Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Paste Magazine: Signs of Life Everywhere

I was a big fan of Paste Magazine from the first issue I read several years back. Their tagline, "Signs of Life in Music, FIlm, and Culture" has always struck a chord with me. I was very sad to learn that they had to stop printing the magazine last year due to financial issues. However, through their website and somewhat newly installed mPlayer, their reviews and articles are still very much alive and well.

From the latest issue of mPlayer, the editor Josh Jackson wrote an article that conveys so much of what I love about the magazine. Here's a few paragraphs about his personal journey with faith and how he has grown to see signs of life everywhere:
I’ve always been fascinated by the intersection of faith and arts. In fact, I tend to get most excited about each when it wanders into the realm of the other. When I went from an agnostic who sneered at religion to a fairly close-minded born-again Christian in high school, a few things didn’t sit well with me, despite my sudden assumption that easier answers were just a few chapters away in a Bible I was reading for the first time.

After a naïve but often-blissful spiritual high, doubt started trickling in. For a brief moment, I wondered if the music and arts which had served as my spiritual food long before I looked to religion might indeed be the corrupting source of nagging questions that begged for something more mysterious than the systematic theology I was being handed. One of my new teachers suggested we toss out albums that weren’t “glorifying God.” He offered up an Outfield album. I countered with a dubbed cassette containing XTC’s Skylarking on one side (with the lyric, “Dear God, I can’t believe in you”) and, tragically, the Pixies’ Doolittle on the other.

But when the “easy answers” didn’t satisfy, it was in the arts where I found the room for a God bigger than any fundamentalism or dogma. There weren’t many musicians dabbling in that strange no-man’s-land, but during my first semester of college—and one of my first writing gigs for the college paper—I came across Vigilantes of Love. For frontman Bill Mallonee, grace was like a battering ram, hammering at him from one side, but its twin on the other side was mystery. From him, I also discovered Mark Heard, a poet slumming in the Christian-music ghetto, overturning the money-changing tables from inside where he could. By the end of my freshman year, the fiction of Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy became as much my creeds and confessions as anything I heard on Sundays.

I’ve since felt closer to heaven via the music of Sigur Rós or the words of Josh Ritter; seeing Roberto Benigni give his son a childhood in a concentration camp in Life Is Beautiful; reading Dave Eggers’ mostly non-fiction account of Sudanese refugees in What is the What; or even playing through some of those epic Final Fantasy games.

I see snatches of the divine in the people all around me and, often more intensely, in the art that they’ve created. I still hold to many of the tenets of faith I was introduced to in college, but I’ve become comfortable knowing that my hold is likely to always be tenuous—that God and faith and life and all their big questions are much bigger than any answers we can grasp.


I may be strange for looking for echoes of a higher power in videogames, TV and pop songs, but I think that’s what our tagline “Signs of Life” has always meant to me, even if it’s an irreverent YouTube video that’s just going to bring a little laughter. Not every piece of art is going to be The Bicycle Thief or Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” But as far as I’m concerned, so much of pop culture is holy ground.

Friday, August 12, 2011

How the recovery model of spirituality has impacted me

I just finished a class that has probably impacted me more than any other in seminary thus far. It was called Spirituality and Recovery. It was looking at the meaning of spirituality in the context of the recovery process (or twelve step traditions). The professors (Dale Ryan and Matt Russell) basically believe that there is a recovery model of spirituality and that this model should be the main way we understand and practice the Christian life in community. It is a model that facilitates honesty, humility, grace, and reconciliation with one another.

I thought I'd share a few ideas from the class that have had a profound impact on me:
  1. My spiritual poverty/brokenness is an occasion for God's blessing and love. God's grace and love is very real even when I'm hardened to sin, am not taking part in spiritual disciplines, and don't necessarily feel close to Him. I don't have to have it all together.
  2. Intimacy comes through knowing and sharing your junk. In typical small group culture, intimacy takes time (sometimes years) as you begin to share your junk with people. In recovery culture, intimacy is immediate because everyone is bonded together through the understanding of their desperation and powerlessness over sin/addiction. I wish the church looked more like the recovery culture in this sense.
  3. Believing is a result of belonging. The recovery culture emphasizes belonging long before you believe. The professors want to challenge the church to adopt this same mentality because the church can be too focused on "Who's in and who's out?" instead of including and loving people who aren't "orthodox" yet. Jesus told the disciples to "Come and see" a long time before He asked them "Who do you say that I am?"
  4. I can't ultimately help people get better/healthy. Only God can. What I can do is listen, empathize, and love them despite their issues.
  5. Focus on trusting God instead of trying to please Him. There is a (very) fine line between trusting God and performing, and trusting God is the only way to please Him. Sometimes trusting God feels like you're walking away from God or being irresponsible, because you have to let go of doing certain things or trying to fix yourself or others.
  6. Honesty with our junk NOW helps people know God. People don't really care if God can do anything, they care about if He can do this thing. As pastors (and everyone else), we need to be specific about our struggles and sin in our lives now. This helps people to see God as real, not as abstract. This helps debunk the lie that the Christian life is all about victorious living, where all the scars are immediately healed.
  7. Knowing Jesus doesn't equal no more issues. Our testimonies have often been 1) I was a screw-up, 2) I met Jesus, 3) now life is great. This is dishonest and does harm to others and to ourselves.
  8. God wants to draw near when we sin. Matt Russell says, "God doesn't hate sin. God hates the separation of relationship that sin produces. Otherwise, sin becomes just a list of things we do." I'm still struggling theologically with that first sentence, but I still think it points to the truth that when we sin, God doesn't get disgusted with us and remove Himself until we confess. He loves us and longs for us to know His nearness. The presence of Christ is in the darkest parts of our hearts.
  9. God is relational, not transactional. God is not mainly concerned with turning our badness into goodness. He is more concerned with our brokenness and separateness from Him and transforming it.
  10. Making amends is a great way to understand repentance. Making amends is the 9th step in the 12 step process. You go to someone you have wronged or hurt in the past and tell them how you've wronged or hurt them. You don't ask for forgiveness (which can sometimes be coercive). You give the person space to say whatever they want, even if they get mad at you. And this process should be less about you and more about them.
With some of these things, I am still in process over what I think about them. Some of the ideas press up against long held beliefs. That's been a big part of my journey here at Fuller, trying to get my mind and heart open to truth, no matter how different it might seem to my current understanding.

I'll end with a couple of verses that our last class ended with. It's a great reminder that no matter how bad our past might seem to us, God is restoring us, loving us, and helping us be satisfied in Him. It comes from Joel 2:25-26:
I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten…You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

The Medium is the Message

I recently finished a communication class here at Fuller. One of the assigned readings was The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, the Gospel, and Church by Shane Hipps. I thought the book was really interesting, especially the first half.

Hipps owes most of his thinking on media to Marshall McLuhan, who coined the phrase, "The medium is the message." This is the thought that the medium (or media) through which information comes (books, TV, Internet, phones, etc.) is often more important for your message than the content itself.

In his book, Hipps is mainly writing about how the church is shaped by media. However, his thoughts can be applied universally to most other areas of life. Here are a few thoughts:
When we talk about media and technology as tools for the church, we assume they are simply conduits or pipelines useful for dispensing the gospel...

However, McLuhan’s simple yet provocative statement ‘The medium is the message’ issues a direct challenge in this understanding of media. He writes, ‘Our conventional response of all media, namely that it is how they used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot. The content of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.' In other words, media are much more than neutral purveyors of information. They have the power to shape us regardless of content and thus cannot be evaluated solely upon their use.
His point is that we often give little thought to how different media impact us. For example, he talks about how we are often oblivious to TV when we watch it. We don't understand that it is reducing our capacity for abstract thought, making us prefer intuition and experience over logic and reasoning, thus reviving elements of an individualistic culture.

To drive this point home, Hipps quotes a very hyperbolic metaphor of McLuhan:
The content or message of any particular medium has about as much importance as the stenciling on the casing of an atomic bomb.
Hipps' point is that "the medium has far more impact on the culture than its content." I think it's so very important to notice the ways in which different media shapes the way we understand the world, not only for our benefit, but for the benefit of others as we seek to communicate truth.

I owe a great deal to my friend Roy for helping think through these things for the first time a few years back. Also my friend Scott has a lot of great thoughts on how technology is shaping us at his blog (particularly this post and this one). Also, if you're interested, here are a few other resources I would recommend:

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman (one of my favorites)
The Medium is the Massage by Marshall McLuhan
Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology by Neil Postman
Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith by Shane Hipps

Friday, August 05, 2011

Blessed are the poor in spirit...

This past Monday, I started a class called Spirituality and Recovery. It is looking at the meaning of spirituality in the context of twelve step traditions. The class has challenged my thinking in a lot of ways, and I believe for the better.

One thought that has been very helpful to me comes from a book called Soul Repair, cowritten by one of my professors, Dale Ryan. He looks at Jesus's words in Matthew 5:3 which says,
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
I think Dr. Ryan's reflections on this verse are both true and comforting. He says:
"That statement does not match the instincts and expectations nurtured in us by our toxic spirituality, but it appears to be true. Our spiritual poverty is, in the eyes of God, an opportunity for blessing and not an occasion for judgment, shame or rejection."
These last few days, I've been able to see with more clarity that I really don't have to have it all together for God to love me. When my time in the Word is dry or non-existent, when my prayer life is in a similar state, and when I don't experience God's nearness...that really is okay.

For much of my spiritual life, I have been in performance mode. In high school, being a good Christian meant not cussing and being really nice to people. In college, I learned to base by standing with God on how much time I spent in the Word and how much Scripture I memorized (even though I "knew" and "believed" that that wasn't true). After college, I felt burnt out and have experienced a low level of guilt about my spiritual state for the last six years, thinking I'm not where I should be.

I should clarify that I don't want to give up right beliefs and helpful practices because they have been tainted with performance-based thinking. It hasn't been all bad. I've experienced God's grace in profound ways over the years, through the very things that were tainted with a performance based mentality. It's just that I'm starting to realize the grace and love of God in my spiritual poverty. Not just when I know my sin and am broken over it, but even when I'm too hardened to care.