The Blacklist

Crime shows have always held a special place for me. They have the ability to develop great characters, while at the same time providing suspense, thrill, and grittiness. Also, these kinds of shows often proffer a good canvas for the battle between good and evil. One show that takes a somewhat unique twist on this genre is The Blacklist.

The Story:

Elizabeth Keen
Elizabeth Keen

Instead of offering the ‘detective vs. mobster’ style of show, The Blacklist  turns this traditional trope on its head. Reddington is a criminal mastermind who willingly turns himself over to the FBI. Elizabeth Keen is a new analyst working for the FBI, and she alone is the one that Reddington is willing to talk to within the agency. What does Reddington want by turning himself in to the FBI? What interest does he have in Elizabeth? The show’s first season begins to unravel these many mysteries. Meanwhile, Reddington has his own list -THE blacklist -of criminals that the FBI does not even realize exist, and he begins to help the agency to hunt them down. However, motivations remain cloudy, and the characters are constantly left questioning one another’s motives. The writers do an entertaining job of weaving their story -making the characters empathetic, and dropping enough hints along the way to keep you engaged and wanting more. What makes the story different from most crime shows is that Reddington is not reformed, but continues to carry on his questionable activities alongside his lawful one.

The Characters:

Reddington

Reddington and Elizabeth Keen are the primary characters of the show. Reddington is portrayed as a sauve and diabolical criminal mastermind -a spider with many webs who is proficient at what he does. Elizabeth is the pure-intentioned, law-abiding, but sometimes naive FBI agent Reddington requires to work with him. The writers do an excellent job of letting the characters develop -often subtly -through the show. The supporting cast is also well played and provides a colorful and varied backdrop to the main two protagonists’ narrative.

Conclusion:

The Blacklist portrays a world of professional criminals, and as such contains much of the macabre and sinister. However, evil is brought to justice in the end, and justice -in some form or another -reigns. However, this pattern begs the question when will Reddington’s own sins be accounted for? Offering a slightly different take on the crime show genre, The Blacklist offers an entertaining first season and engaging characters. If you are a fan of other such shows, I would definitely recommend giving it a try.

Twisted Tunes

bear_creekI tend to be a bit of a binge-listener, meaning that when I find a musician that I like, I often end up listening to them on repeat until I finally get them out of system, however long that takes. I shall point a finger at my brother for getting me started on my latest kick, “alternative country and folk rock” artist Brandi Carlile. Before this summer, I had only a passing familiarity with her. Then, my brother took me to see her in concert, and now I own three albums that have been playing on rotation for the past six months, and I am close to counting her as one of my favorite artists. I hold back from outright declaring it, however, as Carlile comes with a few messy strings attached.

Stylistically speaking, I’ve no complaints. Carlile expertly shifts between interconnected genres, bleeding from bluegrass-inspired tunes (“Raise Hell”) to sweet honky-tonk carols (“Caroline”) to rock anthems (“Mainstream Kid”) to the occasional near-on pop ballad (“Dreams”). That said, lyrically, I’ve to wrestle with what I would consider to be a fair amount of bent theology. Nevertheless, for good or ill, I find myself persevering through these elements, in favor of dwelling on Carlile’s poetical sentiments, “I know I could be spending a little too much time with you/but time and too much don’t belong together like we do” (“I Belong to You”), and on her rather pointed critiques of modern society, as seen throughout her latest album, The Firewatcher’s Daughter: “But nothing scares me more/than the stranger at my door/who I fail to give shelter, time, and worth” (“The Stranger at My Door”).

But, back to the crooked theology. I was riding the bus early one morning, with those little Apple headphones in my ears, as is the modern college student’s wont, and listening to Carlile’s fourth album, Bear Creek. In the quiet of the nearly empty bus, I had the time to really focus on the lyrics making their way into my subconscious, and thus, I reencountered a song that I hadn’t really paid much attention to before: “That Wasn’t Me.”

The catchy, gospel-style melody starts with a plea for forgiveness,

Hang on, just hang on for a minute

I’ve got something to say

I’m not asking you to move on or forget it

But these are better days

To be wrong all along and admit it, is not amazing grace

But to be loved like a song you remember

Even when you’ve changed

 which then immediately transitions into the chorus:

Tell me, did I go on a tangent?

Did I lie through my teeth?

Did I cause you to stumble on your feet?

Did I bring shame on my family?

Did it show when I was weak?

Whatever you’ve seen, that wasn’t me

That wasn’t me, oh that wasn’t me

Later, browsing the internet for clues as to the inspiration of the song, I discovered that it’s a story of a recovering addict. In fact, it was directly influenced by the healing process of one of Carlile’s friends. That makes a great deal of sense, and makes some questionable aspects of the lyrics much more understandable. However, sitting on the bus that morning, I didn’t know that. I thought that it was written from the point of view of someone like me, an ordinary damsel, with no tangible demons plaguing her. I think, perhaps, that I had had something of a hard week, which is why I found myself quite liking this sentiment, “that wasn’t me.”

I’ve gone astray many a time, and probably led others astray, and lied to get there. If that’s not bringing shame on my family, what is? I know that I show my many weaknesses time and time again, weaknesses that are too numerous to mention here. Wouldn’t it be nice to tell my friends, those I love, “that wasn’t me.” It’s a comforting refrain, and a just reason to be found innocent of a crime.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, rather, as I listened to the song again later that day, I though better of this excuse, “that wasn’t me.” You see, the dark, ugly truth is that it was me. I, sinner that I am, lie and sabotage and shame my way through this life, and my desperately wicked heart does so quite intentionally. That thing that I did, that was me. I’m sure readers can think of their own that as well, and probably a whole pile of other thats.

But what keeps me from skipping this song whenever it comes on, lest I fall prey once again to attempts at rationalization, is the last chorus:

 I wanna believe, do I make myself a blessing to everyone I meet

When you fall I will get you on your feet

Do I spend time with my family?

Did it show when I was weak?

When that’s what you’ve seen, that will be me.

When, through the grace of God, I do something that can be considered “right,” when I say something true and honorable, when I am pure, when I make something lovely and send news of good report, when I am virtuous and praiseworthy…well, it’s not quite me. I am still so weak. But it will be me, someday.

…and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.  (The Nicene Creed)

A Wonderful Life

IMG_20151215_071410

“…Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”

As a song over the radio in the bookstore plays, I sit and write. I’m sitting by a window and see the sun beam through a light morning haze, lighting up the university quad just outside. Large oaks loom over the few individuals walking in the brisk fall weather. I see a friend, in a blue plaid jacket and signature fedora, strolling in the distance, twirling his wooden walking staff, his breath condensing in the cool air.

A country song is playing now—a “bro-country” Luke Bryan song. Then another one, one that seems more heartfelt.

My thoughts wander. To the movie I watched Saturday night—It’s a Wonderful Life. To how touching I find the film—despite its age—more and more each time I see it. It is the story of George Bailey, a smart, hard-working, compassionate person who dreams of escaping his hometown of Bedford Falls and traveling the world–of living an extraordinary life. As family and business crises arise, however, George sacrifices his many dreams, one by one, to create a better life for his family and community. There’s a sadness here, yet also a beauty in George’s courage to make these sacrifices. Never being able to escape Bedford Falls–George might have identified with Belle’s song in Beauty and the Beast, “I want much more than this provincial life.”

Not only this, but the frustration, desperation, anger, and depression that George Bailey feels as his life falls apart, as he vents his frustration on his family and then realizes what he has done and begs their forgiveness. These scenes tap into some basic fears—fear of hurting others, fear of an “ordinary” life, fear of never being able to fulfill one’s dreams. George Bailey dreamed of leaving his hometown and going to a university, of traveling the world and designing high-rise buildings.

He gave up these dreams, and that’s the bitter in the bittersweetness of this film; the sweetness is George’s loving family and loyal friends. Call me a hopeless romantic (it’s true) and sentimental, but there’s a truth I find in It’s a Wonderful Life about the definition of a successful life that I need to hear more often.

Back in the bookstore, the radio is playing a barbecue advertisement. The sun is a bit higher, the mist has disappeared, and it’s almost time to go to class. It’s just another ordinary day in my life.

Gifts

Have you ever considered the gifts of the Magi?  They weren’t practical gifts, and Jesus didn’t need them.  But perhaps that was never the Magi’s intent.  The gold, frankincense, and myrrh were part of the wise men’s homage to the King of kings.  As the Christmas song “Little Drummer Boy” observes, the point of bringing gifts to Christ is to honor him, whether with gold or lambs or a song (“Little Drummer Boy”).  And perhaps some of the best gifts are like this:  not practical or reasonable, but a demonstration of one’s estimation and love of another.  In fact, this is what O. Henry’s short story “The Gift of the Magi” is about.  Della and Jim value each other more than their greatest treasures, and when they end up losing their two valued possessions because of this devotion, their love is even sweeter and more precious, for they have proven that they prize each other more than any treasure in the world.

Nativity OrnamentMore than two millennia ago, God gave the world its greatest gift:  our Lord Jesus.  To save sinners, God sent his Son to a life of humiliation and lowliness, of temptation and sorrow, of suffering and crucifixion.  By giving up Jesus to death on sinners’ behalf, God demonstrated the greatest act of love the world has ever known, “for God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (Authorized Version, John 3:16).  God’s gift is proof of how much He prizes His people.  Writing to the church in Rome, Paul says, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31b-32).

In response to God’s gift, what can Christians give?  Della and Jim sacrificed valued possessions of equal worth for each other, but nothing can equal Christ, and God already owns the universe.  Christina Rossetti’s carol “In the Bleak Midwinter” penetrates to the heart of the matter with these words, “What can I give Him, poor as I am? / If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; / If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; / Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart” (Dearmer 398).  What greater gift can one give in response to God’s love?  All people are poor and sinners, but in Christ they are rich, and in Christ their hearts are made new and alive, ready to be given away.

Works Cited

Dearmer, Percy, R. Vaughan Williams, and Martin Shaw. The Oxford Book of Carols.  New York City, New York:  Oxford University Press, 1964.

“Little Drummer Boy.”  Carols.org.uk. 18 Nov. 2015 <www.carols.org.uk/little_drummer_boy.htm>

The Holy Bible: Authorized Version.  Cambridge, England:  Cambridge University Press, n.d.  Print.

Christmas Stories

Christmas has inspired many traditions, stories, and poems which fill the season with delight – the best of which point to the original tale from Bethlehem.  The following are three lovely books that I hope my readers will find time to enjoy this December.  Above all, I recommend reading Luke 2:1-20 and the Scripture passages found in Handel’s Messiah.

An Illustrated PoemThe Night Before Christmas

I have read many of Jan Brett’s Christmas books, but only this year did I discover her illustrated version of Clement Moore’s poem “The Night Before Christmas.”  Brett’s illustrations suit this famous Christmas poem.  The pictures are full of warm, cheery colors and funny human and animal characters.  I also like how there is a second little story playing out in the pictures in the margins.

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan ToomeyA Picture Book

Despite its uninviting title, The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski and illustrated by P. J. Lynch is one of the best picture books I have ever read.  The writing style, story, and illustrations are splendid.  I especially love the onomatopoeia and parallelism that Susan Wojciechowski uses.

 

A Short Story

A Christmas Carol

Other than The Muppet Christmas Carol, I have never liked a movie version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and until this year, movies were all the experience I had with the story.  Then in February, I read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and illustrated by P. J. Lynch.

Pervading the story A Christmas Carol is an eeriness uncommon in Christmas stories.  But despite its ghosts, somber spirits, and icy-hearted main character, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a beautiful tale of character change.

Confronted with a future of death and despair by the ghost of his former business partner Jack Marley, Ebenezer Scrooge fears he will never have a chance to change his life.  Is it already too late?  If so, why did he receive a warning?  Full of desperate hope, Scrooge travels with three spirits, remembering his past, seeing his present, and passing through what could be his own future.  Each story points Scrooge to new resolutions of personal change.  With the 20-20 vision of hindsight, he views his past mistakes regretfully, understanding better what he should have been, but failed to be.  The stories from the present show him the kind people he has mistreated and turned against himself – yet another reminder of his failures.  The future reveals that Scrooge’s current path will lead to ignominy and lonely death.  What kind of man will Scrooge be remembered as?  Or will he even be remembered?

PJLynchThough there are no open references to Christianity and Dickens held a works-righteousness worldview which plays out in Scrooge’s character changes, hints of the true meaning of Christmas and the Gospel shine through.  The Ghost of Christmas Present demonstrates Christ-like attributes of mercy and the spread of goodwill.  The possibility of heart-change echoes the message of the Gospel and reminds Christians of how wonderful, undeserved, and inexplicable God’s abundant mercy is.  Even though Scrooge “saves” himself by good works and generosity, he would never have changed without outside forces acting upon him, and this is a good reminder of man’s lost condition without God’s condescending grace.  Also, the fact that Scrooge is spared when many, like Marley, were not emphasizes the truth of unconditional election.  Nothing requires God to save all men, or even any men.  But in his inscrutable love, God has chosen to spare some.

With its very own title, A Christmas Carol reveals what this story truly is:  “a song of praise or joy, especially for Christmas” (“Carol” 241).  Dickens is reminding the world of the joy, hope, and redemption that Christ brought at Christmas for sinners that are just as selfish, miserly, and lost as Ebenezer Scrooge.

Illustrator Biography

Patrick James Lynch was born in 1962 and has worked as an illustrator of children’s books since leaving Brighton College of Art in England in 1984.  He has won many awards including the Mother Goose Award, the Christopher Medal three times, and the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal on two occasions, first for The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski, and again for When Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest (“Bio”).  The Gift of the MagiIn recent years Lynch has designed posters and sets of stamps in addition to illustrating books.  P. J. Lynch has lectured on his own work and on art and illustration at the National Gallery of Ireland, The National Library of Ireland and at the National Print Museum of Ireland, as well as at numerous conferences and colleges across the U.S.  He illustrated beautiful versions of A Christmas Carol and The Gift of the Magi in 2006 and 2008 respectively.  With his gorgeous and richly-detailed paintings, P. J. Lynch makes picture books a delight to read.  P. J. Lynch lives in Dublin with his wife and their three young children (“Bio”).

Works Cited

“Bio.”  PJ Lynch.  2011.  14 Nov. 2015 <www.pjlynchgallery.com/biog.html>

“Carol.”  The American Heritage Dictionary.  2nd ed.  1985.

Jessica Jones

If any of you were fans of the Daredevil series put out by Marvel earlier this year, you have probably already heard of the recently released Jessica Jones. Although I came into this series expecting much of the same that Daredevil had delivered, I was surprised to find a new, but fascinating, superhero story told in the style of a psychological thriller. Featuring characters that drive the story and a narrative that is suspenseful, Jessica Jones proffers a show  that will give those tired of over-the-top action films a chance to come back to the superhero genre.

Characters:

JessicaJones  Jessica Jones is the, you guessed it, main protagonist of the show. She is a former superhero who has traded a life of using her powers to police New York City for the more reclusive life of a private investigator. With an abusive past that is gradually revealed through the show, the series paints a picture of someone trying to initially run away from her problems, and then turn to face her demons, not only for herself, but for her friends. The supporting cast for the tv show is absolutely superb, and I would say that the way the writers make use of all the characters surpasses the job they did with Daredevil. There are no two-dimensional characters in this show, for even the cast that play only insignificant roles come across with realism – the writers make the best of each line of dialogue and action to give information to the viewer. As a result, the show is rich with depth. Characters such as Trish, Luke Cage the bar owner, and Malcom the druggie from down the hall, are interesting to watch, and they come across as sympathetic and relatable. However, in addition to Jessica herself, the villain, Kilgrave, is probably the most fascinating part of the show. Played by David Tennant, Kilgrave is a complex and intriguing, though insidious, character. However, more on him in the next section…

Story:

Kilgrave
Kilgrave

Jessica Jones continues the trend of telling a dark and twisted story much like its earlier sibling. However, unlike Daredevil, Jessica Jones is notably less violent, and plays out much more like a psychological thriller than traditional action show. That being said, the show features an arguably darker story line than its predecessor. I will admit that I doubted David Tennant as a villain when I first saw him listed on the cast. However, he executes the role flawlessly. Kilgrave’s ‘power’ is the ability to control people. He can tell somebody to perform an action, and they comply without question. Throughout the series Tennant does a masterful job of capturing the insidiousness of his character: a man who can get whatever he wants and is willing to manipulate those around him to his own ends. This leads to some grim and twisted moments throughout the series, and is why I consider Jessica Jones to be a much darker story than Daredevil.

Conclusion:

So should you watch Jessica Jones? That is going to depend on a few factors. The story is much darker than its earlier sibling, but I don’t know that I would categorize this as a fault. Certainly it may require a certain mood to want to actually sit down and watch, but good tales can be told with both happy and dark narratives. However, at least for me, the bigger factor is that it contains strong sexual content (of which Daredevil had none). That being said, I personally found it to be an entertaining and refreshing approach to the superhero genre, and after talking to others I would say that the biggest draw for the show are the characters: they have depth, they feel real, and their backstories, actions, and emotions are masterfully played out in a meaningful way. If you are looking for a dark and suspenseful thriller, or just a break from the flashy superhero films, look no further.