Amy

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The new documentary about Amy Winehouse, Amyis devastating. Whether or not you were a fan of Winehouse’s music, it’s hard not to be moved by this film, directed by Asif Kapadia (Senna). It chronicles the singer’s rise to superstardom as well as her roller coaster struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, eating disorders and other destructive behavior which ultimately led to her tragic death-by-alcohol-poisoning in 2011.

Amy is a powerful, haunting picture of what sin does to all of us: It destroys. It undermines our gifts. It stubbornly refuses to go away. The movie shows the various “good,” “bad,” and “really, really bad” periods in Amy’s life circa 2001-2011, which more or less correspond with periods of drug/alcohol addiction and stints of rehab or relative sobriety. It’s amazing to see how her physical appearance, speech, and ability to be creative change dramatically with the ups and downs of her addictive struggles. It’s painful to watch Amy at times start to move away from destructive behavior and make better choices, only to have it all undermined by relapses and returns to the people and pleasures that destroy her. If ever there was a movie that showcases the ugliness of what sin does in our lives and how hard it is to escape its grasp on our own merits, it is Amy. 

The film is also a pretty damning critique of the friends, family, boyfriends, managers, executives, journalists and fans who enable Amy’s self-destruction by standing by and saying nothing (while taking pictures and/or making money off her). Some of them are better than others, but for the most part the people in Amy’s life don’t have the courage to call a spade a spade. Some of the saddest moments in the film show her father downplaying the need for Amy to go to rehab (tragically this episode inspired her #1 hit song “Rehab”: I ain’t got the time and if my daddy thinks I’m fine…). Or her mother downplaying the gravity of bulimia. Or managers booking shows for Amy at the height of her addiction struggles. Or anyone in her life refusing to keep Amy far away from her drug-pushing disaster of a boyfriend Blake Fielder. This is not to say that Amy is not herself also to blame; it’s just to acknowledge that individuals are embedded within communities who shape them for good and for ill, communities who ought not sit idly by when sin does its destructive thing.

The film made me think about how increasingly unwilling most people in our society are to talk about sin, let alone know it when they see it. Because we are so afraid of being intolerant or judgmental (vices that are worse than just about anything in our to-each-their-own #CallMeCaitlyn world), we find it unfathomable to tell another person that what they are doing is wrong, even if we know deeply and without a doubt that it is. Amy shows the pitiful fruit of a society that is impotent to help sinners because it has bought into the notion that tolerance is the highest love. It also shows the ramifications of the pervasive sense (even amongst many Christians) that brokenness is the most authentic thing and the source of all good art. One of the tragic meta themes of Amy is the suggestion that her timeless voice and raw lyrics stemmed from and were spurred on by her demons, that art and brokenness depend on one another. This may be partially true, but abandoning someone to ruin is never justifiable, even for the greatest art. We should all wish to have rather had a healthy and alive Amy who was boring than a dead-at-27 Amy who lives on in art films and the annals of pop.

Inside Out and Mountain Memories

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I saw Pixar’s Inside Out a few weeks ago at the Pinecrest Amphitheater, an outdoor movie theater on the shore of Pinecrest Lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Under the stars, surrounded by family and with the smells of pine and campfires in the air, the setting was beautiful and memorable. Fitting for a movie about the mystery, joy and sadness of memory.

Kira and I saw the movie in the middle of a two week vacation that took us to Northern California and Oregon (and for about an hour, Washington), where we experienced beauty of the first order, both in nature and in culture. We took pictures and bought souvenirs, but the intensity of the beauty we experienced will only live on in our memories, and possibly also in the ways the memories will shape our personalities and those of our children. But the visceral feelings of being there at a certain moment in time–the snowmelt water of the Stanislaus River, the soft sand of Nye Beach at sunset, the taste of a coconut blackberry scone–are forever in the past.

Such is the nature of joy. It pulsates with life and vibrancy because, not in spite of, its dependency on ephemerality. On anticipation, on memory, on the here-and-it’s-gone nature of existing in time. Joy is inescapably bound up with time, and with its accompanying challenges (decay, forgetfulness, loss, death). As Inside Out so colorfully illustrates, joy and sadness are the emotions most necessarily in conversation. They are forever in a dance, tempering and inflaming the other, stirring up a spiral of restlessness that can only find peace in God (but which is so often searched for by attempting to replicate pleasures or past pangs of joy).

A few years ago I wrote a post on joy inspired by Zadie Smith and C.S. Lewis’s thoughts on the subject. Like Inside Out, I focused on memory as the catalyst for the happy/sad dichotomy for joy:

…The longing for those happy experiences and the intense recognition that they will never be replicated in just the same way… that’s what stirs up joy. Sehnsucht. And it’s not just nostalgia for the past. It’s nostalgia for a future that a lifetime full of accumulated pangs and pleasures leads us to believe exists. Somewhere. Joy is the ineffable, the transcendent, the sublime stasis which a million little experiences grasp at but can never fully capture. An ultimate settledness for which our hearts now restlessly pine.

This is why Smith feels that there is something melancholy about joy, that it has such a paradoxical capacity to bring us pain. And perhaps that is why in today’s world–so untrusted and unstable, where we’re all so aware of contingency and fragility–the idea of joy makes a lot more sense when articulated as a groaning for completion rather than a smiling-face present perfection.

As Kira and I drove home from Oregon after our trip ended, we both shed tears. Tears for the impermanence of such intense brushes with beauty. Tears for the life-goes-on nature of reality. Tears for the way the world is. Lacrimae rerum. Glorious and fleeting and fragile. Forever growing, forever groaning. Forever dying. And rising to new life.

7 Things I’ve Learned Since Graduating College

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I graduated from Wheaton College 10 years ago this month. This Friday, I’ll be attending commencement ceremonies at Biola University, where I’ve had the pleasure of working for nearly seven years. I’ll be cheering on a dozen or so students who I’ve mentored, taught, employed or befriended; students who will be walking across the stage to receive their diplomas, much as I did when I was their age, a decade ago.

As I’ve reflected on how I have changed and what I have learned in the ten years since I graduated college as an undergrad, a few things come to mind. The following are some of the big learnings and key realizations I’ve come to, some sooner and some later, since May 2005. Perhaps the Class of 2015 can file these away as they set out on their post-college journeys:

1) 22-year-olds don’t have it all figured out

Perhaps the most universal and, in some sense, admirable quality of college graduates at the “prime” of their intellectual enrichment (or so they think) is a certain intellectual confidence and epistemological hubris. Though many of them look back on their cocksure freshmen selves with derision and shame, the ironic thing is they have adopted the posture again by the time they graduate, just in a different way. Graduating seniors feel “enlightened” to have grown out of many of the views of their upbringing; they see themselves as having mature, nuanced and authoritative perspectives on everything from politics to gender to Calvinism (especially Christian college graduates). But the truth is, you only know so much at 22. Some of the things I wrote and blogged about in my early twenties were far too sure of themselves. With age comes the development of a beautiful thing called intellectual humility, which opens up conversations and connections which might otherwise be closed off. The more one lives, the more one sees that wisdom is more dependent on curiosity than confidence.

2) Cynicism is mostly a waste of time

It happened to me and I see it happen to many (the majority?) of today’s Christian college undergrads: A slow, steady bubbling up of cynicism over the course of the four years from the wide-eyed summer camp frivolity of orientation week to the “I’m over it” jadedness of senior year. It’s a cynicism that arises from, among other things, the disconnect one feels between the “bubble” surreality of Christian college and the harsh realities of real life. It arises from a (healthy) questioning of ideas we assume and systems we take for granted. But when questioning (with the constructive pursuit of truth in mind) gives way to cynicism (an “I’m better than” disposition that relishes deconstruction) it becomes a problem. Trust me, get over cynicism as quickly as you can after you graduate. The world will open up to you, and with it beauty, truth and goodness, when you put cynicism aside and allow yourself to be vulnerable and teachable and curious. Plus, only other cynical people enjoy being around cynical people. So for the sake of winning friends and influencing people, put the cynical snark behind you, along with the other “childish things” Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 13.

3) It’s good to embrace discomfort

This is a lifetime struggle for most of us, but one of the most crucial truisms of life. We only grow by stepping outside of our comfort zones. College is in some sense about discomfort: learning and living in community with people who are very different; having ideas and assumptions challenged; feeling isolated from the familiar. And those are wonderful things. But once you graduate from college it can be easy to find a community that is just like you, surrounded by only the ideas you hold, and just stay there the rest of your life. While I would suggest that the first few months or even year after graduation should be on the more “comfortable” side of of the spectrum, most of your life should be lived on the edge (or in the midst) of discomfort. When we push ourselves to do what is uncomfortable, to know the Other, to not cease in our explorations, great things happen.

4) Moderation is not weakness

Everything is done to the extreme when you are 22. That stage in life is often characterized by what I call “The Pendulum Problem,” a propensity to react so extremely to one position (usually something one grew up believing) that the new position is just as problematic in the other direction. This extremism is fueled by youthful energy and “radical” passion, yet most of the time it leads nowhere. True growth, substantive change, comes when we see that balance is not compromise and moderation is not weakness. The world is always going to be more complicated and nuanced than our best efforts to understand it. Whether it be politics, theology, or consumption of culture (see my book Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty), embracing the beauty of moderation will bear much fruit.

5) Sticking with a local church is worth it

“[Do] not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some…” (Heb. 10:25). Let’s face it: One of the easiest things to neglect in college and especially after college is getting involved in a local church. Whether because it’s a hassle, the people are weird, the preacher isn’t compelling or it just feels like a vestige of times past, church is often a casualty of twentysomething life. But nothing has grown me, sustained me, and challenged me in healthy ways over the last decade more than my commitment to the local church. Beyond the community and accountability it offers (no small things), church provides a necessary big-picture reality check and rhythm that molds and shapes me in a consistent way, week after week, when so much else in my life is in flux. Twentysomething flourishing depends on having at least some consistent priorities and “rocks in your planter,” as my pastor says. The Bride of Christ, inconvenient and uncomfortable as she may be, is a mighty good rock to build your life around.

6) Proximity is (almost) everything in relationships

After college, when friends disperse and communities split, the temptation can be to focus on maintaining friendships across great distances. With social media, skype and other such things, this sort of relational maintenance can be easy. And there’s nothing wrong with it. I’m glad I have maintained profound friendships with my closest college friends, even when I’ve been thousands of miles from them for a decade now. But one unchangeable reality about relationships, no matter what happens with our digital communication capabilities, is that physical proximity matters most. I met my wife because she worked in the same building as I did. The people who matter most for me now are those who I have regular, in-person contact with. They go to my church. They come over to my house. They work alongside me. Meanwhile, older friends have become less important over the years, simply because they live far from me and I only see them occasionally. This is something to simply accept, not lament. Friendships change. New people come into your life and shape you profoundly. Proximity is worth everything.

7) Connections matter more than concepts

I am an ideas guy. I love thinking. In the years after I graduated from college ten years ago, I was all about the thought life. I read and read and read, and wrote and wrote and wrote. It was fruitful, but much of it was solitary. I still debated concepts with others, but it was usually in blog comments sections or over social media; rarely was it over a coffee or a beer. Yet I have since come to see that ideas are valuable only insofar as they facilitate connection, in two senses: connection as in connecting the dots between isolated concepts (so crucial in our digitally fragmented age); and connection as in relationships with people. The more I live, the more I see just how important it is to prioritize people over principles; individuals over ideas. This isn’t to say we should compromise on convictions or forsake truth the minute it becomes a stumbling block in a relationship. I believe truth and love can coexist. What it does mean, or has meant in my life, is this: Time spent with my family and friends, with students and mentees (again: proximity!), should be a higher priority than time spent reading blogs, scrolling through Twitter or mulling over my Next Big Idea. The world has more disconnected ideas than it knows what to do with. The world could use more substantive connections and relational commitments.

The Salt of the Earth

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The headlines today–or any day–reinforce the tragedy of life on this planet. Hundreds Feared Dead After Boat Filled With Migrants Capsizes. Video Purports to Show ISIS Killing Ethiopian Christians. There are ample reminders of the world’s calamity, horror and heartache in our daily social media feeds.

The ubiquitous reporting of tragedy can sometimes desensitize us to it. Art, with its audacious capacity to bring meaning out of the meaningless and (sometimes) beauty out of the ugliness, can re-sensitize us. “The role of an artist is to not look away”-Akira Kurosawa one said. And though what their cameras or brushstrokes capture may not make us comfortable, the artist’s gaze is crucial for the building of humanity’s awareness and empathy.

The Salt of the Earth, a new documentary about photographer Sebastião Salgado, powerfully shows this. Directed by Wim Wenders and Salgado’s son, Juliano, the film chronicles the journeys of Salgado to capture the struggle of humans in the midst of war, disease, poverty, famine, industry, migration and more. Over his four decade career, Salgado’s images brought him much acclaim but they also brought awareness to the plights of many. His gaze definitely manifests a “not looking away” boldness but also a humane compassion. There are lessons here in how to see, and why seeing well matters.

As I finished the film I kept thinking of the Matthew 9:36 verse where it says of Jesus that, “Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them.” Had Jesus been given a camera in the 1st century, I imagine his portraits would look not dissimilar from Salgado’s. Salt of the Earth sees a lot of horrific things but it always sees them through a lens of compassion and, ultimately, hope.

As chroniclers of reality and human suffering, artists are often prone to falling into despair and giving up on people. Salgado certainly is tempted by this, especially after his time in Rwanda in the mid-90s, photographing unspeakable evil in the midst of the genocide. Following this, his career turned toward nature and animal photography, capturing the beauty of the earth and its Edenic majesty, apart from the hellish wars and struggles of mankind. Yet ultimately the beauty of the natural earth and that of mankind are inextricable; humans are the caretakers of the Garden, after all, the stewards of creation for good or ill.

Recognizing this, Salgado decides do his part as a human steward and preserver of God’s creation (“Salt of the Earth” is a metaphor that implies a preserving function). He re-plants a rainforest in his Brazilian hometown, a forest that had thrived in his childhood but a half century later had been decimated by famine and industry. Salt of the Earth–so much a film about decay, inertia and fallenness–ends on a beautifully hopeful note as the “garden” of Salgado’s upbringing is replenished and brought to new life. Resurrection.

Among its many merits, Salt of the Earth is a beautiful reminder that having eyes to see the evil and deprivation of our world should not lead us to apathy and despair, nor complaining and rage. Our response should rather be to recover our original Edenic calling: to bring order out of the chaos, to combat evil through love, to plant seeds of new life in every sphere, to be the salt we were created to be, agents of preservation in a world stricken by decay.

Too Reformed for Revival?

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In the Christianity of my Midwestern Baptist upbringing, the Holy Spirit was a part of the Trinity I acknowledged but hardly understood. I recall hearing murmurs that one of my classmates in third grade was a “charismatic,” which meant they were just as misled as the one Catholic family on our block. When we visited churches where people raised hands in worship, we assumed they were liberal or in some other way cooky. In junior high I remember hearing my sister describe the trauma of attending a charismatic church service with a friend. There were healings and speaking in tongues. The horror! In our minds this was essentially a cult.

Though I gradually loosened up a bit in my fear of “charismatic” expressions of Christianity (college and post-college travel abroad aided in this), until very recently I was still quite skeptical of the Pentecostal strain in evangelicalism. As a reserved, academic-bent believer with a fondness for liturgy and theology, “Spirit-led” meant unwieldy emotionalism and dangerous anti-intellectualism. Talk of “hearing from God,” “receiving a word” or sensing the Spirit “doing a new thing” seemed to me lazy apathy about Scripture at best and stepping stones to heresy at worst. Though I wasn’t as militant about it as some people, I was functionally a cessationist.

Things have changed since I started attending my current church in 2012. Here I encountered something I had no paradigm for: A Word-centric, Reformed-minded church that is also “Spirit-led.” A church where John Calvin is quoted alongside John Wimber; a church where the gospel is preached via expositional preaching for 45 minutes but space is made in worship for spontaneous bursts of prayer and prophecy, within limits. Part of the church’s Spirit-led DNA comes from its global orientation and emphasis on church planting and partnership in Africa, Asia and Europe… which I love. But I’d be lying if I said the Spirit stuff has been easy to stomach. There are times when my old skepticism flares up, fearing the abuses of emotionalism and the prophetic. But more and more I am growing to appreciate that within the bounds of Scripture and community (as “bumpers” in a bowling lane, so to speak), leaving room for the Spirit to move is a good thing.

In his 1974 essay “The Lord’s Work in the Lord’s Way,” Francis Schaeffer wrote this:

Often men have acted as though one has to choose between reformation and revival. Some call for reformation, others for revival, and they tend to look at each other with suspicion. But reformation and revival do not stand in contrast to one another; in fact, both words are related to the concept of restoration. Reformation speaks of a restoration to pure doctrine, revival of a restoration in the Christian’s life. Reformation speaks of a return to the teachings of Scripture, revival of a life brought into proper relationship to the Holy Spirit. The great moments in church history have come when these two restorations have occurred simultaneously. There cannot be true revival unless there has been reformation, and reformation is incomplete without revival. May we be those who know the reality of both reformation and revival, so that this poor dark world in which we live may have an exhibition of a portion of the church returned to both pure doctrine and a Spirit-filled life.

Too often churches focus on one or the other: reform or revival, Word or Spirit. But we need both. This is a truth I am seeing more and more clearly as I experience and observe church culture in its various late modern manifestations. I believe Schaeffer was right. Churches that will flourish in the 21st century will be those centered upon the “dual restoration” of reformation and revival. In the midst of threats from Scientism, new atheism and disintegrating theological consensus, a strong bent toward doctrinal foundations and theological sturdiness will be essential going forward. Yet robust theology stripped of supernatural power will make no difference in the vitality of the church in the face of growing persecution and the inertia of secularism. In the face of these threats we must seek the Spirit, commit to pray and rely on the power of God.

The life we were designed for as humans, and also as the church (the body of Christ), requires both the head and the heart, knowledge and passion, structure and spontaneity, rationality and mystery, contemplated principles and enacted power.

The more I think about the complimentary beauty of Word/Spirit balance, the more I see how fundamental it is not just to the DNA of the church but to day-to-day human flourishing. One cannot live as a cerebral thinker without the hard-to-harness emotions and energy of the body; one cannot thrive by focusing on either predictable rhythms or freewheeling improvisation. We need to allow for a little bit of both.

Perhaps being married for the last two years has shown this to me in a deeper way. My wife is more emotionally intuitive, flexible and spontaneous than me. I am more logical, steady and systematic than her. We need each other. Together we are stronger, richer, more vibrant in our witness.

You start to see corollaries to the Word/Spirit dynamic everywhere when you begin to look. Left-brained and right-brained. Prose and poetry. Classical music and jazz. A trellis and a vine. Nature and nurture.

There’s a universality and existential trueness to Word/Spirit complementarity that lends it credibility, in addition to its ample biblical support.

As globalization blurs lines between western and non-western Christianity and mutual skepticism between “charismatic” and “reformed” traditions ease, the church today finds itself in a moment where a biblical balance between Word and Spirit can be restored. I am convinced that such a balanced, non-pendulum approach is the way forward for sluggish, fragmenting and ineffectual evangelicalism in post-Christian culture.

In my own faith I’m learning to make more room for the Holy Spirit, just as some in my church family are learning to make more room for the Word. Together we are stronger, richer, more vibrant in our witness. And that is my prayer for the larger body of Christ.

Suffering, Sufjan and “Saturday Art”

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In the Christianity of my childhood, Easter Sunday was Cadbury eggs, brunch and celebratory church services full of rollicking hymns like “Up from the grave He arose.” In my adolescence and twenty-something years I became fond of celebrating Good Friday, a part of Easter weekend largely bypassed in my childhood. With its mournful tone and quieter focus on the cross, Good Friday was almost more compelling to my melancholy self than the joy of Easter.

Yet for Christians, Friday and Sunday are equally crucial. The horror of death and the beauty of resurrection are both essential. The tension of Saturday, between death and life, loss and victory, suffering and healing, is where we live. We are mortal, decaying, sin-sick creatures. Yet our redemption is secure in the resurrected Christ; we will be made new.

Art is a gift that God gives us to help us cope with Saturday life. In Real Presences, Jewish literary critic George Steiner wrote about this “Saturday” approach to art: “Ours is the long day’s journey of the Saturday. Between suffering, aloneness, unutterable waste on the one hand and the dream of liberation, of rebirth on the other.”

In the face of the unspeakable horrors of Friday, “even the greatest art and poetry are almost helpless,” wrote Steiner. But likewise “In the Utopia of the Sunday, the aesthetic will, presumably, no longer have logic or necessity.”

The arts are fundamentally “Sabbatarian,” argues Steiner. “They have risen out of an immensity of waiting which is that of man. Without them, how could we be patient?”

Indeed, the arts are fundamentally about navigating the inherent restlessness of human existence–a grasping after shalom, equilibrium and peace in the midst of a chaotic, tortured and lamentable world.

For Christians who make art, the temptation is often to move too quickly to Sunday. Thomas Kinkade is the easiest example; but we see it as well in the predominantly cheerful genre of worship music and the notoriously saccharine positivity of evangelical-made movies (e.g. Fireproof, God’s Not Dead). Christian films do an injustice to the gospel when they present a kumbaya world where all believers are happy and life is a nicely wrapped package with a heavenly bow on top. Certainly hope is central and the resurrection is a paradigm-shifting lynchpin for those who follow Christ. But so is the cross. The humility, the pain, the shame and the struggle of Christ on the cross is not to be shunned or avoided by Christians; it’s to be embraced and imitated. And what a beautiful thing that is.

A Jesus who suffered is a Jesus we can know, because if we know anything in this world, it’s suffering.

I like how poet Christian Wiman describes his faith in My Bright Abyss:

“I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? … He felt human destitution to its absolute degree; the point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.”

Jesus was not a powermonger who established a religion with a sword; he established it by being shamed on a cross. He was “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Is. 53:3).

“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

The best Christian art is right there with Jesus.

“Lord, why? …Where were you? Who are we to you? Answer me.”  (Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life)

“What did I do to deserve this? … How? God of Elijah. How?”  (Sufjan Stevens, “Drawn to the Blood”)

Sufjan Steven’s Carrie & Lowell is an album that embodies a Saturday aesthetic.

On one hand the album seems to be decidedly “Friday” oriented, fixated as it is on the death of Sufjan’s mother, Carrie, who died of cancer in 2012. Yet the album isn’t named only after Carrie. It is also about Lowell, Sufjan’s stepfather who become one of his most valued friends (these days Lowell runs Sufjan’s record label Asthmatic Kitty).

We see the tension of Saturday both in the album’s title and in its individual songs, which speak of Friday–death, blood, drugs, vampires, driving off a cliff–but give hints of Sunday in its pastoral reminiscences of childhood in Oregon and associated bursts of love, wonder and hope. In “Carrie and Lowell” Sufjan sings of a “season of hope (after the flood).” In “The Only Thing,” Sufjan suggests that God and faith (“signs and wonders… blind faith, God’s grace”) keep him going in the midst of despair. In “Fourth of July” a deathbed conversation between Sufjan and his mother focuses on the heavens: birds of various sorts, fireworks, stars, the moon.

There is a sense in the record that Sufjan, like Christian Wiman, resonates with the idea that in Christ, “God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.” In his song “John My Beloved” Sufjan identifies with the bittersweet emotions John (“the beloved disciple”) must have felt as his intimate friendship with Jesus mixed with the reality of being separated by death. Yet even as he seeks comfort in Christ (“Jesus I need you, be near, come shield me”) he also makes no claim that faith is the solution to all pain. The song “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” is all about Friday, skeptical as it is that the “shadow of the cross” brings meaning to the previous song’s “shadow of me” musings.

And yet the album’s closing song ends with an eschatological nod to Sunday. “My Blue Bucket of Gold” uses the imagery of a fabled Oregon gold mine to channel the pain and longings of the album toward a search for something higher, something heavenly: “Search for things to extol… Lord, touch me with lightning.”

Oh that more of our art would hold Friday and Sunday in such elegant tension, helping us through the fog of this liminal, Saturday space; the heartache and hope of the “now and not yet.”

Lifting the Burden of Self-Made Identity

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If you’ve grown up in America–or even if you’ve just had America imported to you via media and pop culture–the air you breathe with respect to identity and purpose is something along the lines of “be who you want to be,” “follow your dreams,” “find yourself,” “don’t let anyone get in the way of your dreams.”

Every Disney movie ever has this sort of message. Take Frozen and its triumphant anthem known word-for-word by millions of girls all over the world: It’s time to see what I can do, to test the limits and break through. No right, no wrong, no rules for me. I’m free!

Or consider this similar anthem from The Sound of Music: 

Climb every mountain, Ford every stream, Follow every rainbow, ‘Till you find your dream.

These songs are symptomatic of the supposedly encouraging, empowering, freeing grid of identity-formation which has been imposed upon us by Hollywood and western pop culture. It’s a way of thinking that insists that identity is something only we, individually, can construct and govern. But is this really as freeing as it sounds?

In the Tim Keller sermon embedded below, the pastor/author/theologian suggests that any notion of self-made or self-justified identity is really a crushing burden. It may sound like freedom to “see what I can do, to test the limits and break through.” Yet if that’s the case, our worth and success and value rest completely on our achievement, and then on others’ seeing our achievement and valuing it. But that always fails us.

Christianity, says Keller, is the only identity that is received, not achieved. Our identity in Jesus Christ means that our existence is valuable and justified not based on our performance, but based on His.

Keller really nails the zeitgeist in this sermon, which he spoke at an event in Los Angeles, a city which more than any other embodies and perpetuates the “follow your dreams,” “be who you want to be” value system.

I strongly suggest that you share this video with anyone you know who may be struggling with the burden of self-justification and self-made identity. Not only does it clearly and compellingly present the gospel, but it makes sense of where we are in this cultural moment and why the issue of identity (even sexual identity) is so confusing and yet critical. Watch it here: