Archive for November, 2011

As you might have read, we are compiling a list of some of our favorite Christmas Flicks this Thursday and Friday.  We hope that you stop back by in the next couple of days and check that out.  We also hope that you share some of your favorite Christmas films with the rest of the Reel Thinking community.

Instead of reading our top films and then compiling your list, we thought it would be good to go ahead and hear from you.  Please comment below and let us know what some of your favorite Christmas films are.  Our lists are already compiled (I selected 10), so your comments are not going to alter our posts in any way.  So go ahead and share some of those films you love to watch around the Christmas season.

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And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. (Matthew 5:30)

There has been much talk about Danny Boyle’s Oscar-nominated film 127 Hours [2010], which was based on the true life story of an adventurer, named Aron Ralston [James Franco], who was forced to amputate his own arm after a rock pins him in Bluejohn Canyon. Most of the talk I had read and heard centered on ‘the scene’. The scene I’m obviously referring to is the scene depicting Aron cutting off his own arm. There have been reports of people vomiting, passing out (I actually knew a guy who did) and theaters putting up signs warning people about the graphic nature of ‘the scene’ – I’ve watched the movie twice and still haven’t been able to watch the entire scene.

All of that to say, my thoughts about the film had been focused on that scene, so I wasn’t prepared for how much I actually liked and appreciated this film. In my opinion, 127 Hours was the best picture of 2010 – with The Social Network in a very close second. Boyle’s direction of this film was amazing. To take a story where the main actor is in complete isolation for the majority of the film and tell it in a way that is intriguing, exciting, emotional and celebratory, that is a feat many directors (and actors for that matter) would shy away from. However, that was the main reason Boyle said he wanted to tell the story, because of the challenge it presented.

127 Hours is a film that resonates with anyone who has a pulse, because the theme of love and community are central to the story. Wesley Hill wrote an excellent article at Ransom Fellowship, dealing with those themes, but I wanted to focus on another aspect of this film.

Aron Ralston is a self-professed, “Big, hard, hero who can do everything on his own.” At the opening of the film we have flashes of scenes depicting crowds of people together, but Ralston is seeking isolation. He lets his phone go to voicemail, he passes a group of bike riders, and as he enters Bluejohn he exclaims, “Just me, my music and the night, love it!” He is a narcissistic loner who thinks he doesn’t need anyone else.

It’s interesting that Ralston runs into two other hikers, who are lost, and ironically exclaims, “You’re lost, I’m a guide, I’m good.” He is essentially telling these two hikers, ‘You need help from another person.’ In actuality, Ralston is lost and he needs help from other people, but he doesn’t see that his modus operandi completely contradicts what he exclaims to these hikers. He is enslaved to his idol of independence.

We make idols out of anything and everything. As John Calvin once said, ‘Our hearts are idol factories’ continuing to crank out new ones each and every day. Ralston’s idol of independence goes against the fact that we have been created in the image of a Triune God. Our Heavenly Father, however, graciously surfaces our idols causing us to make war with them.

God speaks to us through creation (general revelation) and Ralston’s character greatly appreciates the creation – rubbing his hands on rocks and taking pictures of creation – but misses the Creator behind it. It wasn’t until God used his creation to pin Ralston to a wall that he finally listened. In essence, God is saying, “You want isolation? You want self-sufficiency? I’ll give it to you.” Ultimately, God gave Ralston exactly what he wanted – isolation and independence. One of the scariest things God can do is give us what we want. Ralston had made his independence an ultimate thing, so God gave him over to that in order to show him his need. (For more on this, see Romans 1:18-32.)

At a crucial point in the film, Ralston reflects on this reality. He realizes God’s eternal wisdom and his own rebellion towards him.

You know, I’ve been thinking. Everything is… just comes together. It’s me. I chose this. I chose all this. This rock… this rock has been waiting for me my entire life. It’s entire life, ever since it was a bit of meteorite a million, billion years ago. In space. It’s been waiting, to come here. Right, right here. I’ve been moving towards it my entire life. The minute I was born, every breath that I’ve taken, every action has been leading me to this crack on the surface.

Initially he fought against the rock, screaming, “This is insane!” He cursed the rock, hit the rock, begged for freedom, he even began chipping away at it, only to realize his actions actually caused the rock to rest more securely on his arm. All of his independence was fighting the rock, but the rock was fighting his independence. In the end, the rock won.

The sustaining power for Ralston in the canyon were memories; memories with other people. He reflects on time with friends and family during those excruciating 127 hours. As he’s leaving his last will and testament on his video camera, he says:

Mom, Dad, I really love you guys. I wanted to take this time to say the times we’ve spent together have been awesome. I haven’t appreciated you in the way I know I could. Mom, I love you. I wish I’d returned all of your calls, ever. I really have lived this last year. I wish I had learned some lessons more astutely, more rapidly, than I did. I love you. I’ll always be with you.

It is this desire – to love and to be loved – that shatters his idol. As he imagines a fake interview with himself he makes the statement to himself, “Your supreme selfishness is our gain.” He has been a selfish person who has not loved others as he should have loved them. In the end, he has a vision of another life, a life with a family that enables him to give away the love he had been hoarding for himself.

While the amputation scene is one of the most graphic scenes in film history, it is not done for exploitative reasons. Not only does the graphic nature of that scene emotionally pull you into the film causing you to, somewhat, feel what Ralston felt, it also depicts that he understood the error of his ways. The one thing he loved the most was himself. The cutting away of his arm, was cutting away at his root sin, rendering him dependent for the rest of his life.

As he finally severs his own arm, he looks up and says, “Thank you.” In a sense, realizing it wasn’t his own strength that caused him to do this, rather it was the love of God which enabled him to let go of his idol. When Aron climbs out of the canyon and screams, “Help me!”, it’s interesting to see that three people come to rescue him. I’m not saying this was the intent of the filmmakers, but it was reminiscent of the Trinity and it was interesting that a Father and Son were two of the three present.

This reminded me that true mortification of our sin/idols is not a work of man, but of God. The Father placed his love on us, the Son accomplished that through his perfect work and the Spirit enables us to kill the sin in our life. I’m not sure if Aron Ralston is a Christian, but this deeply afflicting trial in his life illustrates some Scriptural truths.

While I caution many viewers about the graphic scene in which Aron amputates his own arm, I would say this is a film that communicates deep theological truths. It shows us the love and design of community God has placed in our lives, the utter dependence we have on Him, the need to kill our idols for survival and the ways in which we must be others-minded in our lives. This film, I believe, will be a timeless one that is discussed for many years to come.

Christmas Flicks

Posted: November 28, 2011 by jperritt in Seasonal

On Mondays at Reel Thinking we typically have our weekly Snapshots, but we’re changing that this week for a couple of reasons. First, there truly aren’t any noteworthy films being released this week. There are some limited release films that will be discussed elsewhere, but we didn’t think you’d care about them. Secondly, with Christmas right around the corner, we wanted to discuss some of our favorite Christmas films we watch each year. Therefore, be sure and come back Thursday to check out John Perritt’s favorite Christmas flicks and then stop by again on Friday to hear about Emilio Garofalo’s.

Also, because we care so much about our readers, we would LOVE to hear back from you. Please comment on the posts and let us know if you agree or disagree with our favorite Christmas flicks. Please add to the lists we compile and share some of your favorites with the other Reel Thinkers that stop by each week.

We will also have our regular Spinning the Reel post on Tuesday, but it has nothing to do with Christmas. Even so, come back tomorrow and hear our thoughts on 127 Hours.

Book Reviews Middle Readers Picture Books

By his own account, Brian Selznick spent six months in a funk before coming across the seminal idea forThe Invention of Hugo Cabret. An award-winning illustrator of children’s novels and biographies, he couldn’t see his career going anywhere until he came across a bit of trivia about George Miletes, one of the pioneers of early cinema: it seems the man collected automata (moving mechanical figures) for much of his life, then discarded them. A story idea was born, and eventually, a new way to tell stories. “New” is relative—supposedly there is nothing such under the sun. But Selnick’s way to combining pictures and words to make a chunky volume topping 500 pages is neither graphic novel nor flip book not picture book. Even calling it heavily illustrated is misleading, for illustrations only accompany a story. Selznick’s illustrations actually tell the story, for page after wordless page alternating with sections of text.
He’s done it twice now: The Invention of Hugo Cabret won the Caldecott medal (generally awarded for picture books) in 2009, but it could just as easily have won the Newbery medal. The day before Thanksgiving, Hugo, directed by no less than Martin Scorcese, will open in theaters nation-wide, which will bump up sales and attention even further. Last summer,Wonderstruck, Selznick’s second novel done in a similar style (only even longer), hit the bookstores and immediately muscled its way to the top of the best-seller lists. The man seems to be on to something, and the books are certainly worth reviewing.
Hugo Cabret, of The Invention, is an orphan boy living in the hidden passageways of Paris’s Central Railway station, keeping up the clocks as his alcoholic uncle (now missing) taught him to do. In between making his rounds and observing the city from behind clock faces, Hugo is working on a project: to restore an automaton rescued by his late father from a museum rubbish heap. In quest of parts, he sometimes steals small mechanical toys from a kiosk in the station. When the elderly shopkeeper catches him and confiscates his priceless notebook, Hugo makes an antagonistic alliance with the man’s goddaughter, Isabelle, to get it back. In between bickering and getting into trouble, they uncover intriguing clues to the old man’s past, leading to the discovery of his past career as an inventor. Not just a dabbler in old technology, represented by the automatons, but also pioneer of a new technology that took the world by storm.
I won’t give the ending away, even though to my mind it didn’t quite deliver on the intriguing questions raised at the beginning. In fact, absent the Wow! factor of the cinematic format, the story itself is rather simple. I say “cinematic” because the drawings—from the dashed and hasty to the richly detailed and textured—work exactly the way a camera does: to build tension, to bridge the action, to foreshadow events, to frame themes and symbols. Even the text pages are bordered in black, like individual frames of film. (The author comes by his camera instincts honestly, being a first cousin twice removed of David O. Sezlnick, legendary producer of Gone With the Wind and other Hollywood classics.)
The story takes place in 1931 but harks back to an earlier day: late 19th century, a high noon of mechanical accomplishment. The automaton is a central figure, seen by Hugo sees as the bearer of a message that “was going to save his life.” Hugo is shown looking out from behind clock faces as though he, with his antique clothes and shaggy hair, has been left behind while the world moves on without him. Is there a place for him? His mechanical bent gives him an answer of sorts. Gazing out over the nightscape of Paris, he tells Isabelle, “. . . if the world is a big machine I have to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too.” It also implies that someone has created the machine, but we don’t go there.
That’s as close as Hugo Cabret comes to a worldview, and it probably points to a being, force, purpose outside the sphere of earthly time just as Hugo is outside the flow of Paris life. Eventually he finds his place and his purpose, and that’s a good thing—but regarding the Purpose behind the purpose we have no clue. And just what is the “invention” of Hugo Cabret? The mechanical wonders in the story are all inventions of someone else. Hugo takes credit for the book: “These words.” Does that mean we automatons are fearfully and wonderfully made? Or that we have the power to create our own reality?
Wonderstruck includes the scene of new friends gazing out over the night sky, a life-to-scale reproduction, and lots of movie references, but it tells two stories instead of just one. The first begins in 1977, where Ben Wilson has grown up with a single mom and her sisters’ family in a hunters’ paradise in the north woods: Gunflint Lake, Minnesota. But his mom was recently killed in an auto accident and his uncle is wanting to sell the house he grew up in—looming displacement. During a lightning storm, Ben finds a clue to his father’s identity—a telephone number. He picks up the phone to call the number just as lightning strikes and renders him deaf in his other ear (he was already deaf in one). Waking up in the hospital, he determines to run away to New York City, where his father may still live, and . . .
Hoboken, New Jersey, 1928: Rose, a deaf child, lives in a world of silence enlivened by the movies. But that’s soon to change with the introduction of talking pictures, and her dismay is poignant—once again she will be cut off from her chief connection with the hearing world. Learning that her favorite movie star will be appearing in Broadway play, Rose runs away to New York City, where . . .
Ben and Rose are separated by fifty years but connected by a disability and a sense of displacement—and more, as it will turn out. His story, told in prose, and hers, in pictures, are intercut in the Selznick trademark way that’s so striking it disguises flaws in the story. Juvenile displacement, as we’ve seen, is a favorite theme of his, and a valid one—we can all relate to some degree. Underlying connections and discovered relationships are great plot devices but they stretch a little thin when trying to connect the dots of Deaf culture, silent movies, wolves, the American Museum of Natural History, dioramas, lightning, Grand Murais, “Major Tom,” stars, meteorites, the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, the 1977 NYC blackout, and museums in general. At times the story feels like it was assembled from a grab bag of the author’s latest interests and shoehorned into the noble theme of “wonder.” I could see no reason for the secret identity of Rose’s mother, which promises to be more significant than it turns out. Ben’s mother is presented as a free spirit (1977, remember?) but she strikes me as selfish for not telling him about his father. No good reason not to, except that she seemed to want the boy as her own personal possession. Ben’s relationship with Jamie, a boy he meets in the city, is too coincidental and too rushed; Jamie’s need is so intense it’s almost creepy.
The writing is more than capable, even striking at times: “It was as if someone had cut out the dream from his head and put it behind glass”; “Ben wished the world was organized by the Dewey Decimal System. That way you’d be able to find whatever you were looking for . . .” As in Hugo Cabret, the pictures are an endless source of understanding. A kid could spend hours noticing how they focus attention visually and reference each other from one page to the next.
Taken together, Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck remind me of Marshall McLuhan’s saying about the Medium being the message: novels that are perhaps too enamored of their format to deliver coherent stories. But still worth a look, especially for the budding illustrator who could learn a lot about how pictures convey meaning.

Our friends at Redeemed Reader have been doing some great work for a while now, so we wanted to let others know about them. With the release of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo on Friday, we were happy to have those at RR give us some perspective on the literary side of the film. Be sure and read a bit about Janie below and be sure and make her feel welcome by coming back and checking out her post.

Janie Cheaney is a kids’ book author, Senior Writer at World Magazine and blogger with Emily Whitten at Redeemedreader.com, a website dedicated to shining a gospel light on children’s literature so that Christian parents, educators, and the children they nurture may read in a more redeemed and redeeming way.

We are glad to have Janie Cheaney, from Redeemed Reader, guest post for us on Friday.  She will be discussing the books that contribute to Martin Scorsese’s theatrical release of Hugo.  In light of that, we wanted to know if you’ve ever seen a movie that was better than the book?

***For those of you who checked out last week’s WWP, we did have a winner.  Scott Byrd, of Chicago, Illinois, won the $10 movie pass.  We will be awarding prizes periodically through our WWP, so be sure and check back***

Into the Wild

Posted: November 22, 2011 by Emilio Garofalo Neto in Action, Drama, True Story
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EDIT: It should have been made clearer in the review that this movie is not for everyone. As mentioned below, there is some brief nudity that may cause some to stumble; although it is not presented in a sexually explicit situation, but rather it is shown on passing a nudist colony in the desert (depicted as a bunch of loonies). Exercise caution; we are not suggesting you should bring the kids to watch, and not only for this, but also for strong themes of death (starvation!) and more. While we do not follow the MPAA, I agree that I should have given a little more warning.

There is a rather awesome movie that not many have seen. It is Into the Wild. The screenplay is based on the book by Jon Krakauer, that seeks to account for the final months of a man’s life. Directed by Sean Penn and with a fine, fine cast, it tells the story of a recent college graduate, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), who decides to quit normal life and go live somewhat recklessly around the US while chasing a dream of a great Alaskan adventure. Yes, he did what thousands of teens dream of doing.

I recognize that many saw the trailer and thought it was simply about a whiny dude who claimed everyone was a hypocrite and wanted out. There is some of that, but the movie is much richer than that. Please, please watch the movie. Then come back here for us to talk at length (There are some crazy nudists at some point, so you must take caution and address your heart if that’s an area of weakness – close your eyes or something).

He desired to leave civilization, with its lies, its goals, its hypocrisy. He wanted nothing of the life his parents had, the set future of security and stability. He destroyed his documents, gave away his money and went on to see the country and enjoy nature; without telling his family of his whereabouts.

In his extreme attitude one sees an over-reaction to a true problem: that of people making their lives equal with their possessions. Paul warned Timothy that those who seek stability in the riches are wrong (1 Tim 6:17-19). The Bible is serious about making the riches of the world to be our source of joy and security.

There are many themes worthy of discussing in the movie, today we will deal with one. We can look at the splendorous creation and how it serves as the theater where the human drama unfolds. Stunning views from all sorts of landscapes dominate the screen and it really takes a rebel heart not to worship God.

Before I proceed, treat yourself to Eddie Vedder’s song Rise with scenes from the movie. Expect spoilers after the video.

One of the themes is the search for happiness. And therein lies the tragedy of the movie. In a series of true and delightful encounters, he bonds with very good friends. A couple living in Slab City, a man in South Dakota, a girl with a puppy who is into him (Kristen Stewart, before you know what), an elderly man who becomes almost a new father and who actually wishes to adopt him (the astonishing Hal Holbrook). Throughout the movie Chris looks for joy and meaning, while it is standing right in front of him and waving goodbye. At a certain point, Chris, sounding rather like Yoda, says, “You don’t need human relationships to be happy, God has placed it all around us. ” Well, there is a little bit of truth in it, but the saying is rather wrong. It is not an either/or situation; God made us in his image to relate to other people and to creation in fellowship under his guidance and law; no man is an island, as another poet said.

Chris eventually makes it to Alaska and begins to really live in the wild. There he has to gather food and to seek shelter in an old bus. He goes through great, and heart-breaking experiences (the hunting one is sad to no end). He loses a lot of weight and things begin to go seriously wrong. Nobody is totally sure of what happened, but at some point it seems that Chris ingested a kind of berry that slowed his digestive system to a crawl. He tried to head back to civilization but was too weak to do it. His diary annotations became more frantic and delirious. Eventually Chris dies, and it is heartbreaking to review flashes of all the good friends he left behind. Before dying he trembling wrote in his diary: “Happiness is only real when shared.” Near the end he may have realized that all the time he had what he wanted. He met happiness in many places and in many forms, yet he seemed to think it was always in the next corner and away from people. But happiness is one of the things that is better shared than when we try to keep it to ourselves. That way it rots. The Bible teaches us that God in his common grace gives joy even to unbelievers (Acts 14:17). It is to their condemnation that they fail to see it.

Like the Gospel, the joy comes in knowing that it connects, reconciles and frees us to love God, neighbor and nature. That it is better when shared, talked about, lived out, sung and enjoyed. It is not something we can hold on to and expect to go unspoiled.  Like life, like creation, like joy, like time, like yourself. Love is giving and sharing, love is imitating God’s gracious movement towards the others, even when they are undeserving hypocrites; there is joy in it. It is a gift to be given away.

Snapshots

Posted: November 21, 2011 by jperritt in Snapshots
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snap·shot – a brief appraisal, summary, or profile.

Every Monday we hope to provide our readers with snapshots of films being released for the upcoming weekend. This will be a brief summary of films that will assist our readers in the area of discernment. Instead of searching other sites and reading lengthy articles, it’s our hope to provide a concise list of all the films of the weekend in one consolidated post. If you wonder why we don’t list the MPAA ratings, please click here.

  • Hugo – An orphan, who lives in a train station, gets caught up in a mystery that involves his father. Genre – family, action, comedy, adventure; content – action and peril.
  • The Muppets – The Muppets reunite with some fans in order to save their old theater from a greedy business man. Genre – family, comedy, action, adventure; content – rude humor.
  • Arthur Christmas – Santa’s youngest son wants to use his father’s high-tech gear for a mission to deliver the last Christmas present. Genre – family, comedy, drama; content – mild rude humor.
  • A Dangerous Method – A look at how Sigmund Frued developed psychoanalysis. Genre – drama, thriller; content – sexual content and language.
  • The Artist – A silent movie-star wonders if talking pictures will be the end of his career…spoiler: they will. Genre – drama, romance, comedy; content – adult themes.

Amoral, moralistic, and biblical film reviewing | Marvin Olasky

I watched Saving Private Ryan recently, and was impressed with it all over again. This DVD viewing, though, reminded me of a firefight sparked by WORLD’s review of the film (Aug. 8, 1998) when it was playing in theaters.

Many letters that we printed took WORLD to task for praising a film that contained graphic violence. They forced me to think about what Christian film reviewers should do, if they share with me the fundamental assumption that Christians should not live in a cultural ghetto, and should develop points of contact with the non-Christians who surround us.

I respect Christians who want to isolate themselves from the world, but my models are Daniel and Paul, both of whom displayed knowledge of the pagan poetry and theology that surrounded them. Within that context, I’d suggest that reviews have three functions. They should help readers decide whether to see something that sounds appealing. They should give readers some sense of the pictures that are dancing through the heads of our fellow citizens. They should summarize and biblically critique the worldviews of our key cultural teachers.

The triple task makes the reviewer’s job hard. He has to be both a regent (standing in for readers as their eyes and ears) and a teacher. He needs the discernment to bring out theological implications and the lightheartedness to enjoy movies that aren’t theological treatises. He needs the ability to look at what other people see but then see it more deeply through adept use of a biblical lens.

Along with the triple task, a Christian reviewer should understand a triple distinction: amoral, moralistic, and biblical. Many reviewers today are amoral, worshipping sensation for sensation’s sake, reveling in slow-motion murder and fast-talking obscenity, not even paying attention to whether films and programs glorify evil. That’s sub-Christian reviewing.

A second group of reviewers are moralistic: They appropriately attack the amoral but then push smiley-faced films that preach faith in man’s natural goodness. These reviewers criticize amoral destruction but don’t note how the subtle sapping of moralism can be even more effective in keeping us from seeing our need for God’s grace. They roll over for smarmy products designated as “uplifting”-but uplift apart from Christ is idolatry.

Christian reviewers should be neither amoral nor moralistic. They should be Bible-centered in their search for films that help us to comprehend evil and the need to fight it. Christians disagree on the extent to which films need to depict man’s depravity and sin’s consequences, but truthful films often are not nice, just as Christianity is not a nice religion: Priests used hyssop to spray the blood of sacrifices on the people in Moses’ time, and Christ had to shed his blood, not just preach, to pay for our sin.

The hard reality of biblical faith distinguishes it from the spongecake of theological liberalism. And that brings me back to Saving Private Ryan, a powerful film that starts with a bloody D-Day. Some of the violence is so intense that lots of people will want to skip it. And yet, the showing of violence in a world filled with evil is not evil itself, as long as it does not make killing people look like fun – and this film makes it look appropriately horrible.

Further: the theology suggested at the end of the film can open up good discussion. One dying soldier’s last words to the man whose life he and others saved, at great cost, are “Earn this. Earn it.” Then we fast-forward half a century: The man who was saved, now old, is in a cemetery, hobbling to a cross that commemorates his savior. The old man fights back tears to say, “I lived my life the best I could. I hope that was enough.”

That’s the question: Has the old man “earned it”? He turns to his wife and pleads, “Tell me I’m a good man.” His wife says, “You are”-and we see his children and grandchildren behind him. The gospel according to director Stephen Spielberg is evident: We can pay for the life that’s been given us by our good works-although we’re never sure if we’ve done enough.

That’s provocative in itself, and even more important is the shadow lurking at the end of Saving Private Ryan: the mystery of grace offered by a man dying for us. Maybe some of us can discuss with non-Christian moviegoers how Christianity alone brings into harmonious tension the earning and the gift.

We have rolled out the red carpet a few times at Reel Thinking, and we’re doing it again.  Tomorrow we add Dr. Marvin Olasky to the honorable guests who have been gracious enough to blog here.  Take a moment to read a bit about him below and be sure to check out his post tomorrow.

Marvin Olasky is editor-in-chief of World magazine and holder of the Distinguished Chair in Journalism and Public Policy at Patrick Henry College. He is the author of 24 books, including Compassionate ConservatismThe Religions Next DoorAbortion RitesFighting for Liberty and VirtueProdigal Press, and The Tragedy of American Compassion, which Philanthropy magazine deemed one of “eight books that changed America.”

Dr. Olasky earned an A.B. from Yale University in 1971 and a Ph.D. in American Culture from the University of Michigan in 1976. He has been married for 35 years, has four sons, and is an elder of the Presbyterian Church in America. He has written 2,600 articles for publications ranging from World to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post

Dr. Olasky was a professor at the University of Texas for two decades and provost of The King’s College from 2007 to 2011. He is also a senior fellow of the Acton Institute and has chaired the boards of City School of Austin and the Austin Crisis Pregnancy Center. He has been a foster parent, a PTA president, a cross-country bicycle rider, a newspaper reporter, an informal advisor to Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush, and a Little League assistant coach.