2021 Media Journal: Books

In 2021 I attempted to keep a detailed journal of all the new (or at least new-to-me) books, movies, tv shows, music and podcasts I experienced during the year.

I made it through May. After that, it gets a little dicey.

Looking back at the accounting of it has been eye-opening. There’s so much more of it than I realized. Reviewing the year has really helped me get a sense of what has stuck with me and what has turned out to be forgettable. So, I thought I’d share it here, starting with books (since I’m the kind of guy who likes to believe that I’m a book-first person). Rather than take up a lot of your time with mini-reviews I’ve decided to describe every work in 20 words or less. The rest is up to you.

Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player (Jeremy Beer). Maybe the first great Black baseball player, a generation before the guys you know. He’s worth your attention.

The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife (Brad Balukjian). What if you met all the guys in a pack of baseball cards? Great idea, disappointing execution.

Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy (Margaret Sullivan). Local Journalism is in trouble. So is America. These truths are related. Short, clear, direct. Worthwhile.

The Conquest of the Illinois (George Rogers Clark). First-person account from the general who secured the Illinois River Valley during the Revolutionary War. Short, fascinating.

Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Kristin Kobes Du Mez). The timeline of hyper-masculinity poisoning American Evangelicalism. Clearly documented and explained, damning evidence of the state we’re in.

Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask (Jon Pessah). A fascinating man, but the writing style grated. Like 500 pages of ESPN The Magazine pieces. Wish I liked it better.

Breathe: The New Science of a Lost Art (James Nestor). Fascinating, easy to follow, not jargon-laden. Practical techniques well explained. I’ve found it helpful and healthful.

The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Fleming Rutledge). Profound examination of the event of the Crucifixion and the Biblical motifs related to it. Important contribution to never-ending topic.

The Disabled God (Nancy Eisland). An early approach at theology of disability. An important voice in an essential conversation. Challenging, with important insights.

The Making of Biblical Womanhood (Beth Allison Barr). Clear, detailed history showing Complementarianism as veneer for non-Christian patriarchy. Also personally examines the cost to the whole Church.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (David Epstein). Explores the advantages for those who have had diverse experiences in work, training and development, contra the “Laser-Focused” approach.

A Study in Emerald (Neil Gaiman). Graphic novel imagining Sherlock Holmes in the Lovecraft Cthulu mythos. A blast if you like either or both of those.

The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell). Amazing. Science-fiction, faith, religion, philosophy – all at once. Don’t read about it before you read it.

Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft (Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez). First book of a trippy graphic novel about a family, a house, and a wild set of keys. Fun read.

The Nickel Boys (Colson Whitehead). Beautiful and horrible, depicting life for boys on the edge in the Jim Crow South. I cried, and gasped. Actually.

What Is the Bible? (Rob Bell). I liked it. YMMV on his style, but his explanation of how to read the Bible is pretty solid. Worthwhile.

Ted Strong Jr.: The Untold Story of an Original Harlem Globetrotter and Negro Leagues All-Star (Sherman L. Jenkins). The inspiring life of a Negro League All-Star and Harlem Globetrotter which was almost lost to history. Joyous read.

The Prophetic Imagination (Walter Brueggemann). A reading of the Hebrew Scriptures which sees the prophets as divine agents of counter-culture. Brief but rich, must-read classic.

The Underground Railroad (Colson Whitehead). These both won the Pulitzer Prize for a reason. Again, beautiful and devastating. An alternate version of pre-Civil War America that casts new light on old horrors.

Four Lost Cities (Annalee Newitz). The author looks at current archeology to consider the forces that can make seemingly healthy cities and civilizations disappear.

A Burning In My Bones (Winn Collier). Authorized biography of beloved pastor/author/translator Eugene Peterson. Gave human scale to a larger-than-life figure, affectionately.

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (Bessel Van Der Kolk). Understanding trauma, how it affects body and mind, and the ways of healing that are restoring people. Profound and empowering.

From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution (Brendan Purcell). Purcell considers human origins from the discipline of philosophy, a fresh angle which offers fresh insights. Friendly to science and religion.

Klara and the Sun (Kazuo Ishiguro). A meditation on what it means to be human and our need for belonging. Joyful, sad, beautiful.

Tear Down These Walls: Following Jesus into Deeper Unity (John H. Armstrong). John is a personal mentor and inspiration who has committed himself to Christian unity. This is his latest work exploring that vision, and it is a beautiful expression of his mission.

Finding Zuzu

My son Zach has 32 Zhu Zhu Pets.  For the uninitiated, Zhu Zhu Pets are animatronic hamsters which, when activated, make a variety of noises (coos and purrs, as well as words and nonsense noises) and explore their environment; one can buy a host of accessories, as one would for a real hamster, but they will also zip around the floor, responding to various stimuli they encounter.  There are dozens of distinct “characters”, each with a name, and unique coloring, markings, and phrases that they say.

Since I told you Zach has 32 Zhu Zhus, I probably don’t need to tell you that he loves them.  He will set up tracks, and then line them up to all go through the track one at a time.  He will set them all up on the dining room floor and then activate them, so that the room is over-run with furry, squeaking robots.  And, when one of them ceases to properly function (the most common problem is that the button on their back, which activates them, will break) Zach is grieved.  We are currently going through a mini-crisis, because Zach wants to replace Rocket (or Rock-it; I forget).  Rocket appears to be out of production.  Rocket’s not coming back, and Zach’s not happy about it.

But the amazing thing I wanted to tell you tonight is that Zach knows them all, by name.  At bedtime, Christy told Zach to pick up all the Zhu Zhus and put them in a new plastic bin we have for storage.  Zach dutifully moved from room to room, gathering up pets and putting them in the basket.  Christy tried to join in helping him, but this proved problematic, because even after all of the pets seemed to be off of the floor, Zach kept searching, saying “Zhu Zhus.  Zhu Zhus.”  Finally, Christy showed him the basket, and together they inventoried all of the pets that Christy had added to the basket – he was still looking for those pets!  As soon as the inventory ended, Zach went back to searching, now saying “Zuzu.  Zuzu.”  “We got all of them, Zach,” said Christy.  “Zuzu.  Zuzu,” said Zach.  And then we remembered: there is a Zhu Zhu pet named Zuzu.

Josh remembered what Zuzu looks like (which was amazing in itself, since Josh doesn’t have any affection for the Zhu Zhus), and we all continued to search for a light brown puffball that looks a little like a porcupine.  Sure enough, Zuzu was hiding in the bathroom.

Zach still has a hard time forming sentences, and really can only do it for things he wants or needs.  Zach can’t always remember my name.  Zach forgets basic safety rules, like ” no wandering away,” or “no walking into the street.”  Zach has a hard time connecting with new people.

But Zach’s not stupid.  He can look at a box with 31 of his pets, and he knows which one is missing, and what it looks like.  And he won’t stop until all 32 pets are together in the box.  Is that an obsessive behavior, or is he shepherding?  I’m going to choose to see the latter, and I’m going to pray that it’s a little bit of the image of Jesus in Zach, a child of God.

A Community For Everyone

I’ve gone dark on this blog for the last six weeks or so, mainly because I’ve been working on a special project that’s been consuming my thinking.  The project was taking my free time (which often goes to writing here), but it was also the main thing I wanted to think and write about during the last couple months, and I did not want to put those ideas out here before I had a chance to complete the project.

Well, it’s over now.  Last week, I was the camp pastor for the Chicago area Joni and Friends (JAF) Family Retreat.  JAF hosts two weeks of Family Retreat each summer, and I was invited to be the pastor/speaker for the first week.  In the weeks to come, material related to that project will be showing up in my writing here and my preaching at St. Paul Church.  Today, though, I just want to reflect on the challenge to do the very thing that Family Retreat is trying to accomplish.

Family Retreat is an ambitious, sprawling sort of thing – I keep trying to start a sentence with “The goal(s) of Family Retreat is/are…” and I can’t do it.  I think it’s clearer to say what it is: Family Retreat creates a special kind of community for 5 days.  People who have been marginalized in the institutional Church because of their impairments, and their families, are invited to be together, and at home together.  The community is also made of those who do not live with major impairments or disabilities, but feel the call of Jesus to live in community with those who do; many of those people take roles of service and support during the week to make it more possible for people to have the sort of summer camp experience most people take for granted.  Together, all of these people share worship, meals, and recreation time for 5 days.  This experience reveals something that most Christians don’t see, and probably don’t want to see: most American Christian community leaves at the margins those who are impaired, because the physical and social structures of the Church make it impossible for the impaired to enter in and be at home.

I think of Family Retreat in the terms I’ve put as the title – A Community For Everyone.  Of course, even as I type this, sitting in the front room of the house my family has for accomodations during these two weeks of Retreat, my eldest son is in his bedroom, hiding away from all of the opening activities of the new week of Retreat.  He is miserable, and insists that he doesn’t want to be here.  His social and emotional limitations continue to push him more frequently into isolation, and none of us (his mother and I, his school, his psychiatrist) are succeeding in finding solutions.  So even as I am striving to be a part of a community for everyone, I am trying to figure out how to extend that community to a boy who alternates between warmth, joy and kindness and tortured isolation, a boy who isn’t actually sure he wants community.

How does Jesus Christ make a community for a boy like that?  How do we?

Movies About Board Games 2: Electric Boogaloo

Had to share:

Television Without Pity wrote about the creative abandoned well that is movies made about board games more than 2 years ago!  And, the Battleship movie was the first on their list, already in production.  Well, since it took that long to make, it’s got to be good, right?

My favorite part was noting that Real Steel bears some resemblance to another table game, and the list of board game movies that were supposedly in production at that time.  Still waiting for Ridley Scott’s Monopoly

And, I’m a little bit sad that only one of you has taken on the challenge I’ve thrown down.  Here, I’ll make it easier:  What would a movie based (or not based, as is the case with Battleship) on “Sorry” look like?  Go to it!

You Sank My…

I have been to a couple of movies recently which have subjected me to previews for Battleship, the upcoming film which was still being promoted as being from Hasbro, the same people who brought us the Transformers franchise and the table game Battleship.  Early trailers and write-ups were emphasizing that the movie was based on the board game, although they seem to be de-emphasizing that now.

This probably has to do with the fact that the movie actually appears to be Transformers 4: Hey, Now We’re In The Ocean!  In fact, I have struggled for weeks to understand what the movie has to do with the board game, other than the actual presence of a Battleship: lots of aliens that look like the aliens from Transformers, and make lots of metallic clicking and growling sounds like the aliens from Transformers, but no kids incorrectly guessing where Liam Neeson’s battleship is.

And then I realized that I know what a Battleship movie that is actually based on the board game would be like:

Two nations have full, ample naval fleets – but no intelligence agencies.  So, as tensions build and war breaks out, the two nations are relegated to taking turns firing missiles to random locations, hoping to hit one of the enemy ships.

They also have no air force, so to find out if they have actually hit the enemy fleet, each nation is dependent upon the other calling periodically to say “miss” or “hit”.  When they occasionally hit the enemy, there is great excitement: “Oh, we have hit the enemy.  Unfortunately, we don’t know what type of ship we hit (our enemy failed to mention it during their last phone call).  So, let’s fire near the last location, and see if we have hit again!”  This gripping battle goes back and forth, until one fleet has been entirely sunk, and the audience has died of boredom.

Now, wouldn’t you go see that, again and again, eventually buying it on blu-ray?

Having figured out how to make a really exciting movie about a board game, I thought we should take it to the next level.  So, let’s crowdsource this: what other board and table games would you like to see as movies, and what type of movie would your game of choice be?  What do you think would be the hardest board game to make into a movie?

For example: My brother and I began thinking about this, and he suggested that Connect Four might be the hardest game to make into a movie.  After a little thought, though, I suggested that, in the spirit of BattleshipConnect Four would be a romantic comedy about four hip young urban friends trying to find love but being repeatedly blocked just short of the goal.  Depending on if this was a big studio project or an indie, in the end one of the young beautifuls would find true love (or not); in the closing scene, a giant sinkhole would open up, and all of the checker/hipsters would collapse into it.

Okay, now it’s your turn!  Let’s make a movie!