EDWARD vs. JACOB: Twi-harder

Forget swine flu.  The most intense virus sweeping teens is Twilight.   Feverish anticipation for the second part of The Twilight Saga:  New Moon has been brewing for months.    The most dedicated fans, “Twi-hards,” have taken to the streets of Los Angeles, camping out for days before the second installment of the teen vampire saga opened.  Despite blistering reviews from film critics, Thursday's midnight screening set a sales record.  It is enroute to being one of the biggest opening weekends in cinema history.

Those who’ve read Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series are predisposed to swoon for the tortured teen vampire, Edward Cullen.   His radiant appearance, sparkling in the sunlight, echoes David Bowie’s androgynous “Diamond Dogs.”   Edward defends Bella Swan with such ferocity, taming his own blood-lust to protect her life.   Robert Pattinson brought minimal screen experience (he plays Cedric Diggory in the Harry Potter series) to the role.   But Edward’s pale skin and private suffering suited the London-born actor.  Pattinson even contributed a couple of songs (‘Never Think’ and ‘Let Me Sign’) to the Twilight soundtrack.

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I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard Christians express a hunger to see their faith portrayed in a forthright manner onscreen.   Nobody wants to see something preachy.  They simply long to find a film that shows how beliefs are translated into tangible actions.   Surely, daily discipleship decisions can be translated into cinematic terms.

Prayers have been answered with a remarkably entertaining film, THE BLIND SIDE.   This real life story of football player Michael Oher comes from the acclaimed pen of Michael Lewis (author of Moneyball and The New New Thing).   But The Blind Side is a much more than a football story.   It is a tribute to families, to the power of adoption, to the practical difference one family can make.   At a time when we desperately need heroic actions, The Blind Side delivers refreshing role models.

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Precious is the most basic, extraordinary and humane film of 2009.  After a summer of silliness, Precious arrives as a bracing alternative, powered by jolting performances from Mo’Nique and newcomer Gabourey Sidibe.   It takes viewers inside the tragic life of a teen mother.   It puts a face on poverty, abuse, and perseverance.   Precious offers hard-earned hope amidst overwhelming odds.

I had the privilege of seeing Precious on the night it won the Grand Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.  Director Lee Daniel was delighted to discover that ‘white folk’ liked his unapologetically ‘black’ film.   Initially, it was called Push:  Based upon the Novel by Sapphire.  It arrived at Sundance with little fanfare, but got way under audiences' skin.   Now, the star (and theme) of the film has been pushed to the forefront—everything revolves around Precious.   Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey have added their endorsement.   Viewers have responded by breaking box office records in both upscale art-houses and down-home black theaters.   Just as pundits declared independent film dead, Precious redefines what's possible.

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How do we pay for our crimes?   Is an apology enough?   How contrite do we need to be for it to qualify?   Kanye West seemed to get it right on the fourth or fifth confession.  It took Jay Leno asking Kanye how his deceased mother would feel about his rudeness towards Taylor Swift.  Republican Representative Joe Wilson’s outburst during the President’s address to Congress also raised the issue.   Wilson considered one apology enough.   Now, Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson has offended Republicans by claiming their “very simple” healthcare plan encourages sick people to die quickly.   Grayson insists that he will not apologize for his poster board presentation to the House of Representatives.

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Here at Conversant, we explore how faith connects to everyday life.  But what happens when our personal beliefs crossover to the public square? Jesus warned us not to display our faith for others’ affirmation or praise. So should faith remain a private matter? Jesus also took his teachings into the public arena, from the Sermon on the Mount to the marketplaces of his ancient Judea.  We must examine our motives, examining why we air our faith.

Perhaps the question should be, “Can we discuss our values with those we disagree with in a civil way?”  At Conversant, we hold a public conversation about our personal beliefs.  We must be free to our convictions without fear. Yet, we must do so in a humble and respectful manner—as active listeners.

On a recent tour of Australia, my friend, Geoff Broughton, introduced me to the Center for Public Christianity. We crossed over the dramatic bridge to north Sydney for an afternoon of conversation at the nexus of faith and culture. I was pleased to meet like-minded colleagues Greg Clarke, Simon Smart, and Hugh Clark. They interviewed me during a memorable afternoon. They’ve produced a podcast and a videoblog from our conversations that you can find on Vimeo here.

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While the brave team from the "GIVE A DAMN" movie were surviving a plane crash, I was vacationing with my family in Australia.  We went to see (and snorkle) the Great Barrier Reef (while it is still around!).  So instead of posting at Conversant, I'd basically "gone fishin'" for the summer.

I had no idea how substantial a catch awaited us. This photo of me snorkeling with a Hump Head Maori Wrasse hasn’t been altered in any way. Yes, the fish really do grow that big on the Great Barrier Reef. Yes, their colors really are that vibrant. While I look like a stuffed sausage in my swimshirt, the wrasse lopes along with such presence.

According to the marine biologist on board our boat, this gentle wrasse is about 40 or 50 years old and STILL GROWING. When my kids spotted it, they choose to swim the other way! This is just one of the amazing sights we encountered Down Under. 

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THE WIRE: Small Screen, Big Picture

Looking for a TV series to dig into this summer? Check out the five seasons of THE WIRE on DVD. Several of my friends have been blow away by the depth of characters and compassion generated by this riveting series. I write about it in a new book, SMALL SCREEN, BIG PICTURE, edited by Diane Winston. It chronicles how religious impulses are lived out on shows like The SopranosLostDeadwood, and Battlestar Galactica. I deal with David Simon’s acclaimed series, The Wire. Here is a small excerpt from my chapter:

Once upon a time, I cared about the inner city. Back in the 1980s, I started an urban Young Life program in my hometown, Charlotte, North Carolina. Our team of volunteer leaders joined the efforts of Progressive Baptist Church. Each afternoon, Reverend Charles Mack opened his church’s doors to the teenagers from Dalton Village, the public housing project across the street. We offered tutoring, games, and occasional field trips. The teens wore out the carpet and broke a few chairs, but Reverend Mack considered that a small price to pay for offering a safe haven from the street corners.

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Two years. Two Student Academy Awards. For aspiring filmmakers wondering how to get noticed, how about noticing the suffering of others? Friends of mine have won the gold medal at the Student Academy Awards by focusing their camera upon the plight of those on the margins of society. Their compelling films are not a calculated stunt to win prizes but a heartfelt conviction that we must care for the poor, the hungry, and the hurting.

American University student Laura Waters Hinson won best documentary in 2008 for AS WE FORGIVE, a moving portrait of reconciliation in Rwanda. It highlights both the harrowing genocide and the profound healing that has come to a fractured country. To commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Rwandan horrors, As We Forgive will be screening on PBS stations around the country, including PBS WORLD on July 15th. Check the PBS schedule for stations and times near you.  In the meantime, you can join the Living Bricks campaign, designed to rebuild houses for the victims’ families. Murderers and survivors live alongside each other in a stirring example of forgiveness in action.

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How should we respond to the bullets currently flying in the culture war? Each week has brought another loaded headline–from President Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame to the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. The murder of George Tiller while he was serving as an usher at Reformation Lutheran Church made him the latest casualty in culture war. He becomes another means to raise money for both sides of the fight. The same week, a Muslim convert shot two army recruiters, killing Pvt. William Long from Conway, Arkansas (hometown of new American Idol, Kris Allen).   Now, comes another salvo, shotgun blasts inside the Holocaust Museum.  A security guard died at the hands of an 88-year-old  white supremacist.  That is a lot of hate spewing across our nation.   Lebanon is holding peaceful elections, while we continue to fire on each other. Somehow, these latest culture war casualties haven’t inspired renewed calls for gun control.   At the very least, we can pause long enough to grieve over what we are doing to each other.
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Craig Detweiler, PhD is a filmmaker, author and professor. He directs the Reel Spirituality Institute for the Brehm Center at Fuller Theological Seminary.