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Booklist 2012

In Books, Writers on December 31, 2012 at 12:26 pm

As we close 2012, I give you the 21 books I read this year (along with my rating of each out of ten). Here's to 2013 being a year of reading and big ideas for all. Happy New Year!

January
(2)

  • The Third Conversion: A Novelette by R. Scott Rodin –
    A small book on relational fundraising as told through a set of
    conversations between development officers. Meh. (4)
  • The Price of Everything: A
    Parable of Possibility and Prosperity
    by Russell D.
    Roberts –
    Really liked this book and its narrative approach to understanding
    economics. (8)

February
(2)

  • Samson and the Pirate Monks by Nate Larkin – I’ve
    read several of these “men and porn” books and this is the best of the
    lot. (7)
  • Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis by Lauren Winner –
    A quiet book that brought me up to speed on some sadness of my friend’s
    last few years. Lauren always writes well; I just didn’t know what to do,
    say, or how to help after reading it. (6)

March (1)

  • Mark:
    The Beginning of the Gospel
    by Michael Card – The second of a four-book
    layman’s commentary on the Gospels. No one makes Jesus and the disciples
    come alive for me like Mike does. (7)

April (1)

  • The
    Enemy Within: Straight Talk About the Power and Defeat of Sin
    by Kris Lundgaard –
    Liked this book’s distillation of John Owens’ books, Indwelling Sin and The
    Mortification of Sin
    . Helpful. (8)

May (3)

  • American
    Government: Brief Edition
    by James Q. Wilson – A succinct and helpful summary
    of all aspects of our American form of government. Now if it would just
    work… (7)
  • A Patriot's History of the United States by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen – Enjoyable history
    text that leans way right at times. (7)
  • A
    People’s History of the United States
    by Howard Zinn– Enjoyable history text that
    leans way left at times. (7)

June (1)

  • I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe – Loved Wolfe’s writing and story of a small town
    girl who goes to a big-time college and learns some hard (and sad)
    lessons. I want my girls to read this before they leave home…and I
    don’t. (9)

July
(2)

  • Desiring
    the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation
    by James K.A.
    Smith – Best book I read all year. Smith is a very good scholarly writer
    with even better ideas about education. Thesis: “What if education wasn't
    first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?” Yes. (10)
  • Treasure
    Island

    by Robert Louis Stevenson – Listened to this with Megan and the girls in
    the van on vacation this summer. A classic. (9)

August (0)

September (1)

  • Bad
    Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
    by Ross Douthat –
    my other favorite read of the year, Douthat’s book about the state of
    American Christianity (and how and why it is what it is) blew me away in
    its historical, cultural, and theological analysis. Wow. (10)

October (2)

  • Making
    It All Work: Winning at the Game of Work and Business of Life
    by David Allen  – Listened to this on a road trip and
    was glad to do so – best stuff I know of for getting better at getting
    things done. (8)
  • New
    Sales. Simplified.: The Essential
    Handbook for Prospecting and New Business Development
    by Mike Weinberg  – Dynamic debut from my friend on the
    meat and potatoes of making the sale. Applied much to my marketing and fundraising
    plans for Veritas. (8)

November (2)

  • The
    Baylor Project: Taking Christian
    Higher Education to the Next Level
    edited
    by Barry G. Hankins and Donald D. Schmeltekopf – Can a Protestant
    university be a first-class research institution and preserve its soul? Engaging
    collection of essays on how Baylor is attempting to do just that. (7)
  • Community:
    Taking Your Small Group Off Life Support
    by Brad House – Seemed almost too
    co-dependent and used way too much Christian-ese to make the argument for why
    and how life should be lived in small groups. (5)

December (4)

  • A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens  – Wanted to
    like this one more than I did. Let’s just say it all makes sense when you
    realize Dickens got paid by the word. (6)
  • The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined by Salman Khan – Great analysis of the limitations of traditional
    public education; good ideas about teaching true mastery; bad ideas about
    what a complete education can and should be. (5)
  • Redemption: Freed by Jesus from the Idols We
    Worship and the Wounds We Carry
    by Mike Wilkerson – Liked this one a
    lot as a primer on how sin works and how the Gospel calls us to respond.
    Best part: Exodus is the key text considered. (8)
  • King Alfred’s English: A History of the
    Language We Speak and Why We Should Be Glad We Do
    by Laurie J. White and Marika Mullen – Really liked this book and its engaging
    convergence of literary, historical, and philological studies of English.
    (8)

(Peruse booklists from previous years here: 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006.)

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Review: Les Miserables

In Arts, Holidays, Movies, Musicians, Thought on December 25, 2012 at 8:38 pm

Les-miserables-movie-image-hugh-jackman

Most people interested enough to read this review already know the musical storyline of Les Miserables (here's a quick refresher if you need one), and the movie (thankfully) is quite faithful to it. That said, I'll jump right into my observations and you can accept or reject whatever you like (feel free to leave comments below concerning either).

Hugh Jackman is always good, and while his acting is stellar as hero Jean Valjean, I was hoping for more vocally. Jackman is a huge talent and I'm not sure anyone else (in Hollywood, that is) could have pulled off half the performance he does, but his voice is not nearly as full as his Broadway or West End predecessors, particularly on the higher stuff ("Bring Him Home" seemed really pinched vocally). Still, he is very smooth to watch and completely believeable, both as convict and Christian, and while the only other Jackman song that somewhat disappoints vocally is "One Day More," it's probably more due to the choreography than anything (Jean Valjean seems slightly emasculated as he repeats the song's main line from the window of a moving horse-drawn carriage).

Russell Crowe is way out of his league as Javert, and there are some downright painful moments watching and listening to him play the self-righteous constable pursuing Valjean. My sense is Crowe got it in his mind that, because of Javert's strict adherence to the letter of the law, he was going to act and sing that way…and he does. Unfortunately, his face needs little help help playing dull, and his voice is just not interesting enough to be interesting (for those who know me, imagine if I were playing the role and you'd get about the same quality of performance).

Anne Hathaway's "I Dreamed a Dream" is indeed powerful and amazing to watch, but as much because of Tom Hooper's directing choices as her performance (though she is fantastic). As he did with Valjean's conversion scene at the beginning of the film, Hooper goes all Scorsese and films one long take with Hathaway's Fantine. What makes this effective in both scenes is that he has Jackman and Hathaway sing close up and right into the camera, which makes for a very intimate experience. Make no mistake, both Jackman and Hathaway make the most of these scenes (easily their best, and will surely earn them Oscar nominations), but they are most definitely elevated by Hooper's direction.

The other Hollywood-recognizable names in the show (Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, and Amanda Seyfried) all do well enough, and the kids who play Cosette and Gavroche are wonderful. But as is always true with live theater, the secondary and background actors in this movie are really the ones who steal the show, as they had to rely on talent (and not just name alone) to actually get (and keep) the job. Eddie Redmayne (Marius), Samantha Barks (Epinone), and Aaron Tveit (Enjolras) all turn in top performances, and it was a nice touch to have the original (and personal favorite) Jean Valjean, Colm Wilkinson, play the role of the Bishop who forgives Valjean.

Much has been made of how Hooper went about filming this musical, recording the vocals live on set and then replacing the piano that tracked the actors with a full orchestra later. While this approach certainly benefits Jackman's and Hathaway's aforementioned key scenes, it also causes a fair amount of what feels like phasing at times, particularly when Jackman starts too many songs with spoken (rather than sung) lyrics or when Crowe is simply trying to keep up. Here the music suffers, and even if the audience may not know the show's score at all, I imagine they may feel a bump or two.

We took all four of our girls (9, 10, 12, almost 14) as they are all big fans of the soundtrack, and I was probably more uncomfortable with the few sensual scenes than the greater number of violent ones. That said, none of the scenes (sensual or violent) are graphic or gratutitous, and all are contextualized to the story being told; redemption, after all, requires redeeming what is not supposed to be. We want our kids to see, feel, and talk with us about these hard things even when they're hard to watch, but some parents may not share our conviction on the matter. (Note: The film's rated PG-13 for those who care about such things.)

One of the good discussions we all had on the way home was the end of the film and its transition of "Do You Hear the People Sing?" from a call to revolution to a call to Heaven. As Jean Valjean peacefully passes away (escorted by an angelic Fantine), he joins the ranks of those who fought and died on the side of the revolution in celebration of new freedom and spiritual existence. The scene is hardly ethereal or weird, but it is a big one and presumes a universalist take on salvation, namely that everyone who has died has (of course) gone to a better place. As our kids asked questions and pointed out the problems with this assumption, we had the opportunity to discuss how a sentimental universalist view of Heaven may make for a warm and fuzzy movie ending, but it does not line up with true and accurate biblical theology.

Is Les Miserables worth 157 minutes of your life? Yes. Is it perfect? No, but impefection never stopped Jean Valjean (and it shouldn't stop you from going to see and hear his story). Leave a comment and let me know what you think if/when you do.

Is Any Place Safe? Sadly, No

In Education, Humanity, Thought, Young Ones on December 14, 2012 at 3:57 pm

Newton

I've not had much time to follow the tragedy of today's
elementary school shootings in Connecticut, but here are a few quick thoughts
in their wake.

Few things strike us as painfully as the loss of children;
we see Jesus love them in the New Testament and, as parents, we love them and
would do all we can to keep them safe. Unfortunately, "safe" can
become an idol, which shootings like the one in Connecticut reinforce.

In the next few days, we'll hear calls for more security and
cries for more training – just like after Columbine, just like after Virginia
Tech. Safety at all costs will be both the goal and the solution, but even with
new
safety protocols
the
Connecticut school district had just implemented
, "safety" was
not enough.

The simple fact is this: As long as evil still exists, none
of our kids are truly ever "safe." It's not the way it's supposed to
be, but it is the way it is.

This, of course, doesn't mean we as parents and
administrators don't try. Like the doors in your home, we have locks on ours at
school; as you keep tabs on your kids when they're outside, so do we when
they're with us; similar to how you watch who has access to your kids, we do
the same. We run "stranger danger" drills, we ask those we don't
recognize to identify themselves, and we train staff to never leave kids alone.

Indeed, we pursue safety, but accurate thinking on safety is in degrees, not
absolutes. Thinking more this way keeps us from being overconfident
that, because we have locks on the doors
and have run drills, nothing bad should ever happen. Walking our halls, I'm much more vigilant
because I DON'T believe we're totally secure than I would
be if I mistakenly thought we were. Despite our best
measures, no school is "safe," and this should motivate us to
do all we can to be "as safe as we can."

But none of us does it perfectly and, regardless of how safe
we want to make this broken world, there's only so much we can do this side of
God's complete restoration of it. I don't pretend to understand God's hand in this,
another school shooting, but when I consider the extent and depth of our human
depravity, I'm frankly amazed it doesn't happen more than it does. As
much as some may want to blame God for the former, I choose to give Him credit
for the latter.

Pray for the families in Connecticut. And pray for our Veritas families that, yes, our kids
would be safe, but also that we would recognize how limited, vulnerable, and
dependent we are on the God at work restoring the world we have so badly
broken.

Giving & the Classical Christian School

In Veritas on December 2, 2012 at 6:18 am


Giving-charity

I just mailed our second annual Veritas Classical Academy year-end letter, asking our families to prayerfully consider again raising $24,000 for our Scholarship Fund. Last year was the first year Veritas had ever done something like this, and through the generosity of our community, we hit our goal after a frenetic last-minute giving rush on New Year's Eve, along with a few extra gifts in January that pushed us over the top.

As a result of last year's giving, we were able to help ten families – most with multiple children – attend Veritas who wouldn't have been able to otherwise. That was pretty neat for all involved, not for only the families who benefitted, but for the families who weren't sure we could do it but gave anyway.

Though my dual role as Upper School Principal complicates things, as Head of School, I need to be fundraising more than I currently am. Why? Because in addition to our scholarship fund, we have literally millions of dollars to raise for our planned Learning Cottage Campus(es), start-up funds to provide for the Athletic and Arts we're trying to launch, and developmental monies to come up with for more Staff Resources (training conferences, classroom items, etc.). We also have a nine-years-accumulated deficit (not a debt – we don't owe anyone but ourselves) that we'd like to put to bed soon.

Thus, as with any endeavor like ours, we need money. But in saying this, our board and I remain committed to two things: 1) We're not going to force tuition to cover any capital plans (no one could afford what that would cost annually); and 2) We're not going to resort to just any and every fundraising "opportunity" that comes along (believe me when I tell you there
are plenty of things we could sell in the name of fundraising for
Veritas; here's a list if you're interested).

To do either can be tempting, particularly at this time of year as we make plans and finalize budgets for next year. Our process begins in September (just after we get the current school year up and going), and takes several months at multiple levels (board, Head of School, administrative team) to get our heads and hands around all that goes into what is now a 1.1 million dollar operation. I don't say this pridefully but desperately – we want to do right by our families and by God in how we think about the funds they provide for us to steward.

As part of this goal, we do all we can to consider our community when it comes to the frequency and means by which we raise money. I'm probably more conservative than some Heads of School on this (and may be holding us back a bit as a result), but I am hesitant to subject our families to multiple fundraising campaigns in which it seems we're always "selling something" for the good of the cause. It's not that I don't believe in our cause enough to do it; it's that I don't want to cheapen our cause by doing it.

While we raised a total of $120,000 in gifts and pledges last year for our new scholarship, staff development, and Constructing the Vision capital campaign funds, the critique is valid that I've done next to nothing to initiate smaller, ongoing community fundraisers throughout our school; in fact, the only two that I can think of (our WISE T-shirt sales at the beginning of the school year and our monthly Cafe Days) existed previous to my arrival at Veritas in 2011. Both seem to be things our families enjoy, so there's no need to change them (though I do think we've improved them a bit).

Instead, my philosophy (and what I think our families appreciate) is to provide a clear identification of what we need, an upfront presentation of what it's going to take to get it, and an unapologetic ask to prayerfully consider giving. Biblically speaking, that's really all I can and am willing to do; the rest is up to God and our families (and other donors we're communicating with) as to their response.

The challenge, of course, is getting all three aspects of said philosophy to happen in a timely and coordinated manner. We may have a need and create a good presentation for it, but I can't control if or how people give. Likewise, there are probably some folks (inside and outside of our community) who would give to what we need, but we have not figured out how to present those needs to them yet, or (just as likely) we have not figured out who they actually are.

Make no mistake: we do have needs and we do need people to give, but, as Mark 8:36 (applied here to the area of fundraising) reminds us, "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?" Jesus is clear: the return on that kind of investment is not good. Giving to Veritas Classical Academy, however, should be.

(Another goal we have is to make giving as simple as possible. To that end, we've just launched our new online donation page. Check out how easy it is, and thanks for prayerfully considering giving a gift while you're there.)