Jurassic Park At 25 And The Marvel Of American Film-Making

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They Spared No Expense

I had just turned 15 when the original Jurassic Park was released on June 11, 1993. While my older brother and his best friend sat at the back of the theater trying to act like they weren’t impressed, my best friend and I were completely blown away by it. If you ask me the most awe-inspiring theater experiences I’ve had in my life, this movie would be on the short list, competing with other sci-fi blockbusters like Back to the Future, Armageddon and Signs.

This, in spite of the fact that the acting performances are, for the most part, blah, which is part of why this movie seems to be a small step behind others of its genre in my social circles. To be clear, Jeff Goldblum is delightful and outrageous (and as a person and actor, he has only gotten better with time), and I always enjoy watching Samuel L. Jackson and the man I’ll always known as Newman go to work on screen. But with no offense to Sam Neill and Laura Dern, the main roles hit me as pretty vanilla.

Hold On To Your Butts 

Yet that doesn’t really matter. The stars of the movie and its subsequent sequels are clearly the dinosaurs and they are real (looking) and spectacular. And so, the original JP has aged extremely well in 25 years because it was so far ahead of its time. Seeing Spielberg’s dinosaurs interact with humans was an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride.

Two of their scenes caused me to grip the armrest of my theater seat so hard I almost blacked out: the first time the T-Rex shows up and the Velociraptor scene in the kitchen. Movie-making rarely gets that good to me. Spielberg acknowledged a complaint (from his grandkids no less) that it took too long for the dinosaurs to appear in the first Jurassic Park, which he rectified in A Lost World. But in my opinion, the slow pace and calm for the first 30 minutes of the original only highlights the extreme terror of the T-Rex’s debut. The foreshadowing moment when Tim looks at the cup in the back of the vehicle and sees the drop of water every time the as yet unseen King of Dinosaurs takes a step rocks my soul every time I watch. I have goosebumps just thinking about it. Similarly, my heart can barely stand the face-off between the two kids and the Velociraptors after these extremely intelligent predators figure out how to open the kitchen door. It’s gloriously scary. I love it.

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There are other aspects that make this movie exceptional to me: bits of dialogue (when Dr. Malcolm encounters the triceratops dung) and no doubt the main score, which is good enough to be a concert on its own. But this movie raked in the biggest opening weekend at the time and nearly dethroned E.T. for the biggest domestic run ever for one colossal reason: we had never seen dinosaurs look that legit before. It was fantastic, unprecedented cinema.

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“Later There’s Running…and Screaming…” 

With a first installment like the one described above, Jurassic Park as a franchise entered a short list of movie series that get at least one view for every sequel from me, no matter how many there are or how awful they are.  And admittedly I know all of the flaws for The Lost World and Jurassic Park III especially but I still enjoy them and have watched them repeatedly.

In The Lost World there are yet again uninspired performances (even the eventually entertaining Vince Vaughn) except for Jeff Goldblum and maybe the Hillbilly Jack dinosaur expert guy who comes in with the bad guys. But the new angle of having human villains along with dinosaur villains is an interesting twist. And the scene with the T-Rex attack on the crashed trailer, while not as good as the similar scene in the first one, is still riveting. Above all, I love the moment with the freighter carrying the T-Rex into San Diego crashes into the dock because it woke up and killed everyone on board. That’s fun cinema right there.

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“You liked Dinosaurs back then.” “Back then they hadn’t tried to eat me yet.”

No doubt to me and many others, Jurassic Park III is the worst major film to ever have “Jurassic” in its name. As my nephew and mega Jurassic Park fan, Brett tells me, the dream sequence with Dr. Grant on the helicopter is “hilarious and terrible”. It’s like a 5-year old got to write one scene of the plot. But as stated, I still like this movie. William H. Macy is great and as long as there are rampaging dinosaurs, I think I will find some of it redeeming. I particularly love the new species and the scene on the rickety old bridge in the fog. It’s heart-stopping and just a step below the similar scenes in the first one. And I really enjoy the running gag of the satellite phone ringing and how it eventually announces the presence of the enormous Spinosaurus (who had devoured it along with the person holding it) standing out in the open.

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“Maybe you should include that in the brochure. Eventually one of these things will eat someone.”

Jurassic World should have been right up my alley and therefore I saw it opening weekend. The trailer promised a visually stunning thrill ride that would top its predecessors. And as I’ve written before, who doesn’t love Chris Pratt?

But it just didn’t deliver to me. It was visually stunning but it had more boring characters (Owen excepted), the weakest dinosaur terror scenes of the series and it was just a bit too over the top and chaotic at times.The original trilogy’s dinosaur attacks weren’t great because they were loud and untethered, but because they were they were thrilling, unpredictable and even at times humorous. Perhaps I have seen too many of these scenes by this point.

Even though it’s a better movie based on normal criteria, I think I’d rather watch the much panned third one than this one if given a choice. But I still want to watch this movie again. Why? Because it’s incredible cinematography.

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“These creature were here before us. And if we’re not careful, they’ll be here after us.”

And that brings us to Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, released widely in the United States today.  To be honest, the trailer for the most part looks like a tired mashup of plots from the previous four movies. And that worries me, since the last volume proves I may be getting a little bit of Jurassic Park fatigue. Yet some of it looks fresh and we do have the return of the inimitable Dr. Ian Malcom. And at the end of the day, it is Jurassic Park. So I will see it. The original broke new ground and set a standard for movie-making that technology had to catch. And while the others have disappointed in general, I doubt I will ever turn down these cinematically perfected dinosaurs chasing humans on the big screen. Maybe this one will live up to the T-Rex sized expectations these movies create.

 

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Five Great books from Rodney Stark

Rodney Stark is a Sociologist from Baylor University. He has mostly applied his craft to understanding religious history in over 30 books and countless articles. Very few authors have such a direct impact on my academic life as him. While great theological minds remain among my favorite authors, Stark has had a profound impact on the way I understand the world. Since I am in the business of communicating an understanding of the world (I’m a history teacher) Stark’s influence is incalculable. For today’s Friday Five, I offer a mini-review of 5 of his books.


Churching of America with Roger Fink (1992)

I came across this book in graduate school by recommendation of one of my best professors. As an AP US History teacher, I make frequent use of this book. The authors’ argument attacks the idea that the United States was a universally Christian nation at its founding. Their major source for studying religious devotion is church attendance. What they find is that while Americans may have been largely culturally Christian in 1776, they were not zealous church-goers. In fact, a greater percentage of Americans go to church today than in 1776.

It’s no surprise then that evangelists of the early 19th century felt the need for religious revival. It was these revivals, the Second Great Awakening, that made America a “Christian” nation in the way we tend to think of it. As conversions sored, so did church attendance. Every year, I get to teach the Second Great Awakening and using Finke’s and Stark’s research, I make the argument that it was the most important social or cultural event in American history.

Aside from the immense impact of the Second Great Awakening, another fascinating argument is that of religious competition. Finke and Stark assert that religious freedom in the colonies and early republic led to a sort of “Free Market” of denominations and religious groups. Each was in competition with the others and had to work for converts. As compared to established state churches in Europe, American denominations had to work to attract new members or die. This factor explains why the United States had not experienced the massive decline in church attendance that Western Europe faced, even if in 1776 we were perhaps less Christian than Europe.


The Rise of Christianity (1996)

For Christians, this may be the most important book on the list. While there were some parts that Bible-believing Christians bristle at, this book is a must-read for anyone interested in church history. The question it addresses is: how did an obscure Jewish sect become the major religion of the Roman Empire in less than 300 years? His answers are exhilarating.

First, he argues that the mission to the Jews worked much more than readers of the Bible would think. Unfortunately, Stark too often presents this as a problem with what the New Testament says rather than what our perception of the situation is. The Bible never claims that all the Jews rejected Christianity so Starks arguments are not incompatible with Scripture. At this point, Stark makes his classic argument about religious conversion, one that has been the staple of his career for some time. Stark argues that religious conversions do not happen (mostly) because of a preacher or missionary. He argues that people convert to a religion because of the influence of their social networks. If an individual feels a deep connection (through kinship or employment or friendship) to a group of people that are largely one religion, they tend to convert. In other words, conversion is conformity. A more positive way to say this, including people in a community of believers, is the only real way to make converts.

Interestingly, Stark argues that the social networks used by first century Christians were the network of the diaspora Jews. He claims that the number of Gentile God-fearers was probably high and it was through these networks that Jews, half-Jews, and God-fearers became Christian.

Perhaps my favorite argument in the book is how Christian sexuality transformed the Empire. Romans were not interested in reproduction; they were interested in gratification. Newborns were often abandoned to die, especially if they were girls. This led to a situation where there were more men than women and where homosexual sex, heterosexual anal sex, and temple prostitution sex were the norms. In this context, Christian sexuality simply out-reproduced the pagans. Christian women married at an older age than pagan girls who often married before puberty. As a result, Christian women had less damaged reproductive systems and were more fertile. They also kept their babies instead of the common practices of abortion and infanticide. Christian men were encouraged to marry and have families rather than gratify themselves in other ways.

Christianity’s more positive treatment of women (along with the lack of murder of girls) led to female converts. This established a situation where Christian women outnumbered Christian men significantly. According to Stark, Christian women married pagan men regularly, but would often bring their pagan husbands into their Christian community. This often led to the conversion of the husband and even more so led to more children being born and raised into the Christian community.

There are several more compelling arguments in this book, arguments that have a significant practical impact on our understanding of the early church. In short, however, it was the willingness to include others in social networks, compassion for the poor, intellectual viability, and Christian marital sexuality that won over the Roman Empire and changed the world.


Victory of Reason (2005)

For those interested in medieval history, this is where to start. In this book, Stark goes into the Middle Ages to see the impact of Christianity in advancing the cultural and intellectual life of Western culture. The standard narrative that Stark attacks is the idea that the fall of Rome was the fall of cultural progress, learning, and any sort of modern progress. The medieval era that followed was an era hampered by religiosity and superstition. This era, called the Dark Ages, was eventually rescued by the secularism of the Renaissance.

Stark masterfully destroys this erroneous assumption about the past. Despite some obvious hardships during the medieval period, Starks argues that they are a time of increased moral, technological, intellectual, and economic progress. The Romans used slaves in abundance, the middle ages saw greater amounts of freedom and human dignity. While the Romans built great aqueducts for the wealthy with those slaves, the medieval times saw the invention of practical labor-saving devices like the windmill. Yes, the classical period produced great minds, but the scholastic emphasis on reason was the foremost prelude to the scientific method. Moreover, the decentralization of the government after the fall of the Roman Empire produces the Italian city-state and chartered towns. These freer societies are responsible for the development of market capitalism that allowed for common born people to climb out of crushing poverty for the first time in human history.

The idea that was most behind all these advances, which give birth to the modern world, is the Christian faith’s dedication to reason. Believing that a God of order and logic made the universe, the Christian societies of Western Europe were able to use reason to advance more than any society before them.


God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades (2009)

I get the feeling that Stark so enjoyed researching the Medieval period and correcting misconceptions, that he felt the need to set the record straight on the crusades. This work relies much less on originally researched that most of his other works, but is still worth the read for anyone interested in history.

God’s Battalions is a fairly detailed history of the Crusades designed to defend Western Europe’s involvement in the Wars. Stark sees the Crusades as a counter-attack to centuries of Muslim aggression in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Aside from the centuries leading the Crusades, the specific violence toward Western pilgrims and Byzantines justify the need for the war. Not only was the reason for War justified, the warfare tactics of the Crusades (while often brutal) were typical of their time and no crueler than those tactics used by Turkish troops.

As someone who cares deeply about Muslims and Muslim-Christian relationships, I hesitate to recommend this book to just anyone. Stark does, however, seem to have a firm grip on the historiography of the Crusades and the way historical understanding has been impacted more by modern political climates than actual historical facts. If you are interested in the Crusades, it is worth the read.


A Star in the East with Xiuhua Wang (2015)

Stark brings his understanding of Sociology of Religion to a modern topic—the growth of Christianity in China. His research is aided significantly by one of his Chinese graduate students, Xiuha Wang. Its in China where more people are currently converting to the Christian faith than anywhere else in the world. How is this possible given traditional oppositions to the Christianity found in Confucianism and Buddhism as well as an officially atheist society imposed by the Communist State? The answers to the questions are multilayered, but ultimately Stark sees that what is going on in China in the 20th and 21st centuries is basically what was going on in the Roman Empire in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

People are converting, Stark argues, in the way they always convert—connections to social networks. In other words, friendships and family ties are how people are coming to Christ. As people feel more connected to a group of Christians than they do to their previous social group, they are willing to convert to the Christian faith. The more people convert to Christianity, the more potential social networks there are to be connected to. The momentum is moving in the direction of the Christian faith.

One of Stark’s claims that I found intriguing concerned the impact of Christian missionaries of the 19th and 20th century. Stark asserts that those missionaries, like almost all missionaries, averaged about one or two real converts each. This does not mean they did not have a lasting impact. Institutions like Schools and hospitals were critical in continuing Christian witness long after the missionaries left. More importantly, one convert tended to make more converts than the missionary. As generations pass, thousands of Chinese come to a knowledge of Jesus because of the seemingly insignificant work of that missionary.

One final point about A Star in the East deals with the persecution of the Church in China. Since the Boxer Rebellion during the Qing dynasty, Christians have been objects of persecution in China. The modern state has tried to monitor Christianity in China by making some churches legal, while others have resisted. Stark’s analyses of these realities is that the persecution in China has led to a more conservative, Bible-following, church than was around in China in the mid-20th century. In the mid-20th century, Protestant (and Catholic) missionaries from the West dominated Chinese Christianity. Many of these westerners were significantly impacted by the popular theological liberalism of their day.  As Western influence was curtailed and Chinese Christians were forced to make the choice to conform or face persecution, the church in China became more devout and more faithful to the Scripture.

“A Star in the East” is a short book that is illuminating for anyone interested in the story of the world’s soon-to-be largest Christian nation.


As shown above, Stark is a revisionist. He seems to live for debunking accepted wisdom and providing fresh new understanding of historical or sociological questions. In doing so, he challenges our cultural’s post-enlightenment negative understanding of Christianity and advocates for the real world benefits of faith. Hopefully my efforts today will bring someone to read one of these great books. If you’ve read anything by Stark, tell us what you think in the comments below.




Five Literature Moments That Made Me Ugly Cry

For a year now on REO I have shared about how much I laugh and cry at fictional moments. Who doesn’t like to feel deeply? Today is the fifth in this series, moments in literature that brought the ugly tears. Links to the others in this series can be found at the end of the article. Links to the books on Amazon are embedded in their titles. And please note that MAJOR spoilers will be revealed, so if you have not read a particular work and plan to, please skip it.

On to the list!


1. To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

The Moment: Tom is Found Guilty

A jury never looks at a defendant it has convicted, and when this jury came in, not one of them looked at Tom Robinson. The foreman handed a piece of paper to Mr. Tate who handed it to the clerk who handed it to the judge. 

I shut my eyes. Judge Taylor was polling the jury: “Guilty….guilty….guilty….guilty….” I peeked at Jem: his hands were white from gripping the balcony rail, and his shoulders jerked as if each “guilty” was a separate stab between them. 

Even knowing American history, I was foolish enough to believe that they may find Tom Robinson innocent. Atticus had argued so well. And I had seen “A Time To Kill” before I read this book, even though this movie came decades later. But I fooled myself. The moment was too much. It caused me to hate injustice real or fictional. Why don’t I hate it more?


2. The Road (Cormac McCarthy)

The Moment: The Father’s Last Words to His Son

“You said you wouldn’t ever leave me.”

“I know. I’m sorry. You have my whole heart. You always did. You’re the best guy. You always were. If I’m not here, you can still talk to me. You can talk to me. And I’ll talk to you. You’ll see.”

“Will I hear you?”

“Yes, you will. You have to make it like talk you imagine. And you’ll hear me.”

I listened to this on Audiobook and finished on a Sunday morning very early while walking to church. The tears actually started before this part and continued until the very end of the book. The ending is incredible as well, with the boy finding a new protector and his family. But there was something special about the dialogue between the father and son throughout this story. I don’t have kids, but I have an incredible father who would protect me until death. The dad here reminded me a little bit of mine in how simple of speech and blunt he was and in how he corrected his son.

Unlike three of the other books on this list, this one doesn’t have an abundance of characters and geography in an elaborate fantasy world. Just two main protagonists in a crucial life relationship whose plight and conversations will rip your heart into a million pieces if you’ll let them.


3. North! Or Be Eaten (Andrew Peterson, The Wingfeather Saga Book 2)

The Moment: Janner’s First Night in the Coffin

“When he awoke again, he found that the box was not an awful dream but a black reality. He panicked again. He lay panting in the blackness, talking to himself praying aloud to the Maker, accusing, pleading, screaming things that, while no one could blame poor Janner for saying them, will not be repeated here. 

And the Maker’s answer was hollow silence. 

Hours and hours passed. Janner wept again, a different weeping than before. These tears were not from fear but from weariness and a vast loneliness.” 

I have written honest words for REO a few times but I have never written about the darkest time in my life. Perhaps one day I will. Suffice it to say, I get what Janner went through above even though I was in a spiritual coffin and not a physical one. But our responses were the same. And so was God’s. It was impossible for me to read this and not lose it. It is like Peterson had access to my own personal journal when he wrote this scene.


4. The Return of the King (J.R.R. Tolkien)

The Moment: Sam carries Frodo on Mount Doom

“Sam looked at him and wept in his heart, but no tears came to his dry and stinging eyes. ‘I said I’d carry him if it broke my back,’ he muttered, ‘and I will!’

“Come, Mr. Frodo!” he cried, “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well. So up you get! Come on, Mr. Frodo dear! Sam will give you a ride. Just tell him where to go and he’ll go. 

I recall the moment I first read this like it were five minutes ago. I was on a plane to a youth retreat in Florida. And I tried to hold it in, not wanting complete strangers to see me openly weeping. But I lost that battle. Sam’s character was too much. What he did for Frodo the entire length of the series was heart-wrenching at every turn and at this moment the emotional dam burst and the tidal wave of tears overcame me. I could not read the rest of the chapter for a few minutes.

It’s funny to me how the books and the movies caused me to cry at completely different parts.


5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (J.K. Rowling)

The Moment: Dobby Dies and Harry Buries Him

“‘DOBBY!’ 

The elf swayed slightly, stars reflected in his wide, shining eyes. Together, he and Harry looked down at the silver hilt of the knife protruding from the elf’s heaving chest.

‘No—no—HELP!’ Harry bellowed toward the cottage, toward the people moving there. ‘HELP!’ 

‘Dobby, no, don’t die, don’t die — ‘

The elves eyes found him, and his lips trembled with the effort to form words.

‘Harry…Potter…’

And then with a little shudder the elf became quite still and his eyes were nothing more than great glassy orbs, sprinkled with light from the stars they could not see.” 

I remember being in my church’s auditorium a little while after my ESL class ended, reading this. I was standing up against a wall and I slowly and subconsciously started crouching to the ground in unbelief. But I kept reading, and Harry offered to bury him:

“‘I want to do it properly,’ were the first words of which Harry was conscious of speaking. ‘Not by magic. Have you got a spade?’

And shortly afterward he had set to work, alone, digging the grave in the place that Bill had shown him. He dug with a kind of fury, relishing the manual work, glorifying in the non-magic of it, for every drop of sweat felt like a gift to the elf who had saved their lives.”

Floods of tears. I have never been impacted by a fictional moment like this one. It still wrecks my soul after about 10 readings of the books. I am weeping even as I type this. I’ll never get over Dobby, my favorite hero in the book, simply because of how humble he was. And although I didn’t catch this detail until about my third reading, it deserves to be mentioned:

“Harry wrapped the elf more snugly in his jacket. Ron sat on the edge of the grave and stripped off his shoes and socks, which he placed on the elf’s bare feet.”

Ron gave him his socks. To know Dobby is to know what a heart-shattering touch of genius this was by Rowling, to this already tear-stained scene. My heart feels empty and full at the same time.


As always, we’d love for our readers to share their moments below.

 

To read about Five Movie Moments That Made Me ROTFL go here.

To read about Five Movie Moments That Made Me Ugly Cry, go here.

To read about Five TV Moments That Made Me ROTFL, go here.

To read about Five TV Moments That Made Me Ugly Cry, go here.

 

 

 

 

 

 




Review: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

“Everyone longs to be loved. And the greatest thing we can do is to let people know that they are loved and capable of loving.” – Fred Rogers

 

The Mr. Rogers I remember was a TV personality that had a warm and welcoming opening song and changed his jacket for a sweater and played with a trolley. He did voices in the Land of Make Believe and spoke gently and kindly to his audience and was good friends with people like Mr. McFeely. Thanks to him, I have known what a duckbill platypus is since I was five.

The Mr. Rogers of Won’t You Be My Neighbor I did not recall. And for that reason, among many others, this story needs to be told. God communicates to us so clearly through narrative. Our Bible is chock full of them. Biographies teach us things that ‘How To’ books never could. We need lives–real, heroic, inspirational lives–to help us make sense of this corrupt world. Fred Rogers is the modern example par excellence as to why.

Thanks to this documentary we get to see how big a visionary he was, seeing TV as the future before it was even the present. We get to see him fight for funding for it, using meekness to speak boldly and change the circumstances. We get to see him provide entertainment for kids that was wholesome and countercultural. We get to see him talk to children in a courageous, competent and congenial way about things like assassination, low self-esteem and anger. Things that seem daunting to talk about in private, much less in front of an audience. He taught against racism in as innocuous yet powerful a way as possible, in a time where it was terribly needed. He taught that it was OK to be sad without being patronizing. He talked through issues about emotions in an emotionally intelligent way, to such a level that my educated and experienced teacher wife was blown away. She could not believe how much he knew about how to talk to children, especially since it was 40 years ago before a lot of modern research was popular. Mr. Rogers was ahead of his time and in many ways a genius.

Most of that was surprising to me. But the stories went deeper. Mr. Rogers was known for dealing with children, but he worked with adults. And he proved that you can speak the truth to someone about a very hard subject and still make that person feel deeply in their soul that you love them so much they see you as a surrogate father. We in the U.S., even in Christianity, haven’t all figured this out. For this reason as much as any, I adore Fred Rogers. And until I watched this film, I had no idea.

If you have noticed that this documentary is rated P-13, I want to be clear that the previous paragraph is a part of why. The heaviness of real-world issues and interpersonal relationships isn’t always for general audiences. Yet there are other things that cause it to be rated as it is. Though Mr. Rogers lived a mostly G-rated life, his story is told by others. And as such, there were a few profane words in the interviews and a reference to a prank on set that is not something I would expect parent readers of REO would want small children to see. Also, Fred Rogers got angry at times about issues facing children in the US, especially when it came to what was on TV. And this documentary shows some of what Mr. Rogers hated.

My criticisms of this work are minor. I loved the music from the trailer and wish they had used it more. The transitions from story to story seemed a bit awkward at times to me, but another review I read said they were perfect so perhaps that is something I do not understand about documentaries. And finally, the cursing in the film is something at least at this point that has me torn. I suppose the point of this is for teenagers and adults to be inspired and to tell his story without many filters. Yet considering what his life stood for, I wish it were appropriate for kids. I suppose the kids still have his 1700+ TV episodes to watch.

Mr. Rogers talked a lot about love in his life. But he proved that while talking is easy and living is hard, it must be done if we want to make a difference. Love is unapologetically inconvenient. Mr. Rogers practiced it both in public and private, as valiantly and humbly as he could. At least according to those who knew him best.

I recommend this documentary to everyone who has been touched by Fred Rogers in any way, which would be millions of people all over the world, even nearly 15 years after his death.

Four stars out of five.

 

 




500 Words or Less Reviews: To Kill a Mockingbird (Film)

In 1960, Harper Lee published her masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird. It has since become one of the most beloved books of millions of readers. The movie adaptation of the book bearing the same name was released just two years after its original publication. One might have thought that since the movie was released so quickly after the book’s first appearance it would be extremely good at best, but it is debatably the greatest movie adaptation of a book ever. (To be honest, there are several others that are very close contenders. Nevertheless, TKaM gets my vote.)

In the year it opened, To Kill a Mockingbird garnered eight nominations at the Oscar’s, winning three of those. But moviegoers recognized that it was more than merely one of the best movie of the year; both critics and audiences rightly saw it as one of the greatest movies of all time. It has maintained that status.

I don’t think anything made by mankind is ever perfect. Things that we do and make can always be perfected in some way. But I do admit that there are some things pretty close to perfection. This particular work of art directed by Robert Mulligan fits well in that category.

There is so much to appreciate here, from the mastery of the music, the directing, the writing, the cinematography, etc. Everything clicks, everything turns like a well-oiled movie machine, a projector, if you will. A good argument could be made that the acting is the film’s most outstanding feature. This is particularly true of its three main actors: Gregory Peck (Atticus Finch), Mary Badham (Scout Finch), and Phillip Alford (Jem Finch). This is Peck at his award-winning and iconic finest, which is actually no surprise. Peck is always so good at his profession that he could probably out-act most actors at acting while gagged, tied, and encased in a coffin—and still win an Oscar. No, the actual surprise here is the acting of Badham and Alford, neither of whom had been previously trained but who both did a superb job carrying most of the movie alone.

To Kill a Mockingbird is set in a quaint little town and looks at the world from the young vantage points of Scout and Jem. The story is a coming of age one of sorts. Along their young journey they get their first real glimpse into the adult world filled with its selfish pride, racism, death, and hatred. In the midst of this stands the pillar that is their father, Atticus, a lone bulwark of wisdom and mercy and grace and love.

Along the journey, they will adventure with their best friend Dill Harris, and encounter unforgettable characters like Boo Radley (portrayed by Robert Duvall in his debut film appearance), Tom Robinson, Calpurnia, Mayella Ewell, Bob Ewell, and many other wonderful and colorful people.

Lastly, a final shout-out to legendary composer, Elmer Bernstein, for the film’s haunting, beautiful, utterly timeless soundtrack.




Five More Sports Movies We Love

The best movies tell unforgettable stories and introduce us to legendary characters and performances. So it is no surprise that in a culture obsessed with sports, some of the best films of all time are about them. Sports prove that truth is indeed better than fiction quite often–you will notice below and on any list of sports movies how many are based on or inspired by true stories. Movies, for their part, make us interested in sports we as Americans often are not obsessed with, like boxing, karate and hockey. The two together have given us exceptional entertainment.

Today our staff discusses five more sports films that we love. You can read our first article in this series here. This is not a Top Five list; just five selections that impacted us deeply…as sports fans (most of us), moviegoers and human beings that love to be inspired.


Remember the Titans by Phill Lytle

Maybe this one is too obvious. I’m not sure that matters that much to me. I love this movie. I love the story – even if the filmmakers took liberties in telling it. I love the performances, with Denzel doing what he does best, the young cast of football players/students bringing life and personality to the team, and to the unsung heroes of the film like Will Patton as the assistant coach. Everyone brings their A-game to the movie and it shows. The music by Trevor Rabin is earnest and epic which only serves to help everything mean a little bit more.

This is a movie that calls its shot from the very beginning and unless you have never seen a sports movie before, you will know where it is headed. You anticipate the beats, the dramatic flourishes, and the building climax. None of that matters. This was Disney firing on all cylinders, perfectly delivering on their tried and true method. That might sound cynical of me. Trust me, it’s not. I unapologetically love this film even if it does pretty much exactly what you expect it to from the opening frame.

It’s a movie built on moments, speeches, emotions, and inspiration. It sets out to tell a heartwarming and uplifting film and it pulls it off without a hitch. Remember the Titans is a Titan in the world of sports movies and deserves to be on everyone’s favorites list.


A League of Their Own by Gowdy Cannon

“There’s No Crying In Baseball!” put this film on the map so to speak, but after about 10 viewings I can say that it is so much more than Tom Hanks at his comedic finest. It’s a perfect storm of untold history, tense family drama, riveting sports action and timeless storytelling that joins a pantheon of exceptional American screenplays. To me it is not just one of the best sports movies of all time, but one of the best films of any genre of all time.

Hanks is his typical scene-stealing self. Gina Davis is great. Lori Petty is perfect as the insecure younger sibling (as the 4th of 5 children, I am fully qualified to make that call). Unheard of Megan Cavanagh, who doesn’t even have a picture on her wikipedia page, is unforgettable. Even modern punching bags Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell are good in their support roles. And they all have tremendous chemistry.

Not to be lost is without of doubt my favorite Jon Lovitz performance ever, as the scout Ernie Capadino. Essentially 100% of what he says makes me and my mom laugh out loud, even after repeated viewings. To this day I can look at her and say “You see the way it works is that the train moves and not the station” and we will crack up.

If a litmus test for movie grade is how rewatchable it is, A League of Their Own gets an A.


Space Jam by D.A. Speer

Everybody get up, it’s time to slam now! A few years back, shortly after my wife Kate and I were married, we thought it would be great fun on a whim to hold a Space Jam party. We invited friends over, had some snacks, and watched the movie. You never really know just how well a movie will hold up over the years, because over time, a movie can seem so much better in your mind than it actually was. We took the gamble…and it held up well!

At lunch today, I asked my wife, “What is it that made Space Jam such a good movie?” She looked at me for a second and said, “What about it isn’t a good movie?” I had a hard time answering. On paper, I’d have expected the movie to be a failure. MJ teams up with the Looney Toons to challenge aliens for their fates over a theme park. What could possibly go wrong with an idea like that?

Well, somehow director Joe Pytka was able to pull off movie magic. The story is compelling enough to make it fun. The music inspired everything from couple’s skates at the local roller rink (I Believe I Can Fly), to endless current-day internet remixes of the theme song by Quad City DJ’s. The star power is perfect for the time. This is right in the height of Jordan mania, after his first return to the NBA. As a teenager, I had a poster of him on my wall, slamming in it with his tongue out. Would I want to see him play against cartoon monsters? Psh, I could have watched him shoot free throws in practice and would have been enthralled. Bill Murray is there. Charles Barkley is there. Larry Bird is there. Heck, even Newman shows up.

Yeah, it’s not the most epic movie by today’s standards, but it will forever be a classic in my mind, half court dunks and all.


Warrior by Phill Lytle

I hate MMA, or mixed martial arts. It’s one tiny step up from to-the-death, gladiatorial combat, and I honestly don’t understand or appreciate its appeal in the least. Which makes my reaction to Warrior, a movie about two brothers who are MMA fighters, so perplexing. I never thought I would love a movie about MMA fighting, let alone like a movie like that, but Warrior defied my expectations and had me from very early on. The story is nothing groundbreaking – if you have seen any boxing movie or many sports movies for that matter, you can sort of guess where everything is going – but the execution of the story is what makes this film work so well. Nick Nolte, Tom Hardy, and Joel Edgerton give amazing performances as a father and his two estranged sons. I’ve never been a huge Nolte fan but he is incredible in this film playing a very damaged and broken father. Hardy is just pure intensity and he brings a real menace and danger to his character, but with just enough cracks in his facade to show that there is a lot more to him than just anger and passion. Edgerton plays the most “normal” role, but he gives his character so much depth that I hate to classify it as normal. The fight sequences are well shot – they are brutal and very effective. The film is shot low budget style which lends the film more realism and immediacy. The music is great as well, with a song by The National that closes the film perfectly.

Warrior is first and foremost a movie about a broken family trying to find healing. That is what drew me in and what knocked down my walls. I was prepared to hate this movie due to my hatred of the sport it showcases. I was not prepared to fall completely for it.


Over the Top by Gowdy Cannon

Millions know Sly Stallone from the Rocky and Rambo series. Far less remember him in this movie about an estranged father, his spoiled son and….arm wrestling? How many movies about arm wrestling are there? I don’t know, but when you’ve conquered the world as Rocky and Rambo, you get to take these risks. And while I may be in the minority, I think it yielded a reward. The superbly named Lincoln Hawk (Stallone) has the lovable humility of Balboa yet is still very much a unique character. And the journey he embarks on to earn back the love of his only son and to win an arm wrestling tournament (Really! It’s about arm wrestling!) is one I have enjoyed numerous times.

A few years ago I began a tradition of having a “Man Movie Night” with other men at my church and this was the first one I showed. Because most people have seen Stallone’s other work and this is a hidden treasure to me. Yet despite its manliness, I think the heart of father-son reconciliation can appeal to most people.

The movie has some faults for sure, like the arm wresting (arm wrestling!) tournament format of double elimination is not consistent, and the drama is at times pretty contrived, but Lincoln’s secret finger re-positioning weapon vs. Bull Harley in the final and all the memories he makes with with his son son along the way render all the flaws forgotten.  Complete with a fantastic antagonist role by Robert Loggia and some of the best terrible wonderful cheesy 80s sports montage music ever, I adore this movie.


There you have it. Five more sports movies we love. Our last list got some pretty strong feedback – both positive and negative. Hopefully this one will as well as we always enjoy a good back-and-forth with our readers. Use the comment section below to post your praise or ridicule of our selections today.




The Time Of Our Life: Remembering The Night Seinfeld Ended

“For the rest of our lives, when someone thinks of one of us, they’ll think of all four of us. I can’t think of three people I’d rather that be true of.

[Jerry Seinfeld, to Julia-Louis Dreyfus, Jason Alexander and Michael Richards, in the huddle before the finale]

 

It’s something unpredictable
But in the end it’s right
I hope you had the time of your life

[Green Day]

 

During the 1997-98 school year I was a sophomore at the University of South Carolina. And every Thursday night at 9:00 I would gather with my brother Ashley, and our friends Shawn Simeral and Bryan Baxley to watch Seinfeld. It was our favorite show. For all of us. Occasionally others joined us and occasionally we would meet up at 8:00 to watch Friends as well, but there was no doubt the night was dedicated to Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer. They were a huge part of our week and had been for several years.

Halfway through the year, we got the news that this was it for Seinfeld. This would be the last season. I remember Ashley collecting as many magazines as he could that had this news on the cover. It’s weird to think that back then we got news without Facebook or Twitter. But just the same, the TV show that defined our adolescence was going off the air.

 

 

So, of course, we, like millions of other Americans, had the big finale party. Since school was out for us on May 14, 1998, we had it at our parents’ house. The place was packed. I recall so many details. I was decked out in my black T-shirt that had Wayne Knight on the front saying “Hello, Jerry” and on the back in big block letters said HELLO NEWMAN. I wore it every Thursday back then. I remember sitting in my favorite chair, which was closest to the TV. I remember sneaking a peek at our church’s youth pastor, who was was among the invited guests, when Elaine and Puddy went at it over Hell in a scene during the clip show.

I remember the clip show (now called “The Chronicle”) being cut off short so that the finale could start early because it could not fit into a one-hour time slot. I remember one thing they didn’t cut was a brief, sentimental video with more serious video and photos, including stills of the main characters and empty shots of Jerry’s apartment and Monk’s. “Good Riddance” by Green Day played behind it, a song subtitled “The Time of Your Life”. I remember wanting to cry, which was completely unexpected because anyone who knows the show knows that it was anti-serious 99.99% of the time. They even mocked crying in one episode, with Jerry not understanding what “this salty discharge” was and in real production, the writers and cast adhered to a “No hugging, No learning” mantra at Larry David’s direction.

Yet in the huddle before the finale, we would later learn that Jerry, Jason and Julia all started crying. Because life cannot always imitate art. Michael, the method actor who hated mistakes during filming (which you can see on the outtakes), was the only hold out on emotion. Yet, the lyrics to the Green Day song overlapping those Seinfeld images struck a chord with me because in sitcom terms, Seinfeld did give us the time of our life. And just like Jerry, Jason and Julia, its ending hit me in the feels.

 

LOS ANGELES, CA – APRIL 3: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jerry Seinfeld, Michael Richards and Jason Alexander embrace on the set of the show “Seinfeld” during the last days of shooting, April 3, 1998 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)

 

As far as the finale itself, I’ve written about it elsewhere and this isn’t even about that. It’s about the event. The night. The hype. The fact that copies of the script were shredded at the end of each day to ensure that it didn’t leak. That people gathered even by the millions in some cities, like St. Louis, to watch on huge screens. The photo below is at Times Square in New York. What an incredible image.

Seinfeld felt larger than life and so its finale absolutely was. TVland went completely off the air during it to honor it. I cannot imagine how badly it would break the internet if it happened today.


I remember after the New York Four were convicted and they had their last moment together in the prison, coming full circle by ending the show with the same conversation that it began with, that I could not laugh at the post-episode scene with Jerry doing his stand-up in an orange jumpsuit, complete with one more Larry David calling out from off-camera moment. It was setting in to me that it was over. After the credits rolled, NBC gave an immediate live thank you to Seinfeld with a picture of the Big Four. If not for the fact I’ve seen the finale many times, I’d probably remember the NBC thank you better than the jail comedy scene. Because it was my sentiment exactly.

 

My brother and I said goodbye to all our friends and I soon went to bed. I never took off my HELLO NEWMAN shirt, a symbolic non-gesture of someone refusing to let go. And as I laid there in the dark and the quiet, I finally did shed a tear. Somewhere between Green Day and NBC’s thank you and the fact that it was finally reality that there would be no new Seinfeld, I felt sad. It was oddly surreal.

In hindsight, I don’t regret feeling that way, but Seinfeld fans cannot truly feel sad these days. In the last 20 years we have gotten the 9-DVD set and its “Notes About Nothing” and other fun extras, continuous repeats of the 180 episodes on TBS, a reunion on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Facebook pages dedicated to doing nothing but quoting the show, memes, gifs, etc. etc. etc. Those of us that have wanted Seinfeld to live on, have gotten that wish. Perhaps only rivaled by The Andy Griffith Show, Seinfeld has thrived after its end. It won’t die. It’s all over the American consciousness daily.

So for that one moment in time, a collision of emotions in reaction to nine seasons of sublime TV comedy occurred. I was there. I’ll never forget it. As far as TV goes, it has always been the time of my life.

 

 

 

 




Edna Mode’s Five More Reasons Why No Capes!

This summer movie audiences will be treated to the long-awaited sequel to the 2004 Pixar masterpiece, The Incredibles. One of the many amazing highlights of the first of these films is the great Edna Mode, fashion designer extraordinaire who is the former uniform designer for the now defunct superhero program. Edna has seen it all and learned it all concerning superhero uniform lore. And one cardinal rule she lives by: NO CAPES! And why is she so adamant about this? Mr. Incredible really wants a cape for his new costume, but for Edna that is a no can do, and she jots out five good examples for why not: 1.) Thunderhead’s cape snagged on a launched missile.; 2.) Stratogale’s cape caught in a jet turbine.; 3.) Metroman’s cape was caught one express elevator.; 4.) Dynaguy’s cape was snagged on takeoff.; 5.) Splashdown’s cape caused him to be sucked down into a vortex. However, these were not Edna’s only reasons for the no cape rule. They were merely the only ones that came to mind to prove her point in that moment. There are more that are probably a little more bizarre and require more explanation, which is likely why she wisely chose not to use them. Behold five more of Edna’s reasons:


1. Dazzler was humiliated to superpowerlessness after being mercilessly laughed at and mocked for his flowery, fancy boy cape. Dazzler was born gifted with the power to shoot glitter and liquidified gold from his fingertips at will. To go with his sparkly theme, Dazzler had Edna create the most dazzling, breathtaking superhero suit of all time complete with a flowing, multicolored cape filled with lots of tassels, beads, and floral designs. One fateful day he encountered the evil Green Boys who were called that because they were green and boys. My friends, on that day they defeated Dazzler, not with knife or gun or any sort of supernatural weapon, but with killing words. It was his cape that did him in. The Green Boys mercilessly, callously mocked his cape until no shred of his former superhuman self remained. He was reduced to normalcy. He and his family moved to Detroit where he took on the miserable life of the miserable apprentice of a miserable party clown for the rest of his days.


2. Invector was distracted because he couldn’t find his invisible cape. Most of his super colleagues mistakenly assumed that he was among the new breed of modern capeless superheroes. This was not the case. He had had Edna fashion him an ordinary invisible cape for the sole purpose of thinking, “hey, I’m awesome because I have an invisible cape. Plus, Wonder Woman will dig me with her invisible jet.” But alas the invisible cape was his undoing. In the midst of a battle he lost his cape and not finding the invisible article, his arch nemesis, Arabian Knight, was able to easily able to slay him with his gleaming laser scimitar.


3. Ghorozoid was tangled in his Guinness Book of World Records long cape. He had convinced Edna to create for him the longest cape in superhero history. This thing was an incredible 20 feet long. This meant that while on the job he had to keep running really, really fast so it wouldn’t drag. But although it was so impractical and high maintenance, he still wanted to have it for his uniform. It was his precious. One day he fell into the pursuit of the nefarious Maze Master who led him on a baffling chase here, there, up, down, all the directions you can think of, it was there. Pretty soon Ghorozoid was wrapped up in his cape like a moth in a cacoon. Took him a week to get out. Invector kindly spoon fed his colleague during this time. No, Ghorozoid didn’t die, but he left the profession in abject humiliation.

I don’t know why he was called Ghorozoid. Quit asking so many questions.


4. The Rolling Stone fell off a cliff after his dangling cape’s technology malfunctioned and took rock form. A fateful nuclear accident in his laboratory gifted Dr. Edwin Magma with the ability to transform himself into a Rock-and-Roller made entirely of rock. From that day forward he was gifted with stone transformability, song, dance, and a golden electric guitar that shot lightning bolts. His signature move in the heat of battle was following a lightning bolt kill with a totally legendary guitar solo. To match his rock and rocking power, Edna fashioned a suit girded with a cape chock full of the latest igneous rock formation technology. Thus, when Stone took rocker rock form, so did his cape. To take this form he had but to hold aloft his golden guitar and summon the power of the Castle of the Rolling Stones. But very sadly for Rolling Stone, the cape short-circuited at a most inopportune moment. As he gazed for his foe from a high cliff, his caped dangled over the edge malfunction, and you know… To this day, Edna contends that it was not her suit that malfunctioned but user error by the Rolling Stone who was too busy shredding a totally rad guitar solo atop the high precipice to notice that he had inadvertently activated his cape’s rock powers.


5. OnomonoTia was blown away when the wind caught her billowing cape. It was as a very young girl that Tia Watson first felt a desire to rid the world of evil and darkness by filling this void with words that sound like what they mean. We’re talking things like snap, crackle, pop, whiz, bang, pow, etc. This desire grew and grew. She attended college, graduating with a degree in English. It was during this years that she became BFFs with a fellow English student who would one day become her arch nemesis, Princess Punctuatress. After graduation, the two assumed their secret identities and parted ways. They were only to meet again three years later on the shores of the Pacific for a last stand. Their battle was fierce that day my friends. There were “pows!” and “zaps! And “Whams!” aplenty. Commas and periods and semi-colons were flying everywhere. Suddenly a strong wind blew in from the east, collecting in OnomonoTia’s parachute-like cape and whisking her away, “Whooosh!” was her parting word of wisdom to the civilized world. “Exclamatioooon!” Cried Princess Punctuatress in victory and defiance mixed with some bit of sadness. Watson was soon lost to view, never to be seen again. Legend says she happily lived out her days on a mysterious island far, far away where the bees buzz, the duck’s cluck, the leaves rustle, and everything else sounds like what they mean. And she also married an islander named Chief Onomono.


So if you intend to live a life of daring do, you are best to heed the very learned and experienced advice of Edna: NO CAPES!

 




Reading Ever On – 2018, 1st Quarter

Here are the books we read the first three months of 2018 and what we thought of them…

 

Gowdy Cannon

Free Will Revisited: A Respectful Response to Luther, Calvin, and Edwards by Robert E. Picirilli

Book Review can be found here.



The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

Some of this material is over my head but at times it is thought-provoking.



The Magicians Trilogy by Lev Grossman

White hot in certain plot points and pretty slow in others, I was more than stunned by how adult it was. Even though it advertises itself that way it was more extreme than I anticipated.



Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just by Timothy Keller

One of the shortest books I’ve read this year, it is a true sledgehammer to my soul and to my ego in how it challenges me to do more.



The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything by Stephen M. R. Covey

A crucial concept that will help me be a better pastor.



1984 by George Orwell

A classic I had not read in probably 20 years, this novel has messed with my head both times I read it.



Looking For God In Harry Potter by John Granger

I wish this book would have been written after the 7th Harry Potter book instead of the 5th.



Glory Road: My Story of the 1966 NCAA Basketball Championship and How One Team Triumphed Against the Odds and Changed America Forever by Don Haskins

Fantastic autobiography that sports fans and civil rights students should read.



Holy Types: Gospel in Leviticus by Joseph Augustus Siess

The book is 150 years old but reads very modern. Leviticus deserves this excellent a treatment!



The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Gary R. Habermas and Michael Licona

The book is good; the pages and pages of citation material in the back are incredible.




Ben Plunkett

The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells

Since the 1897 publication of the War of the Worlds, there have been several movie adaptations of the story. Of these, I have seen the 1953 version and the 2005 Spielberg version. While I thoroughly enjoyed the 2005 film, it is quite a different story than the book. All of the basics of the setting are there, but the human stories are very different. In addition, the book is much more detailed and descriptive. It also has a more complex format with there being two parts to the entire story, with the first part following the stories of two brothers in separate adventures. If you choose to join the adventure, be warned that it will not read like a contemporary sci-fi novel. It is more scientific in description and almost impersonal in how it unfolds, but it leaves little question why H.G. Wells is considered one of the greatest science fiction of all time.



Mike Lytle

Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock by Gregory Alan Thornbury

I have known of Larry Norman for many years. I was familiar with many of his songs and even saw him in concert at a festival once. I was intrigued by his life and place in Christian music history and had been anticipating the release of this book for at least a year since I first heard about it. With all that being said this book still exceeded my expectations. Norman led an incredibly interesting and eventful life. His influence far exceeded his actual record sales. Thornbury captures that, noting that everyone from Bob Dylan to Bono of U2 considered themselves Larry Norman fans. Thornbury also refuses to shy away from Norman’s personal failings. He paints what appears to be a thorough, well researched, and balanced portrait of the godfather of Christian Rock and Roll music.

This is a must-read for anyone who cares about the history of Christian music. I would also recommend it to those interested in the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s since it intersects with wider cultural events at times. Even those who simply enjoy a well-written biography would find much to like here.



Phill Lytle

The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance (The Stormlight Archive) by Brandon Sanderson

This was my 3rd time reading The Way of Kings and my second time through Words of Radiance. If you don’t like epic, world-building fantasy, you can skip this review. If you enjoy this sort of thing, there is no one writing better books in this genre than Brandon Sanderson and there is no better current series than The Stormlight Archive. Sanderson has this whole thing worked out in his head, which I find baffling and impossible, but when you read these gigantic, 1,000 page books, you realize that is not a joke or a lie. He does have it all worked out. I can’t get my head around the depth and complexity of the plot, even though I am only reading it and not trying to create it. These stories take place in a world of magic, tradition, war, politics, and racial and ethnic oppression. Sanderson takes his time to create living, breathing characters with real problems, real inner worlds, and real connections to each other. I’m currently reading the third book in the series, Oathbringer, and it is just as good and satisfying as the first two books. Sanderson is a master at his craft and I am more than happy to hang on for the ride.

 

Visionary Parenting: Capture a God-Sized Vision for Your Family by Rob Rienow

If you have read Christian parenting books, there is probably not much “new under the sun” in this book. That doesn’t lessen its impact. Rienow writes with humility and authority, both traits making his advice and teachings all the more powerful. I recommend that all parents read this challenging and encouraging book. It’s a quick read too, so there really is no reason to skip it.



The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

One of the most intelligent, thought-provoking, spiritually challenging books I have read. I recommend it to everyone who will listen but it is not an easy sell. If you have an aversion to sci-fi, the plot of the book has the potential to really turn you off, but the story is about so much more. It’s a story about a group of Jesuit priests and a few others who discover music that is being transmitted from a far away galaxy, and they decide to journey there to meet God’s other children. It is beautiful and heartbreaking.




D. A. Speer

A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

This is one of the few books I have read so far this year, mainly because I needed it at the time. The contents are actually a compilation of Lewis’s personal diary from around the time his wife died. As my wife is still with me, I almost put it down, because I had little ability to identify with his specific pain. I’m glad I read on. The Lewis I expected to find at the beginning of the book was far different than the Lewis I encountered. He is reeling, emotional, and is very frank with his hurting, pain, and doubt. I’m so thankful to have found that, and I’m also glad to have seen how his grief unfolded throughout the remainder of the book. Most beneficial to me was his perception of God as a surgeon. He writes:

“But suppose that what you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless. But is it credible that such extremities of torture should be necessary for us? Well, take your choice. The tortures occur. If they are unnecessary, then there is no God or a bad one. If there is a good God, then these tortures are necessary…What do people mean when they say ‘I am not afraid of God because I know He is good’? Have they never even been to a dentist?”

I recommend this short read to anyone who is going through a season of loss in their life, whether a loved one you have known for some time or a loved one that you never even got the chance to meet.



Nathan Patton

A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door (Time Quintet) by Madeleine L’Engle

 

I began reading the Time Quintet in response to hearing about the A Wrinkle in Time film before it was released in theaters. I somehow had managed to not read it as a child, and I wanted to read it before watching the movie. I loved the book but never managed to make it to the theater to watch the movie.

I appreciate that these books are children’s fantasy stories with overtly Christian references yet don’t shy away from scientific principles. It presses all the right buttons for me.

I look forward to my children reading these books because of the emphasis on certain character traits it would encourage within them: love, humility, faith (and reason), loyalty to friends and family, courage, personal responsibility, creativity, empathy, and sacrifice.

I have finished the first two books (and enjoyed them immensely) and hope to finish the other three in time for our next “Reading Ever On” article.






The Other Stories of J.R.R. Tolkien

Considered by many as one of the greatest authors of the 20th century, J.R.R. Tolkien is best known for his two masterpieces of the fantasy genre: The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Yet the good professor wrote so much more than just those two great books. With the recent announcement of a previously unpublished story by Tolkien that is to be released this August (The Fall of Gondolin), we felt this was a good time to shine the light on some of his lesser-known works. Ben Plunkett, Nathan Patton, and Phill Lytle discuss some of their favorite “other” stories by J.R.R. Tolkien. After you read their recommendations, stick around and tell us about the other Tolkien stories that you love in the comment section below.


The Silmarillion – Benjamin Plunkett

 

To make a huge understatement, J.R.R. Tolkien was a slow and very meticulous writer. It took him 14 years to write The Lord of the Rings. That right there is a very long time for an already published author to write a novel for an expectant editor. But that has got nothing on his writing of the text of what would become The Silmarillion. He began working on it in 1917 during World War I and kept on working on it until his death in 1973. His son, Christopher, took up the task of compiling the many texts that would ended up becoming what we now have. It was as a soldier in the trenches that Tolkien started composing the vast and rich mythology of the Middle Earth universe. The Silmarillion begins at the literal creation of Middle Earth. Much of the rest of it discusses the history of the elves, with the other races playing very key roles throughout time.

As you probably know, elves are immortal so although the book spans many thousands of years, there are elves most readers will be familiar with who were living at the time of LOTR, which chronicles a story that comes at the tail end of The Silmarillion.

Like the LOTR story, many of the stories herein are expounded upon more fully elsewhere. But don’t think of The Silmarillion as just a book of summaries. It is a masterpiece. It is probably my second favorite Tolkien book after LOTR. There is so much more of rich complexity than I have mentioned here. There is so much more depth. There is the Ainur, Beleriand, Glaurand, Hurin, Morgoth, the rings of power, Gondolin—and these are only the tip of the iceberg. But if you are not familiar at all with The Silmarillion, be warned: It does not read like a regular novel. It is first and foremost a history of Middle Earth which gives Tolkien’s vast mythological creation an incredible richness.


Mr. Bliss, Roverandom, and Letters From Father Christmas – Nathan Patton

 

Many of Tolkien’s books began as stories that he told to his own children, inspired by events in the lives of their family.

Mr. Bliss

In 1932, Tolkien went out and bought himself a motorcar and, evidently, had a series of misadventures with it that inspired this tale.

This is a silly story about a man named Mr. Bliss who buys a motorcar on a whim and experiences rather ridiculous events as a result. It is a delightful and charming read. We also see our first glimpse of Sergeant Boffin and Gaffer Gamgee, whose names, at least, we will see again in Lord of the Rings.

Sadly, this book is out of print. Even the 2007 25th anniversary edition is no longer available. (However, the audiobook version, read by the excellent Sir Derek Jacobi, is quite affordable on audible.) If you can manage to find a copy, though, you really should read the hardback edition, as it contains copies of the entire original manuscript including many original illustrations by Tolkien himself.

Tolkien had originally attempted to have Mr. Bliss published as a picture book, but his publishers deemed it too expensive at the time.

Roverandom

In 1925, the Tolkien family took a holiday to the Yorkshire coast where a five-year-old Michael Tolkien lost his favorite toy: a miniature lead toy dog.

Papa Tolkien, in order to console his heartbroken son, told him the tale of what happened to that toy dog afterward. That story became Roverandom.

It turns out that the toy used to be a real dog named Rover, who got on the bad side of a grumpy wizard and found himself turned into a toy as a punishment. That toy spent some time with a nice young boy who unfortunately misplaced him on the beach. The toy dog then meets a “sand-sorcerer” who sends him on a series of adventures including a trip to the moon and a journey under the sea.

Unlike Mr. Bliss, Roverandom is still in print and widely available.

Letters From Father Christmas

Starting in 1920, when John Tolkien, the eldest child, was three, every Christmas the Tolkien children received a letter from Father Christmas detailing the happenings at the North Pole that year. His primary companion is the North Polar Bear who is continually getting into mischief. Later letters include Snow-elves, Red Gnomes, Snow-men, Cave-bears, and the North Polar Bear’s nephews. There’s even an attack by Goblins attempting to raid Father Christmas’ cellars.

This book contains the letters from 1925 through 1938 as well as the final letter and a short note from the North Polar Bear written in an invented alphabet based on Goblin drawings. Each letter is accompanied by illustrations by Tolkien himself.

We, as a family, traditionally read the letters, one per day, in the days leading up to Christmas.

Like Mr. Bliss, the hardcover version is the way to go with Letters From Father Christmas as it includes copies of the original letters and illustrations; however, it is also, like Mr. Bliss, seemingly out of print.


The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien – Phill Lytle


Professor Tolkien is my favorite author of all time, and much of that is due to his two most popular works The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. But my love for his writing goes well beyond those two. Tolkien was a prodigious letter writer, a skill-set that I fear is quickly becoming extinct. He wrote letters to friends, to family members, to fans, and to publishers. This book – The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien – selects some of the best correspondence to and from the great author. His wit is on full display throughout the book. His passion for language, faith, and family is evidenced as well. Tolkien was a man of strong beliefs and not so insignificant stubbornness. His back-and-forths with his publishers are a highlight of the book. Perhaps the best moments though, are when he engages with fans or his family and you can see the teacher, the father, and the deeply committed believer shining through. This book does a fabulous job of adding insight and clarity to his other books once you see the man behind the words.