summer picks

It’s been a while since we’ve last posted, and that’s because we’ve been scouting out a team of contributors who are as wonderful and interesting as you all are.  You’ll be hearing from us quite a bit this summer, but as a brief window into who we are, here’s us, along with what we’re listening to, watching, and reading.

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Hattie R. Buell

Bio: Hattie Buell has grown up immersed in church music, classical music, and that necessary pinch of 80s pop. Buell met her Raines after he came back from Africa, they now are worship arts leaders together at an Anglican church and are involved with two others. Hattie’s training in ethnomusicology is one of her greatest joys in life, as she continues to analyze the music she hears, even when her family tells her to “please stop, you’re making our heads go round like a record”.

Reading List: I no longer feel inspired to read, which is the bleakest thing I have ever said about myself. If you have suggestions, I need them.

Summer Playlist: Rued Langgard, Kíla, Beauty & the Beast soundtrack

Currently Watching: I’m in a total splurge of “Great British Bake Off” until “Stranger Things Vol. II” or “Rick & Morty 3”.

Current Artistic Project: Just finished my embroidery phase, now it’ll probably be bread baking or starting a women’s chorus.

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Andy Decker

Bio: I’m an aspiring filmmaker currently residing in Chicago. My ultimate goal is to attend film school in Ireland and get involved in the Irish film industry. While I’m saving up, I’m operating a film criticism website at cinemainframe.wordpress.com. You can also keep tabs on what I’m watching at my Letterboxd profile.

Reading List: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli, Sorry For Your Troubles by Padraig Ó Tuama, The Myth of Sysiphus and Other Essays by Albert Camus, Interaction of Color by Josef Albers, V for Vendetta by Alan Moore

Summer Playlist: “Slowdive” by Slowdive, “Sunbather” by Deafheaven, “Run the Jewels 3” by Run the Jewels, “No Shape” by Perfume Genius, “OK Computer” by Radiohead, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by The Beatles, “Ujubasajuba” by Kairon; IRSE!

Watchlist: Televison – Fargo, Rick and Morty, Game of Thrones, Mr. Robot, Silicon Valley
Film – Baby Driver, Detroit, The Shape of Water, Blade Runner 2049, The Square, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Mother!

Other Stuff I Love: Soccer (watching and playing), running, board/video games, getting lost in the woods

Current Artistic Project: Currently in the second round of the Screenwriting Challenge 2017, working on a couple of other screenplays and a short story

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Kirsten Ekstrand

Bio: Kirsten has been playing piano since the age of six, but it wasn’t until studying piano in college that she realized her music found its sweetest fulfillment in serving the local church. Now working full-time as the service delivery manager for a Chicago-area IT firm, she pours her free hours into serving as her church pianist, as well as in the women’s and college/20’s ministries.

Reading List: Currently I’m reading Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (my book club is reading a sampling of Pulitzer Prize winners) and Te Deum: The Church and Music by Paul Westermeyer. Once I finish Te Deum, I’m hoping to pick up The Whole Church Sings: Congregational Singing in Luther’s Wittenberg by Robin A. Leaver in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. I’ll probably look for a P. D. James murder mystery for my summer travels, too.

Summer Playlist: I’ve been obsessed with Psalms albums in recent months. Sandra McCracken, Shane & Shane, and Wendell Kimbrough have some wonderful ones. I expect to frequently return to the Hamilton soundtrack as well.

Currently Watching: I’m excited to watch several of last year’s Oscar nominees this summer, including Manchester by the Sea, Arrival, and Hacksaw Ridge. For TV shows, I’ve been enjoying The Newsroom, and my guilty pleasure lately has been The Great British Baking Show.

Other stuff I love: Coffee, dark chocolate, red wine, and Oreos — but not necessarily in that order. On the average weekend, you might find me taking in a performance in the city, enjoying dinner with friends, or sitting at home with a good book and that glass of wine.

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Desirée Hassler

Bio: In addition to singing in the full-time chorus at Lyric Opera of Chicago, soprano Desirée Hassler has sung and covered roles at Lyric in Tannhäuser, Oklahoma!, Manon, Macbeth, Boris Godunov, Show Boat, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier. Recent performances include Bach’s B Minor mass with Chicago Bach Project (John Nelson, conductor), Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata with the Lake Geneva Symphony Orchestra, Ellen in Oklahoma! at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Kondja in The Rose of Stambul with Chicago Folks Operetta, soprano soloist in the Brahms Requiem (Los Angeles, CA), Barber’s Knoxville, Summer of 1915 with the Prairie Ensemble, Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony, as well as Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass with the Wichita Symphony.

A California native, Desirée has successfully competed from the regional to International levels at the Bel Canto Competition, Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, International Franz Liszt Competition and is the recipient of many distinguished awards. The soprano is musically curious and stylistically flexible, and enjoys performing music from the Renaissance to the 21st century– in recital, concert, opera and performance art mediums. Her voice can be heard on everything from commercial and film soundtracks, to oratorio, opera and operetta and even progressive heavy metal albums.

Hassler graduated in 2011 with a doctorate in Vocal Performance and Literature from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she completed a master’s degree in 2003. Dr. Hassler has served on the faculties of Eastern Illinois University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and currently serves on the voice faculty of the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, IL where she teaches voice and music history courses. Her voice studio is happily comprised of students singing classical, jazz, rock, musical theatre, original compositions and everything in between!

When she’s not doing lip trills or drinking coffee, Desirée is likely gardening or riding bikes with her super-husband Dan and four perfectly quirky children in Oak Park, IL.

Reading list: Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis, Nom Nom Paleo Cookbook, Practical Vocal Acoustics and Kinesthetic Voice Pedagogy: Motivating Acoustic Efficiency, Kenneth Bozeman (yeah nerdy singing stuff), various books on Egyptian history and mummification + embalming techniques to my mummy-obsessed 5 year-old, whatever catches my fancy at the library–we can’t always plan these things.

Currently Watching: Ok. Here we go. I’m not a TV person. I’ve tried. And I’ve failed. If I was to be persuaded to sit and watch something it might be a documentary. Or an episode of Parks and Rec or Chef’s Table. But most likely it would feel stressful and I’d walk away and go straight to my hammock. And people wouldn’t understand this when I tell them. But then again, I’m 38 and my life is noisy. Sometimes I just need some shhhhhh.

Other stuff I love (in no particular order): Jesus. Using the summer to grow a huge garden and cook from scratch and can things. Walking in the forest. Bach. Hard work. Quirky eyeglasses. Growing out my hair and chopping it off and growing it out again. One on one time with those close to me. MUSIC. Honesty. Stories of redemption. Hugs. Adventurous ethnic food. A beautifully-curated art exhibit. Delicious coffee, wine and chocolate. Toddler eyelashes. Chicago! I actually love Chicago.

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Allison Keeport

Bio: I am pursuing my Master’s of Music in Vocal Performance at North Park University in Chicago. When I’m not in rehearsal, a practice room, or the library, you’ll probably find me in the kitchen trying out new recipes on friends. I blog here, where all writing flows from a simple premise: art is great. Jesus is supreme.

Reading List: The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene; None Like Him – Jen Wilkin

Summer Playlist: Mainly repertoire for the upcoming semester, I’m also a little bit obsessed with the musical Waitress. Also high on the list: Ellie Holcomb, Andrew Peterson, Jason Mraz, Sara Bareilles, and power ballads from the 80s.

Currently Watching: Trying to watch less these days because my taste is hardly high-brow. Chef’s Table if I’m feeling classy. Parenthood if it’s a lazy night with a glass of Malbec. Probably more stand-up and late-night comedy than is really good for me.

Other stuff I love: Cooking! I have a DVD cooking class that I’m slowing working my way through. Other than that, I make great stuffed shells, my boeuf bourguignon ain’t too shabby, and I’m learning to bake bread from scratch. I’m discovering a love of gardening. I love red wine and dark chocolate and cheese. If you bring me wine with either of those two other things, I will be your best friend for life. I spend lots of time volunteering at my church, Renewal Church of Chicago.

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Rae Paul

Bio: I’m a student and lover of both words and the Word who breathed them first. I currently study theology at Moody Bible Institute, drink coffee like there is no tomorrow, read compulsively from an ever-growing TBR list, and write because the words will not stay in my soul. Take a peek at this for more of my life.

Reading List: I’m currently wading through The Source, by James Michener; savoring Delighting in the Trinity, by Michael Reeves; and waiting for Surprised by Joy, by C.S. Lewis.

Summer Playlist: Twenty One Pilots’ eponymous album

Currently Watching: Sherlock Season 4

Other stuff I love: I dabble in photography, watch whatever superhero movie my Netflix can find, drive too fast, and occasionally cook an interesting meal. I crave honesty, vivid speech, careful theology, and the sunsets of my beloved Midwest; all of which are best enjoyed with a cup of strong coffee in hand.

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Chris Wheeler

Bio: I’m a Christian, husband, father, writer, and beverage lover.  I grew up in rural Indiana until I left for college, studied in Chicago at Moody Bible Institute, and work there now.  I’m always looking for conversations and I love ideas.  I write poetry, liturgies, and stories here.

Reading List: Lila (Marilynn Robinson), Contagious (Jonah Berger), The Power and the Glory (Graham Greene), The Happiness Industry (William Davies), The Death of Expertise (Tom Nichols), A Philosophy of Education (Charlotte Mason). I’m also a big fan of graphic novels during the summer, and I read a spectacular one called One Soul (Ray Fawkes) recently.  Also the New 52: Swamp Thing and the Giant Beard That Was Evil.  Not kidding.

Summer Playlist: For the past month or so it’s been Jack Garratt, Dirty Projectors, Benjamin James, Gorillaz, the National, Kishi Bashi, Panic! At the Disco, Infected Mushroom, Solange, Watsky and Vulfpeck, depending on the mood. Just discovered Tank and the Bangas and they’re definitely on my steady soundtrack for the summer.  I will never escape Bon Iver.

Currently Watching: Plowed through the new seasons of House of Cards, OITNB, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt recently, and my wife and I are enjoying the Great British Baking Show together, but the home run this season was Patriot (Amazon Original). We have this unspoken rule that we should enjoy the shows our kids are watching, so I’m really into Sarah and Duck and the Stinky and Dirty Show.  Recent movies were Moonlight, Wonder Woman, Alien: Covenant, Valhalla Rising.

Other stuff I love:  I’m loving discovering everything in a fresh way with my kids right now.  My job is office management, but it fascinates me to no end, mostly because of my colleagues.  If I could have any meal for the rest of my life minus the clogged arteries, it would a burger, cheese curds, and craft beer.  I love mixology, trying new beers, and brewing/tasting the best coffee I can find.  I like to grill and read and play with LEGOs.  And I will always, unabashedly, love experiencing new artistic stuff.

Current project:  I’ve got a couple, but the primary summer ones are Words for the Church (poetry based on the church year), a book of parenting experiences, and a collection of my dad’s childhood stories.


Anything to add?  Let us know in the comments and we’ll check it out.

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hideously beautiful | a defence of horror

Nosferatu

October is here again, and along with it inevitably follows the classic debate amongst the Christian public on what to do with Halloween and, by proxy, horror. The holiday is often vilified for its suspected pagan roots, often (and I would say incorrectly) viewed as a celebration of the occult, and along with it the horror genre of art in general is accused of similar things, with horror cinema being a particularly ubiquitous recipient of criticism.

There are a number of complaints I hear about horror films, some of the wider ones typically being the genre’s transfixion with blood and gore, the very fact that it instills fear in people, and the perception that it celebrates or glorifies evil, thereby empowering it. I’d argue that a lot of these criticisms stem from wider human behaviours and entertainment issues, such as the thrill-seeking adrenaline addiction that fuels the love of things like roller coasters or people finding joy in wanton destruction (which rears its head in more socially acceptable fashion in films like Transformers and 2012), nor are they things of which the filmmakers and critics working within the genre are not aware. Let’s be honest here: most of the population thinks Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and Jason Goes to Hell are trash, not cultural cornerstones or works of art that will stand for eternity.

Rather than simply refute the common reasons Christians cite to condemn it, all of which could be the basis for their own entire posts, I want to speak about horror from the positive. This is an extremely misunderstood genre for the sole reason that it is deliberately off-putting, an unadulterated examination of humanity’s demons. Horror is beautifully ugly, and it speaks to me in a way that nothing else can begin to emulate. Perhaps it’s because it appeals to my affinity toward pessimism and nihilism; my natural inclination is to see the worst in the world and fall into a downward spiral questioning whether there’s any point to any of this, and I carry any hope with me only by the grace of God. Not that all horror is an inherently hopeless affair, but it explores those darker undertones of reality in a way that often removes any of the gloss and sugar coating that make other presentations so easily digested. The macabre is often a painfully difficult pill to swallow.

Modern-day American evangelicals have been raised and nurtured in a culture that shuns the negative, the dark, the depressing, endlessly suckling at positivity’s breast. Certainly it’s problematic to overly dwell on the gloomy and bleak, but refusing to acknowledge it and let it simmer and exist is a recipe for emotional immaturity. The human experience is a broad, all-enveloping wave of chaos, and every piece is essential and will be known in some capacity by the end of one’s life. Sadness, pain, and evil need to be understood just as much as hope, joy, and goodness.

Art, then, is the voice by which we express and begin to understand our lives, giving words, images, and sounds to those feelings and circumstances that shape us and everyone around us, and I am of the opinion that no aspect of the human experience should be exempt from this process. Every piece needs to be expressed and to be understood, even the most unsavoury or dour or grotesque elements. Drama is capable of conveying feelings of sorrow and despair in a way that is potent and palpable as well as palatable, but where horror demonstrates its value is its ability to look at all that is wrong with the world with an undiluted gaze. Drama will help us grapple with our hurts, and horror will reveal them for the monsters they truly are.

When the blinds are pulled back and evil is unfiltered through the eyes of horror, there’s a uniquely powerful opportunity to engage with darkness in a way that isn’t normally afforded along a wide breadth of subjects. In fact, horror can often be particularly incisive and effective when exploring abstract concepts due to the often fantastical natures of the film and story premises, a variation of Tolkien’s philosophy of using fairy stories to reveal truths about reality. While there are certainly those that simply seek to thrill (and are quite justified in their desires to do so in the most general sense), I’ve seen horror films that are far more affecting that tackle subjects such as grief and loss (The Babadook); loneliness, bullying, and unrequited love (Let the Right One In); and the inevitability of death (It Follows).  In addition, The Exorcist is one of the most thoughtful and compelling explorations of spiritual warfare I’ve seen in any medium.

I’m not saying that we should replace our positivity bubbles with total immersion in sadness and morbidity. And I’m not saying that you should force yourself to watch horror anyway if you don’t appreciate being scared or made to feel extremely uncomfortable. What I want is for people to simply acknowledge the genre for the value it presents to human expression (and even worship) rather than writing it off entirely due to its shortcomings, often more pronounced due to its nature and often merely the result of misunderstanding. The world is wonderful but twisted by sin, and we ought to cease demonising horror for shedding its piercing light on what our true demons are.

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So I was planning on watching Deadpool.  Seriously.  I was psyched.

But then I tried to convince my wife that it was worth it.  She applied the appropriate amount of disdain for the idea (yes, I had her watch a trailer), but that wasn’t the motivating factor in the end.

What transpired was an in-depth conversation about how much VSL content (violence-sex-language) was too much with my brother-in-law.  As I was driving back after our weekend with them, I was verbally-processing to my wife.  It went something like this:

C: “Not engaging is not an option for me, even when content is heavy.”

L: *silence*

C: “There’s a lot of truth and beauty in some content-heavy material, besides the importance of understanding situations realistically.”

L: *silence*

C: “I mean, there are things I won’t watch because of content…”

L: “Are there?”

C: *silence*

The truth of the matter is that there haven’t been for quite some time.  Walking Dead is “worth it” because of the interesting moral dilemmas.  House of Cards was politically intriguing and c’mon, it’s Spacey.  What an antihero.  Who engages in awful, horrible things.  Jessica Jones was not only excellently acted and written, it was a riveting depiction of abuse and manipulation in relationship.  Which makes the content… apropos?

I guess I’ve always had a scale in my head that weighed artistic quality and imperative dialogue against offensive content.  The problem being that while I was defining it as offensive and leaving it at that, I was gradually becoming less offended where it mattered – in my spirit.

In other words, I’ve been choosing my level of engagement by my ability to ignore offensive content rather than by obedient holiness.

Here’s the thing – engagement in the arts and cultural streams of communication is vital for us as creative people who are the salt and light in this broken world.  However, to think that mere engagement for the right reasons makes me immune to unholy pressure is ignorant.  Intaking sinful acts, usually portrayed with all of the allure that they inherently hold, is not without consequences.   But we are also called to confront darkness with the light of Christ.   How do we reconcile our own weakness with our call to courageously and lovingly proclaim Christ to a dying world?

Recall the oft-quoted: “It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret”?  With some context comes further understanding:

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.  Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.  

It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret.  But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. This is why it is said: “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.

Ephesians 5:8-16 (italics added)

In other words, our involvement in culture is an “in-the-world-not-of-it” variety, in which we choose to expose the fruitless deeds of the culture rather than ignore them while we look for truth.   Part of living in a truth-suppressing culture is shining the light of Christ into each situation (and media stream) we see.

This is holy obedience.  This is faithfulness to Christ. This is believing that our weakness is transformed into strength by His redemption.

Questions we should not ask ourselves are:

  1. How much can I handle?
  2. Is the engagement worth the content?
  3. Will knowing about this increase my street cred with unbelievers?

The prayers we should offer are:

  1. Lord, what do you want me to do in this moment?
  2. Help me to see my weakness, and rely on your strength for courage.
  3. Guide me to holiness and love that will transform my perspective, my soul, and the lives of those around me.
  4. Guide me through Your Word to know the next steps in this conversation.

This could mean engaging in cultural streams with content depending on the context and the leading.  This kind of engagement involves dogged reliance on Scripture, prayer, the Holy Spirit, and the communion of believers to guide our interactions and conversations about culture as we encounter it.  It involves the recognition that we sometimes have to sacrifice our own fleshly desires or pseudo-spiritual comfort-fear to clearly communicate the Gospel.

And it also involves humbly listening to those closest to you when they rebuke you (thanks, sweetheart).

black mirrors | commodifying the wondrous

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Technology is necessary, potent, and ubiquitous.  A large amount of way more qualified people than myself have talked about technology and it’s effects – positive and negative – on the flesh-and-blood constructs that use it.  But recently and ironically, a TV show brought to mind some very necessary, potent, and ubiquitous (if not easily recognized) ideas related to technology, and I wanted to share it with you.  Because that’s what we do here.

Black Mirror, created by Charlie Brooker, is an exploration of the darker side of man’s relationship with technology.  Each of the two seasons features three episodes of about an hour’s length, exploring everything from manipulating crowd-mentality to numbing grief with the aid of social media.  Brooker is a gifted creator, and this show is generally top-notch – writing, acting, cinematography, etc. (although some episodes are definitely more convincing then others).  It delivers the complex and dissatisfying punchlines, for the most part, breathtakingly.  Fair warning – the content is very raw, though not unnecessary in communicating the point.

Brooker’s holiday interview of 2014 is enlightening as to what exactly he’s getting at with these cautionary tales.  Besides being interested in actively unsettling people due to a lack of that in modern television (??), Brooker, a writer and producer, notably of comedic commentary, points out that “a lot of the stories… are about a lack of perceived control in today’s world.”  Why the title?  “When a screen is off, it looks like a black mirror; there is something cold and horrifying about that… I quite like the fact that people are watching it on [their TV or smart phone; that] when the end credits start running and the screen turns to black, they see themselves reflected.”

Speculative fiction such as this, set in a near-modern world, is just far enough from our everyday that we can look at it objectively.  The most disturbing part of Black Mirror, though, is that in viewing the thoughtless, brutal, ravenous interactions of the characters you find yourself looking at yourself objectively.  Like most influential art, it turns the question back to us.  As Brooker points out, “the villain is never technology.”  In each episode, we see the truth of humanity enslaved, not by technology, but by themselves.  I found myself sobered and deeply saddened (in the right way) after watching.

One of the most stunning episodes is “Fifteen Million Merits”, in which talent, beauty, and truth are packaged and sold to the highest bidder for the entertainment of the masses.  In this episode, Brooker chose to very directly relate this to pornography.  The wondrous becomes a commodity.

Whether our use of technology is redeemed or not is worth asking.   A more important question is whether our use of our creative abilities is redeemed or not.  Why are we creating?  Who are we creating for?  What motivates us to interact with art, beauty, and truth in destructive or creative ways?  The answers to these questions reveal our inner life in relation to our art.  What are we reflecting to the world – darkness, or light?

Brooker’s characters do not die sensationally.  Rather, they go on living lifelessly, which I find to be terrifyingly truthful of our day and age.  We have a decision to make daily – what will we do with the wondrous?

Turning it back on ourselves: how do we see commodifying the wondrous happening in our own lives?