When I was in 6th grade, I played Evangelist the Narrator in a musical stage adaptation of Pilgrim’s Progress. If I remember clearly what became a famous family story, I was sick in bed with a terrible fever, but I was determined that “the show must go on,” so I went to school and survived the play, then collapsed in a sweat in the front row.

In 6th Grade, I played Evangelist alongside Karl Hutchinson’s Pilgrim’s Progress protagonist Christian at Portland Christian High School.

I haven’t thought of that story for a long time.

But it came up in an unexpected place this week… on one of my favorite podcasts.

You’ll find the evidence in this week’s return to the Looking Closer ritual of “The Weekender” — a catch-all post of highlights from my past week.


Apparently, a lot of my closest friends are “Veterans of Culture Wars”

In one of the most surreal twists of my recent experience, one of my favorite podcasts — Veterans of Culture Wars, with Zach Malm and Dave Lester — posted back-to-back episodes featuring two of the friends who have influence and inspired me most:

  • Special guest Special guest Alissa Wilkinson.

I got to know Alissa online before we met in person. We were publishing film reviews in some of the same places and exchanged notes about films. We eventually met in-person for the first time (if I recall correctly) at the Glen Workshop — we’ve both led seminars there several times — and she’s the one who (in a cruel irony) introduced me for a film-focused lecture at the International Arts Movement (when it really should have been the other way around).  She also stepped in to revise and revolutionize Christianity Today‘s film coverage after my long tenure there as the “Film Forum” columnist and a member of their review team. Today, she’s showing everyone how it’s done as the film critic for Vox.com, and her brand new book Salty is winning rave reviews. Alissa earned her master’s in creative writing (creative nonfiction, with the same mentors who taught me in the program) at Seattle Pacific University.

  • Special guest Jon Smart. 

You’ve got to hear this conversation. It’s a fascinating exploration of faith: the honest-to-goodness life of faith, which is an ongoing challenge of struggle and doubt and change as we wrestle with ongoing revelations, not the unimaginative, legalistic, judgmental charade of “certainty” that passes for cultural Christianity.

Jon is a fellow I’ve known since 6th Grade at Portland Christian Elementary School, studied with, played basketball with, and acted in plays with — including a spoof of “Cinderella” which I wrote and directed, and in which he played the Fairy Godfather, and a musical version of Pilgrim’s Progress called Enchanted Journey, in which I was the narrator called Evangelist and Jon was Pilgrim’s best friend — the aptly named Faithful. During our senior year of high school, Jon would became one of my closest friends and fellow enthusiast for the music of Bob Dylan and Bruce Cockburn. Jon was the Best Man when Anne and I were married in 1996. And, as I was glad to discover last year, he’s still one of the best road-tripping companions I could ask for. (I was hiking with Anne and Jon back in 1995 when I first had the inspiration to write Auralia’s Colors.) So, when the VCW podcast’s scheduled guest canceled, they decided to do “an experiment” and invited a listener to volunteer as their next guest. They gave the spot to Jon.

And I love this episode. It reminds me of the kinds of challenging and enlightening conversations I’ve had with Jon for decades.

Who’s next? Will the next VoCW visitor be a friend of mine too?

What I think about whenever I see “evangelicals” complaining about “CRT” (a concept they can rarely define with any accuracy)

The Gospel is good news for the oppressed and the enslaved.

The Gospel was the basis and inspiration of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King as he preached salvation and spoke out against America’s ongoing history of racism and violence, legacies of hate that directly contradict Jesus’s teachings.

Thus, when Republicans and “evangelicals” falsely label such truth-telling as “CRT” and campaign to criminalize it, they are actively opposing the redemptive advancement of God’s Truth in the world.

And God is paying attention.

The antiChrist agendas of so many Americans, including so many professing evangelicals, can sometimes drag me to the edge of despair. It’s relentlessly discouraging to see so many of the professing Christians who taught me to love Jesus so flagrantly and consistently contradicting those teachings in the name of fear, white supremacy, and Christian nationalism.

But Easter reminds me that Christ is already victorious over these lies and liars. And in the Big Picture, those who suffer the harms of such campaigns will be lifted up and revealed as Christ’s beloved. No amount of political corruption or hate-driven propaganda can change that.

Philip Yancey’s award-acceptance speech at Wheaton are well worth reading

It’s harder and harder to find American Christians who identify as “evangelicals” advancing anything that resembles the Gospel.

But Philip Yancey has been a reliable voice of wisdom for me since high school.

He was just honored with Wheaton’s Alumnus of the Year award, and his acceptance speech has some highlights worth reading.

Here’s an excerpt:

President George W. Bush used to talk about an axis of evil. I grew up in an axis of fundamentalist insanity. But I found an axis of evangelical sanity—people like Wheaton, Intervarsity, Billy Graham ’43 Litt.D. ’56, John Stott, Fuller Seminary. And Wheaton, we need you in these divisive times. The word “evangelical” is increasingly becoming a bad word. But it’s one I still cling to. I was with Walter Kim, of Korean descent, who’s head of the National Association of Evangelicals. He had just returned from a conference. I think there were 70 countries involved and only one person was invited from each country, so only one American among the 70. They ganged up on Kim and said, “We understand ‘evangelical’ is a bad word in the United States. Well, it’s not where I live. When you say that word in so many countries, it brings to mind clinics and hospitals and people fighting sex trafficking and orphanages and educational institutions. You can trash the word if you want to, but we’re keeping it because it means good news.”

Here in the United States, we’re so media-driven. Mostly that word has a political connotation. It’s a lens. It’s an either-or: Which side are you on? The center in divisive times is so hard to hold. When you build a bridge, you get walked on from both sides, as people at Wheaton know.

We need not an either-or faith; we need a both-and faith. John said that Jesus came full of grace and truth. A lot of people work hard in the truth department. Some people work hard in the grace department. Few people I know work hard in both. We need people who combine unity and diversity, as Jesus taught us. Evangelicals haven’t done that very well, historically. We need someone to show us the importance of both action and contemplation, the importance of this life, and also the importance of the next life, in a floundering culture that keeps widening the gulf between them.

Linford Detweiler shares a prayer composed by Teilhard de Chardin

“Patient Trust,” a poem by Teilhard de Chardin, is a prayer I should memorize.

It’s included in an extraordinary collection of prayers called Hearts on Fire: Praying with Jesuits. I have a copy that I carry with me everywhere. And yet, when I stumbled across it on Facebook this week, it stopped me in my tracks.

I’m so glad that Linford Detweiler brought it back into my life.

Allison Russell’s TED Talk is here

Allison Russell recorded my favorite album of 2021 and put on my favorite concert of 2021.

Now, she’s done a TED Talk.