Monthly Archives: January 2009

Thoughts At the End of the Bush Era

When George W. Bush won the 2000 presidential election and took office eight years ago, I was a senior in high school. I was naïve, an ambitious go-getter on the cusp of college and newness and a world of glorious uncertainty. Eight months after Bush’s inauguration, I went to Wheaton College to start my freshman year. I said goodbye to my parents, hello to my new roommate, and jumped right into the exciting new chapter in my life. The second week of school, 9/11 happened, and the world changed.

Eight years have passed since then. I have an undergraduate and graduate degree now. Some people I loved are now gone. Four Olympics have happened. I went to a few other continents. Our spirits have soared and been crushed. Some wars have started. Many babies have been born.

But not everything has changed. The winters are still cold, and it still snows. People are still dying from AIDS. Survivor is still on the air. Love is still the best and worst thing about existence. People are generally as determined and passionate about their own success in the world as they ever were. The Yankees are still the most loathed team in baseball.

—–

This afternoon, a miraculous thing happened in New York City. A U.S. Airways plane took off into a flock of birds that got sucked into the engines. The plane then crash-landed on the Hudson River, and everyone survived. Normally everyone dies when planes crash into rivers. But thanks to the quick-thinking and calm action of pilot “Sully” Sullenberger, the plane landed in one piece. Everyone got out. For doing what he thought was the best thing in the moment, responding to an unpredictable disaster, the man is a hero.

A few hours later, to very little fanfare, President Bush gave his farewell address from the White House. I watched it online, and was rather moved. It was brief but eloquent, full of regret that wasn’t so much in the man’s words but in his eyes. And yet it was full of hope as well, full of optimism and kindness. For all the disasters of his presidency, the hate he’s endured, the low approval ratings, and everything else, the man was still standing. Still looking strong. I don’t think it’s hubris, and I don’t think it’s denial. I think it’s a testament to the fact that his well intentioned resolve and passion—however misguided or mismanaged it has been along the way—has never wavered.

Several moments of the speech touched me, but one in particular. In talking about 9/11 and how it impacted his presidency, Bush said this:

As the years passed, most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before Nine-Eleven. But I never did. Every morning, I received a briefing on the threats to our Nation. And I vowed to do everything in my power to keep us safe.

For Bush, 9/11 became his eternal albatross. When most of us moved on, becoming complacent and forgetting that there have been no other terrorist attacks here since that horrible day, Bush has remained thoroughly influenced by the jolt that was 9/11, and for good or ill, he’s stuck to his mission to keep America safe. I think the legacy of George W. Bush will be that he was a man whose vision always exceeded his abilities. He was a president of ideas, of convictions, but in practice—because of personal flaws and professional failings—he could rarely turn his ideas into good. It’s a tragedy, yes, but things aren’t nearly as bad as they might have been. We’re still here. Hope remains.

Watching the plane crash coverage today in New York, and watching Bush’s farewell speech from Washington, there was a strange and poetic sense of deja-vu, of things coming full circle. The plane crash imagery, the FDNY and Port Authority rescue workers, the talk of heroism. It was as if we were back in September of 2001, in the “United We Stand” days when Bruce Springsteen and Toby Keith expressed the same sort of patriotism. It got me thinking about all the heroes of post-9/11 America who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the thousands who have died. That must haunt Bush the most.

—–

I know a whole lot more about the world in 2008 than I did in 2001. I know how to do my own taxes, and I know how to drive a 15-passenger van. I know where to find a good pub in Cambridge, and I know how to post a video to YouTube. I know that I’m not as naïve as I once was, and not as cynical as I probably will be. But there are also some things I don’t know. I don’t know if the Iraq War was at all necessary. I don’t know if Obama will live up to the hype. I still don’t really know anything about cars.

Like everyone else, I’m still trying to figure things out. Like Mr. Bush and President Obama and Pilot Sullenberger, I’m just living one day at a time, dealing with things as they come and figuring out how best to respond. We can plan for the future, and we should. But by God, there will be birds.

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Why You Should Watch Friday Night Lights

I was born and raised on the banks of the Arkansas River in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a sandy and humid spot to grow up—full of pecan trees and azaleas and armadillos. People were nice, and most everyone seemed to be working hard to support their families and maybe earn enough to put in a below-ground pool. And football was huge. From elementary school on up, it was the thing to do.

I remember some great Friday nights when I was about 10, watching our local high school team (the Jenks Trojans) playing at their stadium across the bridge, on the other side of the river. On Fridays at school, everyone wore school colors (maroon), and there were occasionally pep rallies. Sometimes the high school players would come in their jerseys and make an appearance at an elementary school assembly. We all thought that was pretty cool.

Looking back on it now, it’s all pretty distant and quaint. Like all memories of childhood, it occupies a place that is equal parts nostalgia, wonder, and elegy. I think it was the hope of those days—the excitement of the “big kids” and how one day I would be that old too—that lingers so pleasantly and so tenderly in my mind. Knowing what I know now, however—that I am that old, that those high school days have come and gone with furious expediency, that my schoolmates are now married and fathers and soldiers and doctors and grad students—I can’t help but to see it all through a bittersweet lens.

Things change. We grow up. The glory days of youth live for the majority of our lives in our memory.

For all these reasons, but chiefly because it is just an amazingly well done piece of art, the show Friday Night Lights (season 3 premiering on NBC, Friday night 9/8pm) has become my favorite show on television. By a long shot.

It’s a show that is about life, and growth, and how each of us copes with the challenges and setbacks and everyday things that define the duration of existence. I could go on and on about its technical merits, the impressive talents of its cast, the caliber of the writing, and so on, but I’ve written about all that stuff before and so have others. My friend David Kern summed it up nicely on his blog recently.

When I think about Friday Night Lights, I think about my memories, and I think about my hopes. But I also think of Thomas Hart Benton, the plains, adolescence, Aaron Copland, thunderstorms, Dairy Queen, and struggle. Not many T.V. shows (or anything really) stir up such a complex array of emotions or feel so utterly relatable.

Tonight I will be watching the season finale of FNL’s DirecTV season 3 run. But starting Friday, I’ll also be watching it on NBC. Season 3 is phenomenal. If you have never seen the show, you should set your DVRs now. If you have been watching seasons 1 and 2, your DVRs are doubtless already set. I don’t know what else I can say to get you to watch this Peabody Award-winning show. I can say “it’s not about football!” fifty times or throw down 500 more words about how eloquent, earnest, good-hearted, perceptive and shockingly subtle it all is.

But I don’t want to cram it down your throat. You can just know that you’re missing out.

New Year, New Sidebar

When I started this blog some 18 months ago, I designed the sidebar on the right to be a collection of my recommendations for current movies, music, television shows, and books. I hope that in the time I’ve been doing it (and I tried to regularly update it with new stuff I’d discovered), I’ve led some people to encounter truth and beauty.

But all of that is now gone. I totally re-did the sidebar today. In place of “The Best of Now” is “Fellow Searchers”–a collection of some quotes, thoughts, and glimpses of the people who have shaped me spiritually, artistically, intellectually.

The reason I got rid of the media recommendations is basically because I’m sick of defining myself chiefly through consumerist language. It’s an easy trap to fall into these days. On facebook and any social networking site with a profile page, how do we define ourselves? We identify ourselves chiefly as consumers, through a listing of our favorite movies, bands, books, etc. But isn’t there more to us than that?

So I got rid of my facebook “media interests” stuff on the info tab too. It doesn’t change anything about who I am. Perhaps now it looks like I’m totally uninterested in movies and music or perhaps just too ashamed in my tastes to want to broadcast it. I welcome that. If people feel like they don’t know me as well now that I have no media favorites to flesh out my identity, then they never knew me in the first place. I’d rather know people–and be known–in ways that go deeper than media tastes. I refuse to be reduced (and I challenge others to refuse this as well) to the products I consume, the brands and bands I collect.

Additionally, I’m sort of tired of the whole charade of keeping up with the insanely fast-moving train of culture. It’s exhausting. There are more important things to do and say than to seek out the hot new bands and trumpet them to the blogosphere. There are more lasting things to consider, to probe, to discuss. I’ll continue to talk about media in all forms, and my posts will reflect this as they always have. But as part of a larger goal of mine in 2009 to become slightly less mediated, I’m going to stop offering a rotating list of pop culture flavor-of-the-week recommendations. I’d much rather promote things and ideas with more enduring shelf life.

Golden Globes Recap: The Good and Bad

I almost forgot the Golden Globes were on tonight, but remembered just in time to set my Tivo this morning. After watching the ho-hum show, I have some thoughts on the good and bad:

Good:

  • Kate Winslet getting two acting trophies for best supporting actress (The Reader) and best actress in a drama (Revolutionary Road). She was astounding in both films; especially Road. And I just love that she referred to Angelina Jolie as “the other one” in her acceptance speech.
  • Sally Hawkins winning best actress in a musical or comedy for her amazing work in Happy-Go-Lucky. It’s so hard to portray truly good characters in film; Hawkins manages to do it with grace and subtlety.
  • Vicky Cristina Barcelona winning best musical or comedy. Sooo happy to see this film getting some accolades.
  • Christopher Nolan’s meaningful, concise acceptance on behalf of Heath Ledger. Nicely done.
  • Mickey Rourke and Colin Farrell winning best actor trophies. Is this the year of the vice-ridden rebel actor? Seriously, though, these guys were great in The Wrestler and In Bruges, respectively. Surprising that Farrell won, but he’s an underrated actor and deserves his dues.
  • Laura Dern winning for Recount. She’s one of my favorite working actresses, and her role as Katherine Harris in Recount was hilarious and so apt.
  • 30 Rock and Mad Men winning the T.V. comedy and drama awards. Great shows.

Bad:

  • Slumdog Millionaire winning best drama. I really liked this film, but I don’t think there is any way that it is better than The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. And I especially don’t understand how it beat Button in the best original score category. Alexandre Desplat’s score was simply devastating in Button.
  • Miley Cyrus gets a nomination (for best original song) but the best show on television, Friday Night Lights, gets no nominations. I am glad Hannah Montana gave a shout out to God’s sovereignty on the red carpet, however.
  • Tiki Barber interviewing celebrities on the red carpet pre-show. Whose idea was this??
  • Gran Torino not winning any awards. Eastwood’s film better get Oscar noms. So glad to see that audiences are responding to it. $29M opening weekend!

Reformed Luddite Talks About Communication

In the wake of my recent treatise against Twitter in Relevant magazine, I’ve felt a little bit guilty. I’ve felt like I need to apologize to technology for being so hard on it, for assuming the worst about it always. I still and always will insist on critical analysis of new technologies, and I still believe that we should err on the side of skepticism rather than unthinking embrace, but I’ve come to realize this week that the technologies I often and have very publicly railed against (Facebook, Twitter, Bluetooth, etc) can and are being used for good things. God uses these things in spite of their creepy digital impersonality.

I’ve recognized that Facebook isn’t all bad. I’ve met some impressive, enjoyable people through Facebook and have (believe it or not) made existing friendships stronger in some cases.

I’ve realized that, on a depressing night when there is nothing but relationship trouble and regrets and waning resolution, getting a text message from a friend is a rollicking piece of grace.

I’ve discovered that, when e-mails are too distant and phone calls too invasive, g-chat often strikes the right balance. Sometimes the hour-long g-chats are the most enlightening and comforting, sometimes more so than face-to-face conversation, strange as that is for me to admit.

But I’ve also remembered that there is nothing better than a handwritten letter or note. Digital communication may be more immediate, but getting a letter in someone’s personal pen is really unrivaled.

But I think what I’m talking about here isn’t so much a discussion of technology or specific media forms as it is a reflection on the beauty of communication in general. No matter how it happens, it’s a miracle. Communication is a miracle. This is what I told my students when I taught communication theory at UCLA last year. It’s a miracle because it allows us to create meaning together. As James Carey would say: Communication is to share in the creation of a reality that we then live within and under.

I was required to teach James Carey (he’s a heavy hitter in Comm Theory), but I think a few times I went off-script and talked to them about Martin Buber and his book I and Thou, which is a deeply religious, mysterious book but has some application to communication theory I think. In it, Buber talks about the holiness of communication, about that possibility. There’s no way I can begin to summarize it here, but essentially Buber talks about how, in our communication with each other—that is, in the space between I and You—we experience a meaning that transcends either me or you but encompasses us both; it’s a miracle that exists only when shared, and lives only in the temporal act of communicating. It’s what gives us those strange, incomparable feelings of fulfillment when we feel like we are connecting with someone in a conversation.

Here’s a quote from I and Thou that I like, even if it is a bit abstract:

“Between you and it there is a reciprocity of giving: you say You to it and give yourself to it; it says You to you and gives itself to you. You cannot come to an understanding about it with others; you are lonely with it; but it teaches you to encounter others and to stand your ground in such encounters; and through the grace of its advents and the melancholy of its departures it leads you to that You in which the lines of relation, though parallel, intersect. It does not help you to survive; it only helps you to have intimations of eternity.”

I’m not sure exactly what all of that means, but it rings true. Communication isn’t easy, and doesn’t solve all of our problems… but it is a miracle, a blessing, and can open our eyes to the holy in ways that solitary experience surely cannot.

And if that communication occurs on Twitter and it happens to offer someone an intimation of eternity, well, who am I to say anything other than thanks be to God.

The Christian Hipster Pipeline

I am writing a book about Christian hipsters and “Cool Christianity.” It’s a book I’ve been thinking about for years, planning in my head, and “researching” by every means necessary. I signed the contract with Baker Books in September, and since then I’ve been visiting churches throughout the country, seeking to understand “cool Christianity” in all of its skinny-jean, big-haired glory.

Over Christmas break, I picked up the new Welcome Wagon album. For those who don’t know, Welcome Wagon is a Brooklyn duo made up of an admitted hipster Presbyterian minister and his wife. The album is produced by Sufjan “Christian hipster icon” Stevens, and it is super nerdy and ironic and earnest and cool. The album came out on December 9 and promptly made my top ten of the year.

On December 28, I visited Jacob’s Well church in Kansas City, one of the hippest congregations in America. On the way to the church, I made a tongue-in-cheek comment about how the worship band would probably eventually start playing Welcome Wagon songs. Sure enough, one of the first songs we sang that night at Jacob’s Well was the Welcome Wagon version of the nineteenth century hymn “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed.” I was giddy. Was the pipeline of Christian hipster subculture really this efficient? A mere two weeks after the album is released, and it’s already showing up in the repertoire of hipster churches in the Midwest? What does that mean?

It’s the kind of thing that makes me happy I’m writing a book about all this.

In 2009, as I’m writing and researching this study of cool Christianity, and talking with pastors and visiting churches all over the country, I will be sharing bits and pieces of it with you on this blog. I’ll start by sharing an excerpt from the article that started it all in September 2005–“A New Kind of Hipster”—which I wrote for Relevantmagazine.com.

The new generation of “cool” Christians recognize that copycat subculture is a backward step for the Church, but unfortunately the alternative requires a creative trailblazing for which most are far too tepid. Thus, we’ve settled for a reactionary relevance—a state of “cool” that is less about forging ahead with the new than distancing ourselves from the old. We know we do not want to be the stodgy, bigoted, bad-taste Christians from the pages of Left Behind. We are certain we do not want to propagate Christianity through catch phrases and kitsch, and we are dead set against preaching a white, middle-class Gospel to the red-state choir. Perhaps most of all we are tired of burning records, boycotting Disney and shunning Hollywood. We know exactly what the relevant new Christianity must not be—boring, whitewashed, schmaltzy—but we feign to understand just what we should be instead.

The problem with the Christian hipster phenomenon is not as superficial as the clothes we wear, the music we download or the artistic movies we see, nor is it that we exist largely as a reaction against something else. No. The problem is that our identity as people of Christ is still skin-deep, that our image and thinking as progressives does not make up for the fact that we still do not think about things as deeply as we should. The Christian hipster pretends to be more thoughtful or intellectual than the Podunk fundamentalist, but are we really? We accept secular art and (gasp!) sometimes vote for a liberal candidate, but do we really think harder because we are “hip”? I don’t think so.

OK, so I concede this: Evangelical culture needed to be rebelled against, and the result is at least a step in the right direction. But our generation must be careful to remember that we were never called to be a cool subset of the larger culture. We are to be a counterculture—in and not of the world, accepting yet not acquiescent, flexible but not compromising, progressive though not by the world’s standards. True relevance is not about making faith fit into a hipster sphere as opposed to a fundamentalist box. True relevance is seeking the true faith that transcends all boxes and labels.

Small Pieces and Big Puzzles

“Our dream of life will end as dreams do end, abruptly and completely, when the sun rises, when the light comes. And we will think, All that fear and all that grief were about nothing. But that cannot be true. I can’t believe we will forget our sorrows altogether. That would mean forgetting that we had lived, humanly speaking. Sorrow seems to me to be a great part of the substance of human life.”

-Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

I’ve been thinking rather big picture these days. I’ve been thinking about how insignificant so many of our daily struggles, dramas, and sorrows are. In the grand scheme of things, I mean.

What is my purpose on earth? It is surely not to clamor around in self-pity, or complain about annoying cell phone charges. My great offering to the world is probably not that I woke up in a bad mood and/or spent the better part of my days fretting about money and the weather. My great offering most likely has little to do with “me” in the strictest sense.

I’ve also been thinking about the church. In America, there are churches in every city, churches of every kind for whatever preference imaginable. And for the most part they’re all so isolated from one another, so insular and self-obsessed and less concerned about being THE church for the world than being A church for itself. But while we are all busying ourselves in our insular little churches with AWANA and gossip and meat markets and hurt feelings and worship wars, what is happening in the world outside our doors?

The “small stuff” like this, I think, has a tendency to command the majority of our attention and distract us from the bigger picture. But our lives, ultimately, are not about the small stuff. They’re not even really about us—only insofar as “us” refers to Christ working through us.

And yet we live in the most narcissistic age in history. It’s all about us.

Technology is aggravating this problem. I wrote an article in the most recent Relevant magazine entitled “The Problem of Pride in the Age of Twitter,” and it’s sparking some pretty interesting discussions. The title probably gives you an idea as to what my point was. Twitter, Facebook, blogging (yes, I’m speaking self-reflexively here) are all potential hazards to our conflating narcissism, to our tendency to view our selves as dramatic, interesting, and important characters in some play that should be seen by the masses.

We are important, of course, but not in the sense that we think we are. We are important because we were created to serve a purpose, a divine and magnificent purpose that goes way beyond what we think is so great about who we are and what we can offer.

Which brings me back to my first point. I initially said that the minutia of our daily lives was insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Well, this is not completely accurate. Everything in our lives is important, and happens for a reason. As a good Calvinist, I thoroughly and aggressively believe this. What I mean to say is that, while the “small stuff” is important and serves a purpose, it should not consume our energies and distract us from the fact that we are gloriously in existence for something other than ourselves.

We all have struggles. Terrible pains. Jobs, relationships, illnesses, dishes, laundry, car repairs, and so on. But I’m convinced that the weight and burden of all of this becomes quite a bit lighter when you recognize that God is in control, that he has plans and purposes for you, that you and your sorrows are an important piece in a massive puzzle full of billions of pieces that are gradually being fit together for a goodness and glory that would and will blind us if ever we are to see it in full.