Category: entertainment

Those 10 Books

I was tagged by my friend Chris in a recent Facebook thing… and I had too much to say for Facebook :)

ootp-uk-kids-cover-art 1. Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling
On a Saturday in July 2003, the month before my wedding to Rod, four hardcover copies of the fifth installment of Harry Potter (Order of the Phoenix) were in our home. It was an ordering mistake and also a gift. A dad, a new stepmom, and two adolescent kids laid around all the live-long day reading ferociously. It was the first new book released since we had all caught on to and fell in love with Harry and his friends. Years later, the characters and their adventures, the story of friendship, sacrifice, and redemption, are still a special kind of magical – one that helped make us a family.

2. Hunger Games series, Suzanne Collins
I love YA literature. Always have. What Rowling might have lacked in literary sophistication, in my humble opinion, Collins got. Katniss’ story (& it is her story) was not as neatly tied up as Harry’s. Somehow, the losses were more real and touching and devastating to me. The bravery, love, and humanity (read: big flaws) that Katniss displayed make her one of my favorite literary heroes.

3. Mark of the Lion: A Voice In the Wind, Francine Rivers
Christian fiction that was emotionally resonant and not completely heavy-handed? It was a new concept to me when I first read this novel, a tale of a Messianic Jew serving as a slave in a scary, prejudiced home. Hadassah’s tale was eventually soap-operatic in a future book, but this book showed me that adventurous, captivating tales could exist within the settings of scripture.

4. Something Borrowed, Emily Giffin
Why do I love this fluffy book? Because for once, the tale of the “other woman” was told with balance and sensitivity. I’ve read it a million (ok, maybe a dozen…) times and chosen to ignore the movie.

flyawayhome5.  Fly Away Home, Jennifer Weiner
Weiner is one of my go-to authors, but this book… ah… It came to me in a time of huge life change. “Why can’t we live at the beach?” were the first words I uttered after finishing it. Meanwhile, the complicated tale of marriage and motherhood – and the fun and colorful descriptions of a woman learning to cook lavishly for her friends and family (while staying at the beach) made for a “chick-lit” novel I’m not embarrassed to admit I love.

6. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
It was the first required reading of my high school career, the centerpiece of my best college paper (call Atticus Finch a racist and I will cut you…), and one of the first (ok, and only) novels I taught in my (very short) high school teaching career. A charming family, a tragic trial, and Boo! – all the ingredients are there for a classic that is worthy and lovable.

7. Seven, Jen Hatmaker
Hatmaker is a rare gem who is captivating as a writer and speaker. This book was my first encounter with her, and saying it is life-changing is not an exaggeration. The “seven fast” itself is the framework, but the foundation beneath it – the pure love and lifestyle of Christ, simplicity, brother/sisterhood, affected me deeply and gave validation to many thoughts that had been swirling in me for years. Eating only sweet potatoes/spinach/apples/chicken/eggs/avocados/whole-grain bread for a month is fine. Living a life of grace and generosity is a lifelong aspiration.

Where_the_Heart_Is_Billie_Letts8. It, Stephen King
Like so many, I had a teenage love-affair with King. His writing is genius, vivid, so disturbing. It was the second book of his I read (the first was The Eyes of the Dragon, which remains my favorite, but is totally different in setting and tone than anything else – it’s fantasy and not horror), and I was so captivated by it that I sun-bathed too long on my stomach and was rewarded with a 2nd-degree sunburn while vacationing in Myrtle Beach! The great thing about King is how is horror is not only metaphorical, but intertwined in complicated, realistic, and touching relationships. Who doesn’t want friends like those in The Losers’ Club?
9. Where the Heart Is, Billie Letts
The Walmart baby. Novalee. Americus. Forney. Kids named after snack foods.The basic premise & the cliché-ish southern-ness might make the whole thing seem cheesy… but it wasn’t. Novalee’s story of courage, growth, and victory over struggle, love after loss, was truly touching and inspiring.

10.The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold
I recently listened to a radio show that discussed movies people love but were too devastated by to watch again. The Lovely Bones is that book for me. The story itself was so profoundly sad – the spirit of a murdered girl watches her family grieve over the unsolved crime through the years. I remember reading sentences out loud to my husband because they were simply so beautiful. It’s my favorite book that I will not re-read.

never had a friend like…

robinI have never met Robin Williams.

Or Johnny Cash.

Or Michael Jackson

Or Roger Ebert.

Or Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Brittany Murphy, Natasha Richardson, Whitney Houston…

And don’t even get me started on Patrick Swayze.

You probably haven’t met them either, and if you did, you weren’t friends. You didn’t see them regularly, know their quirks, their scent, their most-worn T-shirt, the things that we observe and mindlessly hold close about our own people.

But when it comes to people – our favorite far-off people – whose faces we see and voices we hear on the screen, we feel connected. And when we lose them, we mourn.

When Whitney Houston died in 2012, I remember having to tune out social media for a few days because of my anger at the reactions. As it happens with any celebrity death in our Facebook Age, we use these times as an opportunity to reminisce: our favorite song. our favorite movie. the thing that touched us, made us dance, made us cry. But some people use this as a time to point out how shallow we are for caring that an entertainer has died. Why don’t we post more pictures and thoughts of soldiers, of martyrs, of victims?

It’s a debate we can’t win. Death itself is too big for us to handle as one piece. We know that every day, people die senselessly, tragically, horribly. And if we acknowledged each one the way we do our own loved ones, our own heroes, or simply our own favorite entertainers, then all we would do is mourn.

Patrick Swayze - I mean!I remember, quite honestly, observing that I cried more tears over the star of Dirty Dancing and the singer of  “Walk the Line” than I did for some distant relatives. It made me feel guilty, and yet…? We cannot measure the depth of our human experience by isolated emotions. I loved that second cousin who died unexpectedly when I was 17, and I will always, always miss those older relatives that were gone before we got to hear all of their stories and learn all of their recipes. But I can’t help it that something in the emotive performances of Patrick Swayze and many things in the life and writings of Johnny Cash captivated me in a personal way.

And without their presence, the world is emptier. That is what happens when we lose artists, when we lose people who happen to make a more public mark than the rest of us.

It doesn’t make them bad for being celebrities, just like it doesn’t make them immune from cancer, old age, addiction, depression. It doesn’t make us shallow for loving them from afar and mourning them for real.

It’s just part of our human experience.

I am not going to spend Memorial Day acknowledging Robin Williams, nor will I tie a yellow ribbon, make a donation in his name, or think of him every day. Those are places we hold close for our soldiers, for our martyrs.

But this week, I will remember how he made me laugh in countless movies… how he was the teacher I wanted to have and wanted to be in Dead Poet’s Society… how Mrs. Doubtfire stands the test of time… the amazing way he made a cartoon genie come to life and made me rewind “You Ain’t Never Had a Friend Like Me” over and over… how I didn’t ever see Good Morning Vietnam or get Jumanji or like Mork & Mindy, but how much my kids love that eccentric Hook.

I will also pray for his family. He was a real person… a husband, a dad, a friend.

I guess it’s a theme for me this week. Let’s edit less. Let’s feel. Let’s reach out. Let’s be the full-hearted, big-hearted, loving creatures God created us to be.

Let’s remember Robin Williams with a smile and a tear.

Grace Unplugged: Go ahead. Chase your dreams.

I am cynical about entertainment that is marketed to the mainstream and labeled Christian or faith-based, and there’s a reason for that.

… a lot of it is bad.

Sure, there is the Veggie Tales franchise… fun, educational, and sometimes downright brilliant. And there was The Passion of the Christ, but as excellently done as that was, it was like being beaten over the head (painful and life-changing), so it’s not exactly on my frequently played list. Occasionally we get a gem like The Blind Side or Walk the Line or even Angels and Demons or Constantine (I will be happy to make these arguments some other day), that isn’t overtly Christian in its message, but the message shines through anyway. (I had a hard time coming up with those examples. Surely there are more…!)

But for every one of those, we have a Left Behind…or a Joyful Noise… movies that are so cheesy (the former) or so blatantly cliche or even disrespectful to living a Christian life (the latter) that I’d rather disassociate myself with them than talk about them at all.

I also want to note here that I am talking about mainstream entertainment. I don’t consider movies like Courageous to be mainstream. There might be some crossover, but these movies are mainly going to appeal to churchgoers. 

grace-image7Bring on the email invitation to a screening of Grace Unplugged that was sent to our church staff this week. A free movie? Check. A movie featuring a Taylor Swift-esque teenage girl, original music, and a former rock star Dad? Check. (This upped my intrigue considerably). Along with two other families in our church, we went.

You know how you know in the first few minutes of a movie if you are going to like it, hate it, or tolerate it? That happened. And I knew… I was going to like this movie. What was surprising to me? I identified with, was touched by, and absolutely loved this movie. I have been Grace, I have been Grace’s parents, and I, too, have been touched by the grace that is the thread through them all.

Grace Unplugged is the story of an eighteen year old girl, an only child of a worship pastor who was once a one-hit rock icon. The Dad, Johnny Trey, has distanced himself completely from that past and enjoys a quiet existence with his wife and daughter. Grace and Dad lead worship together at church, but it’s clear from the first scene of the movie (which is cleverly communicated through facial expressions) that they don’t jive musically anymore. He wants to keep things pretty straight-laced, and she wants to set them free.

Enter plenty of teenage angst, nothing new, nothing far removed from Ariel and her dear ol’ preaching daddy in Footloose. Except around this time, Mossy also enters. He is Johnny’s former manager, and through a series of “only in Hollywood” events that are somewhat believable because of our reality show/You Tube age of entertainment, Grace ends up in Los Angeles with a record deal, an AR rep, a sizeable advance, a music video, and plenty of… new angst.

I won’t tell you how it all ends (I will say it is not totally predictable), but because I think this movie is so worth your time, I’m going to tell you why this stands out as a quality movie~

GU__039111. Christians are people, too
How many TV episodes have you watched in which the protestant character was a freak of some kind? Hollywood makes fun of everything from prayer to intentional virginity as though those behaviors are alien or sinister or unheard of. Characters are often portrayed as one-dimensional, as though being a Christian means we exist in a tunnel of our beliefs and nothing else matters to us. Guess what? We dress like normal people. We argue like normal people. We have friendships, dreams, contentions, jobs, and desires like normal people. Grace Unplugged got this right all the way through, and that, simply put, impressed the crap out of me. (Yep. Even my pastors say “crap”).

Of note: the pastor and his wife (played by Chris Ellis and Mary Shaw) were friends of Johnny and Michelle, Grace’s parents. Though they were dressed a bit formally, they were also portrayed as human… warm, gracious, knowing, everyday people, who offered friendship and wisdom to a hurting family without thumping a Bible or quoting a bumper sticker. They were only in the movie for a few scenes, but I loved them.

Another favorite little subplot was Michelle’s struggle out of the spotlight. Her husband was obsessed with their daughter’s career and her rebellion, and though Michelle was quiet and prayerful in her reaction, she was also determined. She wanted her husband’s attention and his love. You go, girl. Get yours. Christian women have needs, too!

2. Christians do not live a life of constant extremes
One of my favorite scenes in the movie was a small one, but it involved Grace LYING to her parents and SKIPPING YOUTH GROUP to go to… the movies, alone. Why did I appreciate this so much? Because pastor’s kids or Christian kids are often portrayed in media and in society as all good or all bad, and that is such an unfair picture. So many other movies would have shown her skipping and going to a bar or meeting up with some skeezy guy, and while that happens sometimes, most of the time, the decisions kids make that go against their parents are more innocent than that. They are striving for independence and identity, not necessarily hellfire and brimstone.

GU__026713. Established actors are capable of playing Christians
It was good to see familiar faces in this movie, James Denton (Johnny) and Kevin Pollack (Mossy) being the most familiar. And while I had personally not heard of AJ Michalka before, she has been around, and her portrayal of Grace was lovely and solid, as were her musical performances. I didn’t once feel like I was being pandered to, or that I was watching someone’s daughter get a chance at her big career. And I’m sorry, but it was nice to have a break from Kirk Cameron. Seriously.

I should also mention here that newish Christian contemporary star Jamie Grace has a small role in the movie as Grace’s BFF. I appreciate the use of Jamie in a small role (it was her first acting role, and she was passable, but not earth-shattering). This allows for some name recognition in the church-going community without putting someone in a starring role who would not have been successful. Kudos to the movie makers here.

4. A good movie stirs conversation
We brought our 5.5 and almost-7 year old daughters to this movie. Our youngest was enthralled by the music, and as she is a fellow blond with a guitar and an attitude, her dad and I could totally see her going the way Grace does. Our 7-year-old leaned up to me at one point and asked, “Who is wrong? The daddy or the girl?” I told her, “They both kind of are… we will talk about it later.” I love that my child was noting the family dynamics at play, and I will have the opportunity to reinforce that parents love our kids a lot, but we don’t always get it right. I appreciate the kind of entertainment that opens up the door for heart checks and heartfelt discussions. In this case, family relationships are forefront. That time of transition from adolescence to adulthood is hard – on kids and their parents. When Johnny looks up and tells God, “She’s yours now,” I was rocked… because I have had to have that conversation with God about ALL my kids, even the little ones.

5. A life of faith permeates our actions, all the time
Perhaps this seems contradictory to points one and two, but it is not. I personally enjoy a relationship with Christ and a relationship with pop culture, but one will always trump the other. When you are a believer in Christ, His teachings and His character affect everything about you… to different degrees because we are in different places on our journeys. I love how this was shown in the nuanced reactions of Grace to things like alcohol, provocative dress, and manipulative relationships. She wasn’t all in or out… she struggled with these complex issues, with trying to balance what her heart knew to be the right thing and what her own intense dreams had convinced her she needed. So she drank a little, and she kinda of liked it, but she didn’t become an alcoholic, she didn’t drink and drive, and she didn’t sign up for AA and Christian counseling after a few weeks of social drinking . Sometimes, we need to calm down and trust that people, even our kids, will figure things out because the Holy Spirit – the voice of the Father – their relationship with Christ (pick your favorite/they’re all the same) IS leading and guiding. Some people listen too late, but most people are not going to listen to finger-pointing and craziness.
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Another fine example of this was the character of Quentin, played by Michael Welch. I admit: I loved him. I loved him in a “I wish I had known him when I was 18/I hope my daughters know him when they are 18” kind of way. He was sincere, helpful, and kind. When he said, “My mom made these cookies for you” and “I’m praying for your song,” it wasn’t hokey… it was sweet. It wasn’t, Grace, you’re supposed to be a Christian. Quit acting like a pagan and get to the altar. It was, I see you’re out of your comfort zone and exploring, and getting close to a dangerous place, and I’m here to point you toward safety, ok?

6. Chasing our dreams/art is not a sin
Rod and I related to this movie on the level of entertainment versus {music} ministry. We have been involved in both. We have followed our own dreams, and we have followed God, and we have tried hard to find the merging of the two, and sometimes we have failed, and by His grace, we have come to a good place. But here’s the deal, folks: God made us. He gives us the talents and drive that we have. I know we can get lost in those things and glorify ourselves, but there is nothing abjectly wrong with a singer singing, a writer writing, an actor acting. We don’t tell football players they should only play on church leagues, and we don’t tell doctors they should only have Christian patients. So why in the world do we give our young people such a hard time about how they use their talents? The main pop song of the movie is called, “Misunderstood.” It made me want to shout just as much as the main Christian song, “All I’ve Ever Needed.” I love music. Music speaks to me. Music made by the Beatles, Tori Amos, Bon Jovi, Ella Fitzgerald, Amy Grant, The Isaacs, Johnny Cash, Oak Ridge Boys, Chris Tomlin… it all speaks to me.

I admit, the ending of the movie and how all of this was reconciled in Grace’s life and career was a bit safe, but I do appreciate the idea that you don’t have to stop being yourself where you start serving God. The two co-exist. And that is a message worth repeating:

“Sometimes, chasing your dreams leads you right to where you belong.”

That is a mainstream message of faith!

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