TEN YEARS! Pt. 1: The Best of Looking Closer – 2004

On April 27, 2004, I heard a song that reminded me of why I spend so much time working on this website.

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The song reminded me of why I found such joy,  and solace in writing stories and drawing pictures as a child. It reminded me of why I spent my university years at Seattle Pacific studying how beauty and imagination can help us receive God’s glory more fully and reflect it back to him and to others through art.

The song reminded me that when the world wears me out (and, sometimes, when I wear out the world) … truth, beauty, and mystery will nourish me in ways that nothing else can. It reminded me of why I strive to pursue those things in art, rather than chasing after honors or money or somebody else’s approval or the promise of a well-funded retirement.

The song reminded me of why I take so much pleasure in sharing with others those flickers of beauty and truth and grace I discover, through writing, teaching, and yes, blogging. This week we’ve been reminded that the Internet is a great place for expressing contempt; for sharing the bad news; for sharing collective exasperation at the things other people do and say.  (Can you believe Sarah Palin? Donald Sterling? Cliven Bundy?)

But the Internet is also an opportunity to reflect light to one another.

The song I’m talking about — from Sam Phillips’ album A Boot and a Shoe — is called “Reflecting Light.” The song comes late in an album about heartbreak, about divorce, about the death of something. People will disappoint you. They’ll use you and betray you. They’ll care about how you benefit them, not about what’s best for you. Not all of them, but many of them. Not all the time, but much of the time. And worse, if you’re not careful, you’ll do the same to others and yourself.

But beauty — in nature, in imagination, in art — whispers to us in the voice of the Spirit that we are not forgotten. Beauty, the language of God, tells us we are not unloved. We are not lost. We are not unforgiven. Beauty calls us to take risks, to do what we were born to do, to be what we were born to be. And if we can’t — if the world gets in the way — beauty gives us sustenance and consolation. That’s what happens in the song “Reflecting Light.” In the middle of so much darkness and sadness, it shines like a beacon.

And on that week in April 2004, when the album arrived, it inspired me.

At that time, I was converting my disorganized, poorly edited homemade website — Looking Closer — into a blog.

I was still dreaming of sharing my stories with the world. I was still dreaming that I might use what I had learned in my studies at SPU — studies about faith and imagination — in pursuit of something grand.

And as I worked, Phillips’ album was the soundtrack.

Some of you may have been reading in early 2004, way back when my amateur website had a header that looked like this…

Fortunately, I would move on to better haircuts… and a better way of working online.

My work on that basic site had already led to surprising opportunities — I’d been invited to join Christianity Today as their film critic (they wouldn’t expand to hire a full team of critics for a few years yet) and to contribute reviews to Paste as well. But I’d been stumbling through the basics of website design. Every review or commentary or news update that I added was a precarious and time-consuming endeavor… and I was doing these things on evenings and weekends… “after work.” Switching to a blog platform seemed like the best way to give up some of the tedious maintenance and move to more frequent, productive, creative posts. It was the right decision. The convenience of it, and the tech support from experts, freed me up to do more work… and better work.

Ten years later, I am amazed at how this little website — as thrown together as it is — has changed my life and given me so many reasons for gratitude. It brought me an opportunity to share my stories with the world. And it has inspired invitations for me to teach creative writing and classes about art and film… at universities, churches, workshops, and conferences all over the place. I remain boggled and blessed by these adventures.

I strive, at Looking Closer, to maintain a certain posture — “I’m on my knees in fascination / looking through the night … reflecting light.” It’s not my light, after all. Nor is it yours. We’re meant to share it. As the Sunday school song goes: “Hide it under a bushel? No.”

I want to go on doing this. I want to do more of it. I want to be better at it. Wherever that takes me. Who knows what will happen? Lyrics from the very same song make me ready for change, whenever God should call on me: “Give up the ground under your feet / Hold on to nothing for good…

I could do this without you, but that would be a miserable experience. Readers of Looking Closer — over the last ten years, you have given me a place that feels like home, where I can celebrate imagination and beauty in the company of others who see the value in it. You’ve reflected light to me… through heavy and dark and disappointing times. I’m grateful to you, and I’m grateful to the One who is the source of all light.

Eventually (in 2008), I heard Sam Phillips admit that “Reflecting Light” is her favorite of all of her songs. She played it during a short bookstore appearance in Redmond, Washington. Here’s a video of that performance…

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This blog turns ten years old on May 11, 2014. And this post is part of a ten-post series in which I’ll reflect on some of my favorite experiences from Looking Closer’s first decade.

Here’s a look back at 15 highlights from 2004, the year that this blog began…

  1. The First Post.
  2. Referring readers to the Newsweek interview with Madeleine L’Engle (who was feeling even more unruly than usual).
  3. Responding to an email about profanity.
  4. Noting the predictably furious response of Christian media personalities to the movie Saved!
  5. Announcing 2004′s Arts & Faith Top 100 “Spiritually Significant” Films.
  6. Sharing a personal milestone: I’d been published in Image for the first time.
  7. Protesting video players that censor movies as we watch them.
  8. Noting, with mixed feelings, the mention of my work in TIME magazine.
  9. In which I interviewed Flannery O’Connor.
  10. Linking to my interview with Dana Gioia, who was then the head of the NEA.
  11. My wild and crazy interview with David O. Russell, director of American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook, and I Heart Huckabees.
  12. Reviewing The Incredibles — That was fun.
  13. Quoting Philip Pullman.
  14. Linking to Kate Bowman at Catapult Magazine about changes in the way Christians engage the movies.
  15. Linking to Luke Reinsma’s article about Silence, the novel by Shusaku Endo.

My favorite films of 2004? The list has changed considerably from what it was back then. I continue to update my annual lists as time passes, but here’s the current ranking:

Danny Boyle’s “Millions” — Looking Closer’s #1 films of 2004.

  1. Millions
  2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  3. The Incredibles
  4. 2046 
  5. The Motorcycle Diaries
  6. Birth
  7. Before Sunset
  8. Born Into Brothels
  9. Tony Takitani
  10. Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow


A Boot and a Shoe remains my favorite record of 2004. Here’s my original reviewwhich I wrote just before I met Sam Phillips for the first time.

If you’ve been reading my blog for long, you know very well that she’s been an inspiration to me since high school. There would be no Looking Closer, no Through a Screen Darkly, no Auralia’s Colors,  without her influence. I’m grateful.

You can revisit my full list of 2004 musical favorites here.

And, if you’ve scrolled down this far, let me thank you for your attention with some music… a few of the songs I still play the most from 2004.

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