Monthly Archives: March 2009

Hipster Church Tour: Jacob’s Well

As part of the research for my book, I’ve been visiting churches all over the country over the past year—a tour of “America’s hippest churches,” you might say (though soon to expand to Europe as well). The goal is to gain a good bit of qualitative data on the subject I’m writing about, to understand firsthand how various church bodies are fitting in to this whole thing. I have stopped at dozens of churches in many states and talked with countless people, and every now and then on my blog I will describe in depth my various observations about these churches.

Keep in mind a few things: 1) I love Christians and have greatly enjoyed all the services I’ve visited. They are all genuinely worshiping God. 2) Calling these “hipster” churches does in no way elevate them above other churches nor does it denigrate them; It is not meant to be any sort of value judgment at all. “Hipster church” is simply a designation for a particular type of contemporary church that, above all classifying criteria, tends to attract large numbers of hipsters.

With that said, I’d like to start this series with Jacob’s Well—a church in Kansas City which exceptionally high hipster cred. Because I’m from Kansas City, I think it’s fitting to start this journey there.

Church Name: Jacob’s Well
Location: Kansas City, MO.
Head Pastor: Tim Keel

Summary: I’ve attended services at Jacob’s Well on three occasions, which is more than most of the churches I’ve visited (simply because I’m in Kansas City a lot). Jacob’s Well has been a fixture on the “emerging church” landscape since the early 00s, largely because pastor Tim Keel is on the board of directors for Emergent. It’s a church that feels totally new and fresh, but which upholds tradition and history and all things “vintage.” It’s a hipster church because it has a large, young hipster contingent in the audience, but also because it fits firmly within the hip tradition of usurping the establishment. As described by Christian Century, Jacob’s Well is “a rebuke to those churches that, in imitation of cutting-edge 1970s evangelicalism, deliberately strip themselves of historical symbols, creeds and practices in an effort to grow. [Jacob’s Well] is succeeding by moving in precisely the opposite direction.” For example, JW embraces things like read prayers, weekly communion (by intinction, and with the option of gluten-free bread!), and lectio divina. It’s all very mystery-minded and aesthetically pleasing.

Building: A formidable old Presbyterian structure from the 1930s, renovated but retaining many traditional and ancient elements like stained glass, pews, candles, and churchy vaulted ceilings. On one wall in the building you will see this quote from Stanley Hauerwas: “The work of Jesus was not a new set of ideals or principles for reforming or even revolutionizing society, but the establishment of a new community, a people that embodied forgiveness, sharing and self-sacrificing love in its rituals and discipline. In that sense, the visible church is not to be the bearer of Christ’s message, but to be the message.”

Congregation: Granted, I’ve only ever visited the evening (5:30pm) service, which probably skews especially young, but the JW congregation is remarkably youthful. There are some older people scattered throughout, but for the most part the crowd seemed college or twentysomething. Lots of guys with beards, girls with tattoos, and skinny jeans everywhere. Mix of yuppie-type hipsters and more organic, indie types. Not particularly high on the friendly-to-strangers scale, but twentysomethings rarely are. We all did hold hands for the last song, however, which was a cheerfully sung benediction.

Music: Led by worship pastor Mike Crawford, the Jacob’s Well band is youthful, loud, but worshipful. It seems less performance-oriented and more a facilitator of community singing, which is not to say that it isn’t good. It’s quality indie rock, and largely original. Crawford writes many of the songs himself, such as “Words to Build a Life On,” which features the lyric “Sing your freaking lungs out / Jesus Christ is King!” When they play the music of others, the JW band is more likely to do a Sufjan Stevens song during communion than any sort of “Jesus is my girlfriend” chorus. On one of the Sundays I visited, they played the Welcome Wagon version of the nineteenth century hymn “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,” mere weeks after the Welcome Wagon CD came out. Their style is a bit grungy, imperfect, and unpolished, in true hipster fashion. Slick, overproduced songs with crazy lighting and fog machines are nowhere to be found at Jacob’s Well.

Arts: Arts are huge at Jacob’s Well. There are frequent gallery shows displaying the art and photography of the congregation. During worship services, the congregation is encouraged to take one of the “community journals” to write doodles, art, prayer, thoughts, or poems, as they sit through the service.

Technology: Like most hipster churches, technology is important at Jacob’s Well, but not in an over-the-top way. They do encourage texting in questions or ideas, and the church has a large online presence (MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, etc).

Neighborhood: The heavily hipster midtown Kansas City area—near Brookside and Westport. Lots of artists, bohemians, and Democrats in the area. Far from suburbia, which is important.

Preaching: One interesting thing about the preaching at Jacob’s Well is that the speaker preaches on the floor, at eye level—not elevated on stage or behind a pulpit—in a conversational style. The preacher invites comments and questions from the audience throughout the sermon, steering the sermon according to where the congregational conversation goes. On one of the Sundays I visited, the topic of the sermon was child sex abuse—a topic rarely discussed in church but which is a problem made all the worse because “we let dark places remain dark.”

Quote from pulpit: “We at Jacob’s Well are trying to move away from a belief-centered community to a practice-centered community.”

Quote from website: “Jacob’s Well doesn’t have a mission; it is mission.”

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Lenten Promises to Keep

The middle of Lent. 17 more days until Easter. It’s a time of waiting, anticipation, sadness and hope. It’s wearying and rejuvenating in awkward intervals. It’s Psalm 88 one minute and 89 the next.

It’s life.

My life has been crazy busy lately, though it’s nothing really new, and it’s not like everyone else in the world doesn’t feel the same way. We’re all busy. Life is always on the brink of being too much to handle. For everyone everywhere at every time in history, it’s been a struggle.

Today I was thinking about how grandiose and overwhelming existence is. There is so much wonder and beauty to be experienced, so many roses to be smelled, so many puppies to be pet, so many interesting variations on earth and sky to be seen. It’s downright daunting. Just when you think you’ve seen the best thing— Boom! There’s something better. Around every corner and at nearly ever turn, there are new adventures and new experiences to have. New lessons to learn. People to meet.

But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep

So wrote Robert Frost in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” It’s a poem about the alluring beauty of a forest during a snowstorm. A rider is passing through it, entranced by its splendor, tempted to linger. But he’s got places to be, obligations to keep. Miles to go before he sleeps.

So often I feel like life is a snowstorm and I’m just passing through, unable to really stop and play in it or experience it for what it really is. There’s too much to do. The business of life doesn’t allow for much lingering. There’s just not enough time to do all that the world beckons me to do.

There’s not enough time.

Those are numbing words. No one wants to hear those words, but we all know they’re true. And oh is it painful to admit: there are places I will not get to see, people I will not get to know, books I will not get to read. There are songs I won’t sing, paintings I won’t paint, films I won’t film. There are things I will only ever be on the outside of, looking in. And it’s not just the lofty “life goals” stuff that gets consumed by the breakneck tempo of life. It’s a day-to-day thing. Every morning we rise, with a list of things we must do and hopes for what we might do. Every night we go to sleep with a few things left undone, a few things that might have happened differently.

I think this tension—this ability to have vision, desire, ambition, and longing for so much more than our temporal faculties could permit us—is one of the most significant tensions of life. It’s painful, but unavoidable. As much as we might try to aim lower or dream smaller, it’s an inevitability of life that we will always be plagued by the ceaseless handicap of “miles to go.” We’re always looking towards an end—a sun that is forever racing away from us, as the world turns.

I suppose it’s a Lenten comfort though—that even if the sun sets far too soon everyday, it also rises.

Calvinism: So Hot Right Now

To the surprise of many, Time magazine recently listed “The New Calvinism” as the third most important idea changing the world “right now.” What?? 500 years after the birth of John Calvin, is his theological namesake really enjoying resurgence in 2009?

I guess I’m not totally surprised. I’ve noticed the trend myself. I read Collin Hansen’s Young, Restless, Reformed last year. I’ve been to Mars Hill Church in Seattle. I’ve witnessed many young Christian friends getting totally passionate about the Reformation and everything it represents.

But why is it happening now? What is it about Calvinism that is suddenly more appealing than it was just a decade ago? Here are a few of my initial thoughts—as someone who increasingly identifies with Reformed ideas (though not 100%):

Calvinism is about certainty.
In an era in which certainty is hard to come by and ambiguity is frequently championed, more and more young people are longing for something that is rock-solid certain. In Calvinism, there is no second-guessing about whether I’ve done enough or prayed the sinners prayer earnestly enough to be saved, because it has nothing to do with my own powers.

Calvinism emphasizes sin (total depravity) and places it at the starting point, rather than as a footnote. It cuts us humans down to size from the get go, underscoring both our desperate need for redemption and righteousness and our utter inability to achieve it ourselves. I think this really resonates with younger people today, who have grown up in a world that has told them they are good boys and girls who can do whatever they want to in life. They’ve been met with yeses at every turn, but are longing for nos. They recognize that they are far from the angelic harbingers of goodness that their parents, teachers, and advertisers have deemed them. Calvinism tells it like it is.

Calvinism views God in the highest way possible. He is sovereign and fearsome and awesome in ways we can’t begin to understand. While “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” doesn’t sound comforting, many people would still rather be in the hands of an angry God who is sovereign than a buddy God who is only partially sovereign and sometimes surprised (see Open Theism). In times of crisis and tragedy, an all-powerful God who effects everything to his purposes is so much more comforting than a God who isn’t in complete control.

Calvinism has a beautiful picture of grace. It is irresistible and unconditional. When God sets his eyes on us, we can’t escape his pursuit (and who would want a God who couldn’t capture those he sought to save?). As Sufjan Stevens beautifully sings in “Seven Swans”: He will take you / If you run / He will chase you / Because he is the Lord.

It rings true to many young people that nothing they can humanly do could ever achieve salvation—at least more true than the idea that God, the author and perfecter of our faith, saves only on the condition of some action on the part of the saved. On the contrary, the Calvinist view insists that we have no recourse to self-sufficiency or pride. As Paul writes in Galatians, “far be it from me to boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (6:14).

Calvinism fears God. A healthy fear of God is totally lost on contemporary Christianity, which sees him as more of a “buddy/friend/therapist/guru” than the creator and sustainer of the universe. More and more young people are growing dubious of God-lite and prefer thinking of him as a commanding, dominating, dangerous God who deserves our deferential fear.

Calvinism ground itself in the bible rather than sugarcoated feel-goodisms. Consider what J.I. Packer says about this when he contrasts the “new” and “old” gospels in his famous introduction to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ:

“The pitiable Savior and the pathetic God of modern pulpits are unknown to the old gospel. The old gospel tells men that they need God, but not that God needs them (a modern falsehood); it does not exhort them to pity Christ but announces that Christ has pitied them, though pity was the last thing they deserved. It never loses sight of the divine majesty and sovereign power of the Christ whom it proclaims but rejects flatly all representations of him that would obscure his free omnipotence.”

Calvinism is a little bit edgy, dark, and punk rock. It is less about hugs, Sunday School pink lemonade and “God loves you” than it is about discipline, deference and “God hates you in your sin; you are a wretch who needs God’s grace.” It’s not for the faint of heart or the easily offended. Kids like this.

I Heart March (Madness)

T.S. Eliot once said “April is the cruelest month.” I don’t know about that, but I do know that March is one of the best months there is. We have Spring Break vacations, St. Patrick’s Day, and, most importantly, the NCAA Basketball Tournament. For college basketball fans, March is one big, energy-filled party. It’s madness. And hopefully this year it’ll be Jayhawk madness. (Again.)

The NCAA tournament is three weeks of raw, “expect the unexpected” amateur athletics at its best. Rankings, hype, politics, bracketology, office pools, endless ads for sucky CBS sitcoms … it all means little during the glorious processional of 64, then 32, 16, 8, and finally four teams giving it all to feel the inexplicable joy of being on top.

Some people are surprised to find out that I’m such a big college basketball fan (and sports fan in general). And while I make no apologies for it and don’t really think it needs to be explained, perhaps I can expound a little on why I find so much value in it.

I mean, surely there is some deeper meaning to sports, right? What does it mean that so many people go absolutely nuts watching sports? Congregating around TVs, packing into sweaty auditoriums, cheering on players running back and forth throwing a ball around? Why do we schedule our lives—and often our discretionary incomes—around what all of us would probably willingly refer to as “just a game?” Sure, we could write it off as mere entertainment, but that is an empty term in referring to what something “entertaining” actually means in our lives. Why are sports like basketball so attractive as activities to fill our diminishing spare time?

All of our choices of entertainment are, I think, on one level an attempt to escape “everyday life” but also an attempt to reinforce it. It’s an interesting dichotomy actually. Seeing a movie, for example, is obviously “escapism,” but think about the movies you like the best and why… They are the ones that reinforce what you know of the world, of reality, of existence. Not the ones that seem alien or ring false.

Likewise, attending a basketball game is a fun escape and diversion from our everyday lives. But we wouldn’t go—we wouldn’t pay hundreds of dollars for two hours of spectatorship—if mere diversion is all it was. No, I think basketball (as one of many sports) is so popular, so intensely followed, because it reflects things about our own lives and existence on this planet that we don’t often think about or correlate. I know this sounds extremely convoluted, but follow me here…

Basketball, and all sports, are competitions. That is the first and most basic point of connection with real life. We live lives of competition—in the workplace, in the dating world, in everything we buy or sell, etc… And basketball is one example of a heightened form of competition where the stakes are lower for us but the instincts are still as strong. We resonate with and cheer so hard for our team to win because, quite frankly, fighting to win is what life is all about.

The thrill of victory is worth the price of admission, but what about the agony of defeat? When this is an all-too-ready option in any given sporting event, why do we still attend, game after game? Well, this is where the uniqueness of sport vs. life comes in to play. Losing in sports is tough, don’t get me wrong, but it is part of the game. Losing in life is a lot more unforgiving. Basketball is 50% losing in point of fact (all games everywhere have exactly one winner and one loser), but the heart of the game is in winning. In our real lives we also relate to both winning and losing, but losing seems to get all the attention. Thus, we are attracted to something that focuses our minds and hearts on that still-small reality of life that is within everyone’s grasp—the transcendent glory that comes with winning.

You know the moment in a basketball game when your team is down by a dozen or so points, but makes a run and brings it to within two? And then the crowd rises to its feet, loudly cheering, and the team gets a new bounce in its step, hitting a long three to take the lead? That moment, with the deafening noise and dispirited opponents losing control—is a moment when you can touch the glory, where you glimpse—dare I say it—the divine. You get goosebumps, you slap a stranger’s hand, and you raise your voice to the rafters for the glory to continue.

In these moments I envision God smiling at us humans and thinking, they are feeling it in small doses. Unfortunately, many of us leave these sporting “highs” without thinking that maybe they point to something greater that surrounds us. What if sport really is a gift from God? What if the blessings of sport are only a fraction of what is available to us? I think it probably saddens God when the good things in life—sports, natural beauty, art, etc—are cheapened and seen only as ends unto themselves; not as the signposts to a greater grace that exists in the world.

And so we should not cheapen basketball by writing off its “trivial” place in the grand scheme of things. Instead we should realize that the small wonders and momentary blessings matter in life. Why? Because the existence of rays of light implies a vast sun, and if we ever want to comprehend something that vivid, we should start by taking the light in small doses, wherever we can find it.

Joaquin’s Greatest Acting Performance

Joaquin Phoenix is a great actor. He was amazing in films likes Gladiator, To Die For, Quills, The Village, Signs, and Walk the Line, among many others. He’s been nominated for two Academy Awards. He’s an actor of mysterious, artsy repute, born of cultish hippie Vegans in Puerto Rico and brother of the late River Phoenix. But Joaquin’s best acting performance so far is happening right now, in 2009, and you can see it in theaters.

I’m talking about his work in the new film, Two Lovers.

The film, directed by James Gray, is a moody romance about a guy in Brooklyn named Leonard (Phoenix) who falls in love with two women (Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw), for different reasons. To put it simplistically, the film is about Leonard’s struggle to decide which woman and which life he wants to pursue.

But don’t be deceived by how trite or familiar this film sounds. It is a totally fresh, beautifully told, heartbreaking film from start to finish. When I saw it this weekend, it was exactly the thing I needed to wash the lingering Watchmen bad taste out of my mouth. Unlike Watchmen, which glories in depravity and makes a pop art spectacle out of sin and frailty, Two Lovers approaches the subject delicately and with admirable nuance. The film captures the tensions and torments of the human psyche—which so often leads us astray, even when we long for the good.

Undoubtedly, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in this film is the thing to write home about. It is stunning. He makes his character simultaneously lovable and loathsome, identifiable and alien. It’s a deep, layered performance that always errs on the side of restraint, normalcy, and empathy—even when so much of the “let’s bring the house down!” brand of show-offy acting (which seems so fashionable these days) would easily beckon Joaquin to go elsewhere with the character. Instead, Joaquin imbues Leonard with a tender, quiet, acutely felt brokenness that is never expressly rendered but rather sketched in silhouette.

In many ways, the character of Leonard is an archetype. He’s a grown man, living with his parents and working for their laundromat, unsure of what he wants in life and generally prone to misanthropy and bouts of suicidal depression. He’s haunted by the departure from his life of his former fiancé, and is sincerely stumbling through a recovery period in which he wants to do the best by himself, but has an excuse if things turn out otherwise. The way he talks, walks, works, interacts… it’s all working class normal. Leonard is just another messed up thirtysomething in New York.

And yet it is a testament to Joaquin Phoenix and his formidable talents, that Leonard becomes the most engrossing, tragic, life-encompassing film character I have seen in some time. Perhaps I am reading more depth into this character than I should, but that is sort of the beauty of this performance: it is refreshingly open-ended and complicated in a good way. We know who Leonard is, to be sure. We know him well. But there is a mystery and unknowable (and yet familiar) quality to him as well, in the same way that Monet’s Water Lilies can be mundane and comprehensible one minute and abstract and surprising the next.

I don’t mean to compare Joaquin Phoenix to Monet or anything. I just want to point out that this performance—if indeed it is his last film performance (hopefully not the case)—is definitely his Water Lilies.

Coffee and Easter

I gave up coffee for Lent. That’s coffee as in drip coffee, cappuccinos, lattes, and anything of the sort—both caffeinated and decaf. It’s been horrible. I mean, I must have been addicted to coffee or something, because it has been a struggle everyday these past few weeks to not drink it. One major problem is that my office is right outside the department’s coffee machine, so I smell it wafting in every morning, like one of those vintage “Peter comes home for Christmas” Folgers commercials. And it doesn’t help that I spend many of my weeknights writing at various coffeeshops, where variations on tea or chai can only go so far to filling that “keep me awake and vibrant” need…

It’s like the feeling of being outside of some circle, of looking in on a world of pleasantness and pleasure and not being able to participate. But I guess this is the point of giving something up for Lent. It’s supposed to help us identify with the 40-day period in which Jesus retreated to the wilderness and fasted—eating nothing and praying constantly. Next to that, my giving up coffee seems terribly insignificant.

The amazing upside to the whole “no coffee” tragedy is that during Lent, Sundays don’t count. Because it is the day of Resurrection—the day death was conquered—it is a “free” day from our wanting. The forty days of Lent from Ash Wednesday to Easter do not include Sundays, thanks be to God.

It makes coffee taste all the more magnificent on Sundays.

To lack a beautiful pleasure like coffee for six out of seven days is actually not the worst thing in life. Having six days of missing goodness is always better than six days full of heartbreak or sadness. I’d rather be without a good than with a bad. But in life there’s always a mix.

All I know is that coffee tastes great on Sunday mornings. Also, mountain forests smells divine after an afternoon rainstorm. And doesn’t the sun seems to shine brighter on the day classes let out for summer break? And sleeping in on a day when you have nothing to get up for. Don’t even get me started.

25 Films to Represent America

When U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently visited with President Barack Obama at the White House, the two dignitaries customarily exchanged gifts. Brown gave Obama a pen holder made from wood from the anti-slave ship HMS Gannet. Neat. Obama gave Brown a custom box set of 25 DVDs that best represent American cinema. Nice idea. But lest you think Obama picked the films out himself, you should know that he had the American Film Institute pick the films for him. And unsurprisingly, the 25 they came up with conspicuously mirrored the AFI’s top 25 films from their 2007 “best American films” list. Borrrring.

If I were to compile a box set of 25 films that say the most about America, my list would be very different (though not totally different). Actually, I think it’s an interesting project: to think of what 25 films are the most interesting and profound “American” films. That is: films made by American directors, about American things, ideas, mythologies, dreams, paradoxes, etc. Thus, I present my list. A great gift idea for anyone…

The Crowd (King Vidor, 1928)
The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940)
Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)
Shane (George Stevens, 1953)
The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
Shadows (John Cassavetes, 1959)
Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969)
The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1971)
Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1972)
Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978)
Down By Law (Jim Jarmusch, 1986)
Slacker (Richard Linklater, 1991)
A River Runs Through It (Robert Redford, 1992)
Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)
Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson, 1996)
The Big Lebowski (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1998)
Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998)
The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998)
American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999)
George Washington (David Gordon Green, 2000)
Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese, 2002)
The New World (Terrence Malick, 2006)
I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007)
There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)