel later today at Christianity 201.) If you’re like me, you’ll wish this type of resource had existed a long, long time ago. New videos are being uploaded rapidly, so stay tuned.

 

 

March 12, 2016

Sitcom Bait and Switch

Real O'Neals

At first I wasn’t going to watch. My broadcast television viewing — beyond the 6:30 newscasts — is limited to a couple of sitcoms which are basically time to de-stress. Besides, I have to justify owning the monster in the living room. Then I decided I’d give it a couple of episodes after all.

Billed as “an Irish-Catholic comedy,” The Real O’Neals is a mid-season replacement that joins a rather huge stable of ABC family-centered sitcoms such as Last Man Standing, Blackish, Fresh of the Boat, The Middle, The Goldbergs, Modern Family, etc. Only Dr. Ken is primarily workplace-centered.

Make no mistake, there is an Irish element and a Roman Catholic element to each episode. As a religion writer, that’s what drew me in. How would they portray the family? The mom, played by Martha Plimpton — who is somewhat of a carbon copy of the mother in The Goldbergs — had a bit of rant at the beginning of the episode broadcast Tuesday that sounded more Evangelical than anything. And the cross — definitely not a crucifix — in the background of one scene looked like someone in set design missed a detail. At least they got the Bingo Night part right.

Oh, and Jesus appears in each episode, but only one family member can see him.

But make no mistake, The Real O’Neals is the story of gay teenager’s coming out as gay to his family, to his girlfriend, and then to the community at large. Noah Galvin plays Kenneth “Kenny” O’Neal and his character is, in my view, the central one of the show. If anything, Kenny is a role model for gay teens and the program is thereby a “How To” manual for youth in a similar position.

Some in the gay community may feel the show kept a safe distance from some issues, but I’m sure that high school students, gay or straight, would give this a more positive review.

You Me and the Apocalpyse

In a way, the show parallels the British/American co-production, You, Me and the Apocalypse. Despite the presence of a priest or two and a nun, and frequent scripture citations from Revelation in the first few episodes, any religious elements in the plot generally take a backseat to the action, adventure, suspense and intrigue.

There is the element of people claiming that the impending impact on earth of a giant meteor is actually the second coming of Jesus Christ but the key priest, Father Jude, played by a chain-smoking Rob Lowe, who must deal with Messiahs and rumors of Messiahs, is really part of a larger purpose and his clergy status is almost incidental as the series progresses. The show is really about the convergence of four very disparate people and plot-lines

Full disclosure: I bailed after four episodes. My wife watched the whole series — it has already aired in the UK — and filled me on the six scripts I am missing. I found the show terribly dark and have no idea why it aired at 8:00 PM in the U.S.

…With both The O’Neals and Apocalypse, I think the producers are playing on the American interest in all things spiritual while in fact furthering a different agenda. It’s not that Christians are misrepresented, but that the religious element is almost secondary to the larger plot.

 

February 18, 2016

War Zone vs. Highway Carnage

Filed under: Christianity, current events, media, weather — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:59 am

Now it’s Syria. Next month, I fear to say, it may be somewhere else.

We see the video on the evening news of areas blown apart by war and it’s easy to feel grateful that we don’t live there.

free_snow_signBut I wonder what they see.

I’ve done some weather related blog posts before — everybody talks about it, right? — so I don’t want to repeat myself, but I wonder what people in the Middle East would think if they saw the highway carnage on the U.S. Interstate Highway System that also plays out on those same supper hour newscasts here.

On Monday, which was the Presidents Day holiday, over 2,000 separate accidents were reported, many involving loss of life. It’s easy to sit back and armchair quarterback the whole thing; “Why didn’t they just wait and leave the next morning?”

But on that day we found ourselves having to drive in similar conditions without an option of postponing our travel. The roads were sheer ice. Averaging about 5 mph, I still managed to trigger the anti-lock braking system with just the slightest touch of the brakes. We saw the horrific after effects of cars in the ditch and facing the wrong way.

Do those scenes ever play on television there?

What if a family in the Midwest or a family on the East Coast decided they wanted to be refugees? Refugees from freezing rain. Refugees from tornadoes. Refugees from hurricanes. Refugees from mudslides. Refugees from record snowfalls.

What if a line started forming and heading toward the equator? People seeking to escape the weather with the same earnest as those fleeing war zones on the other side of the earth? Again, I ask the question, “Were people really meant to live here?”

That question always leads me to another. Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote:

To those who constantly ask, “Is America in Bible prophecy,” the answer might have more to do with the country being diminished by weather catastrophe than by some major loss of economic influence.

But take that question, “Is America in Bible Prophecy” and Google it sometime. The results can be rather disturbing. Two years ago we looked at four possible answers.

So I’m waiting to see the first American family seek refugee status somewhere else. Not because of election year politics. Not because of abortion. Not because of gun control.

But because of the weather.

And no; those shots of a truck rollover on the I-95 probably don’t play out on the evening news in Syria, because they’ve got a real war going on there. However, the pictures have some similarities, and some days, our lives are not entirely different.

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