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, 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

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


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 (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 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

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)

Revolutionary Road
Paranoid Park
Chop Shop

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

Costume Design
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.

The Class

One of the films nominated in the upcoming Academy Awards’ best foreign film category, The Class is also the first great film I’ve seen in 2009. It’s a film that compelled me from start to finish and left me feeling more curious and inquisitive about the world. Not every film does this for me.

The film—which won the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival—is a slice-of-life look at one classroom in a junior high in Paris’ 20th arrondissement, a working class neighborhood on the city’s far eastern edge. This is blue collar suburban Paris, where immigrants outnumber “natives” and racial tension is thick. And yet the school and students look strikingly similar to a typical American junior high—while also markedly different.

The Class is one of those films that looks and feels like it might be a documentary; and in some senses, it is. Sure, it is “fiction” and the story somewhat scripted, but the film features real people—not actors—in their real roles as teachers, students, parents, etc. It feels like a journalistic investigation into the heart of French public education in 2008; which is pretty much what it is, fiction or otherwise.

The film is based on a book, Between the Walls, written by a real French schoolteacher about his experiences in the classroom over the course of a year. What makes The Class such an interesting adaptation is that the author of the book (François Bégaudeau) is also the star of the film, portraying a version of himself as a young, idealistic teacher trying to inspire a motley crew of variously motivated 14-year-olds. Likewise, the students in his classroom, as well as their parents, and the other teachers in the school, are all playing versions of themselves. This is a real school; These are real lives. It’s a strange blend of life lived and life portrayed. It’s sort of like The Hills meets Mad Hot Ballroom meets Frontline.

Director Laurent Cantet worked with all these amateur “actors” through a system of weekly workshops and improvisations which unfolded over the course of an entire schoolyear. This thoroughly French approach to filmmaking (can you imagine an American studio ever having the patience for a year-long shoot for an arthouse film?) probably accounts for the utterly organic, cinema verite feel of The Class. The fluid cameras feel unobtrusive; the direction invisible; anything “cinematic” comes across only in the occasional shift of focus depth or otherwise artistic shot setup.

Mainly, the film just “lets be” its subjects. The Class is unencumbered by any sort of real plot or script. Rather, it is a series of events, of conversations, of laughter and hardship and students who are alternately unruly, apathetic, and ambitious.

It’s a film that presents us with a complicated social environment: a public school classroom. It’s amazing to watch the nuance and complexity with which Cantet and his improvising subjects navigate the litany of power struggles, adolescent energy, class, race, and French national identity (it’s a French class) being negotiated on a daily basis throughout the school year. Like all teachers, Bégaudeau has his share of model students, trouble students, and downright problem students. And like all classrooms, there are various cliques, stereotypes, and neuroses (pride, fear, inadequacy) both expressed and unexpressed.

But at the end of the day, a class is just a temporary thing—a fleeting band of humanity tossed together for a time, to learn and struggle and push forward in life. Nothing of great surprise or significance happens in The Class, you might think. It’s just a year of somewhat stereotypical school. But this is the drama of life, of thoroughly contemporary life as it is fought through in 2008. And The Class reminds us that the drama of everyday life is sometimes the most miraculous kind.

Sex From the Pulpit: Part Three

Sex scandals and evangelicalism go together like Christian Bale and rage. And it’s all very unfortunate. From Jim Bakker to Paul Crouch to Ted Haggard, we Christians are all too familiar with our leaders being caught in sex, scandal, and hypocrisy. Mostly we just like to forget that these things happen, hiding them or writing them out of the history books to whatever extent we can.

The case of Ted Haggard, unfortunately, has recently resurfaced with a vengeance, thanks to two things: 1) the release of Alexandra Pelosi’s HBO documentary, The Trials of Ted Haggard, and 2) the new allegations that, in addition to having sex and meth with a male prostitute, Haggard also had an inappropriate relationship in 2006 with a 20-year old boy in his church. In something of a bizarre press tour (similar to that of Rod “I might as well milk my infamy” Blagojevich), Haggard has recently appeared on Larry King, Oprah, and Nightline to discuss his experiences of being sexually confused, shunned by his church, and generally despised by most everyone. It’s all very sad to watch, as Haggard describes his various therapists’ opinions on his sexual orientation and how he’s tried to reconcile his sexual struggles with his abiding passion for Christ, the church, and his family.

Watching Haggard on Larry King Live last week, I had a few thoughts:

  • It’s hard to feel bad for Ted Haggard. But I do. He started his church from the ground up, made it a megachurch, made a name for himself in evangelical circles, and let the pride and hubris of all of it undo him. It’s not the easiest thing to be powerful—especially in the church.
  • The evangelical church is really bad at dealing with any sort of complicated issue in sexuality. This is why Haggard was and is so confused about it; it’s why he is shunned by most in the established church. We don’t know how to handle people like him. He had no one to talk to about it for all those years, because the church is so ill equipped to offer any guidance on the matter. This is not to put the blame for what Haggard did on the church. It’s just to say that, as an institution, we’re not that great at helping people through these things.
  • The church’s reaction—to exile Haggard and let him fend for himself post-scandal—is understandable but very unfortunate. When people in our Christian communities mess up, are we really supposed to kick them out and let them find redemption some other way? (in Haggard’s case: not through a church, but through a string of therapists and counselors). I understand the gravity of Haggard’s sin. It was egregious. Our response to moral failure must involve discipline and punishment, yes; but shouldn’t it also involve forgiveness and restoration?

All of this got me thinking of Lonnie Frisbee, an influential evangelist from the early 1970s who ignited the Jesus People movement in Southern California and proved to be the catalyst for the explosive rise of two very prominent evangelical denominations: Calvary Chapel and Vineyard. Frisbie, an LSD-tripping hippie who converted to Christianity in the late 60s, struggled with homosexuality prior to his conversion. And, as is so often the case with life post-conversion, he continued to struggle with it. But he was a lightening rod and major boon to the growth of the church in Southern California, and so initially the pastors who brought him on as preacher looked past his sexually suspicious past. But as soon as Frisbie had a few “lapse” moments and it became clear that his homosexuality could not be hidden from the congregations, he was kicked to the curb—first by Chuck Smith at Calvary Chapel and then by John Wimber at Vineyard. Eventually both denominations made attempts to write Frisbee out of their official histories or at least downplay his contributions. Exiled, Frisbie eventually died of AIDS, a shunned and misunderstood footnote in evangelical history.

It’s not that I fault any of these churches for removing Haggard or Frisbie from their ministry; I think it would have been wrong to let them continue in ministerial authority even in the midst of illicit sexual sins. But I do lament that they felt the need to essentially disown these fallen men, making little attempt to work with them for community-based healing and restoration. It’s as if they were saying, “It was an aberration that this pastor ever had our respect; we’re sorry we put you in the trust of such an imperfect man.” But aren’t we all imperfect men? I’m not saying that we should validate unrighteousness or anything. But can’t we at least admit that struggling with sin is not abnormal or immediately exile-worthy? Hasn’t the church always been led by screwed up people?

Thus ends the “Sex From the Pulpit” series, on a slightly off-topic note. I suppose one take home from all three posts is that, while sex can be recklessly wielded from the pulpit, it can also be recklessly ignored by the church at large. We need to talk and think about all this stuff, critically, carefully, and Christianly, and we need to do it together. I hope these blog posts have been productive in that regard. Now I’m ready to not write about sex for a long long time.

Sex From the Pulpit: Part Two

Mark Driscoll

I had always heard that Mark Driscoll liked to talk about sex. And cuss. And when I sat in on a service last November at the Ballard campus of Mars Hill Church where he pastors, the guy did not disappoint (well, he didn’t cuss per se… but he did say vulva).

Now, let me preface this by saying that I have a lot of respect for Mark Driscoll. I think that he’s doing great things for the church in Seattle, and deep down—beneath the frat guy, “Jesus was not a limp-wrist hippie in a dress!” veneer—he’s a caring, Godly person. But man oh man does he like sex: having it with his wife, talking about it, and getting as many young married hipsters in his church to have it daily.

In a recent New York Times article about Mark Driscoll, writer Molly Worthen opens with a discussion of Driscoll’s sex-heavy rhetoric:

Mark Driscoll’s sermons are mostly too racy to post on GodTube, the evangelical Christian “family friendly” video-posting Web site. With titles like “Biblical Oral Sex” and “Pleasuring Your Spouse,” his clips do not stand a chance against the site’s content filters. …An “Under 17 Requires Adult Permission” warning flashes before the video cuts to evening services at Mars Hill, where an anonymous audience member has just text-messaged a question to the screen onstage: “Pastor Mark, is masturbation a valid form of birth control?”

Driscoll doesn’t miss a beat: “I had one guy quote Ecclesiastes 9:10, which says, ‘Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.’ ” The audience bursts out laughing. Next Pastor Mark is warning them about lust and exalting the confines of marriage, one hand jammed in his jeans pocket while the other waves his Bible. Even the skeptical viewer must admit that whatever Driscoll’s opinion of certain recreational activities, he has the coolest style and foulest mouth of any preacher you’ve ever seen.

I can verify that this description is completely accurate, having seen Driscoll in full-on sex-talk mode at a November service in his church. I was lucky enough to be there during a series on Song of Solomon called “The Peasant Princess,” on the night when Driscoll was preaching on the “Dance of Mahanaim” passage of Song of Solomon (6:11-7:10)—a passage which Driscoll describes as “an ancient striptease.”

Before he began his sermon, Driscoll noted that this was “one of the steamiest passages in the entire Bible” and urged all young children to immediately leave. He then proceeded to elaborate in great detail on the Dance of Mahanaim, talking about what each of the sexually suggestive metaphors meant, etc. Eventually he came to his point: that this passage of scripture was a call for wives to be “visually generous” to their husbands. They should keep the lights on in sex. Walk around the house topless. Things like that.

“The body is the greatest gift a wife can give,” said Driscoll.

A good marriage should be sexually open, with both husband and wife totally willing to do whatever pleases the other—whether it means getting your hair cut “just how s/he likes it” or being willing to do weird fetishy things to please your spouse.

At the end, Driscoll brought his wife out on stage (a little awkward, given the fact that he’d just been telling us about how great she was in bed), and the two of them answered questions that the audience had texted in during the service. One of the questions was about the biblical merits of married couples making homemade sex tapes, to which the Driscolls responded with coy looks at one another and a “yeah, we’ve done it” moment of awkward laughter.

All of it is well and good, I suppose. I do think sex is a wonderful thing for married people—and that they should be doing it freely and often. But here’s my problem: what are all the single people in the audience (and there looked to be a lot of them) supposed to do with this???

Clearly Driscoll’s aim is to get the young Christians in his church married off asap, so this whole “I’m single!” thing doesn’t pose too many problems. Friends of mine who attend or have attended the church confirm this. To be married at Mars Hill is the goal; to be single is to be, well, kinda shunned. In a recent interview with ABC, Driscoll said that at Mars Hill, “We encourage our people to get married and enjoy one another.” Fantastic. But what about the people who stay single well into their twenties, thirties, and beyond? What about the people who feel called to singleness?

From my vantage point—as a 26 year old, unmarried male—Driscoll’s “sex is grrrrrrrreat for married people!” emphasis is more than a little unhelpful. Here’s what it does: it alienates single people and makes them feel like they haven’t lived or won’t live until they get married. It leaves no room for any “satisfied single person identity.” And—most obviously and unforgivably—it makes no attempt to articulate a cogent and Christian sexual ethic for singles. What are we singles supposed to do with our sexual frustration when we get more scandalous and visceral images of sex in a church service than we do from a week’s worth of MTV?

It seems to me that if Mark Driscoll and preachers like him want to talk about sex so frankly and frequently in their churches, they must at least be willing to talk as enthusiastically about the merits of single, celibate life for the Christian, or at least about how it can feasibly be done. But that may be asking too much of them.