Friday, January 31, 2014

Super Bowl Urban Legends

I wrote the original version of this post pre-Super Bowl 2005... but the recent proliferation of "Super Bowl Sunday is one of the worst days of the year for sexual trafficking" posts has caused me to rewrite this and quote my pastor (also the head of Lifeway Research) in an addendum at the end of it.

Maybe you grew up hearing tales of Paul Bunyan (and Babe, his Blue Ox). Perhaps your family liked the story of Pecos Bill, his fiance Sluefoot Sue, and his Widowmaker. My favorite as a kid was the story of Johnny Appleseed: a guy who wandered the wilderness planting apple trees. (My exposure to all of these is thanks to Walt Disney, who made some nifty short animated films about American legends.)

Well, legends are still around in our modernized society, but thanks to the magic of the Internet, they spread faster than butter on hot pancakes. (Mmmm... even typing that makes me hungry. Maybe I didn't get a big enough lunch?) They're called "urban legends", and while they may have started with a kernel of truth, they've quickly grown way beyond that into the land of make-believe. has a great listing of legends that go along with the Super Bowl:
  • No, sewage systems have NOT ruptured due to the massive number of flushes at halftime of the big game
  • No, women are NOT more likely to be abused on Super Bowl Sunday (this is a particularly evil rumor, as inflating the statistics causes people not to listen when the problem of domestic violence is real)
  • No, 2/3's of the avocados sold in the US are NOT sold in preparation for the big game (actually, it's about 5%... and 14%+ for Cinco de Mayo)
  • No, there are not less visitors to Disneyland on Super Bowl Sunday (it's roughly the same throughout the early spring)
We've got our own set of "Christian" urban legends that (in many cases) pre-date the Internet:
  • the author of the Harry Potter books is NOT a Satanist
  • Madlyn Murray O'Hair ISN'T trying to ban religious programming... in fact, she's been dead for 15+ years!
  • Proctor & Gamble's star & moon symbol is NOT Satanic... and the CEO of the company has NOT appeared on a television talk show to say that he worship Satan
  • Pepsi did not remove the words "under God" when creating a special 'flag' can after 9/11
  • Christian pilots are NOT being paired with non-Christian pilots in case of Rapture (good grief...)
  • The 12 Days of Christmas is NOT a secretly religious song (double good grief...)
And the list goes on.

Just like the Super Bowl legends are a distraction from enjoying the game (more on how you can do that in a minute), the Christian urban legends distract us from spending our time & energy on chasing after God. Not to mention that they make Christians look a bit "dim" when we forward this stuff around without checking it out.

A suggestion: the next time someone sends you an e-mail with one of these kind of stories, take a minute and run it through the search engines at:
Our responsibility as people who follow Jesus (the one who is True) is to handle the truth wisely... "Concentrate on doing your best for God, work you won't be ashamed of, laying out the truth plain and simple." (2nd Timothy 2:15, The Message)

Addendum: This is from a great blog post by Ed Stetzer (my pastor) entitled The Superbowl & Sex Trafficking: A Bad Problem That Does Not Need a Bad Statistic.
Sex trafficking will be bad at the Superbowl, because it is bad everywhere. However, we must be careful not to think this is an isolated occurrence. Instead, we need to understand that it is happening in big cities and small towns, here in the United States, and around the world. If you don't think so, read the FBI's excellent page on the subject. Or, look to the State Department briefing for global information.
Sex trafficking is real, widespread, and horrible-- I just don't want to use bad (or unverified) Superbowl statistics to fight it. Facts are our friends.
Using bad or unverified facts discredits the cause, just as the Superbowl link to domestic violence did not long ago, leading one chronicler of that bad stat to explain, "[though] dramatizations may serve a purpose for some activists, domestic violence is too serious a problem for such exaggerations and opportunism."
Simply put, the statistics on sexual trafficking are already horrible-- we don't need unsubstantiated ones.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

#2: Race for the Galaxy (Mark's 100 - 2012)

Race for the Galaxy

Mark's Ranking
  • 2012: 2nd
  • 2010: 3rd
  • 2005: not yet published
  • rank: 22
  • rating: 7.82
Print Status
  • in print
Why It's On The List
  • After you climb the iconography mountain to figure out the game, Race for the Galaxy is an amazing adventure in hand management & reading your opponents' mind - made even better by clever card design & interaction as well as great sci-fi art.
Tips & Tricks:
  • Learning Race for the Galaxy can be a bit of a chore - of course, since I've ranked it #2 on my list, you know I think it's worth it - but there are some things you can do to make it easier.
    • First, don't add any of the expansions.
    • Second, the first time you play, play two games in a row.
      • The first game should be open-handed & use the preset hands from the base game.
      • The second game can be "normal".
    • Third, don't get obsessed about winning your first few games. Use them (they're short!) to explore the gamespace & see how cards can work together.
  • There are four expansion sets available for Race for the Galaxy, all of which add numerous cards to the deck:
    • The Gathering Storm (which adds a fifth player, goals & a robust solitaire system)
    • Rebel vs. Imperium (which builds on the previous expansion, adding a sixth player & rules for takeovers)
    • The Brink of War (which builds on the previous two expansions, adding prestige & the prestige/search action)
    • Alien Artifacts (the newest expansion - it does NOT build on the previous expansions but instead is meant to be combined solely with the base game. It adds a fifth player & a new mode of play in which you explore the Alien Orb.)
  • Someday, maybe we'll get an iOS app - until then, the best computer AI for board games out there is Keldon's AI - a free download for PC & Mac. I estimate I've played a couple thousand (2000+!) games against this over the years.
  • My favorite way to play is 2 player advanced with goals & prestige... and no takeovers.
  • I'm surprised how little I've written about Race for the Galaxy - evidently, I've been too busy actually playing the game to blog about it!


If you feel a need to catch up on my admittedly-aging Top 100 as of February 2012 list, you can check out:

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

#3: A Brief History of the World (Mark's 100 - 2012)

A Brief History of the World

Mark's Ranking
  • 2012: 3rd
  • 2010: 14th
  • 2005: 35th (ranking the previous edition - the Hasbro/Avalon Hill version of History of the World)
  • appeared in all three lists
  • rank: 928
  • rating: 7.04
Print Status
  • in print
Why It's On The List
  • it's all about the epic sweep of history - and this particular version of a game system originally published in 1991(!) is the best yet. It's tighter, smarter, and faster than any previous edition - playing time is about 3 hours for six players to experience this dudes/empires on a map masterpiece.
Tips & Tricks:
  • I first played the Ragnor Brothers' History of the World in the mid-90s. The experience was a disaster - six new players coupled with the overly wargamer-tinged rules of the original Avalon Hill publication of the game meant it took us nearly four hours to complete two of the seven epochs... and then we abandoned the game.
    It was nearly six years later when I received an early prize table pick at a gaming convention and thanks evidently to a whiff of the massive amounts of plastic figures in the box decided to pick up the Hasbro/Avalon Hill edition as my first pick. The game was substantially better than I had remembered - esp. with the revisions that had been made to streamline the design. It became one of those "once a year" games (because of the length... 4-6 hours) though I wanted to play more often.

    Fast forward to late 2009 as the Ragnor Brothers announced that they had - nearly 20 years after the first edition was published - once again made some major revisions to their signature game. The early press was positive enough for me to plunk down some hard-earned cash on it - seeing as how I hadn't played my beloved H/AH copy of HOTW in nearly 3 years.

    I didn't waste a penny... though I miss the 7 different plastic minis (one type for each epoch) and the shiny capitol/city markers, everything else I love about the game system is still there - and less. It's shorter, leaner & tighter (our six player game this year took 3 1/2 hours with 2 new players)... and there's actually more room in the game for tactical & strategic decision-making while reducing the number of armies on the board. The refining of the empire deck (giving more thematically specific powers to some of the empires) and the costing of the event deck (many events now come with some kind of VP cost to activate) make for an even better game.
  • There is an iOS app - which is slowly but surely getting the bugs worked out. It's a lot of fun for personal play against the AI.
  • This is more of an experience game than a strategy game - but given the choice, you want to score when you have lots of pieces on the board (follow a late empire pick with an early empire pick) and deny the same opportunities to your opponents.
  • I've quoted above pretty much the only thing I've written about A Brief History of the World.
  • Here's the two (admittedly short) blurbs from The One Hundred: the group blurb & my personal blurb.


If you feel a need to catch up on my admittedly-aging Top 100 as of February 2012 list, you can check out:

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Game Review: Summoner Wars Master Set

This review was written nearly two years ago. At the time, I'd played the game 32 times. As of today, I've played 163 games of Summoner Wars - thanks in part to the iOS app. The original boxes have since been reprinted (with substantially better art) and there are not only 16 factions (each with their own reinforcement pack) but Second Summoner decks for some of the factions have been published. And I stand behind my review - this is one awesome game.

Part the First: In Which Your Humble Reviewer Attempts To Convince You To Read The Rest of This Review

Tom Vasel called Summoner Wars “absolutely fantastic” and ”one of the best games of 2009“. (Of course, he’s also admitted publicly that he likes the endgame mechanic from Killer Bunnies & the Quest for the Magic Carrot, so you might want to reconsider listening to him.)

Magic Carrot aside, Tom’s right. And chances are pretty good you didn’t actually hear of this game until 2010… or really see it make a splash until 2011 – which doesn’t change the fact that it’s a brilliant game system that you should try… even if you’re not normally a fantasy battle type of gamer.

Part the Second: Wherein The Aforementioned Deferential & Demure Reviewer Gives Three Brief Yet Thoughtful Overviews of the Game

Short version:
Kill or be killed with cards & dice

Shorter version:
a fantasy battle board game that involves positional board play, deck & hand management, and dice combat

More detail for the anal among us:
Erik Arneson (akapoliticalguy) did a great job summarizing the rules & game play in a previous Opinionated Gamers review… you should read that. (Yes, you have my permission to go & do that right now… just make sure you come back here when you’re finished or I’ll have to send The Eater to fetch you.)

Part the Third: Listen, Gentle Reader, To This Grandiloquent Description of the Box And The Contents Therein

Here’s the part where I honestly admit why I didn’t pick up a starter set of Summoner Wars back until the last few days of 2010:
  • I finally had some extra gaming cash, thanks to the Christmas generosity of relatives & friends.
  • I really, really disliked the box art on the original two starter set boxes.
Yes, yes, I know the old adages…
  • “don’t judge a book by it’s cover”
  • “don’t judge a game by the box art”
  • “don’t judge a movie by the appearance of Rob Schneider in the cast” (well, this one may actually have some merit)
…and yet I chose to ignore them and missed out on 12 months of gaming goodness.

Thankfully, you do not have to make my mistake… because the folks at Plaid Hat Games did a wonderful job on the box art for the Summoner Wars Master Set.

And my praise of the box extends to the box insert – there is room not only for the six faction decks included in the box but also slots for four more decks. And, if you’re willing to stack two decks together, there’s plenty of room for all of the current Summoner Wars decks in the box – even with card sleeves! (Could this review BE any more geekified? Box insert love?!)

Also included are (of course) the necessary dice & counters to play the game… and a nice two-piece high quality board.

Oh, yeah, there’s some cards in there, too.

Part the Fourth: In Which I Describe the Factions of Ithria Imprisoned Within These Walls of Cardboard & Plastic

The Summoner Wars Master Set comes with six 34 card decks – one for each of six factions of the world of Ithria who are all fighting each other using the power of the Summoning Stones:
  • the Shadow Elves – they use speed & stealth to defeat stronger opponents
  • the Benders – a faction that focuses on manipulating the opponent’s actions & choices… I like to think of them as the Judo faction – using an opponent’s strength & momentum against them
  • the Mountain Vargath – these goat-men are brutes – in their case, a good offense is the best offense
  • the Sand Goblins – snaky little beasts who hard to pin down & hard to kill
  • the Swamp Orcs – for the first time, a faction that has extra cards (fifteen Vine Walls) that clutter the battlefield for your opponent
  • the Deep Dwarves – manipulators of magic – working their Event cards carefully is vital in order to win
And while I’ve previously griped about the box cover art of the earlier sets, I’ve always liked the card art in the Summoner Wars universe. The Master Set is no exception – thanks to excellent art choices, it’s easy to figure out which card is which, even upside down (which is the way you see your opponent’s forces).

As well, the graphic design of the cards is top-notch. You can see at a glance whether a unit is ranged, how many dice it uses for attacks & how many hit points it has. Part of my love for this game system is due to the user-friendly nature of the rules & of the card design.

Part the Fifth: Where, Accordingly, This Review Switches Focus From Broad Generalities To Laser-like Specifics

Any review of a boxed set of a previously released game needs to answer the “why should I get this if I already own the starter sets?” question. The answer is simple: because it offers six new decks that don’t feel like minor tweaks on old factions… and if you liked the game already, more is better. (I so badly want to add a “no duh” to that last sentence, but realize that doing so would date me even more than my admission that I have Rick Wakeman’s “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” album on my Christmas list.)

It’s possible, of course, that some of you have managed to read this far without ever having played Summoner Wars… and are wondering if the Master Set is a good place for you to jump in. I think it is. The MSRP of the Summoner Wars Master Set is $49.95, while the individual expansion decks are $9.95 each & the mounted board was $14.95. Using the magical powers of rounding & approximation, that means you’re paying fifty bucks retail for seventy-five bucks worth of prime gaming material.

I will say that some of the factions in the Master Set (particularly the Benders & the Sand Goblins) are a bit tougher to get the hang of playing well, while the Mountain Vargath & the Swamp Orcs are much easier to lead to victory. (Your mileage may vary.) Over time, however, you’ll find that Colby Dauch & the Plaid Hat playtesters have done an amazing job of balancing the factions so that experienced players can have great battles on pretty level playing fields.

Finally, you may wonder why I haven’t suggested picking up one of the starter sets… well, that’s because they’re currently sold out at the publisher level & are due to be reprinted soon (with nicer box art!)

Part the Sixth: I Conclude By Heartily Recommending the Purchase of the Master Set

What the subtitle guy said.

Monday, January 27, 2014

#4: Summoner Wars (Mark's 100 - 2012)

Summoner Wars

Mark's Ranking
  • 2012: 5th
  • 2010: new
  • 2005: new
  • rank: 152
  • rating: 7.55
Print Status
  • in print
Why It's On The List
  • Here's what I wrote a couple of years agao: "Summoner Wars is a fantasy battle board game that involves positional board play, deck & hand management, and dice combat.” What got left out of that description was just how much fun it is to play. There’s a healthy helping of randomness to spice up the game, but there’s also some real skill in playing each faction well… and Colby Dauch (the designer) deserves a mountain of praise for getting such variety out of a simple & straightforward game system. Even if you don’t like fantasy combat games, you should give this one a try..
Tips & Tricks:
  • Each deck plays VERY differently... I can not emphasize enough the learning curve involved here. Because the game is quick, it's easy to get experience and "learn" the decks - but expect to get your rear end handed to you by an experienced player the first time you pick up a deck.
  • The easiest decks to play (this is my opinion) are Guild Dwarves and Tundra Orcs. From the Master Set (which is probably the best way to jump into the game), I'd suggest the Mountain Vargath or the Sand Goblins.
  • The deck-building aspect of the game is really nicely done... it adds another layer to the game but it's not required to enjoy it.
  • I would be remiss if I didn't mention the excellent iPad app for playing Summoner Wars. Yes, they've had their problems for the last few months - but it sounds like that will all be fixed with the next iOS7 update in February.
  • I wrote an extended review of the game system as part of my review of the Master Set for the Opinionated Gamers website... and I just realized today that I'd never reposted that to this blog. (Three guesses what tomorrow's blog post will be...)


If you feel a need to catch up on my admittedly-aging Top 100 as of February 2012 list, you can check out:

Friday, January 24, 2014

Tiny Epic Kingdoms: First Impressions

At first, the name of the game put me off. While I'm intrigued by the new push towards "micro-games" in game design (as evidenced by my Kickstarter pledge for Coin Age), the words "tiny" and "epic" shoved together seemed to be an oxymoron designed to sell games.

We take this moment to pause & offer our English grammar lesson for the day: an oxymoron is not a particularly clean idiot - it's a figure of speech that is essentially a compressed paradox. (Humorously, the word itself is an oxymoron - it's the combination of the Latin words for "sharp" and "dull".)
Some of my favorite examples:
  • army intelligence
  • crash landing
  • freezer burn
  • devout atheist
And, after chasing that rabbit, we're back to board games. (Don't you feel smarter now?)

Specifically, we're back to Tiny Epic Kingdoms - the new game design by Scott Almes. (He's the guy who designed Kings of Air & Steam and Martian Dice... neither of which I've played. That's not a knock on him.) His objective in designing TEK (the abbreviation we will all agree to use for the rest of the review to avoid the unwieldly actual name of the game) was to create an inexpensive 4X micro-game.

We take this moment to pause & offer our Gaming nomenclature lesson of the day: a 4X game is not four times the game - as if the small game itself grew three sizes that day. (Tip o'the cap to the Grinch.) It's a particular style of game design, maybe best typified by board games like Clash of Cultures, Space Empires: 4X & Runewars... and by computer games like Sid Meier's Civilization and Masters of Orion.
A 4X game has four elements:
  • eXpand (take over territory)
  • eXplore (find stuff)
  • eXploit (use resources to become stronger)
  • eXterminate (kill other dudes on the map)
Another rabbit successfully tracked down. (Now we have a brace of coneys. Seriously. Look it up.)

In order to build up fan support & drum up Kickstarter business/flow, Gamelyn Games released a print-n-play prototype file... and what with the buzz beginning to develop, I figured the worst thing that could happen is that I'd be out 5-6 sheets of paper & some inkjet printer ink. So, I printed it out & my boys and I played it.

And then we played it again.

And then again.

So, with three plays under your belt, Mark, did Scott & Gamelyn Games accomplish what they set out to do?
  • inexpensive? Yes! (The basic price point is $16 shipped... with the "deluxe" version clocking in at $24.)
  • 4X? Yes! (There's a simple tech tree, interesting choices for the harvesting & use of resources, multiple land grabs... it's got all of that 4X-y stuff right out there in the open.)
  • micro-game? Yes! (It plays in 30-45 minutes and the original prototype has just 14 cards & 53 small wooden cubes.)
The more important question, of course, is are we having any fun while we're playing it? The answer to that is an emphatic "Yes!" as well. While it moves along at a nice clip, there are some tricky decisions to be made about attack & defense - and balancing those considerations with increasing your tech (aka "magic abilities") and building the tower. As well, the various factions (only the initial four are included in the print-n-play) offer a great deal of diversity in conjunction with the random territory maps.

What blew me away is how you are forced to juggle four different things in such a small game space:
  • resource management (you must expand to get more resources + you have to forego actions in order to harvest)
  • expansion (you need food to build more units... but spreading out makes you vulnerable to attack)
  • building the tower (you need ore to build the tower... but ore is also useful in attack & defense)
  • magic abilities (you need mana to raise your "tech" level... but mana is even better than ore in combat)
In addition to that juggling act, you have a similar action selection to Eminent Domain... you pick the action (which you carry out) - then the rest of the players choose to do the action as well or harvest resources based on the territories they control. Then, like Puerto Rico, that action is marked and can not be chosen again until all five action markers have been played.

Two of our three games have been decided by a point or less - with players choosing to emphasize different things (building the tower, expanding their forces, delving deeply into magic.) Last night, I lost a three player game 14-14-13 (I was the middle one) on the "who has built more on the tower" tiebreaker. I mention this loss not so you can feel sorry for me but so you can see that the much-desired design ethic "multiple paths to victory" is actually true for TEK. Well, not in my case... but in the words of Maxwell Smart, I "missed it by that much."

For those of you who worry about dice & randomness & chaos ("mass hysteria - cats & dogs, living together"), the dice included in the game are not for rolling off - they are a clever way to indicate your resource investment when going to war. In fact, besides the initial set-up (which territory & faction you get), this is a non-random kind of game.

But wait! That's not all! (I feel like Ron Popeil trying to sell you a Chop-o-matic.) The Kickstarter drive for TEK has blown through all 17 of the original stretch goals - adding upgraded pieces & cards, more territories & region types, and 8 new factions. It's a great deal for $16.

The expected delivery date is September 2014 - which puts it right in the "game lull" between the summer conventions here in the U.S. and Spiele in Germany - the perfect time to have a package drop on your doorstep with a brand spankin' new game to play with family, friends and random strangers who you coax into sitting around the table.

So, click the Kickstarter TEK link below and check it out - you can download the print-n-play files and try it yourself. Or you can just trust me, plunk down some of your hard-earned gaming budget and get in on this deal while you can.

I'm good either way...

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Classic Remix: The "Problem" With Toolkit Games

I originally wrote a version of this post in March of 2007 - that's right, nearly 7 years ago. In the intervening years, more toolkit games have joined my collection - but the same problem still remains.

It's pretty simple, really... all those lovely delectable options are intoxicating. If you're not careful, you can take a relatively elegant game & turn it into an overchromed monster.

I just want to take a few minutes of your precious time & bandwidth to comment on the whole "greatest strength/greatest weakness" dichotomy when it comes to certain game systems. And just so I'm not too vague here, I'm referring to some of my favorite games:
  • Memoir '44
  • Heroscape
  • Battlelore (1st edition - I haven't had a chance to play 2nd edition yet but I think it probably has the same potential for good & evil lurking there)
  • Tannhauser
  • Claustrophobia
And some of my eldest son's favorite games as well:
  • RoboRally
  • X-Wing
All of these systems have, at their core, a very simple combat system and a variety of unit types. (So far, so good.) Each game also has different types of terrain & objectives, depending on the scenario. (Still good.) These terrain types, unit types, various objectives & other rules can be combined in nearly limitless ways to create a stunning array of game experiences. (Excellent.) Hence, the moniker "toolkit games".

Yet it's at exactly this point that the wheels come off the proverbial apple cart... because far too often, we (and yes, I'm including myself here) become so enamored of all the special features that we want to make sure all of them are included in the same scenario. So you get Heroscape boards with lava & ice & castles & trees & roads & umpteen glyphs... or Memoir '44 scenarios with mountains & dams & mines & snipers & 10 different terrain types... or Battlelore battles with high-pointed War Councils & hordes of figures. Just because the options are there does not mean that they should all be included at once. (No more 200 point X-Wing battles, please.)

For me, the best way to avoid this tendency is to play primarily with playtested scenarios. For the majority of the aforementioned games, there is a great online community with ample resources of playtested scenarios.

So, whadda you think?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

"Mist Machines" & Choir Lofts

What you're about to read is a blog post from Mike Harland, the director of Lifeway Worship... followed by my response to his blog (titled A Question for Pastor, Worship Leaders & Church Musicians.) Hopefully my reply to him generates more light than heat... and, for the record, I think he meant "fog machines" rather than "mist machines".

So, how’s that working out for us?

I think it’s time for pastors, church musicians, and worship leaders to ask that question. Here we are, in 2014, with more of everything when it comes to worship styles, technologies, and options for worshipers in our churches. And yet, it seems we may have less than we bargained for when we cashed in the chips of how we used to do music in our churches.

Let me explain.

As the church growth movement slipped into the 90’s, church leaders everywhere began to take notice of some high profile ministries that were exploding in growth, and the “Mega-church” was born. I’m talking about churches that were larger than my hometown – 20,000 worshippers on a weekend. And if something is huge, then it must be right – right?

The interesting thing about some of these ministries is the larger their attendance became, the smaller their worship leadership becomes. The music leading is relegated to the few “professionals,” and the rest of us sit in a darkened room to enjoy being worshipped at. Sadly, the churches that emulate this approach take the chairs out of the choir loft and put stage greenery and iMag screens in – all in the name of making worship better.

Okay, that was sarcastic. But, I’m frustrated that we seem to have moved into the modern era of the church, and less and less of our people actively engage in the worship expression than ever before. Because – when we took out those chairs, we also took out those people.

It seems more and more we have leaders that give us worship like they are giving us our medicine – “you may not like this, but trust us, this is good for you.” And they even add a “spoonful of sugar” with lighting and sound effects with over the top visual effects.

So, how’s that working out for us?

The church has to come back to the place of realizing that until all of God’s people are engaged, whatever we are doing might be artistically great, but it doesn’t come close to the impact of corporate worship in the era of full choir lofts and singing congregations.

And to think – back then we didn’t even have mist machines. 

It will start when we expect more from our leaders than mediocre original songs with a four chords and a few hot vocal licks.

There – I said it.

Mike Harland,
Director, LifeWay Worship


As a person who has served SBC churches as a staff member, pastor & layperson for the last 30 years, I’ve been a part of traditional churches with full choirs lofts… and GenX “coffeehouse” church plants with an acoustic guitar-playing worship leader backed by a kid with a djembe & shaker. I’ve “led the singing” as we sang old favorites from the Baptist Hymnal (the 1975 one, not that newfangled 1991 version)… and I’ve “sat in” with a 6 piece alternative rock band in a darkened worship center.

I start with all this because I want you to hear what I’m about to say in context… and it is (in the words of Darth Vader) “all too easy” to dismiss dissenting voices on the subject of corporate worship by marginalizing their background and/or musical preferences.

I have two problems with your blog post:

1. I think your sarcasm & attempts at humor (“back then we didn’t even have mist machines”) backfire as you try to make your point about worship demanding engagement. The post becomes more about the attack on iMag screens & stage greenery (“how DARE they take away our choir loft!”) than it does about meaningful participation & communion with a holy and awesome God.

My guess (and it’s only a guess) is that your frustration boiled over into this post – and that you didn’t realize how it would sound to those of us who’ve fought to be culturally relevant in our musical worship choices at the same time as we’ve worked to involve the hearts & minds of each person present.

2. More importantly, I believe you’ve mistaken the proverbial forest for the trees. By concentrating on the form (choir vs worship leader, hymn vs original song, traditional church vs megachurch) and particular elements (lighting, sound effects, etc.), your focus has slipped from the actual purpose of worship.

It’s certainly not congregational participation. My nearly 50 years in SBC churches has shown that people can not sing along with hymns just as easily as they can not sing along with contemporary worship songs. Moreover, someone choosing to sing – whether they’re singing the alto line from the hymnal or following the melody while reading the lyrics off of a screen – gives little to no real indication of the spiritual condition of their life.

Harold Best wrote that worship is “acknowledging that someone or something else is greater – worth more – and by consequence, to be obeyed, feared, and adored…Worship is the sign that in giving myself completely to someone or something, I want to be mastered by it.” I am certain that we both believe that ‘someone or something’ is Jesus Christ.

What I think you’re longing for is congregations who give themselves completely to the living God… but your post makes it sound like that can only happen if we restore the choir & turn up the lights.

At the close, you finish the post with a call to expect more from worship leaders than “than mediocre original songs with a four chords and a few hot vocal licks.” Setting aside (again) the sarcasm in that statement, your desire for depth in lyrical content & quality musicianship is a good thing. (Psalm 33:3 NKJV says “Play skillfully with a shout of joy.")

But none of that will matter unless worship leaders, instrumentalists, choir directors, choir members – and most importantly laypeople – give themselves over fully to Christ. We will simply trade worship forms – contemporary for traditional or vice versa… and be like the people Paul warned Timothy about in 2 Timothy 3:4-6 (AMP):

For [although] they hold a form of piety (true religion), they deny and reject and are strangers to the power of it [their conduct belies the genuineness of their profession]. Avoid [all] such people [turn away from them].

in Christ,
Mark Jackson

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Church is Not Dying

Please read the whole article... and don't lose hope. (It's written by Ed Stetzer who is not only the head of Lifeway Research but also the pastor of the church we attend.)
As I see it, the numbers of people who those of us in the church would say are actually committed Christians—those who are practicing a vibrant faith—are not dying off. The Church is not dying. It is just being more clearly defined.
The "Nones" category is growing quickly, but the change is coming by way of Cultural and Congregational Christians who no longer feel the societal pressure to be "Christian." They feel comfortable freeing themselves from a label that was not true of them in the first place. Convictional Christians are not leaving the faith; the "squishy middle," as I like to call it, is simply being flattened.

Monday, January 20, 2014

My Top 25 Films Since 2000

Some friends & I have been (and will continue to be) counting down our favorite movies by decade... and I thought I'd share my lists with you, my faithful readers. Of course, this time it's actually a 13 year time span - but who cares?

#25: High School Musical 3: Senior Year
Yes, the final installment of the much-derided HSM franchise. Except for a mistaken attempt to start a new crew of HSMer's, this is a really nice distilling of everything that makes these goofy films the 21st century equivalent of a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland "hey, kids, let's put on a show" musical. (I took no end of ribbing from my "so-called friends" about including this one.)
#24: Unbreakable
IMHO, the best of M.Night Shyamalan's films... not so much for the requisite twist as for doing a brilliant job of answering the question, "What would it look like if someone really got superpowers?"
#23: Oceans 11
An homage to caper films and to the Rat Pack that actually looks like they had fun making it. (This is substantially more fun to watch than the drunken slog that was the original Oceans 11.)
Take my advice: Avoid Oceans 12 at all costs... Oceans 13 is pretty good but not up to the level of the first one.
#22: Despicable Me
In which somebody besides Pixar proves that they can use computer animation for good rather than evil. The "three kittens" scenes are delightful.
I just saw the sequel and enjoyed it - though not nearly as much as the first film.
#21: X-2: X-Men United
I was always more of a DC Comics guy... I haven't ever really read much of the X-Men comic books. But this movie manages to tread the line between "comic book faithful" and "real characters & feelings" in ways that push all the right buttons for me. (You should watch the first movie as well - but avoid the 3rd one.)
#20: School of Rock
Evidently, to make a good movie w/Jack Black, you need to include music. (And, no, I don't think Nacho Libre is a good movie.)
 #19: The Bourne Identity
The first film of this action/thriller series is still the best - though the others are good. Less Paul Greengrass hand-held motion sickness camera, tighter plotting, excellent performances from both Matt Damon & Franke Potente.
#18: Bolt
And this is what happens when John Lasseter is made Chief Creative Officer at Disney - an animated film that could have been another throwaway becomes great quotable fun.
Interesting trivia: the voice of Rhino (the hamster) is actually the animator who laid down the original scratch track - he was so good they didn't go find anyone else.
#17: Hitch
I think the movie falls apart a bit at the end (Hitch's revelation that he "didn't do anything" isn't true)... but the chemistry between the four leads is sweet & funny & makes me want to hang out with them.
#16: The Passion of the Christ
Yes, those of you who know my religious background might suspect that this would be ranked (higher/lower/later/whatever)... but while I appreciate the searing portrayal of what I consider the pivotal moment in history, it's not a film I want to watch over & over.
I'm still flabbergasted at how well it did at the box office - I said at the time that the number of people who went to see it couldn't all be evangelicals & Catholics... and I'm just not sure how someone could pull off, "hey, let's go see Jesus get crucified and then we'll go back to my place and I'll try to get lucky."
#15: Wreck-It Ralph
Another great entry from the John Lasseter era at Disney Animation - chockfull of video in-jokes, great voice work, and a wonderful plot. ...
"I relate to you, Ralph. When I hit bottom, I was crushing man's skull like sparrow's egg, between by thighs... and I think, why you have to be so bad, Zangief? Why can't you be more like good guy? Then I have moment of clarity... if Zangief is good guy, who will crush man's skull like sparrow's eggs between thighs? And I say, Zangief you are bad guy, but this does not mean you are *bad* guy."
#14: Crash
Yes, I know it's not perfect... but it knocked me to the ground when I saw it. It veers from heavy-handed to achingly painful - and managed to cause conversation about race & racism & expectations.
#13: Up
The first ten minutes nearly reduced me to a quivering, blubbering mass of Jello... and then a wildly inventive & sweet story came rolling out of that beginning. (Note: cut that 10 minute opening out & the movie would NOT work - you'd hate Mr. Fredrickson.)
#12: Star Trek
The lens flares don't bother me as much as some other folks - and this was a good movie even if you didn't know Star Trek. If you did, it was chockfull of smart callbacks to the films and to the original series.
#11: Iron Man
Robert Downey Jr. was born to play Tony Stark... the SFX were great but this film lives & breathes because of the convergence of character arc and personal story arc of the actor.
#10: Monsters, Inc
This is what happens when you're willing to follow a great story idea down whatever road it leads... and then you cast great vocal actors to go with you.
"Wasteland? You mean wonderland!"
#9: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
With only minor alterations, a beautiful & moving visual realization of Tolkien's incredible story.
The second two films of the trilogy take more liberties - sometimes for good & often for ill. As a set, they're amazing - but you should still read the books.
#8: Cars
On first viewing, a little slow & long... on repeated viewings, the pace & style are purposeful choices to get us to slow down and join the residents of Radiator Springs in living the good life.
Driving across Arizona & New Mexico last year (during our first of two moves in 2013) was like stepping into the story when we got off the freeway.
And, if you love this movie, you owe it to yourself to go to Disney's California Adventure & experience Cars Land... it's darn near perfect.
#7: Captain America: The First Avenger
Thank you, thank you, thank you, Marvel... for making non-ironic period superhero movie - Cap deserved this rather than some kind of cynical wink-fest.
#6: Wall*E
It would be a personal favorite even w/out the Hello, Dolly songs. And, yes, it's slow in getting started. And, yes, the film pace radically changes once we get into space. So what? It works.
#5: Enchanted
Amy Adams manages to infuse the proceedings with an incredible joy & innocence that changes everything around her - this performance should have won lots of awards.
#4: Marvel's The Avengers
Joss Whedon knocked this one out of the park - great casting, smart script, amazing SFX, and paced perfectly. Even if you're not a comic book fan (aka - my wife), you can fall in love with this film. (And she did.)
#3: Toy Story 3
The cryfest continues with yet another Pixar miracle - that the THIRD movie in a series could have so much originality, so much humor, and so much genuine emotion. Hats off to you, Mr. Lasseter, and your band of geniuses.
#2: Minority Report
Never thought an action/thriller could have so much philosophical/theological depth... brilliant. I'm not a big Tom Cruise or Colin Farrell fan - and they both are perfectly cast here.
#1: The Incredibles
It's, well, incredible. The best superhero movie every made is also the best animated movie of the 2000s AND my favorite Pixar film.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Kitchen Sink: Oscar, Joni, the Six Million Dollar Man & "a sad, pale cartoon"


I haven't seen any of the nine Oscar-nominated Best Pictures... and I can only think of a couple of them that I really want to see. Sigh.

music & movies

I wonder how long it's going to take for the mainstream media to figure out that Joni Eareckson Tada (who is singing the Oscar-nominated Best Song from the film Alone But Not Alone) is an evangelical Christian author & speaker... as well as being a quadriplegic. (It's probably no surprise that hearing her speak on suffering & unanswered prayer is much more convincing than, say, some rich white guy with slicked-back hair & an expensive suit.)

I haven't really played with anything on the JavaScript Board Games site... but I think it's just incredibly cool that someone would go back & code old TV and movie tie-in games so we can play them. Granted, they probably stink (most of the ones I've owned over the years certainly do) but it's still a noble endeavor. (I look forward to trying The Six Million Dollar Man: Bionic Crisis game - I remember seeing it in the store when I was a kid. And I was in love with Jamie, the Bionic Woman.)
sex & scripture
For your (deeper) reading pleasure... an excellent article on whether premarital sex is a sin. (Yes, I know, it's really long and sometimes kinda technical... and a subject that people don't really want to talk about. Whatever you do, don't miss the last paragraph.)
“Sexy” in our culture is a sad, pale cartoon made up of too much cleavage, too little self-respect, too much butt-crack and too many tramp-stamps, and over-tight clothes. “Sexy” testifies to our emptiness, a hunger, but not real desire. Lots of energy, but is it really passion? Lots of smoke, but not a fire to light your life, warm your soul and nourish your heart. The eyes of the goddess are painted, but the eye-holes are empty.