Monthly Archives: February 2009

Are You a Christian Hipster?

As you know, I’m writing a book about Christian hipsters and “cool Christianity.” It’s coming along, but many people have asked me: what exactly is a Christian hipster? Am I one? Are you one?

Well, first of all: it’s just a funny label, and we all know that hipsters hate labels. So if you are still reading this post, eager to know what it all means, chances are you are not a Christian hipster. Or maybe you are, and you’re just intrigued by the whole thing (like I am!). In any case, the following is an excerpt from the last chapter I completed (Ch. 5: “Christian Hipsters Today”), and perhaps it will give you a bit of a better sense as to what Christian hipsters are all about…

Christian Hipster Likes and Dislikes (By No Means Exhaustive… Just a Sampling)

Things they don’t like:
Christian hipsters don’t like megachurches, altar calls, and door-to-door evangelism. They don’t really like John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart or youth pastors who talk too much about Braveheart. In general, they tend not to like Mel Gibson and have come to really dislike The Passion for being overly bloody and maybe a little sadistic. They don’t like people like Pat Robertson, who on The 700 Club famously said that America should “take Hugo Chavez out”; and they don’t particularly like The 700 Club either, except to make fun of it. They don’t like evangelical leaders who get too involved in politics, such as James Dobson or Jerry Falwell, who once said of terrorists that America should “blow them all away in the name of the Lord.” They don’t like TBN, PAX, or Joel Osteen. They do have a wry fondness for Benny Hinn, however.

Christian hipsters tend not to like contemporary Christian music (CCM), or Christian films (except ironically), or any non-book item sold at Family Christian Stores. They hate warehouse churches or churches with American flags on stage, or churches with any flag on stage, really. They prefer “Christ follower” to “Christian” and can’t stand the phrases “soul winning” or “non-denominational,” and they could do without weird and awkward evangelistic methods including (but not limited to): sock puppets, ventriloquism, mimes, sign language, “beach evangelism,” and modern dance. Surprisingly, they don’t really have that big of a problem with old school evangelists like Billy Graham and Billy Sunday and kind of love the really wild ones like Aimee Semple McPherson.

Things they like:
Christian hipsters like music, movies, and books that are well-respected by their respective artistic communities—Christian or not. They love books like Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ron Sider, God’s Politics by Jim Wallis, and The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. They tend to be fans of any number of the following authors: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Wendell Berry, Thomas Merton, John Howard Yoder, Walter Brueggemann, N.T. Wright, Brennan Manning, Eugene Peterson, Anne Lamott, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Henri Nouwen, Soren Kierkegaard, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Annie Dillard, Marilynne Robison, Chuck Klosterman, David Sedaris, or anything ancient and/or philosophically important.

Christian hipsters love thinking and acting Catholic, even if they are thoroughly Protestant. They love the Pope, liturgy, incense, lectio divina, Lent, and timeless phrases like “Thanks be to God” or “Peace of Christ be with you.” They enjoy Eastern Orthodox churches and mysterious iconography, and they love the elaborate cathedrals of Europe (even if they are too museum-like for hipster tastes). Christian hipsters also love taking communion with real Port, and they don’t mind common cups. They love poetry readings, worshipping with candles, and smoking pipes while talking about God. Some of them like smoking a lot of different things.

Christian hipsters love breaking the taboos that used to be taboo for Christians. They love piercings, dressing a little goth, getting lots of tattoos (the Christian Tattoo Association now lists more than 100 member shops), carrying flasks and smoking cloves. A lot of them love skateboarding and surfing, and many of them play in bands. They tend to get jobs working for churches, parachurch organizations, non-profits, or the government. They are, on the whole, a little more sincere and idealistic than their secular hipster counterparts.

Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

I was in Panera one night last week—which is where I am a lot of nights these days—writing on my laptop and listening to music in my headphones. Panera is not the hippest place to be writing a book about hipsters, but I like it because 1) it has free wifi, 2) it is about a block from my house, and 3) there are no pretentious people there. Just a lot of soccer moms, knitting groups, retirees and college students.

Anyway, as I was sitting there this night, I had this moment where all I could think about was the end of “The Weight of Glory,” when C.S. Lewis is talking about the “glory” of our neighbor, and how we should feel the burden of the fact that all people are either going to be glory-filled in heaven or gloriously hideous in hell, and that “all day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.”

I was looking around Panera, listening to The Books / Jose Gonzalez’ cover of “Cello Song,” and I had one of those moments where something sort of obvious just hits you.

“There are no ordinary people,” Lewis says. “You have never talked to a mere mortal.”

The stakes are high. We cannot look flippantly on a human life—even strangers or enemies or the annoying people who sing too loudly and demonstratively in church. Whether we like it or not, all of these people are holy beings. As Lewis reminds us, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

Why is it so hard for us to remember this? It made me sad in Panera, looking around at all these people, recognizing that each one is a miracle, someone God created, and yet I so often live my life in the opposite way—caring little about strangers and actively avoiding the burden of my neighbor’s immortality. It’s certainly easier to find reasons to be annoyed by people, to avoid contact with those who are not like us. It’s definitely not the easiest thing in the world to look past the failings of people and love them in spite of it all.

But that’s exactly what we must do. We have to realize that we are all frail, hurting humans, in need of the same grace.

It’s a thought that seems especially appropriate today, on Ash Wednesday, the first day of the 40-day Lenten period in which we quiet ourselves in repentance, renewal and reflection in advance of Easter.

I love Ash Wednesday, because it is a day that is so much about the universal frailty and fallen-ness of man. We are all in this together, all in need of the humbling salvation of the cross. At my church and at many churches worldwide today, Christians will come together for worship, prayer, and the imposition of ashes. This part I love. An ash-marked cross on one’s forehead is a very strange thing to see (especially in a town as vain and airbrushed as L.A.), but it is beautiful. What a fantastic symbol of what Lent is all about: our coming into a focused, reverential meditation upon and solidarity with the suffering of Christ.

Ash Wednesday is a day that reminds us that while we all are physically finite, deteriorating creatures, we are also beautiful, immortal beings created for a greatness and glory we can hardly even fathom. All humans have this in common. We all fall down; We all fall sort. We are all in need of God’s grace. Every single one of us.

An Enemy of Serious Film Criticism

Rather than a recap/rant about the Oscars (which I did for Relevantmagazine.com), I am going to spend my post today exposing a much more urgent and insidious problem in the world of film criticsm: Ted Baehr and Movieguide.org.

If you are unfamiliar with Dr. Ted Baehr, he is a highly suspicious, frequently self-aggrandizing figure in the world of Christian film criticism. His method of film criticism is of the “how many f-words and sex scenes” variety, and he has a very strange Christian=capitalist bent to everything he writes. For those of us who aspire towards a progressive, insightful, nuanced engagement with film from a Christian perspective, Baehr is a most discouraging figure.

It is especially frustrating that, over the past few weeks, he and his organization have been representing Christian film criticism at large by being allowed to write columns in The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek. In these wide platforms, Baehr has played up his usual lines about how family-friendly, G-rated, pro-capitalist films make the most money, and are therefore the best films. If you read the articles, his logic is laughable and his points almost satirical; it’s tragic that this is the Christian critic who is getting the most national media attention.

Anyway, rather than mounting a scathing rebuttal to Baehr’s nonsense (which my editor at Christianity Today did in this insightful blog post), I think it will probably prove the point to just give you some choice quotes from the two recent columns that Baehr and his partner-in-crime, Tom Snyder, authored.

From the Wall Street Journal column, Baehr and Snyder write:

As in past years, films with strong pro-capitalist content — extolling free-market principles or containing positive portrayals of real or fictional businessmen and entrepreneurs — tended to make the most money. The hero of the biggest success of the year, “The Dark Knight,” is a billionaire capitalist who, disguised as Batman, defends Gotham City and its residents from a crazed, anarchistic terrorist criminal. In “Iron Man,” the second-most popular movie with American and Canadian moviegoers in 2008, a capitalist playboy and billionaire defense contractor stops working against the interests of America and its citizens and uses his wealth to defend America and its free-market values.

The box-office receipts of pro-capitalist movies, which also included “Australia,” “City of Ember” and “Bottle Shock” (which extols the virtues of the California wine industry), averaged $152 million per picture in North American theaters. On the whole, they far outperformed movies with strong anticapitalist content. That group, with films such as “Mad Money,” “Chicago 10” and “War, Inc.,” averaged only $5.4 million per picture in North American theaters.

The moneymaking trend was similar for movies with explicit or implicit anticommunist content. That group — including an “An American Carol,” which mocks communism; “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” where Indy reviles communists and their impoverished ideology is exposed; “City of Ember,” where a tyrant steals from the people; and “Fly Me to the Moon,” about the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union — averaged $71.8 million at the 2008 box office in America and Canada. By comparison, movies with pro-communist content, such as “Che,” “The Children of Huang Shi,” “Gonzo,” “Trumbo” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” averaged a measly $7.9 million in 2008.

And from the Newsweek article:

Not only did moviegoers prefer heroic movies with very strong moral virtues, they also rejected movies with anti-Christian, secular, nihilistic, and atheist content like “Religulous,” “Adam Resurrected,” “Save Me,” “Wanted,” “Hounddog,” “Bloodline,” “Hamlet 2,” “The Love Guru,” “Stop-Loss,” and “Saw V.”

Furthermore, contrary to popular opinion, 2008 was the year that obscenity, sex and nudity didn’t sell — again. In fact, movies with no foul language, no sex and no explicit nudity earned much more money on average than movies with some foul language, sex and explicit nudity, or a lot of it, by 2 to 1 or more!

Dr. Baehr, I’m sure you are well-intentioned and yes, you are a brother in Christ; but do you really believe what you are saying? The way that you twist and distort statistics to make “your type” of films look the most successful is simply egregious. And seriously: do you think audiences flocked to see The Dark Knight and Iron Man because they featured billionaire protagonists? I mean, couldn’t you argue that people were much more interested in seeing the Joker in The Dark Knight than Bruce Wayne? And the Joker is hardly pro-capitalist. He burned a pile of money!

Five Films For Our Hard Times

This weekend is the Academy Awards. It’s the lavish yearly spectacle that rewards big budget costume dramas, trend films, and all things glamorous and prestigey. Meanwhile, the country languishes in economic despair, with the market at 6 year lows, jobs being slashed at record pace, and middle and lower-income families struggling to make ends meet. It’s been a rough year for the economy, and there have been several wonderful independent films that seem to have uncannily captured the economic state of things.

The following is a list of five films that came out in 2008 that the Oscars largely overlooked, but which collectively put a very evocative, human face on the struggles of the day. These films portray average people doing their best to survive. They are people without jobs, with kids to feed, facing hardship after hardship. In this way, they are films that represent the larger human struggle—to make a living and support oneself and one’s family by whatever means necessary. It’s an uphill battle; the foes are many. But the human will to survive is a strong one. These films present snapshots of what are likely very common stories in this ever-weakening economy—sometimes very bleak and sometimes curiously hopeful, but always compelling because we can so relate. They are beautiful films that I highly recommend.

Frozen River (dir. Courtney Hunt)
In her arresting directorial debut, Courtney Hunt presents us with a harrowing tale of a mother in upstate New York whose husband has left her with two kids and no money. The mother (Melissa Leo, in a deservingly Oscar-nominated role), in much need of quick cash for the new double-wide trailer she’s ordered, partners with a similarly hard-up single mother on a Mohawk reservation to smuggle illegal immigrants across the Canadian border into the U.S. Of course, it all turns very grim, though the film is not without some glimmers of hope.

Wendy and Lucy (dir. Kelly Reichardt)
This is a short, quick, devastating film about a twenty-something woman (Michelle Williams) who gradually loses everything. She is poor, alone, scared, and has only her dog Lucy to comfort her. Set in the Pacific Northwest and directed by Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy), Wendy peers in on a life of quiet despair and world-weariness that in many senses represents a broader archetype of America in 2008. It’s a wise, loving, heartbreaking film about what we must do just to survive in an increasingly cynical, menacing world.

Ballast (dir. Lance Hammer)
Ballast is a simple, life-affirming (in the true sense) film about how we pull our lives together after tragedy. It’s a very quiet (sometimes silent), organic-looking film with untrained actors and very beautiful location photography somewhere in the Mississippi Delta. The film—which follows a trio of downtrodden African Americans after a crushing death in the family—is about resurfacing, destabilizing, and regaining our balance (hence the title). It’s a film that makes no excuses for its characters and yet allows us to sympathize with their plight and root for them as they ever-so gradually find ways to survive, earn honest money, and move on with life.

Chop Shop (dir. Ramin Bahrani)
Though this film is set in New York City, in the shadow of Yankees Stadium, it feels remarkably other-worldy (Third-worldly, actually). But that’s the point. Tapping into the spirit of De Sica-style Italian neo-realism, Chop Shop, Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani puts a lens on the unseen, difficult lives of the American underclass. Focusing on children who are mostly fending for themselves in largely illegal money-making ventures, Chop Shop is a compelling film that makes familiar and humane something that is—fortunately or unfortunately—very unfamiliar and alien to most of us.

The Wrestler (dir. Darren Aronofsky)

In the role that will most likely win him the Academy Award for best actor, Mickey Rourke stars as an aging professional wrestler past his glory days who must find new purposes and means of living. Directed by the impressive Darren Aronofsky but mostly just a showpiece for Rourke, The Wrestler is a heartbreaking look at the loneliness, self-doubt, and cycle of self-destruction that accompanies many lives when they enter that “past-my-prime” phase. It’s also a film that could be easily read as an allegory of down-on-itself America—a fact that is comically elaborated in this parody of The Wrestler trailer.

The Death of Facebook

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Many of you know that I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. I joined it reluctantly six months ago, and have loved and loathed it for various reasons. Recently, though, Facebook has been mired in a bit of an existential crisis. Just this week it reversed its new terms of service which users passionately rejected for its creepy proprietary implications. And then there is the whole “25 Random Things” sensation that has inexplicably captured the imagination of 7+ million Facebook users. To me, this oddly retro, gloriously insipid throwback to 1998 e-mail forwards is the strongest sign yet that Facebook will soon collapse under the weight of its own purposelessness.

Here is an excerpt from my analysis of this whole thing, published last week on Relevantmagazine.com (read the full article here):

This latest “bout of viral narcissism,” as Time magazine described it, gleefully nebulous though it may be, seems to me to be a sort of resounding trumpet announcement of the coming death of Facebook and all that it represents. “25 Things”—like 90 percent of all status messages, tweets, and Facebook apps—is utterly pointless and nothing more than a distracting way for us to be vaguely familiar to a whole lot of people. If this is the best Facebook can do, it will not last.

Of course, this is wishful thinking. It will in all likelihood last, at least until the “next facebook” comes along. But I’ve never been a fan of facebook, and I’d be just as happy if it collapsed in a spectacular implosion of uncool irrelevance over the next month or so. In my dreams.

In the meantime, there came more frightening news of narcissistic technocalypse this week, from Google of course! Their new “Google Latitude” application provides us with the “maps” version of the Twitter mindset. Now, it is no longer just about updating the world as to your minute-by-minute activities, but also your minute-by-minute locations! Attention, world, I am now at the gas station on Westwood & Santa Monica. Just so ya know! What’s next? A technology to broadcast to the world what we are thinking in real time?

Here’s my problem with all this stuff: in addition to stoking the coals of our inflamed narcissism, all of these technologies make it easier for us to control every aspect of our identity as it exists in relationship to other people. It makes “communion” with people little more than highly self-conscious, intricately schemed, situational performances wherein we control what, when, where, and how much of ourselves people can know. Whatever happened to that wonderfully unsteady sense of mystery, that awkward flubbing around in relationships that used to characterize “getting to know” someone? That is all dispensed with in the Facebook world, where we can “know” someone just by spending some time poking about their various profiles, blogs, and pictures, or just by googling them. We never have to meet them in person, really!

A friend of mine, who miraculously isn’t on Facebook and avoids the Internet in general (but is nonetheless one of the smartest and kindest people I know), recently posed this question to me:

“Do you think that people who do a lot of online networking become that much less able to relate to people in a way that leaves room for inklings about people rather than making decisions based on profiles which are essentially ingredients listings?”

The question immediately resonated with me. Yes, it’s true. I think Facebook has done much damage in the way that we conceive of “knowing” a person. Does it really only amount to how much we know of their favorite music or movies? Or what their status updates report about their day-to-day activities?

I feel like I have false notions of so many people, just because I know them only or primarily through the Internet. It’s so much more interesting and enlightening to get to know someone in reality, without all that. I like being able to discover things about people by asking them, hearing from them, having mysteries and encountering little discoveries along the way. I like seeing the dissonance between someone’s facial expression and or body language and what they are saying. When we all have control over what we look like and how we define ourselves on the Internet, it removes that mystery. And it turns “friendship” into something that has less to do with knowing people deeply than just knowing whatever bits and pieces of them they want to reveal (which happens in real-world relationships too, but moreso on the Internet).

Human beings are far, far more complex and wonderful than their status updates and “ingredient listing” profile pages. And it is far more rewarding and profound to get to know someone in an unsafe, slightly uncertain and awkward way than to rigorously research them and pretend to know them via all the accumulated Internet data on them.

So let’s take a step back from “25 Things” and think about this. Do we really think that sending out mass notes with carefully selected tidbits about ourselves is making anyone more known? Who are we kidding? As a mindless diversion and exercise in classic Facebook self-love, it’s fine. But as a commentary on the uses and practices of online social networking (which I think it pretty much is), “25 Things” is nothing if not a warning sign that the end is near.

My Alternate Oscar Nomination List

Over at Relevantmagazine.com yesterday, I wrote about who I predicted would win this Sunday’s Academy Awards. I mentioned that this year’s nominations were among the worst I’d ever seen, and that if I could come up with my own nomination list, it would probably be about 80% different than what the Academy came up with. Well, below is my own alternate set of nominations in fifteen of the top categories (totally disregarding eligibility rules). And it looks like they are actually 73% different… but you get the point.

Best Picture
Paranoid Park
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Rachel Getting Married
Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Best Director
Woody Allen, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Gus Van Sant, Paranoid Park
Charlie Kauffman, Synecdoche, New York
David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Woody Allen, Cassandra’s Dream

Best Actor:
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino
Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
Benicio Del Toro, Che
Michael Fassbinder, Hunger

Best Actress:
Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Kristen Scott Thomas, I’ve Loved You So Long
Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Michelle Williams, Wendy & Lucy
Juliette Binoche, Flight of the Red Balloon

Supporting Actor:
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Eddie Marsan, Happy-Go-Lucky
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
Chris Messina, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Jeffrey Wright, W.

Supporting Actress:
Viola Davis, Doubt
Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married
Debra Winger, Rachel Getting Married
Tilda Swinton in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Rebecca Hall, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Best Documentary:
Man on Wire
American Teen
Encounters at the End of the World
Standard Operating Procedure
The Unforeseen

Best Foreign Film:
The Class (France)
Hunger (Ireland)
Silent Light (Mexico)
Let the Right One In (Sweden)
Waltz With Bashir (Israel)

Best Original Screenplay
Synecdoche, New York
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Rachel Getting Married
Gran Torino
Burn After Reading

Best Adapted Screenplay
The Dark Knight
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Paranoid Park
Frost/Nixon
Doubt

Best Original Score
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Synecdoche, New York
Revolutionary Road
Cassandra’s Dream

Best Original Song
Bruce Springsteen, “The Wrestler” (The Wrestler)
Clint Eastwood, Jamie Cullum, “Gran Torino” (Gran Torino)
Peter Gabriel, “Down to Earth” (Wall E)

Cinematography:
Revolutionary Road
Paranoid Park
Ballast
Chop Shop
Hunger

Art Direction
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mister Lonely
The Fall
Australia
Synecdoche, New York

Costume Design
Australia
The Fall
Mister Lonely
Revolutionary Road
The Dark Knight

Some Thoughts About Humility

I’ve been thinking recently about how Christians are meant to be set apart from the world. One of my goals for 2009 is to memorize all of Romans 12, and for February I am working on the part about how Christians are called to “not be conformed to the world, but transformed by the renewing of your mind.” But what exactly does that mean? The renewing of your mind?

Basically, I’ve been wondering what it is about Christians that makes us “set apart.” You certainly can’t tell by looking at someone—especially these days when Christians of my age dress and act (in many respects) like your average hedonistic hipster. So it must be a difference in our behavior or attitude, right?

I was talking to a friend about this a few weeks ago, and he suggested that, at the end of the day, the things that really distinguish Christians from the rest of the world are humility and forgiveness. Humility and forgiveness…

I think he was right. This pretty much sums it up.

Humility and forgiveness are totally countercultural. They are things that go against every grain of our nature—a nature that is so fundamentally driven by pride. Pride is the original sin, and the root of all subsequent sin. To be Christian is to actively repudiate our pride-based identity and instead follow Christ’s example of a self-denying, other-focused existence. And don’t think that it’s not a bruising struggle.

Everything in our society urges us to embrace our pride—to “go for it” and “be all that you can be,” to have high self-esteem and self-worth because we accomplish great things. Our parents and teachers tell us we are special and that one day we will probably be famous. The Internet tells us that we can and should be famous now. Our economy is structured in such a way that presumes that everyone ultimately wants more: more wealth, more prestige, more renown, more significance. Pretty much everything most of us do is toward the end of bettering our lives, making something of ourselves, and leaving some sort of important legacy behind.

Christianity says, “deny yourself” and “do not think of yourself more highly than you ought.”

It’s a crazy idea. To think that, even as every instinct within us clamors for the recognition and envy of others, we might put ourselves last and love others first.

Just imagine what Christianity would look like if we stopped being so self-obsessed! What would the world do if every Christian stopped trying to make themselves look good or sound smart, and humbled themselves to a place where everything they did was not about them but about how they could be used to bring God’s graces and glories to a world in need?

What if we all decided to live simpler lives and consume less, giving more of our resources away instead of spending it all on iPhones, expensive wine, and whatever other status symbols we accumulate to pamper our lives and project an image of stylish perfection? What if, instead of obsessing about our complicated relationships or fretting about silly things like how a facebook wall post might be perceived, we realized that the deepest thing Rick Warren ever wrote is totally, reassuringly true: “It’s not about you.”

It’s. Not. About. You.

It seems like if ever we are to truly appear set apart—in a desirable, “I want to go to there” sort of way (to quote Liz Lemon)—a good place to start is with some sincere, “it’s not about me” humility.

Yes, it’s hard. Insanely hard. And even as I’m writing this blog post I’m stuggling with it. But the most subversive thing about the whole idea is that, even though it’s hard and seems stupid and self-loathing to purge ourselves of pride, it is ultimately a much better and more fulfilling place to be. For when we remove our own self-aggrandizing tendencies, we open ourselves up to being conduits of some other, higher, infinitely more significant purposes—the purposes of God. It’s about Him; not us. What a ridiculously comforting thought.