Easter Changes Everything

Are you ready?

Christ’s resurrection from the grave changed everything. Seriously. Everything. Easter marks a cosmically epic moment in time — and yet the celebration enters and exits our calendars too quickly. So several years ago I slowed my life down in order to really soak in the implications of what Christ’s victory over death means for this world and for my life.

In the spring of 2009 I gathered up my favorite quotes on this important theme for my personal meditation in the month leading up to Easter. A year later I posted the quotes online for others to do the same. Friends who used the collection later encouraged me to expand the document with more of my findings during the intervening years. So I did.

The final product is a short book you can download here: Easter Changes Everything: A Theological Devotional.

Enjoy!

easter

Ray Bradbury on Space Travel

In the course of my tech research I found the following video of Mike Wallace interviewing Ray Bradbury in the wake of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Here’s the video:

Here’s the transcript:

Wallace:
This is Ray Bradbury. For me, the most evocative, the most persuasive of the science fiction writers. He has gone to space — he’s lived in space — in his fertile imagination off and on since he was a boy of nine. Is this the way that you wrote the script? I think it is. Ray Bradbury.

Bradbury:
Yes, and a lot of other people before me. Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, the great uncles and grandfathers of all of us. When I was down in Houston a few years ago, I discovered in meeting the astronauts that they had read Jules Verne. They had read H. G. Wells. And in a few cases they had read some of my work, which made me feel very good at the time.

Wallace:
But it is astonishing, really, because they are following a script that seems to have been written by various writers over a period of the last half century.

Bradbury:
Yes. Well, I look upon the function of the science fiction writer as being the romantic who starts things in motion, and the astronauts are the actors who come along and flesh it out and put bones inside the dream.

Wallace:
You have said that a single invention, the rocket, is redesigning mankind. Would you elaborate on that?

Bradbury:
Well, it’s redesigning in us in the following ways. I’m willing to predict tonight that by the end of the century, our churches will be full again. That’s redesigning mankind back in the direction of God again.

Wallace:
Because of space travel?

Bradbury:
Because of space travel. Because when we move out into the mystery, when we move out into the loneliness of space, when we begin to discover we really are three billion lonely people on a small world, I think it’s going to draw us much closer together.

Wallace:
Some people suggest that the very fact that we have now gone into space and have been on the other side of the moon has proved that there is no . . . well, the Russians themselves have said that proves that there is no God up there.

Bradbury:
Well, they’re welcome to use any clichés they want to use. And in turn, I hope to be allowed to use my newer clichés. I believe firmly, excitingly, that we are God himself coming awake in the universe. In other words, we exist on a very strange world that we know nothing about. Our theologians have tried to help us understand this. Our scientists have tried to help us understand this. We know nothing. We start in ignorance.

Wallace:
Can man ever feel at home elsewhere than on earth?

Bradbury:
Yes, and he’s going to make himself at home first on the moon. Then we’re going off to Mars. And then we’re going to build ourselves large enough ships to head for the stars, and when we do reach the nearest stars and settle there, we will be at home in the universe. That’s what the whole thing is about. This is an effort on the part of mankind to relate himself to the total universe and to live forever. This is an endeavor to . . .

Wallace:
Wait a minute. Live forever. You mean . . .

Bradbury:
. . . to live forever. This is an effort to become immortal. At the center of all of our religions, all of our sciences, all of our thinking over a good period of years has been the question of death. And if we stay here on earth, we are all of us doomed because someday the sun will either explode or go out. So in order to ensure the entire race existing a million years from today, a billion years from today, we’re going to take our seed out into space and we’re going to plant it on other worlds. And then we won’t have to ask ourselves the question of death ever again. We won’t have to say why existence, why life, why anything. We will stop questioning in those fields.

Wallace:
Well, of course, but as individuals we will die.

Bradbury:
Oh yes.

Wallace:
The race will be immortal, you’re suggesting.

Bradbury:
The same process that goes on in families today will exist for the whole race in a few . . .

Wallace:
You’re a man of peace, obviously.

Bradbury:
Very much so.

Wallace:
What, though, are the military implications of what we’ve seen tonight?

Bradbury:
The military implications are as following. We have finally, after thousands of years of search, found a substitute for war, which I think is beautiful. The rocket and the exploration of space can be as exciting as war, can be as masculine as war.

Wallace:
A moral substitute for war.

Bradbury:
It can be the wonderful moral substitute we’ve been searching for. We’ve always wanted something to yell and jump up and down about. And war is a great toy to play with. Men and boys loved war. They pretended at times that they don’t love it, but they do. Now we’ve found a greater love, one that can bind us all together, one that can fuse the entire race into one solid mass of people following a single ideal. Now let’s use this thing. Let’s name this ideal and let us eliminate war because the proper enemy is before us. All of the universe doesn’t care whether we exist or not, but we care whether we exist. Now we’ve named the universe as the enemy and go out to do battle with it. That’s the big enemy. And this is the proper war to fight.

Wallace:
Conquer the universe.

Bradbury:
Absolutely.

Mike Wallace:
And conquer it peacefully.

Bradbury:
Peacefully, with these fabulous tools that we’ve been watching tonight on TV.

The Slow Death of Cinema

These days I’m down on cinema, so it’s probably not the best time to be interviewed on the topic. But I was, by two journalists (Cody Benjamin and Chris Hayes) for their upcoming book: What About the Movies? Exploring Cinema’s Place in a World Full of Screens, Streams, and Smartphones (March 2020). And given permission to post the full interview here.

What is it about movies — both past and present — that you believe makes them so captivating, especially in comparison to other media?

Since the first moving picture of a stream train chugging silently right past a camera spooked French audiences in 1895 [L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat], film has been intense, immersive, and thrilling. Our movies are much longer, louder, and complex. And the movie industry has become a dominant center of our cultural mythologies (The Avengers, Transformers, Star Wars, etc.). CGI and 3D and surround sound have all caught up to the imagination of the myth-makers, bringing to life imaginary worlds, amplifying those worlds to truly superhuman proportions.

Countless people in and around the movie industry point to two main reasons for the theater’s longstanding relevance — (1) its tech-fueled experience, which you can get at home (big screen, surround sound, etc.) and (2) its physical, communal space. Do you foresee those factors maintaining their influence amid today’s media landscape? Why or why not?

Once subwoofers, surround sound, and 60-inch TVs moved into the home, the personal theater was destined to become the epicenter of video consumption and the cinema was doomed to stagnation, now reflected in domestic profit growth lagging behind overall economic growth. Theaters have tried to incorporate 3D and various digital surround systems with proprietary names. But to this point most of the technologies that attract moviegoers into the cinema can be replicated at home to significant effect.

For cinemas to break from this stagnation they will be forced to incorporate more and more extraneous value-adds: Freestyle touchscreen soda machines, foodie-level dining delivered to your seat, over-21 screens with alcohol and waiters walking through aisles of La-Z-Boys with electric recliners. New ways of attracting moviegoers will have less to do with the movies themselves or A/V advances.

Would you go so far as to suggest that physically going to the movies (where we are prompted to “disconnect” and focus our attention on what’s literally in front of us) could be beneficial to our health, at least in some senses? Why or why not?

Movie theaters are public entertainment, like major sporting events. I don’t see any inherent virtue in them. I guess the question would be which setting fosters greater personal interaction to love others, and for me personally I know my experience with my family is that we typically feel more together at home, pausing for breaks, and talking about things immediately. For obvious reasons a theater intentionally stifles conversation, so we try to hold off our thoughts until we can get to a local restaurant in order to talk over what we just ingested whole. I do think there’s advantages to going to the theater on special occasions, but I engage with others more at home.

Being someone who’s researched and reported on digital media, technology, etc., what do you believe are the biggest pros and cons of theater-going, both in general and in comparison to at-home, on-demand media consumption?

The biggest cultural con is that theaters have notoriously been targeted by agents of mass violence. It’s really hard to break that stigma.

I think theaters will thrive around major holidays, with families seeking to go out and see new blockbuster releases together. Otherwise apart from pretty significant changes and adaptations to food culture, I don’t know if the theater will thrive, and if they do survive I don’t see them again claiming a cultural center like they once did as anchors in the golden age of the mall.

Looking at the movie theater industry from afar, what do you believe are some of the most promising signs of its survival/future success?

Bringing back historic films, remastered, could draw people back into the theater to relive memories of seeing a movie three decades later. I think the incorporation of live events, like concerts and major sporting events, could be a new way to leverage existing technologies for new purposes. Subscriptions (like, unlimited monthly movies for $19.99 a month) will bring volume up. But no matter what, the industry seems to be in need of major rethinking.

Similarly, what do you believe are some of the biggest challenges for its survival/future success?

Cinema is an incredibly powerful medium for projecting the dominant cultural mythologies of our age. But the video-gamming industry is doing the same thing, and better, by putting us inside the action. If 3D immerses us into a gigantic screen, video games immerse us inside the mythology itself. Action role-play video games move us from merely spectating a mythology to actually becoming a star/spectator within it. And it’s incredibly addictive, more addictive than the cinema.

The Netflix film Mowgli (2018) was a game-changer for me. I streamed the film with my family at the same time it was a new release in local cinemas. Theaters have gotten used to holding proprietary rights for a movie for a certain length of time before those films go to streaming services. And if this continues, as large media streaming services fund their own large-scale sitcoms, dramas, and feature-length movies, this will continue to blow up the big studio/cinema marriage we have come to assume. And as streaming giants find themselves in a foot race for proprietary content, this will continue to undermine theaters.

If you had to take a few guesses (educated or just for fun), what are some ways you believe movie theaters — the industry, the experience, whatever it may be — will change over the next 5–10 years? What other technologies might be weaved into cinema? And what is your general outlook on the industry as a whole?

Yeah, I think that’s the problem. The technology has reached its marketable limit. I don’t know many people who decide against seeing a movie because the theater didn’t have Dolby Atmos sound. Tech upgrades at this point are subtle and largely overlooked by the public. So theaters will survive as long as they can each brand themselves as something beyond a theater. It’s very similar to what happened to the brick and mortar bookstore industry, especially Christian bookstores, that could only survive by also selling music albums, Jesus trinkets, breath mints, gum, paintings, and figurines — all the things that have nothing to do with books. Those “book” stores have died off. Cinema is in a similar boat, forced to adopt endless amounts of supplementary offerings.

With or without the physical theater, do you believe movies themselves will survive or succeed in the coming generation(s), considering the more immersive qualities of video games, social media, etc.? Why/why not?

It’s hard to say. What is a movie? What is television? These lines are now blurred. During my formative years of adolescence, live-linear television was the place for a quick hit of sarcasm and slapstick comedy (Letterman, SNL, Simpsons). The cinema was where I went to have my mind blown by immersive CGI, longform storytelling, and thundering audio technology (ET, Star Wars, Back to the Future). But this dynamic has drastically changed over the past decade. We’ve entered the golden age of television. I remember a time when you’d never see a Hollywood actor soil their reputation on television unless they were promoting a film. Now television has incorporated many of Hollywood’s well-known actors, along with all of its CGI and audio tricks. Today, it would be really difficult for me to determine if the first season of Netflix’s Lost in Space (2018–) is a 10-part television series or a 10-hour movie. I honestly don’t know. I lean toward seeing it as a 10-hour movie. It offers all the CGI and acting you’d expect from Hollywood. All the lines are blurring.

Hollywood operates by a time limit of about 120 minutes. People don’t want to sit there any longer. So movies need to fit inside this attention-window. That was an impressive feat in the 1980s. And people came away satisfied in the 120-minute storyline. But now the length of how long people will engage with a cultural mythology exceeds 50 hours! People have changed. Media has changed people. Television has made our minds more complex, better able to follow multiple plots over longer periods of time.

Studies have demonstrated this historically. Dragnet (1951–59) was a television series about LA cops. It featured one plot per episode, beginning to end. Real clean. Simple. Each episode works A to Z as a standalone storyline. Starsky and Hutch (1975–79) was also a television series about LA cops. It featured two plots, one at the beginning that is picked up at the end, but a second, major plot filled up the middle. Each episode also tied off cleanly. Hill Street Blues (1981–87) came along, another police drama, but this one featured around eight plots per episode, relatively clean plots, rarely overlapping, some carrying over to later episodes. And then of course you come to The Sopranos (1999–2007), the hit mobster crime drama. It featured around ten plots per episode, overlapping one another, scenes where two or three plots are concurrently developed at the same time, unfinished plots carrying over from one episode to another episode, and some plots dropping out for multiple episodes, even for whole seasons, only to be picked up later. Very complex storytelling.

In today’s media landscape, to imagine an entirely developed storyline in just 120 minutes is overly contained. The Sopranos drama required 4,300 minutes. Again, this is one of the reasons why the home theater trumps the cinema. No one could watch The Sopranos in a theater. Some will say home theater watchers have settled for something smaller than the cinema. But in many ways this is exactly wrong. Home theater viewers are asking for mega-longform media, the kind of media that could never fit inside the cinema.

And would their survival/success be a good thing? Or, like the act of going to the movies at the theater, would it be no different than any other activity of entertainment?

I don’t know. I hope we continue to attend live sporting events and don’t just watch them all on VR goggles in 3D. But if that’s what happens, I won’t be too concerned. The stadium vendors will find other employment. The same is true of the theater. I’m rather ambivalent. But if theaters become a glorified marriage between the privacy and comfort of our dimly lit living rooms, while we are served a foodie-level menu by waiters from a kitchen with the best chef in town, could we really say that the cinema has survived? To double a patient’s life-support is not to say he’s now twice as much alive. It’s to say he’s twice as much dead.

Buying Your Teen a Smartphone for Christmas? Don’t.

Our kids’ lives are full of progressions: from crib to “big kid” bed, from tricycle to bicycle, and from learner’s permit to driver’s license. We use phrases that mark these milestones: when they sleep in their “own bed,” when they ride their “own bike,” and when they get their “own car.”

But in the digital age, kids face a new suite of technological progressions: from digital media, to tablets, to a dumbphone, and then eventually to a smartphone. As in the case of a new bike, sometimes we buy things for kids and give them full ownership. And many parents have witnessed their teen’s excitement in unboxing their “own phone.”

But I think smartphones call for a different approach. Here’s an alternative route.

Instead of giving a teen their “own phone,” it may be better to speak of the smartphone in terms of a gift, on loan, in the form of an experiment. The phone is purchased by, owned by, and all monthly services are paid by, mom and dad. This arrangement is made clear from the outset. This phone is, and will remain, mom and dad’s phone. The parents lend it out to the child, per agreement, as an experiment.

And since the smartphone is an open experiment to test teen maturity and responsibility, we can then set clear expectations in a written contract to cover a few baseline rules on content, apps, personal behaviors, and family engagement.

At a bare minimum, a contract will make statements like:

  • This phone does not go into the bedroom. While at home, the phone stays in the living room (or in a central charging location).
  • This phone is charged in mom and dad’s room from 7pm to 7am.
  • This phone is not to be jail-broken or hacked.
  • This phone is for limited apps and no new apps will be added without parental approval (something Apple makes relatively easy).

When considering violations of the agreement, you can set consequences out clearly. For example: on the first violation, dad takes back his phone and deactivates it for one week. On the second violation, dad takes back his phone and deactivates it for one month. And on the third violation, dad takes back his phone and the smartphone experiment comes to a halt.

A contract like this will be unique to each child and you’ll need discernment on what exactly each child needs to hear. But all of these negotiations are made possible because of language you use from the start. No, we did not buy our teen his or her “own phone.” We are conducting a trial, an experiment to see if our teen is mature enough for such a powerful technology.

This approach puts the burden on the teen, and gives you opportunities to talk about what is and is not working as the teen learns to navigate such a complicated new landscape. This framework also gives you an “out” clause if the experiment explodes, or even a “wait” clause if you need time to rethink digital media in their lives.

So if you think your teen is ready for a smartphone, don’t buy them one for Christmas. Buy yourself a redundant new phone for Christmas and lend it out to them. Love them and guide them through this powerful life progression. Like bicycle training wheels and parking-lot driving lessons, give them the tools they want with the safeguards they need.

Why God Cannot Be Tempted by Evil

James 1:13 —

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.

Jonathan Edwards’ lecture on James 1:13 (April 1733) —

It’s impossible [that God be tempted to sin] because it’s impossible that God should be in want of anything or be capable of having his happiness added, he that has already an all-fullness in himself, and is infinitely happy. It’s impossible that he should desire to be more happy. For there is no such thing as more happy than infinitely happy. There can be no addition to that which is infinite, that which cannot be exceeded.

But if it be impossible that God should desire to be more happy, then it’s impossible for him to be tempted with a view to his own interest, for that is to suppose that he has a view to an addition to his own happiness, when at the same time he desires no addition, nor is capable of it.

Men are liable to temptation because they have an inward craving of happiness. They are tempted by some object to allure that craving. But he that is self-sufficient is not liable to any such temptation nor capable of it. It’s impossible that he should have any such prospect.

Men are tempted to do evil from a view at some profit or pleasure. A view at being in some way added to by it. But it’s impossible that he that is infinitely happy and blessed should have any such temptation to do any evil or unrighteous thing.

But then if it be inquired how it appears that God hath such a fullness in himself that he can’t be added to, the answer appears by this: that he cannot receive any addition from any other because all others have all from him. It appears God has all fullness in himself because the whole creation have all from him. He is the fountain of the good that is received and enjoyed in the whole creation. Every creature has all that he has from God. . . .

Therefore it is evident that God can receive no addition from or by the creature, or by anything in the creation. If the creation be happy, that makes no addition to God. And if the creature be miserable, that makes no addition to God. Therefore God cannot be under temptation to wrong creatures or to do unjustly by them from any expectation of getting anything by them.

[Editing note: All contracted ’tis-es changed to it’s-es.]

#IsaiahChristmas 2019

Usually by the time December begins Christmas decorations are up, holiday music is blasting, and pumpkin spice is in the air. But as the culture prepares for the holiday, I invite you to do something counter-cultural: to read the ancient collected prophecies of a man named Isaiah. Not only do I want you to read it, I want to run alongside and help you understand and enjoy it (Acts 8:30–31). That is my goal for you in the month of December leading up to Christmas — in twenty-four readings beginning on December 1 and ending on Christmas Eve.

Isaiah tells the boisterous story of international political upheaval — the stunning prequel to Bethlehem. Nothing will deepen your appreciation for the Incarnation, nothing will better help you enjoy Christ, and all that he is for you, if you understand the global setting that anticipated, and demanded, his birth. It’s been called the Fifth Gospel for good reason because along with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John it’s a book about the Messiah, not merely in his birth, but in the whole of his world. And it’s majestic. It’s the prequel-gospel, the first gospel, or the gospel before the first gospel, because it serves as a forerunner to the biographies of Christ.

Ever since George Frideric Handel’s famous oratorio Messiah took its rightful place as the musical theme of Christmas the holiday season has been a good time to reflect on the full redemptive story-line of Scripture. Handel’s work builds from seventeen key citations drawn from across the prophetic book. Soaring texts like Isaiah 7:14; 9:2, 9:6; 35:5–6; 40:1–5, 40:9, 40:11; 50:6; 53:3–8; 60:1–3. He left no great Christmas text behind. But those texts are set within a bigger context we shouldn’t ignore.

But any reader soon finds out that the book of Isaiah, like the incarnation of Christ itself, is rather dark and gritty compared to the holiday season we experience each year. Our Christmases are clean and too easily reduced to fresh pine trees cut and domesticated, boxes wrapped in shiny foil, and mass production frosted cookies in the kitchen. The true reason for the birth of Christ is borne of global need and widespread desperation. Christ arrived from sheer human necessity, based on the dominant political powers and the resulting pains of the world. Isaiah offers us all the reasons to explain the story.

A Christ-centered reading of Isaiah is problematic, too. We can too prematurely read Isaiah in light of what we know about Christ and miss the urgency of the prophet’s hope and global expectation. Indeed what Isaiah sees is a threefold need which must be remedied by a threefold promise. As scholars have pointed out, Isaiah’s visions for the future redemption of the world calls for three separate individuals: a King, a Servant, and a Prophet.

“Isaiah does not envision only one lead agent,” Andrew Abernethy writes, “instead, there are at least three distinct lead agents whom God will use in each of the major sections of the book: (1) the Davidic ruler (1–39), (2) the servant of the Lord (40–55), and (3) God’s messenger (56–66). While Christians profess that Jesus ultimately embodies what the book of Isaiah envisions for these lead agents, I am not certain that these agents are necessarily understood to be the same individual throughout Isaiah.”

What I uniquely offer is a way of approaching these themes in the season of Advent that covers the entire prophecy of Isaiah.

In the end, we will learn to postpone the urge to merge this trio of figures together in Christ until the end of the book. What we see is the urgent need for God to send three men, a threefold anticipation manifesting in three very distinct parts. Only as we approach Christmas will we begin to assemble these three anointed characters together.

This is my fourth consecutive Advent leading readers through Isaiah online. I hope you can join us by following the hashtag #IsaiahChristmas. Here’s the reading schedule (PDF). Download and print it. And join us on Twitter.