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  • A Crazy Year for Christian Movies

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     It's only April, and it's been a crazy year for Christian movies. They've been crazy successful, crazy controversial and, in some moviegoers' minds, just plain crazy.

    On one hand, the spring of 2014 has proved what Christians have long insisted: That there's a market for faith-based movies. For years, we Christians have lamented the lack of good Christian-themed entertainment. "Make movies for us, and we'll see them!" we said. Hollywood picked this year to listen. And guess what? We were right.

    But just because we've been given our faith-driven movies, that doesn't mean we have to like 'em.

    Heaven Is for Real landed in second place this weekend and took in more than $22.5 million (surprising many experts). But I've heard from lots of Christians who believe the film peddles universalism and questionable theology.

    Son of God, essentially a reworking of footage we already saw in the History Channel's The Bible, earned nearly $60 million in two months (surprising many experts). But we've fielded some criticism of the movie's less-than-strict chronology.

    Noah landed atop the box office its first week of release and could perhaps crest the $100 million mark—the traditional measuring stick for a bona fide blockbuster (surprising many experts). But … well, if you haven't heard, the movie has been rather controversial in Christian circles.

    Even God's Not Dead—a very traditional Christian movie which did boffo business at the box office (surprising many experts)—has its critics, mostly for the way it handles the whole Christian vs. non-Christian dynamic.

    Now, of course, each of these films has problems in varying degrees. Every film does. There's no such thing as a perfect movie, and we dutifully noted most issues and quibbles with these flicks in our reviews. But the fact that so many of these films have generated such a backlash is still pretty interesting. And it triggers a whole host of questions for me.

    For instance: Have we always been equally sensitive to how faith-driven themes play out in popular entertainment? Was there any sort of Christian backlash for, say, Cecil B. DeMille's rather imaginative 1956 interpretation of The Ten Commandments? Did literate Christians protest the publication of John Milton's Paradise Lost (featuring a faux-heroic Satan) in 1667?

    Do we hold our faith- or Bible-based movies to a different standard than we do, say, your standard superhero movie? Should we?

    Do these controversies speak to the natural friction between what we see as theological truth and imaginative storytelling?

    It's the last point that's been particularly bounding around in my brain.

    It seems to me that theology is all about us trying to get at The Truth—that is, the ultimate truth. Who God is, why we're here, all that sort of stuff. We Christians believe that our faith addresses the biggest questions we have. And it forms a blueprint for not only how we operate, but the universe itself.

    Storytelling tries to get at truth, too, but in a squishier, dreamier sort of way. If theology can serve as a precise blueprint for life, the universe and everything, stories are more like a painting (and often a surreal painting at that). They use color and flow instead of form and function. By their nature, they're flawed and imperfect—some irredeemably so, some would argue. But stories, too, often try to get at some sort of truth, and sometimes even try to ferret out those biggest of truths.

    But it's nigh impossible to make, say, a impressionist painting of a blueprint and have it still work as a blueprint. The two serve very different purposes and stimulate very different parts of the brain. Both, I think, are important. But the only thing that's ever been able to combine both rock-solid theology and beautiful storytelling is, well, the Bible itself. And of course, that required a divine Creator.

    Now, none of this mitigates any specific issue found in any one of this year's crop of faith-themed movies (or any other such movies past or future). But I kinda like looking for truth, even hints of truth, in them, despite their imperfections. After all, our understanding of Christianity is the result of divine revelation, deep thought by some of the world's greatest minds and thousands of years of practice. I don't expect a 4-year-old who said he went to heaven to have a great grasp on all those theological intricacies. Sure, I might have questions. I might bring up problems. But they don't make me, well, crazy.

    But that's just me. What about you?

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  • Real, Real, Real, Real, Real, Real, UNREAL!

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     It's a drum that's been pounded until the sticks break and the skin tears. It's not so much a cliché anymore as it is absolute dogma, like gravity or inertia. So much has been written about it that any writer who dares do so again is doomed to sit, motionless in front of the computer screen, for days at a stretch, tormented by the thick, foul breath of redundancy.

    And yet we have to go on talking about it because it just keeps shaping and reshaping our lives and the lives of our kids. It's change, and it just keeps changing.

    Two specific areas of change have been chasing each other through my head lately. The first is our sometimes too-fluid perception of what's real and what's not—which significantly affects the way kids (and adults too) think about the world they walk around in and think in.

    My daughter recently came home from her church youth group talking about a friend who spent the night chatting about a trip she hadn't actually taken—as if she had actually gone. (And her group's leaders, according to the report I got, smiled and nodded and encouraged her to go on.) Now, there can be lots of reasons for why she said what she did. But isn't it somewhat understandable the amount of trouble some tweens and teens have with their renditions of reality when they're grown up watching "reality" on TV without ever really knowing what's the truth and what's a lie? Without having been taught a solid baseline from which to judge things?

    A recent example: Talk show host Wendy Williams says the supposedly spontaneous behind-the-scenes clips of contestants preparing for their performance each week on Dancing With the Stars are actually carefully scripted. "They also script what they want you to say," Wendy says in a today.com feature. "I know this as a participant, OK. I'm reading, I'm like, 'Wait, this is not how I'm feeling today, and I wouldn't say that. I'm not going to say that,' I would tell the camera." As for the "character" that the popular reality dancing competition created for her, she said if she'd had "a little bit more sassafras," she likely would have been more likable and not have been eliminated in the second week: "That's how they were writing my script, to be Angry Black Woman."

    I've also been brooding a lot about what it's like for kids to grow up online like they do now. It's hard enough for us adults to figure out which way the curve ball is breaking before it smacks us in the face. How much harder is it for kids?

    In the Daily Mail, Andrew Halls, head of the prestigious King's College School, Wimbledon, a school for 7- to 18-year-old students in London, writes:

    Social networking sites require every 21st-century teenager to live his or her life under the eye of an electronic adjudicator far more cruel and censorious than any examiner, school teacher, or parent. … No previous generation has spent so long online, 'liking' and being 'liked', or devastatingly ignored, in the OCD world of never-ending updates, status change, Instagram, AskFM, Little Gossip and Facebook. No wonder that every teenager can feel like the hopelessly inadequate star of his own second-rate biopic.

    If they have any sense that any of it is actually real and matters, that is. Or maybe they feel like all of it is far too real and matters far too much for words.

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  • Movie Monday: Captain America Soldiers On

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     Sure, Rio's nice this time of year. And heaven is, well, heavenly. But when it comes to movies, North American audiences still think there's nothing quite like, well, America. Captain America, that is.

    Captain America: The Winter Soldier once again took point and marched straight to the top of the box office this weekend—the third straight victory for Cap and Co. The estimated $26.6 million the flick earned this weekend may not be enough to buy a new Vibranium shield for Steve Rogers (those things are expensive), but it did push The Winter Soldier over the $200 million mark: Not bad soldier's pay, really.

    The birds of Rio 2, meanwhile, winged their way to a $22.5 million weekend and perched at No. 2 for the second straight week. They fended off a determined challenge by plucky Christian newcomer Heaven Is for Real, which earned a pearly $21.5 million.

    Heaven may have finished third, but its strong performance still surprised some box office prognosticators (a common reaction, it would seem). According to the early estimates, Heaven earned nearly twice as much as fellow newcomer Transcendence, which boasted both a megawatt star (Johnny Depp) and play in 1,000 more theaters. The Deppster had to settle for a fourth-place, $11.2 million weekend. Heaven also looked down in judgment on A Haunted House 2, which took in a mere $9.1 million for fifth. And Bears, Disney's charming new nature show designed to celebrate Earth Day, wasn't even in the derby, really, earning $4.8 million for 11th place.

    Heaven Is for Real's performance slaps an exclamation mark on a really remarkable spring for Christian and faith-themed movies. Noah, as biblically irresponsible as it is, is still floating in the top 10 and has earned $93.3 million in its month in theaters. God's Not Dead, perhaps the most surprising success story of 2014, also still holds a spot in the Top 10, with its grade book stuffed with 48.3 million A+ dollars. And Son of God, still playing in 500 theaters, has earned $59.4 million over its eight-week run.

    Clearly, Captain America isn't the only one flexing a little muscle at the box office.

    Final figures update: Heaven Is for Real made enough more than the estimates ($22.5 million) to swap spots with Rio 2 ($22.2 million), landing it in the runner-up position. And Bears clawed its way into the Top 10 with $4.8 million. The rest of the real raw numbers are 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, $25.6 million; 4. Transcendence, $10.9 million; 5. A Haunted House 2, $8.8 million.

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  • The City of David, Now in 3-D

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     As a person who's seen approximately 500 films since January 2011, going to a movie on my days off is not high on my priority list. Even when I do make an exception, it's incredibly rare that I do so on Sundays. After church, all I want to do is come home and veg out. Unlike a lot of folks, movie watching is not my idea of how to relax—usually. And yet this past Sunday I was chomping at the bit to watch Jerusalem in 3-D—a new National Geographic documentary narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch (from the BBC's Sherlock, Oscar-winner 12 Years a Slave, Star Trek Into Darknessand lots of others) playing in approximately 40 IMAX theaters, mainly in the U.S., but also in Canada, Germany, Australia and France.

    The reason I was so bent upon catching Jerusalem is, as I mentioned in a blog a few weeks back on a different subject, my wife and I (and six friends) visited the Holy Land last Thanksgiving. I was eager to re-live our life-changing trip, and revisit places we now know well (and be introduced to several we missed).

    So my wife and I and one of the six that went with us to Israel donned our 3-D glasses and took in the 45-minute IMAX journey. Almost instantly, we were back in Israel (virtually speaking), winding down the narrow city streets, splashing in Hezekiah's water tunnel, listening to worship inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and rubbing shoulders with the potpourri of people who call the Old City home.

    Before you run out and see this one thinking that it's a "Christian" movie, however, I need to point out that Jerusalem is essentially a "journey film"—one that takes you to Jerusalem and gives you a tour without having to leave the IMAX. Although the Christian quarter of Jerusalem is part of the tour, so are the Jewish and Muslim districts.

    Two days after seeing the film, I was on the phone with David Ferguson, the director. When I asked him why he made it, he responded that it's "one of the best subjects for IMAX, the ultimate bucket list" destination for many people around the globe. He explained that the film took five years to produce (from raising the funds to final editing), and that he made 14 trips to Israel in the process. I asked him, "What do you hope to accomplish with this film?" He replied:

    I'd be happy if [film goers] got their money's worth, that they got to go to Jerusalem… The broader goal is to get people to think about Jerusalem…Jerusalem is the cornerstone. Why are we reading about it every day in the newspapers? …This city has a 5,000-year history that's so rich we need a second look.

    One particular story made an impression. He shared about a couple who lived in Jerusalem most of their lives, but now reside in Boston. After seeing the film, they told Ferguson that they'd just seen two parts of the city they had never seen before. If you want to see parts of Jerusalem you might've missed on your last trip to the Holy Land, or you simply want to visit the city for the very first time, you might want to consider touring via IMAX. For a list of cities and IMAX theaters currently carrying Jerusalem, click here. visit https://www.imax.com/movies/m/jerusalem.

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  • The Old Music Player in Your Future

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     Let me share a tidbit of trivia with you: Did you know that the first commercially available vinyl long-playing record was produced in 1931 by RCA Victor? Yep, that old vinyl LP has been with us for a long time.

    Why am I bringing that dusty random fact up?

    Well, it just so happens that along with this being Easter weekend (have a happy Easter, by the way), this Saturday happens to be the seventh annual Record Store Day. Back in 2008, event founder Michael Kurtz kicked things off in hopes of reminding everybody that the venerated old LP wasn't quite dead yet. And to his surprise, there were a lot of people who agreed with him. Now there are more than 2,000 record shops that specialize in these old-timey albums, dropping the needle on the party every year. And more and more musicians joining the rally call, too.

    In '08, for instance, there were 10 special vinyl releases to mark the big day. This year there are 450—everything from unique reissues of old classics to a special platter edition of One Direction's "Midnight Memories" album.

    No, I'm not bringing this up because I'm old as dirt and I want them kids to get back to makin' real music on somthin' ya can hold in yer mits. (Although, that's not a bad reason either.) I'm bringing it up because I find it interesting that vinyl just refuses to go away. That spinning groovy record seems to be making an unlikely comeback.

    And this at a time when much of the music industry seems to be sinking like a lead eight-track. CD sales, for instance, continued their precipitous drop in the marketplace, declining a whopping 14.5% last year. And in case you're thinking, "Well, that's because everything's gone digital," Nielsen SoundScan said that digital-music sales took a hit, too. Overall album sales fell 8.4%. But vinyl sales grew 32%, from 4.5 million units sold in 2012 to 6 million sold in 2013.

    OK, sure, 6 million units in yearly sales is just a drop in the bucket compared to the volume of singles sold by iTunes. But, hey, vinyl is on the grow. And turntables are becoming a growing business, too. They're not just for old guys and hipsters any more. Kids are getting them. In fact, the whole vinyl industry is finding itself in a kind of artsy niche.

    "People who are collecting vinyl, they're like art collectors: They have a collection, they look at it, they appreciate it," said Bruce Duff, a vinyl expert and director of regional marketing and personal management at Knitting Factory Management/Entertainment, in a USA Today article. "You collect an artist because you enjoy what he or she does, and it's something you treasure and relearn about as time goes on."

    Which makes some sense. I mean even the cover art on some of those old LPs was something worth enjoying in the days when artists had a bit of cardboard canvas to work with.

    My daughter gave me a turntable for Christmas, and I've been loving it. You gotta admit, the whole record player and rotating vinyl disc thing is kinda cool. I mean, when was the last time somebody walked into your room, gaped open-mouthed at your iPod and begged you to play it?

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  • Drop 15 Pounds For a Dollar

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     The above title may sound like an ad you'd find in the back pages of a comic book or pinned to a corkboard at your local Laundromat. But it's true folks: There's a way to lose up to 15 pounds for only a buck … in your selfies, that is.

    Robin Phillips and Susan Green, who run a company called Pretty Smart Women, came up with this new selfie app called SkinneePix that gives users the power to slim down the look of their smiling mugs by five, 10 or 15 pounds with the hit of a button.

    Apparently, the ladies were taking a vacation with some friends last summer and found themselves totally bummed out with all of the selfies they took during the trip. So they found some technical help, came up with a realistic-looking picture-shaping formula and put out this 99-cent app with the descriptor, "SkinneePix makes your photos look good and helps you feel good. It's not complicated. No one needs to know. It's our little secret."

    Now on the, uh, face of things, that doesn't sound all that bad. There are some people out there who love looking at themselves (a lot) and enjoy what they see, and there are those who don't particularly. So why not create a little technical magic to help out those who are less satisfied?

    But let's think about that and the world around us a bit.

    First of all, this app essentially boils down to being an instant dose of Photoshop. And, well, don't we already live in a society that's Photoshopped to the hilt? There are questions being asked about how unrealistic images in everything from fashion mags to toothpaste ads are serving as contributors to adolescent health problems—eating disorders, body image pathology, you name it. And it seems to me that instantly Photoshopping our selfies could be tossing a bit more fuel on that the poor self-image fire. You feeling a little chunky? Don't worry, there's an app for that.

    Now, Ms. Phillips and Ms. Green have said that they actually want the app to help motivate users to really get active and trim down. "When I took 15 pounds off I was astounded," Green wrote in a SkinneePix blog post. "Not only was it a small amount of 'weight,' but I found that I felt like I looked better. And I thought to myself, hey, 'I could lose 15 pounds and look like that, not such a big deal.'"

    But does that logic fly? I mean, there's always something we mere mortals would like better about ourselves, or habits we'd like to adjust, but just how does a "skinny up your image" app do that? It feels like it's really not doing a whole lot more than reinforcing our culture's "the thinner you are, the better," celebutant-focused beauty standard. And for me, that's a real issue.

    I saw an article not long ago that talked about a 19-year-old kid in England named Danny Bowman who became so obsessed with the idea of a "perfect" selfie that he would spend 10 hours and take 200 selfies a day in an effort to reach that goal. That compulsion eventually drove him to the brink of suicide.

    Sure, that's just one anecdotal story about one kid you don't know, but it's probably not so outrageously "out there" as it may seem. An msn.com article recently reported that, "In the US, one in three cosmetic surgeons has seen a recent marked increase in the number of patients under 30 asking for facial procedures—such as nose jobs and eyelid surgery—so they can look better in online photographs."

    Here's one more quote I'd like to offer up on the topic from a beautyredifined.net article. "Selfies aren't inherently evil. And taking 55 pictures of your own face at slightly different angles with varying expressions is not fundamentally wrong. BUT (you knew that was coming) … when we put this female-driven phenomenon in the context of the culture in which we live, selfies aren't just a trivial trend or a form of self-expression." Those little snapshots become what this article labels as self-objectification.

    Add it all up and none of this feels like a pretty picture—with or without a skinny app.

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  • What My Wife Thinks About What Kirsten Said

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     Heidi, my lovely bride of nearly 20 years, will love reading this blog post. Not so much because I wrote it, mind you, but because of the things Kirsten Dunst said that inspired it.

    A little background: Heidi has had a bit of a crazy career, but a successful one nonetheless. And much of that was her own choice. She wanted to be a mom in as intimate a way as she could when our daughter was born back in 2000. So she stayed home for about five years, loving, doting, raising, teaching and spending huge quantities of quality time with our daughter. She loved every minute of it. (Or at least enough of those minutes to cherish the entire experience!) Wrapped around that half-decade are forays into teaching and directing middle school and high school drama, producing radio shows for both social commentator Dick Staub and Focus on the Family founder Dr. James Dobson, and, now, running her own flourishing home-based sewing business.

    Heidi believes fervently in the way men and women complement one another, that we often have very different gifts and talents, and that each of us should embrace who we are as God created us—as we're told, "male and female he created them." But that viewpoint is increasingly challenged these days, and it's harder and harder to see the proper path forward while still holding tight to the past, to the traditions God Himself initiated.

    And that's why she'll be so thrilled to read what Spider-Man actress Kirsten Dunst said in an interview with Harper's Bazaar:

    I feel like the feminine has been a little undervalued. We all have to get our own jobs and make our own money, but staying at home, nurturing, being the mother, cooking—it's a valuable thing my mom created. And sometimes you need your knight in shining armor. I'm sorry. You need a man to be a man and a woman to be a woman. That's why relationships work.

    Heidi will immediately say, It's about time somebody like Kirsten was brave enough to say something like that! It's how so many of us feel, but it's like we've all been told to keep that part of ourselves hidden away. But God doesn't want us to keep it so quiet.

    So the sooner I stop writing, the sooner she can read this. (And you too, of course!)

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  • Movie Monday: O Captain! Our Captain!

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     And it's still winter … at least at the box office as Marvel's Captain America: The Winter Soldier topped the tallies again with an estimated second-weekend take of $41.4 million. That's a couple million more than the decidedly more tropical-feeling Rio 2, which flew south for an estimated $39.0 million.

    In just two weeks in theaters, the Captain America sequel has earned $159 million in North America and another $317.7 million overseas for a total international cume of $476.7 million. For perspective, that's already $100 million more than the first Captain America movie made in its total run.

    And the Marvel movie juggernaut continues to pick up steam. No wonder Captain America 3 is already slotted for a May 2016 release. In fact, a recent Hollywood Reporter article said that Marvel Studios (now owned by Disney) has its superhero calendar booked all the way through 2028. If you expected the superhero wave at the box office to crest anytime soon, well, looks like you're going to have to wait at least another decade and a half.

    Once we move past colorful flying shields and colorful flying birds, however, there's one color that everything else on the weekend box office list saw a lot less of: green. As in green with envy. The horror thriller Oculus (about a seriously haunted mirror) scared up only an estimated $12.0 million. Meanwhile, Draft Day's numbers were even scarier. The football-themed movie starring Kevin Costner signed up only enough moviegoers to collect $9.8 million, about half of what Moneyball (the 2011 film it's frequently being compared to) made in its debut.

    Rounding out the Top 5 is Divergent, which diverted another $7.5 million to bring its four-week take to $124.9 million domestically (and another $50.3 million overseas). Those numbers have been strong enough for Lionsgate and Summit Entertainment execs to greenlight the next two books in author Veronica Roth's young adult series, Insurgent and Allegiant, for the big-screen treatment. (And just as we've seen with the concluding chapters in the Harry Potter, Twilight and Hunger Games franchises, the third book, Allegiant, will once again be split into two films.)

    Two spiritually themed films of note that fell out of the Top 5 this weekend are Noah and God's Not Dead. Darren Aronofsky's controversial film about the Genesis flood took in slightly less than Divergent's $7.5 million, bringing its total take to about $85 million domestically. While that figure is somewhat underwhelming, it's buoyed by an additional $162 million from, ahem, overseas showings. God's Not Dead continues to perform remarkably well in a crowded multiplex environment. The $2 million Christian film made another $5.5 million over the weekend, pushing its total over the $40 million mark—a number that marks it as one of the most successful Christian films of all time.

    Finally, Disney's smash animation Frozen continues its mind-boggling run up the all-time highest-earning movies list. It's now topped the James Bond film Skyfall to move into the No. 8 slot on the international box office list, having now earned an eye-popping $1.11 billion. Next week may very well see Anna, Elsa and Olaf freeze out Frodo, Sam and Gandalf's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

    Final figures update: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, $41.3 million; 2. Rio 2, $39.3 million; 3. Oculus, $12 million; 4. Draft Day, $9.8 million; 5. Noah, $7.6 million.

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  • Focus Friday: How Would You Like Your Snake Cooked?

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     At the local fast-food drive-through:

    "Welcome to Fishy Town. May I take your order?" says the voice through the speaker.

    "Yeah, can I get the fish and … um… some bread, please?" says the driver.

    "All right, that's a snake with a side of rocks. Would you like that snake with tomato or onions?"

    "I didn't ask for a snake. Or rocks. I asked for fish and bread."

    "I understand. And how would you like that snake cooked? Well done or rare?"

    "Why would I eat a snake?"

    "And would you like those rocks as pebbles, or should I supersize them to boulders?"

    So begins one of the devotionals in Adventures in Odyssey's new book, 90 Devotions for Kids: Life-Changing Values From the Book of Matthew. If you haven't already figured it out, the devo above is based on Jesus' words in Matthew 7:7-12, where He asks the question, "If your child asks for bread, would you give him a stone?" The lesson goes on to remind us that God is truly good and gives genuinely good gifts. Plus, He answers prayers, and He takes care of our needs.

    At the end of this devotional—as well as the other 89—is something called the "Daily Challenge." In this one, readers are encouraged to "Do something unexpectedly nice for someone and watch his or her reaction." I like that!

    I've read the book of Matthew many times. But thinking about this portion of Scripture from the perspective of ordering food at a drive-through window helped this truth hit home for me in a new way. I was reminded that God will never pull a bait and switch. If I need bread and ask for bread, He'll provide it. He's not going to uncaringly give me a pebble, or boulder, instead. He takes no delight in ignoring or exasperating me.

    90 Devotions for Kids: Life-Changing Values From the Book of Matthew is the second effort in what will eventually be a series of four devotional books from the writers of Adventures in Odyssey. As you can tell from the above excerpt, these devotionals provide a fun and engaging way to teach children about God's Word and to make the truths of the Bible more accessible to them. More importantly, these devos have the potential to help children begin to spend regular time alone with God because all of these lessons are creative and, as I've already said, fun. After all, how many of us can recall laboring through some boring devotional when we were younger? I dare to say way too many of us!

    The recommended age range for this book is 8-12. But I'm going to give you permission not to follow the letter of the law on that recommendation. I might go upwards of 112 on this one! Even we "old" people (though I'm not 112 quite yet) need to be reminded that God never callously dreams up "clever" ways to send us snakes.

    Click to order your copy of 90 Devotions for Kids: Life-Changing Values From the Book of Matthew.

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  • Trust Issues

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     Last Thursday, Adam Holz published a great blog ("It's an I, I, I, I, I World?") about society's growing embrace of individualism. In it, he wrote about recent reports that Millennials are less prone to belong to a political party or join a religion.

    It turns out that they're suspicious of ideologies and wait longer to get married. They mold their lives to fit them, and them alone. It's "The Age of Individualism," a New York Times writer declares, and Adam suggests that all of us—not just Millennials—are prone to want life, and everything in it, "our way." He writes:

    What's striking to me is that in our age of unprecedented choice, we naturally tend to cater to what we like and want. And in the process, we seem to detach (perhaps almost unconsciously) from the political, religious and familial institutions that have formed the primary bedrock of society—and our shared values—for generations.

    You can see this inclination to detach and distrust, everywhere—even in our entertainment. Just look at the movies we've reviewed lately: In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Cap's finding it hard to trust the organization he's working for. Divergent's Tris struggles against societal pressures to "fit." The titular character in Cesar Chavez rebels against government, business and the status quo to find more workplace equity. And even Noah, in a way, is the story of a guy radically breaking away from societal norms.

    We see it again and again. On the surface, the drumbeat is I know better than the system. I know what's right. I. I. I. Now, I'm an institutional guy at heart. I'm married. I belong to a church. And I understand that the whole idea of faith is to sublimate some of your own selfish desires—the I—in favor of something greater. The Thy, if you will. And living in community means buying into the give and take that genuine community life requires. There's no I in team, goes the old cliché. We're stronger together. Etc.

    But to step beyond Adam's blog a bit, let's be honest: We've all been given good reason to distrust some of our most hallowed institutions. We've seen politicians indicted and preachers disgraced. Maybe there's some merit in being a little wary. Maybe something even a little godly.

    Certainly, Jesus dealt with a lot of institutions that weren't worthy of His trust. And by overthrowing the moneychangers in the temple, he put vivid action to his opinions. He saw what was going on for what it was, a human endeavor—prone to failure and corruption and even flat-out stupidity. The Bible is filled with flawed governments and false prophets, and our biblical heroes often do their best work by going around such institutions, not through them. So I think the Bible often reinforces a healthy skepticism of the man-made institutions we build with the best of intentions.

    But that very healthy skepticism can leave us vulnerable to that unbridled individualism Adam mentioned that runs off the rails, too.

    So where does that leave us?

    The movies, perhaps surprisingly, offer a hint.

    Captain America believes his employers have fallen away from their true purpose. Chavez believes that workers have a right to better working conditions. In Noah, the titular character (while bearing very little resemblance to his biblical inspiration) turns away from the world and submits himself to a higher voice.

    In each case, these characters question the powers that be. But instead of embracing the I, they turned toward something else. Something better. Cap believes we have a purpose beyond what an institution says. Chavez believes that we have rights beyond those given by men. And Noah ultimately believes that God calls the shots.

    Individualism can be great: God made us all gloriously different, after all. Many of our institutions can be great, too: They give us opportunities to join with one another and, in some cases, make the world a better place.

    But both should be tools to help us fix our eyes and minds and hearts on what's even greater. And when they don't, we're right to be wary.

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  • Buddy, Can You Spare Three Minutes?

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     We live in a paradoxical world.

    Never in human history have we been so enmeshed, so engaged, so utterly transfixed by what has collectively come to be known as media.

    That phrase, of course, encompasses all manner of electronic and physical content, from movies and TV, to music and video games, to books and magazines, to the Internet and smartphones and Facebook. There's so much media of all kinds these days, in fact, that Millennials reportedly spend nearly 18 hours every day consuming it, according to Ipsos Media. Not surprisingly, about 50%—about nine hours a day—is spent pursuing various Internet-related activities.

    Nine hours. A day.

    Now here's where that paradox comes into play. Even though Millennials (and no doubt many of the rest of us, too, even though that's not what this study zeroed in on) are spending massive amounts of time online and with other media, we have simultaneously so utterly cratered our attention spans that at least one online news outlet has adopted a novel ploy to beg for our ever-shrinking attention in an ever-expanding universe of content choices.

     Slate.com recently redesigned its website. And once you scroll past the site's top stories, you'll find a list of secondary stories that not only includes the traditional title and byline, but two other really interesting—and telling—bits of information.

    Exactly when the story was published and … how long it will likely take you to read it. Most of those short bylines read like this one: "2H AGO - AMY S.F. LUTZ - 6M TO READ."

    And some of the stories, as you can see from the attached image, won't take even that long. One minute. Two minutes. Three minutes. It's as if the publishers are pleading, "Oh, please, this won't take you long at all. Could you please, please, please devote three minutes of your 18 hours of media time today to us? Little ol' us?"

    That plea is combined with a timestamp that's not merely an old-fashioned, newspaper-style date, but one measured in minutes. After all, you don't want yesterday's news. You may not even want today's news. You want the news from 17 minutes ago. Because, let's face it, in our fast-paced world, anything much older than that probably doesn't really matter anyway.

    Slate's editors seem to be admitting—and, frankly, they're probably right—that they know you're so stressed and fragmented and attention-deficit-disordered that even asking for three minutes is too much. They know you want the newest, shortest, bestest news … right now. So they're practically hyperventilating (albeit in a stylish, hip and unobtrusive kind way) in their attempt to convince you that this latest, greatest, 17-minute old story really will be worth the three measly minutes you'll be required to invest in it.

    It's a small thing, really. But, I think, a telling one regarding how much information we're processing these days and how fierce the competition has become for even a handful of minutes of your time—pretty much all of which is already devoted to the media anyway.

    And if you're still reading this, probably about three minutes after you started, well, thank you.

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  • A Little Bathroom Reading For You

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     Sometimes I like to imagine what it would have been like to publish Plugged In decades ago, back when we could have been so much more positive about so much more that was broadcast on TV or projected onto movie screens, not to mention the condition of popular music lyrics. And video games? Well, they didn't even exist in those days of yore, so maybe we would have devoted a section of our website, er, I mean, printed magazine, to board games like the brand new Monopoly or Connect Four.

    But, I'm sure, we'd still find things to complain about. And we ran across a quirky example of that just recently. It was the second episode of Leave It to Beaver in 1957, and it was simply scandalous! You see, Wally and The Beav planned to buy a pet alligator, and when they were confronted by the logistical hurdle of where to keep the baby creature, they struck upon … the family toilet.

    Not cool. Not cool at all.

    "At that time, you not only couldn't show a toilet, you couldn't show a bathroom on television," recalls Jerry Mathers, who played Beaver. "It was prohibited." So what happened? Eventually, the show came to a compromise with the network censors: keeping the camera focused only on the top of the toilet tank.

    I can see Paul Asay's TV review now! "Beaver and his family remind us every week just how important our God-given family bonds really are. But if he and his friends continue to associate with reptiles in that wicked water closet, we're going to have to say so long to the Cleavers and Howdy Doody to This Is Your Life."

    Boy, what would the world be like today if we were still concerned about the amount of porcelain seen on our shows?

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  • Movie Monday: Captain America's Winter Soldier

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     Thought spring had finally come? Already digging holes to plant your peonies? Hold off, people. Baseball's barely begun, it's snowing here in Colorado Springs, and a blast of winter—the Winter Soldier, that is—is chilling theaters across America and filling Disney freezers with cold, hard cash.

    Oh, we knew it was coming, this arctic wave from Marvel. Even Punxsutawney Phil saw the shadow. We knew that Captain America: The Winter Soldier would carry his shiny shield to the top of the box office, though we might not have guessed that Cap would've earned a cool $96.2 million. That's an all-time record for the month of April, and nearly $11 million more than his buddy Thor earned back in November (in Thor: The Dark World). Among Avengers, Captain America lags only behind Iron Man when it comes to opening grosses. That's the American way for you.

    With Cap back in theaters, no surprise that Noah started sinking a bit. The controversial epic lost more than 60% of its opening week audience, though it still managed to take $17 million on board. It bested third-place Divergent by an estimated $4 million.

    And it's possible that Noah may soon pass another Bible-inspired drama on its way down. God's Not Dead, a film many Christians touted as a faith-filled alternative to Darren Aronofsky's big boat of a movie, is still looking pretty lively itself. It lost just 12% of its week-over-week audience and earned another $7.7 million. Moreover, it actually climbed a spot in the standings to fourth—ahead of Wes Anderson's buzzy Indie The Grand Budapest Hotel. Granted, God's Not Dead isn't yet climbing into Frozen territory, but it has earned $32.5 million, a truly remarkable feat for a lightly publicized, small-budget, explicitly Christian flick.

    Oh, and while we're on the subject of Frozen, let's give Disney's musical an icy, Olaf-approved bouquet. The animated fairy tale is now the ninth highest-grossing movie of all time worldwide, with nearly $1.1 billion in receipts. It just passed The Dark Knight Rises and has Skyfall in its sights, earning more money with each passing week. Seems like Frozen just can't let it go.

    Final figures update: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, $95 million; 2. Noah, $17 million; 3. Divergent, $13 million; 4. God's Not Dead, $7.8 million, 5. Muppets Most Wanted, $6.1 million. The Grand Budapest Hotel, which predictions originally had landing in the No. 5 slot, finished just about $30,000 behind Muppets.

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  • Focus Friday: That the World May Know

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     For decades, I have wanted to visit Israel. But like many of us, there always seemed to be something standing in the way. Finances. Time. Raising kids.

    Well, that all changed last Thanksgiving when (finally!) my wife and I boarded a flight for Tel Aviv for 11 days (the time in Israel was 11 days, not the flight, even though it seemed like it!). What a life changing experience for both of us.

    Since that trip, I've become somewhat of an "evangelist" for touring the Promised Land. So, with the few words I've written thus far, do this: Put visiting Israel on your bucket list.

    But in the meantime, consider a video visit to Israel (and other biblical lands such as Turkey, Egypt and Greece). How? Back in 1995 with the help of historian and teacher Ray Vander Laan, Focus on the Family launched something we call the That the World May Know film series. While it's not the same as actually being there, of course, it's a great, close second—especially since Vander Laan is so incredibly knowledgeable, and he helps bring to life what otherwise would simply be a mound of rocks, a trail off the beaten path, or an unknown archeological dig.

    Currently, there are 14 video studies available with several more in production for release in 2015 and 2016. But with Easter coming up in just a few short weeks, I want to zero in on a very specific That the World May Know study, one with an Easter theme. It's in volume No. 11 and it's called "Path to the Cross." In this one, Vander Laan helps us experience a deeper understanding of the Jesus' obedience and sacrifice. What's more, Vander Laan delivers a great lesson from the Garden of Gethsemane. It'll open your eyes to the event of the Last Supper, the night in the Garden, and the scriptural fifth cup (or Elijah's cup) that was once debated by Jewish leaders as a possible inclusion in the Passover meal. The following free video is excerpted from this particular lesson:

    There's something very special about "walking" where Jesus walked, even if you have to "walk" via someone else's sandals. And besides, owning a single volume (or the entire series) of That The World May Know videos is a lot cheaper than hopping on a plane to Tel Aviv. Plus, no jetlag! (And I speak from personal experience!)

    To learn even more and/or to order, just click here. It's also available on iTunes.

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  • It’s an I, I, I, I, I World?

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     Those of a certain not-so-tender age (ahem!) might remember a certain Burger King campaign from 1976 that boldly proclaimed, "Have It Your Way!"

    That was nearly 40 years ago. But in the interim, American society has taken that credo to heart … with a vengeance.

    Back then, the famous fast-food franchise was only talking about getting a hamburger without pickles or onions if those didn't suit your taste. Four decades later, a new study indicates that people growing up in our age, in which almost everything can be personalized, are increasingly interested only in their preferences and correspondingly wary of any institution that might ask them to submit those convictions and preferences to a greater authority than of their sovereign, autonomous selves.

    I'm talking about a study by the Pew Research organization that says those in the Millennial generation (people between the ages of 18 and 33) are less likely to affiliate with a political party or religious tradition. They're also less likely to get married than any previous American generation. Specifically, the survey summarizes:

    Pew Research Center surveys show that half of Millennials (50%) now describe themselves as political independents and about three-in-ten (29%) say they are not affiliated with any religion. These are at or near the highest levels of political and religious disaffiliation recorded for any generation in the quarter-century that the Pew Research Center has been polling on these topics.

    At the same time, however, Millennials stand out for voting heavily Democratic and for liberal views on many political and social issues, ranging from a belief in an activist government to support for same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization.

     

    Writing about the study in his commentary "The Age of Individualism," New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat says,

    "In the future, it seems, there will be only one 'ism'—Individualism—and its rule will never end. As for religion, it shall decline; as for marriage, it shall be postponed; as for ideologies, they shall be rejected; as for patriotism, it shall be abandoned; as for strangers, they shall be distrusted. Only pot, selfies and Facebook will abide—and the greatest of these will probably be Facebook.

    That's the implication, at least, of what the polling industry keeps telling us about the rising American generation, the so-called millennials. … A new Pew survey, the latest dispatch from the land of young adulthood, describes a generation that's socially liberal on issues like immigration and marijuana and same-sex marriage, proudly independent of either political party, less likely to be married and religious than earlier generations, less likely to identify as patriotic and less likely—by a striking margin—to say that one's fellow human beings can be trusted.

     

    With regard to that trust issue, Pew reports, "Asked a long-standing social science survey question, 'Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can't be too careful in dealing with people,' just 19% of Millennials say most people can be trusted, compared with 31% of Gen Xers, 37% of Silents and 40% of Boomers." For the radical countercultural Boomers of the Vietnam era, the watchword was "Don't trust anyone over 30." Millennials have seemingly amended that saying to "Don't trust anyone."

    My point in writing about these shifting social trends today isn't just to throw the Millennial generation under the bus. Instead, what's striking to me is that in our age of unprecedented choice, we naturally tend to cater to what we like and want. And in the process, we seem to detach (perhaps almost unconsciously) from the political, religious and familial institutions that have formed the primary bedrock of society—and our shared values—for generations. The result, increasingly, is a world in which what matters most is my view, what I want and what I believe. To repurpose another old show's title, It's an I, I, I, I, I World. That dynamic may be happening most measurably with the Millennial generation, but I think it's affecting all of us. Increasingly, no matter how old we are or what generational affiliation we claim, we've latched on to "Have It Your Way" with a death grip. To suggest that someone's views on politics, religion or social issues might be worth reconsidering is likely to prompt not a civil conversation, but a defensive retort: "That's not what I believe. That's not the way I see it."

    Dana Milbank at the Washington Post, also writing about the study, identified our online lives as one significant factor that's influencing our increasing distrust of and defection from social institutions.

    The millennials are at least as passionate as earlier generations and more entrepreneurial, but they lack ties to institutions — unions, political parties, churches — because of their online existence. 'The organizational structure they're growing up in is so weak,' [Peter Levine, a Tufts University professor ] tells me. As a result, "there aren't very many durable institutions that can capitalize on their enthusiasm. They're being asked to do it themselves, online, and it's a tall order."

     

    Did you catch that phrase, "because of their online existence"?

    Given what this research is showing, there's growing evidence that our culture's love affair with all things online, and I'm the first to admit that I surf the Web as much as anyone, is coming with a real cost: the gradual erosion of connection from our culture's most significant societal institutions.

    My point here isn't to say we should all chuck our technological connections and smartphones and Facebook accounts in the recycle bin. Obviously, that's not going to happen. Rather, it's to suggest that many of us—myself included—would do well to consider how our engagement with so many compelling online activities (be they Facebook, texting, shopping, surfing articles about our various interests) might be influencing and perhaps undermining our real-world relationships, our families, our convictions and our participation in social institutions more than we really realize.

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  • A Virtual Facebook

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     In the last two years, something called the Oculus Rift has taken the techy geeks by storm. What is that, you ask? Oh, only something that gamers and sci-fi fans have been dreaming about for the last 40 years: a real, live, workable virtual reality headset.

    Yes, there have been attempts at the "immerse me in a virtual world" format in the past. Nintendo's Virtual Boy console was probably the best known—along with fact that it was a badly fumbled construct that lost its parent company millions. But the Oculus Rift, a headset that resembles a pair of old-school chunky ski goggles, is the first hug-your-face creation that actually seems to create a truly 3-D world. It delivers a view that seamlessly tilts and swivels with the movements of your head.

    It all started with a teen hacker named Palmer Luckey. He was a kid who loved to break down and rebuild old gaming consoles in his spare time. Like most Tron and Star Trek fans, Luckey really wanted to see some kind of holodeck virtual reality come to life. And so he put his tinkering skills to the test and came up with his own wearable system. Talk about a fanboy dream come true. From there it was reported that small-time online investors were eagerly drooling over the possibilities and tossing cash into a Kickstarter campaign that raised a record-breaking $90 million for research and development.

    But then, Facebook stepped in. To a unified geek gasp of "What!?" Facebook snatched the whole splendiferous project up last week for a cool $2 billion.

    On first glance, this seems like a strange fit. Why would people need to check their walls in glorious virtual reality? But the Facebook move isn't necessary as complete a surprise as some flabbergasted gamers might think.

    Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg says that there's tons of applications for a tech like this in a social media world. "Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face—just by putting on goggles in your home," Zuckerberg said in a Facebook announcement. "This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures."

    As far as gaming is concerned, Zuckerberg made it clear that video game applications are the Oculus/Facebook team's first priority and that won't change. "We're going to focus on helping Oculus build out their product and develop partnerships to support more games. Oculus will continue operating independently within Facebook to achieve this."

    Does that mean that we will soon be reaping our Farmville crops in a virtual world with hoe in hand? Who knows. But things are indeed a-changing. And it could be that a virtual experience is … virtually upon us.

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  • Anger of Biblical Proportions

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     Unless you've been playing an elaborate, and early, April Fool's joke on us, I gather a lot of you didn't care much for Noah.

    Plugged In outlets have been awash with angry Noah viewers and even some angry non-Noah viewers who wouldn't see the movie for a gazillion dollars.

    "The movie got NOTHING right except that there was a man named Noah, an ark, a flood, and the people outside the ark perished," writer gandb wrote yesterday on this blog. "Just like this movie should!"

    "This film is a mocking, blasphemous, butchering, occultic, science fiction affront to the God of Genesis on every conceivable level," someone else wrote to me via email. "This movie should have received the lowest recommendation possible. Seeing this movie will not benefit ANYONE."

    I totally get it. This big-screen Noah is not the story of Noah most of us know and love. I knew that lots and lots of folks were going to be mad when they saw it or heard about what was in it. The film takes something that is, by definition, sacred to us and turns it into something almost unrecognizable. Sure, I found some worthwhile themes within this work of (as another reader, charitysplace, so deftly coined) "biblical speculative fiction." But the anger? I understand.

    I don't get angry very often, and when it comes to movies, that's probably a good thing. I see lots of movies worth a little righteous anger, but if I really felt fury on a gut level every time I could or should, I think I'd be in a constant state of exhaustion.

    But every now and then, I see a movie that does just tick me off. Project X, which made a minor ripple in 2012, shoves to the front of the line for me. I thought it was horrible. Truly horrible. The film's only purpose was to throw a hedonistic, irresponsible party that—had it followed any rational, reasonable template—could've well killed half the attendees, gotten the other half thrown in jail and left dozens battling various venereal diseases. It's a movie with loads of bad behavior with an absence of consequences. In my review, the only positive thing I could think to say was about the "acting of Thomas Mann." It's a movie I feel seriously Old Testament about.

    I can deal with challenging material. But if there's one thing that sets me off, it's a movie that exists only, it would seem, to embrace a worldview of complete self-annihilation.

    So let me ask you, my good reader, what's bound to make smoke curl out your ears when you see a movie? Is Noah the worst of the worst for you?

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  • Movie Monday: Noah

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     After weathering a deluge of controversy before it even launched, Noah and his ark sailed over a sea of competitors and came to rest at the top of the box office. The pot of gold at the end of this rainbow? An estimated $44 million—a fairly worthless sum for Noah himself, given the lack of stores available to him. But it was a nice watery payday for Paramount Pictures.

    So $44 mil doesn't make Noah exactly the biggest hit of 2014: The LEGO Movie ($69.1 million), Divergent ($54.6 million) and 300: Rise of an Empire ($45 million) all premiered with more. But it was the biggest opening in Russell Crowe's career (as a headliner, anyway) according to Box Office Mojo, which also noted that Noah has "already earned more than director [Darren] Aronofsky's first four movies combined." And if you classify Noah as a Christian movie, its open ranks fourth in the genre, just behind The Passion of the Christ and the first two Narnia movies.

    'Course, Box Office Mojo doesn't classify Noah as a Christian flick, nor would a great many Christians. Methinks that Noah's appearance at the top of the box office is being greeted with as many Christian jeers as cheers.

    Not that anyone would notice, but a few other films showed up in the Top Five this week, too. Divergent, last week's champ, collected another $26.5 million to finish a strong second, while Muppets Most Wanted heisted $11.4 million for third. Mr. Peabody & Sherman, in its fourth week, continues to collect some cash, earning $9.5 million.

    And in fifth place we find the remarkably performing God's Not Dead, with $9.1 million. With lots of Christians pushing their fellow believers to see God's Not Dead instead of Noah, this fired-up-about-faith flick lost just 1.5% of its overall audience to stick in the Top Five for the second straight week, trumping Wes Anderson's fast-rising The Grand Budapest Hotel.

    Will Noah stay perched on the mountaintop for more than a week? Unlikely. Captain America: The Winter Soldier has already earned $75.2 million overseas, and Cap and his mighty shield land in Stateside theaters this weekend.

    Final figures update: 1. Noah, $43.7 million; 2. Divergent, $25.6 million; 3. Muppets Most Wanted, $11.3 million; 4. Mr. Peabody & Sherman, $9.1 million; 5. God's Not Dead, $8.8 million.

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  • Are Movie Theaters Sanctuaries?

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     I was kicked out of a theater the other day.

    I'd settled in to review Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel in a downtown Denver theater. It wasn't a private screening for reviewers (the way I see most of the films I write about) but that was no biggie: I've reviewed lots of movies without the benefit of a formal screening—including movies at that very place. I always take great care not to bother anyone with my little light-up pen. I go to the earliest showings possible and sit as far away from everyone else as I can. I cover up my pen-light with a sheet of paper to minimize any hint of illumination. I'd imagine that you'd have to be as light sensitive as the kids in The Others to even notice it. Which might explain why the manager who caught me was so pale.

    Despite much pleading, and despite the fact that no one had complained or even (as far as I could tell) noticed my pen, the manager refused to budge on his no-light policy—even in the case of super-courteous but dutiful note-taking movie reviewers. (He was kind enough to give me a refund, though.)

    I'm not asking anyone to feel sorry for me. It'd be fruitless—like Kim Kardashian arguing that rhinestone and spandex makers should give her a special discount. "You brought a light into a movie theater?!" you'd gasp. And if I didn't know so well how eensy-weensy my little light was, I'd be right there with you. I'm appalled when I see people text in movie theaters. I get irritated when I hear people whisper asides to one another. And parents who bring their 6-month-olds to the movies? That should be a felony.

    The theater is hallowed ground for lots of folks. And I think for some, it's the only sacred space they know.

    I don't want to be flip or sacrilegious about this: Obviously, the theater is not a church. We do not worship there, not in any traditional sense.

     But in our increasingly secular society, fewer people go to church anymore. They have little regard for the rites and hymns of worship and little time for God. And yet I think that we all have an innate need to connect with something greater than ourselves—something that puts us in touch with the transcendent, even if we don't know exactly what that means. For non-religious types, nature may be the best such conduit. But the movies, with its emphasis on transcendent storytelling, may be next in line. There, in a darkened theater, we encounter things literally larger than life: people, ideas, emotions. Movies tap into our emotions like worship can do and challenge our intellect like a good conversation or sermon. We file into this pseudo-sacred space with a certain sense of reverence and anticipation. We come hoping, and expecting, to be moved—just as believers who go to church do.

    And it's a very ritualized environment, where we're expected to act and react a certain way. When we go to a football game, we can sit on our hands or dance in the aisles. When we stand on the top of a mountain, we might be expected to do most anything: hold up our hands in triumph, sit on our haunches in contemplation, or ask around for some oxygen. But in a movie theater, most of us follow predictable rituals, and we're expected to behave with uniform respect. Even reverence.

    And I think that, every once in a while, that space can indeed provide an imperfect conduit to something beyond understanding. Sometimes, people can find a hint of God. Maybe they find it in an explicitly Christian movie, like Son of God. Maybe insight comes unexpectedly in a movie like Gravity or Frozen or Noah. God does not need a burning bush to speak to us. Maybe sometimes, in that quiet, dark space, we may encounter something truly special—a thought or feeling—that points us somehow to the Author of us all.

    Sometimes, there is another light besides that in the projector. Sometimes, another light shines in our movies—one way bigger than any ol' pen-light, that's for sure.

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  • Make Me Smell Dead, Please

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     I want to smell dead! Given the right set of circumstances, who wouldn't?

    OK, let me back up a little.

    See, zombies are big these days. They're everywhere—in our movies, on our television screens, in our games. I figure it's only a matter of time before they lurch out of our entertainment and into our lives. And it doesn't seem I'm alone.

    Hey, there are tons of my fellow grave votaries out there. There are zombie-focused groups such as the Zombie Research Society, an organization that focuses on everything from zombie cockroaches to zombie trivia. And for those of us in need of a little training, the Zombie Combat Club discusses the best way to battle the undead hand-to-hand. Even the U.S. government's own Center for Disease Control wants Americans to think about zombie apocalypse preparedness.

    Their web page talks about what food supplies, tools and medications you ought to keep stockpiled in case of a zombie apocalypse, along with a checklist of emergency numbers and evacuation plans that you ought to keep handy just in case a bunch of brain biters stop by for brunch.

    Which brings me back to where I started. I just recently spotted a YouTube clip focused on the process of creating a zombie cologne. An "Eau De Death," if you will, that would protect the living from the hungry dead by making them smell like a corpse. Talk about toilet water!

    The theory goes like this: Why would a growling drooler chew on a smelly leftover when he can opt for a fresh live-smelling pedestrian? And I'm willing to bet that a foul-smelling concoction like that would sell faster than a pet rock if it actually hit the market. I'm saving up some cash to buy the separate chemicals myself, if need be.

    All right, all right, I'll fess up. I'm not really a zombie believer. But I am a true Plugged In reviewer who can't help but say, "See, media does get under our skin … Or rip off our skin, if you will." All of the zombie sites above may be delivering their own wink with every article. But people are tuning in and, uh, eating up every bit of it. The CDC knows people will pay more attention to generic emergency advice if the emergency includes zombies. And thanks to the scores of popular shows and movies that keep us focused and percolating on those creepy ideas, there are some people who are surely putting together their stockpiles as we speak. (The grown daughter of a friend is on the hunt for an anti-zombie hatchet … just in case.)

    Still a doubter that the media we immerse ourselves in has a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) impact on our thoughts? Join me again next time when we sink our teeth into … vampires.

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  • Diverging From What Everybody Else Is Doing (Reading)

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     I just finished reading the first novel in the Divergent trilogy—and not because I'm secretly 45 going on 15. My 8th-grade daughter had been asking about the book because of the buzz and banter it was generating at her school. And the movie just made things all the more pressing.

    So I read it, and we sat down and talked through it, finally deciding together that she'd hold off on reading it at least until the next movie came out. (Then we'll talk about it again.) The subjects that stalled us were the violence, of course, and the sensual segments in which protagonist Tris moons over her very hunky instructor who goes by the name of Four.

    But there's also that whole dystopian fantasy thing that sometimes gets in the way. And for many families it's been getting in the way for quite some time now. (See The Hunger Games … and The Lord of the Flies.) Writes Slate film reviewer Dana Stevens:

    It's not a mystery why so many young-adult best-sellers (and the lucrative movie franchises based on them) would take place in post-apocalyptic societies governed by remote authoritarian entities and rigidly divided into warring factions. The word dystopia comes from a Greek root that roughly translates as "bad place," and what place could be worse than high school? Adolescence is not for the faint of heart. The to-do list for the decade between ages 10 and 20 includes separating from your parents, finding your place among your peers at school, beginning to make decisions about your own future, and—oh yes—figuring out how to relate to the world, and yourself, as a suddenly and mystifyingly sexual being.

    So it makes a whole lot of sense why this genre is so popular among middle schoolers and high schoolers. But that doesn't always make it the best choice. Sometimes these kinds of stories drag kids into the middle of others' messy realities rather than serving as a tool with which they can explore their own reality. Sometimes it plants more negative ideas than it creates catharsis for current frustrations. Sometimes it pushes young hearts into a pool of dark water that's too cold or deep to swim in for long periods of time.

    The key to all this isn't being able to cleanly and easily figure out each circumstance—each book, each movie, each video game, though. It's not as simple as just saying yes or no. It's walking through each cultural encounter together. Talking. Wrangling. Pondering.

    It's exactly like Joseph P. Allen of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville says: "Adults often avoid teens like the plague, but then we're surprised when, left to their own devices, they develop values with which we're not comfortable. If we don't engage with teens … then we can't be too surprised when their values are largely those that appear in the online and popular media."

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  • Movie Monday: Divergent

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     Sorry, Kermie, the Muppets weren't the most wanted stars this weekend. Audiences took, shall we say, a more divergent path.

    Divergent, the newest aspiring movie franchise based on a series of young adult books, got off to a strong $56 million start this weekend to lap the rest of the box office field. OK, so its numbers weren't quite on the level of Hunger Games (which had a $152.5 million opening weekend in 2012), nor even quite Twilight (which collected $69.6 million in its first frame in 2008). But it did waaaay better than, say, Vampire Academy, Beautiful Creatures, The Host or most other recent movie adaptations of YA books. Clearly, Divergent's qualities fit quite well with what moviegoers were looking for.

    In contrast, Muppets Most Wanted wasn't exactly a felt need for audiences and was practically helpless against Divergent's mighty onslaught. The weekend's other highly anticipated newcomer finished a distant second with an estimated $16.5 million. And neither an evil Kermit doppelganger nor a smitten Russian Tina Fey nor Sam the Eagle's massive badge could make up the deficit.

    Part of the Muppets' apparent opening weekend struggles might be attributed to the fact that families still aren't through with Mr. Peabody & Sherman. Last week's champ made another $11.7 million to finish a strong third, well ahead of 300: Rise of an Empire.

    But the 300 sequel had some surprisingly stiff competition from below, too—from surprise Top Five finisher God's Not Dead. The Christian apologetic movie surprised just about everyone, earning a stunning $8.6 million in just 780 theaters (compared to Rise of an Empire's $8.7 million). That's nearly an $11,000 per-theater average, for those of you keeping track at home. Only two movies—Divergent and The Grand Budapest Hotel—pulled in more per theater, proving that Christian audiences will go to more than one movie a year. (Son of God is still in theaters, too, finishing No. 11 this week and having earned a total of $55.6 million.)

    Will Christian audiences be ready for another Bible-themed movie—one with way better special effects but perhaps a tentative connection to the actual Bible? We'll soon find out: Noah will sail into theaters next week, giraffes and all.

    Final figures update: 1. Divergent, $54.6 million; 2. Muppets Most Wanted, $17 million; 3. Mr. Peabody & Sherman, $11.8 million. God's Not Dead did significantly better than even the early estimates suggested. It earned $9.2 million, supplanting 300: Rise of an Empire ($8.5 million) for fourth place.

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  • Focus Friday: Becoming a Kingdom Woman

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     A couple of Sundays ago my wife and I invited one of the "girls" from the youth group we led back in the '80s to join us for church and lunch. We hadn't seen Dawn in a while and it was great getting caught up and hearing about what the Lord is doing in her life. Dawn has told us in the past that our ministry to her as a teenager was one of the reasons she's serving the Lord today. It's a wonderful feeling to know the Lord used us to plant seeds of the Gospel that bore spiritual fruit.

    I actually know a few similar stories of how our ministry helped people find and serve the Lord. But I doubt I know them all. Someday when I meet Jesus face-to-face, I'm looking forward to learning the other ones.

    Also in heaven, it will be wonderful to hear the stories of how Focus on the Family's various curricula has produced fruit. I've mentioned in the past The Truth Project curriculum. An estimated 3 million people have gone through The Truth Project. Imagine the collective fruit from that alone! In a few weeks I'll be writing about our upcoming The Family Project curriculum (and the theatrical showing of Irreplaceable which will launch it). This week I want to highlight yet another Focus on the Family curriculum—a just-released one specifically geared toward women—called Kingdom Woman Group Video Experience. That's a mouthful.

    As you've probably already surmised, I've never gone through this study. Wrong gender. But I did watch the first 30-minute video and was pretty impressed. Now, I realize that hardly qualifies me as an expert on the Kingdom Woman project. But we've also heard from women who've been deeply moved by the study. One participant had this to say:

    This is awesome!
    The entire study has excited me more about God's plan for my life.
    I'm grateful for the women going through this study with me.
    Sooo excited about growth.

    So, what is it and why is so "awesome?" In a nutshell, the curriculum is a video-based small-group study based on the book Kingdom Woman by Dr. Tony Evans and his daughter, Chrystal Evans Hurst (the videos are led by them, too). The videos instruct every Christ-following woman on how to tap into the power of God as she finds and fulfills the purpose for which God has fashioned her. And it does so because it embraces a simple premise: Unless a Kingdom rests firmly under the authority of the ruler, anarchy reigns.

    The application here is that a Kingdom Woman always seeks to align herself and operate under the authority of God—in every area of life. While this most likely is something you're already aware of, Dr. Evans and Chrystal have a way of presenting this topic practically and insightfully, thereby making it something that can be truly life changing.

    I know we at Focus will be hearing great things as this curriculum gets utilized more and more in women's Bible study groups around the country and globally. But I also know a lot of those stories—maybe your story‑‑will remain untold. Until the other side.

    [Editor's Note: You can get more info at by clicking here, and check out the preview below:

     

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  • Were the Good Old Days Ever Good?

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     My family and I were watching The Twilight Zone the other day—a Season Two episode called "Static." It featured an old grouch named Ed who can't understand why all his housemates schedule their lives around the television—and indeed, they appear to mindlessly watch whatever might be on.

    He winds up hauling his old, huge radio up to his room, and while twisting the dials he finds a station that airs programming that he first heard 25 years ago: Tommy Dorsey's Big Band, an old game show, one of FDR's fireside chats. But is Ed listening to a real broadcast? Or is his old radio catching transmissions from … The Twilight Zone? (Cue theme music.)

    "Static" deals with the concepts of love and lost time—a man trying to reclaim the promise of youth though his "best" days are behind him. The premise hinges on viewers' shared sense of nostalgia—that things, back in the day, were better than they are now.

    The theme recurs frequently in The Twilight Zone, oddly enough. Just a couple of weeks ago, my daughter and I watched another episode, "A Stop at Willoughby." There an ad executive, frazzled by the pressures of modern-day (circa 1960) life, begins seeing an idyllic turn-of-the-century town called Willoughby through his train window. One day, he decides to get off and stay. He's found dead beside the train and is hauled away to a funeral parlor called (wait for it) Willoughby.

    I suspect the writers were having particularly trying weeks when these themes arose.

    Because, really, nostalgia can be sort of a default coping mechanism, can't it? It can be for me. When things are difficult in our own present-day lives, I think many of us escape to the past. We think about the times when things seemed to make sense. I think about my college days. Or high school. Or to my dimly remembered childhood, when all my needs were taken care of and I had all the time in the world.

    'Course, if I'm honest with myself, I was bored half the time and really wanted to take care of things on my own. I was kind of a mess in high school. In college, I was poor, stressed, bored and confused.

    Don't get me wrong: I had a lot of fun in all those periods of my life. Part of me would love to go back and relive some of those moments. But not all. And the stresses we feel today may magically, mysteriously morph into treasured memories 20 years from now.

    It's funny, watching The Twilight Zone idealize the past. For many of us, The Twilight Zone is part of the idealized past—a relic from a more innocent, less complicated time. These shows aired almost a decade before I was born, and when I think of the early 1960s, I think of my parents at a sock hop dancing to the Everly Brothers. It's an era almost universally thought of now as quintessential, innocent America. If that ad exec visited Willoughby now, he might see a town from 1960—a place where the men wore thin ties and the ladies wore poodle skirts and the children played with hula hoops all day.

    Of course, sometimes nostalgia is warranted. I reviewed Hannibal this week, and it sure ain't no Twilight Zone. Let's all hope that, 30 years from now, Hannibal reruns don't look like quaint, family friendly larks.

    But I do think that we can be too quick to dub the past as the good ol' days. Things change, for sure. Some things get better. Others get worse. But it's only when our memories are run through our mind's mysterious carwash that they truly get buffed and polished into glittering nostalgia, to drive along our brain's superhighway and into … The Twilight Zone.

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  • Setting Tech Aside for God

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     Adam Holz wrote a blog on the Dalai Lama's Instagram account last week. He included some really cogent thoughts from the Dalai and Pope Francis, both of whom have embraced social media but caution against its overuse.

    Now another religious figure—Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle—is talking about social networking. In fact, he says he's stepping away from social media for the rest of the year, and perhaps longer.

    "The distractions it can cause for my family and our church family are not fruitful or helpful at this time," he told his congregation in a letter, according to Christianity Today.

    It was part of Driscoll's effort to, as he writes, "reset my life," a reaction to a string of controversies surrounding he and the church he founded. He declares that his "angry-young-prophet days are over," and he's attempting to refocus his attention on Mars Hill.

    "I don't see how I can be both a celebrity and a pastor," he wrote, "and so I am happy to give up the former so that I can focus on the latter."

    Big decision, that—and incredibly countercultural these days. In an age where many youth believe celebrity is the end goal, here's a man willing, he says, to give it up.

    The decisions he made were, of course, very personal. There are lots of famous Christians out there who don't feel any celebrity dissonance. There are lots of people who find that social networks actually offer a platform to think and to talk about God.

    But Driscoll recognized that something, for him, was out of whack with both of these elements. He analyzed his priorities—the things he really cares about—and culled stuff that didn't quite fit with them.

    We're in the midst of Lent right now, and probably some of you have given up something: meat or chocolate or, who knows, maybe origami. Typically, we strip away something we enjoy because we know, deep down, that it can get in the way of our relationship with God. So perhaps it's not too surprising that so many of us have given up some form of tech.

    According to a study by the Barna Group, 31% of us have pushed some form of technology away this Lenten season—besting even the abstention of chocolate as this year's most popular fast. About 16% have committed to giving up their social networks. Another 13% gave up their smartphones. More than one in five gave up video games, and nearly one in 10 (9%) gave up the Internet altogether. (Those people will obviously have to catch up on this blog later.)

    This isn't to say that tech is inherently bad, any more than chocolate is inherently bad. But I think most of us know its pull. We know that how we interact with it can become a habit, even an obsession. And when that happens, our relationships can suffer—particularly are relationship with God. We can forget that He put us here for a reason, and that reason goes beyond sending a clever tweet or hitting level 32 on that game we love so much.

    I didn't give up anything for Lent this year. But perhaps I should've. I can't give up the Internet, of course … I'd be out of a job if I did. But games? Tweets? I think those things can become more of a distraction in my life than an augmentation of it. Perhaps we could all stand to examine what we do with our spare time and think about what might need to be reset.

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