Monthly Archives: May 2009

What Does “Mere Christianity” Look Like?

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“It is at her centre, where her truest children dwell, that each communion is really closest to every other in spirit, if not in doctrine. And this suggests that at the centre of each there is a something, or a Someone, who against all divergencies of belief, all differences of temperament, all memories of mutual persecution, speaks with the same voice.”

-C.S. Lewis, preface to Mere Christianity

I always loved C.S. Lewis’ idea of “mere Christianity”—that there are fundamental beliefs about God and Christ that bind the church together, even while so many of the particulars might be different or contradictory. It’s an idea that makes sense. And it’s comforting. It helps explains why Christianity as a belief system has managed to survive so many centuries and penetrate so many disparate cultures. There are certain core beliefs (amazing, world changing beliefs) that can’t help but endure. And as I’ve spent the last few days in Lewis’ house here in Oxford, his idea—“mere Christianity” is one I’ve thought about again and again.

I think about it while I’m writing my book, for one thing. If there is any underlying reason why I’m writing the book, it’s that I think the church today needs to rediscover “mere Christianity” as opposed to “cool Christianity” or “jazzy Christianity” or “online Christianity” (or whatever other conflated, stylized “Christianity” you can think of). I think we’ve become obsessed with the form and presentation of the Gospel while forsaking its substance (or divorcing substance from form, which is equally problematic). And I think a good dose of “mere Christian” back-to-basics and unity-mindedness could do us some good.

I also thought about this idea as I was in downtown Oxford today, looking at old cathedrals and convents and churches and vestiges of Christianity’s indelible impact on this place. I especially liked seeing the Oxford Martyrs monument, on the spot where Thomas Cranmer and 2 others were burned at the stake for their beliefs. Though the church is not alive here like it once was, the physical and spiritual remnants are enough to inspire anyone. Sitting in the University Church of St. Mary’s on Thursday I was able to catch a free chorale concert by a touring choir from William Jewell College in Missouri. It was sad to me that beautiful cathedrals like this in Oxford are now primarily venues for concerts and tourism, but then when the choir started singing the American folk hymn, “What Wondrous Love is This,” it didn’t matter. It was beautiful and transcendent. When songs like that are still being sung in places like this, the worldwide church is alive and well.

I think about the idea when I’m chatting with Tammy, the other writer who is currently staying at the Kilns, or Donna, who is the caretaker of the Kilns and also lives here. We are all from different backgrounds and Christian traditions, but we are all fond of Lewis and fond of “mere Christian” fellowship. It’s been great hearing about Tammy’s passionate and daring preference for the book of John over anything Paul wrote. It’s fun having an afternoon Pimms-and-pineapple juice with Donna and talking about our mutual appreciation for Tim Keller. It was fantastic when the three of us had dinner and drinks at a restaurant on the banks of the Thames last night in Oxford. The C.S. Lewis Foundation always has a knack for bringing unlikely groups of people together and allowing them to experience the heavenly feeling of mere Christian fellowship… and this week has been one more instance of that.

I will probably be thinking of this idea tomorrow when I go to London and visit some churches (Grace Church Hackney and Hillsong London). I love going to Christian churches in foreign countries (I love going to churches just about anywhere) and seeing how the Christians in a given community worship. I love having communion at these churches—jumping right in to this ultimate sacrament of community, like every Christian should wherever they are in the world. Every church is a little different, and some are very different—but ultimately they all are centered around the same Someone—Jesus Christ—and speak praise and thanks in the same voice—that of the worldwide body of Christ, the Church.

Finally, I think of Lewis’ idea as I sit here, in his bedroom, thinking about the type of Christian he was. Lewis gave so much of himself when he was alive. I think about how he took in some kids from London during the war, and how he gave away most of his income from book sales, and how he replied to every fan letter he ever received. And this is to say nothing of his immense scholarly and literary contributions to the Christian tradition and the world at large. He was a man of God, to be sure, and if I can be a mere Christian in the Lewisian mold I will certainly have lived a good life.

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First Day at The Kilns

I’m writing this on the bed of C.S. Lewis, in his second floor room in his beautiful home—The Kilns—just outside of Oxford. There’s a little brick fireplace in the room, a creaky wood floor, and an adjacent study where he did a lot of writing after his wife Joy died.

It’s a ghostly little room, haunted by the absence of a legendary literary hero as well as the curious visage of what looks like a photo of the shroud of Turin, hanging above the fireplace mantle. The curtains are brown burlap and the walls are painted bluish gray. Outside the gardens are thriving and green, with hydrangeas and begonias and apple and pear trees enjoying their early summer growth spurts. Down the path there is a hidden pond, sodden with algae and leaves. I went hiking back there tonight, after dinner. I climbed to the top of Shotover Hill, on a muddy, well-worn path that Lewis himself took many an evening. That Lewis had trod on these very paths and slept under this very roof was indeed an inspiring thing, but more than Lewis himself (or his writings or his legacy), these things brought to mind a longing for something other and separate and elsewhere. Fitting, I suppose, as this is an idea Lewis frequently explored.

In The Weight of Glory, Lewis wrote this:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust in them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing… For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

This house is not the thing itself, and yet through it comes so much. It’s more than just Lewis for me. It’s a stream of memories of the weeks I’ve spent in Oxford in summer past, with amazing people I might not ever see again. It’s the smell of the rain and the bright green trees and all the memories of grasses and habitats I’ve had occasion to roll around in over the years. It’s listening to Debussy on damp blankets under the stars at Tanglewood one summer in the Berkshires. It’s the echo of a tune that I have not yet heard.

It’s beautiful, and I’m so blessed to be here.

A New York City Blur

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“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.” -E.M. Forster (Howards End)

“Only connect.” That is the epigraph to E.M. Forster’s Howards End—a book I have not actually read, but which I have on my list. “Only connect” is a sort of life mantra for a friend I had dinner with in Brooklyn last night, and in thinking about what I could say about my NYC experiences over the past few days, the phrase kept coming up. “Only connect.”

I try to live my life in this way. Making connections, tying things together, seeing how all the pieces fit and how my geometry class in high school ties in to things like enjoying hot dogs and playing jump rope. But while living in this “only connect” way is totally exhilarating, it can also be pretty exhausting. The world is just so expansive and overwhelming and broad and diverse. The more that I travel, the more I recognize that this is so.

The last 48 hours in New York City have been something of a blur, overflowing with thoughts and observances and conversations and good food. I’m too tired now to try to process it all, so I’m afraid the following is not going to do justice to Mr. Forster’s sage epigraph advice. Instead, I’ll just sketch out a few things that have been memorable. There will be time for connecting the dots in a few days. For now, some brief, unconnected thoughts.

-New York City has felt decidedly unreal and almost dream-like for me on this trip. Maybe it’s because I arrived here on Sunday morning (having taken a redeye and slept only 3 hours) and then proceeded to visit 3 churches (sitting through the services) and have lunch in Greenwich Village with one person and dinner in Williamsburg with another. It was a foggy blur, but it was great. I will write more about these churches later (as in months later…).

-Talking about modernism, postmodernism, and the phenomenology of hipster fashion while eating arepas in a restaurant full of hipsters is a total trip. Especially when you’re delirious from lack of sleep.

-Standing on the platform of the M train in Brooklyn during a thunderstorm suddenly made me think of all the summers of my life.

-New York City feels like the most American place on earth. For this reason: everyone walks around with a confident sense of upward mobility. Whether this is evidenced in knockoff Coach purses, hipster Raybans, iPhones or Diesel skinny jeans, the effect is the same. NYC is a place where status (or status aspiration) is worn on one’s person.

-Food is going to be a theme of my trip. I travel in such a way that my money does not go to accommodations (I stay in hostels and am happy to do so) but to food. I don’t think there’s a better way to experience the pleasures of a foreign environment than through food. Some food highlights of the day: Rhubarb scone for breakfast at an amazing diner in Brooklyn; family style Italian (with my family) at Carmine’s on the Upper West Side; blueberry/creamcheese/shortbread dessert at Magnolia Bakery in Midtown; Ukrainian split pea soup and a good pinot noir at Veselka in the East Village. Oh and yesterday: the Caracas Arepa Bar in Williamsburg was AMAZING.

-Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg Brooklyn has the most hipsters per square inch than anywhere on earth (apart from fleeting events like Coachella). My camera could not snap pictures fast enough.

-Gentrification is fascinating. And so is the way that it ties in to so many things: class, race, organic food, Animal Collective, public housing, politics, Bob Dylan, the Internet, skinny jeans rolled up to shin length, and menus that change daily.

-I’m flying to London tomorrow night and will commence my week at C.S. Lewis’ house on Wednesday. Until then!

Heading Across the Pond

I’m leaving on Saturday on a “research”/“writing” trip to New York City, London, Oxford and Paris. The reason I’m going is threefold:

-I wanted to visit churches in New York City, London and Paris (probably the world’s three hippest cities) as part of my hipster church tour.
-I wanted to have a week in Oxford just to write.
-I needed new scenery and a summer vacation.

The coolest thing about my trip is that when I’m in Oxford, I will be staying at the Kilns—the quaint little English home of C.S. Lewis on the outskirts of the city. The house is owned by the C.S. Lewis Foundation, who I’ve been associated with for the last 4 years. The Foundation opens the home throughout the year to scholars and writers who need an inspiring place to get their work done. They call it the C.S. Lewis Study Centre.

Of course I feel completely lucky and spoiled that I’ll get to spend a week there—sleeping in the room where Lewis slept from 1930-1963. I’m immensely blessed to be able to write in the study where Lewis wrote the majority of his world-impacting texts. I only hope some of his brilliant, humble spirit will waft its way into my own hand as I write in that place. I don’t expect miracles—but Lewis would probably say that I should.

Anyway, I will be hopefully be updating my blog every few days throughout my time in Europe, wherever wifi is available. After my week in Oxford, I’ll be in London for a few days, and then in Paris for four days. So bon voyage, readers! Next time you hear from me will likely be Sunday night, from Brooklyn—where I’ll be writing from the cradle of hipster civilization.

Best Documentaries to Represent America

A few months ago I posted a list of the 25 films that I thought best represented America. Someone then suggested that I make a list of the documentaries that I thought best represented America, which I thought was a great idea. So after much consideration (because there are a lot of great documentaries about American culture), this is the list I came up with: the 10 documentaries that best capture the intricacies and complexities of American culture. If an alien came to America and needed a DVD primer on what we’re all about, these would be the documentaries I would suggest. (In chronological order…)

Salesman (1969): This Maysles Brothers film about door-to-door Bible salesman is the quintessential portrait of middle class American capitalism in all of its comedy, tragedy, and ambition. It’s like Death of a Salesman except real. See also: Grey Gardens (1975).

Woodstock (1970): I had to include a music doc on this list, and there is really nothing better than Woodstock, the iconic documentary about the famous 1969 music festival in Upstate NY. It’s a treasure of American history and a paean to the tumultuous and free-spirited tenor of American culture in the Vietnam era. See also: Don’t Look Back (1967) or Gimme Shelter (1970).

Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976): Barbara Kopple’s seminal documentary about a 1973 coal worker strike in rural Kentucky stands as one of the most singular portraits of the blue collar Americana ever seen on film. Her unobtrusive observance of the thick-skinned residents of Harlan County, Kentucky is a valuable testament to a particular time and place in American culture. See also: The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936).

Sherman’s March (1986): Ross McElwee’s 1986 documentary began as a film about the famous Civil War general’s march to the sea and ended as a self-conscious study of romantic neuroses. Very American. See also: Bright Leaves (2003).

The Civil War (1990): Ken Burns is to American documentary what Ozu is to Japanese cinema. That is: he’s the master. Any of his films could have made this list (Jazz, Baseball, The War, etc) but I think the 11-hour Civil War is perhaps his most momentous achievement. And what is more American than The Civil War? See also: Baseball (1994).

Hoop Dreams (1994): This is the Citizen Kane of American documentary, in my opinion. It follows two young basketball stars in inner city Chicago over a five year period as they aspire to get college scholarships and make their NBA dreams a reality. It’s a film about much more than basketball, however. It’s about the American dream and the unfortunate systemic issues that keep that dream at bay for so many people. See also: American Teen (2008).

On the Ropes (1999): Before last year’s American Teen, Nanette Burstein made this amazing, intimate documentary about three young boxers and their trainer in New York City. In many ways it’s like Hoop Dreams: Boxing, dealing with similar issues of class and race and the American dream. See also: When We Were Kings (1996).

Spellbound (2003): A compelling narrative of 8 kids in the running to win at the 1999 National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C. It’s a film about competition, diligence, diversity, upward mobility, class, race, and a lot of American other things. See also: Mad Hot Ballroom (2003).

The Fog of War (2003): Errol Morris is one of the best American documentarians, and this film—a psychological portrait of former secretary of defense Robert McNamara—is a great biographical film about a figure that looms large over 20th Century American history. See also: Standard Operating Procedure (2008).

The King of Kong (2007): This is a fun documentary about nerdy middle-aged “gamers” and their obsession with world records, but it is also one of the most profound cinematic microcosms of Americana to hit the screen in recent years. See also: Murderball (2005).

Hipster Church Tour: Mars Hill Church

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.

The first stop on my tour was Jacob’s Well in Kansas City. Read about that here.

Next on the tour (which will continue every month or so, for the next year at least) is Seattle’s Mars Hill Church.

Church Name: Mars Hill Church
Location: Seattle, WA
Head Pastor: Mark Driscoll (officially “Preaching and Theology Pastor”)

Summary: Mars Hill Church in Seattle is one of the defining churches of hipster Christianity. It’s the church of Mark Driscoll, the original cussing hipster pastor, whose strong, controversial personality is a huge part of the church’s success. Founded in 1996, Mars Hill now holds services at seven campuses across the Seattle area, ministering to many thousands of young attendees every week. I visited the church on a Sunday in November, and attended both the original campus (where Driscoll preaches live) and a satellite campus in Lake City where Driscoll speaks via a televised feed.

Building: The main campus of Mars Hill is located in a massive warehouse style building in Ballard. The sanctuary is a large, darkly lit hall with modern hanging lamp fixtures and an elaborate stage complete with a massive backdrop of LCD panels. The Lake City campus is an actual renovated church—a smallish church complete with vaulted ceilings, stained glass, and pews.

Congregation:
According to Lake City campus pastor James Harleman, the congregation of Mars Hill is 40% churched, 30% ex-churched, and 30% un-churched. And just from my cursory observations, I would venture that the congregation is 80% under the age of 40. They’re young, and they’re hip. I saw lots of tattoos, skinny jeans, v-necks and Jesse James scarves in the crowd when I was there.

Music:
There is no one “worship band,” but rather a stable of standalone bands that alternate playing at the main Ballard campus and “house bands” for the various satellite campuses. With names like Ex-Nihilo, Red Letter, and E-Pop, these bands tend to play indie rock versions of classic hymns like “Nothing But the Blood” and “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” more often than the flavor-of-the-week contemporary worship songs. At the Lake City campus on the Sunday I visited, for example, a band called Sound and Vision performed math-rock arrangements of songs like “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” and “All Creatures of Our God and King,” complete with Nintendo-sounding beeps.

Arts: A lot of artists and designers attend Mars Hill, and many of them “tithe their talents” to the church, designing logos and websites and printed materials for the church’s branding. The result is that Mars Hill has a very cool, cutting-edge aesthetic that doesn’t feel top down (because it isn’t; most of it is made by non-paid church volunteers). The church also expresses its love of art by hanging up local artists’ work on the walls and by hosting film screenings (called “Cinemagogue”) and film review blogs.

Technology: Mars Hill is a very technology-happy church. The sound and light systems in the buildings are high tech, and the use of video is widespread and professional-quality. During the service I attended, texting was also incorporated—with the congregation being urged to text in their questions during the sermon, which Pastor Mark might answer at the end. Mars Hill’s website is predictably high-tech and stylish, and features its own social networking site, called “The City,” meant to “enhance” and “deepen” the community life of the church. This is the type of church that is always on the cutting edge of technology and finds a way to incorporate all the latest doo-dads and media into the life of the church.

Neighborhood: The main campus of Mars Hill is located in Ballard, in Northwestern Seattle. It’s a trendy area these days—full of artsy shops, restaurants, cafes, theaters and home to many a yuppie. Mars Hill is big into missional dispersion, however, and has other locations across Seattle and Washington: Downtown Seattle, Bellevue, Lake City, Olympia, Shoreline, and West Seattle.

Preaching: Mark Driscoll is heavily in the Calvinist/Reformed camp, and likes to preach on things like sin, man’s depravity, Christ’s atonement, justification, the cross, and how dumb “religion” and “legalism” are. He also likes to be controversial and doesn’t shy away from taboo topics and language. On the Sunday I visited, Driscoll’s message was on the Dance of Mahanaim section of the Song of Solomon (an “ancient striptease,” as he referred to it, and “one of the steamiest passages in the Bible”). During his sermon—part of “The Peasant Princess” series—Driscoll, looking like a metrosexual jock in a tight t-shirt, cross necklace and faux hawk, talked about how wives should be “visually generous” with their husbands (i.e. they should keep the lights on when undressing, during sex, etc.).

Quote from pulpit:
“God doesn’t look down and see good people and bad people; He sees bad people and the Lord Jesus.”

Quote from website:
“The great reformer Martin Luther rightly said that, as sinners, we are prone to pursue a relationship with God in one of two ways. The first is religion/spirituality and the second is the gospel. The two are antithetical in every way.”

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

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Dear Zachary is a documentary by an average guy—Kurt Kuenne—who set out to make an homage film about his best friend who was tragically murdered. It’s not an average film. It’s a masterpiece that had me in tears pretty much start-to-finish. I haven’t been as punched-in-the-gut wrecked by a movie since the last 20 minutes of United 93. Dear Zachary came out in 2008 and would have made my top ten list for sure. It’s now out on DVD and available to “Watch Now” on Netflix. WATCH IT NOW. But beware: it is relentlessly affecting.

This is a film that never makes a false move, and although it is ridiculously emotional, it is resolutely not a manipulative film. I kept trying to figure out what Kuenne was doing to elicit my uncontrollable emotion. Was it the music? The editing? The constantly crying talking heads? It was all of this, but mostly it was the film’s subject matter.

Dear Zachary is a film about injustice. It’s about legal injustice, moral injustice, and existential injustice. The latter of the three is the hardest to deal with. It’s perhaps what makes this film so hard to watch. The story of Dear Zachary is the tragedy of Andrew Bagby, a much beloved average Joe who was suddenly murdered by an ex-girlfriend who was pregnant with his baby. The baby—Zachary—never gets the chance to meet his father, which is the reason why Kuenne made the film: as a preservation of the legacy of Andrew Bagby for the son who will never know him. In a way, though, it’s a film about all of us. Andrew Bagby could be any of our friends, our sons, our uncles, our fathers or friends… He could be us. The film is about the injustice of death. The awkward and jolting suddenness of a life extinguished. And we are all way too familiar with this.

There are other things to admire about this film than the fact that it makes you cry. It is an exceptional example of personal documentary cinema, in the vein of Capturing the Friedmans or Tarnation, and it seamlessly incorporates found footage, interviews, documents, photographs, and all the other typical archival elements. It is also a great example of mystery crime documentary, in the vein of Errol Morris’ films. The truth of the crime and the legal proceedings is revealed in a series of unexpected, wrenching turns that will knock you over again and again. The film also has a vigorous fluidity and adaptability to it: it morphs and changes as it goes along, and indeed, Kuenne’s plan for the film is forced to shift when his subjects’ lives take unexpected turns.

Dear Zachary is a masterpiece of personal cinema with universal resonance. It’s a reminder that this is what cinema at it’s best is all about: evoking the flow and pressures and releases of life—in all of its ruthless and beautiful velocity.