Monthly Archives: July 2009

Thoughts After Writing a Book

In the year 2000, I wrote a list of goals for myself. Life goals. They included such things as traveling across the world, writing music, working at Disney World for a time, and opening a “small, elegant eatery.” Number 6 on the list was “write a book.”

It was around this time last year—the first week in August—when I was sitting at a computer at a hostel in London, checking email frantically before my 30-minutes-for-1-pound window closed. I got an email from an editor at Baker Books who had been interested in my proposal about a book on hip Christianity. The subject of the email was “Good news.”

A year has now gone by. And quite the year it was. I mailed off the manuscript for Hipster Christianity this afternoon—283 pages, 79,000 words. It was a year that took me on amazing research trips to Seattle, Grand Rapids, Chicago, New York, Oxford, London, and Paris. It was a year that found me writing more constantly (like, every spare moment) on one topic than I’d ever done before. It was a year that took a lot out of me personally, spiritually, physically. But it was a good year. I wrote a book that I’m proud of. A book that was sometimes hard to write and sometimes seemed to write itself.

Now that it’s done (at least the first manuscript), I feel excited, relieved, tired, renewed. But mostly I just feel humbled. I still can’t believe I was given the chance to write this book. I’m still pinching myself that I got to write part of it at C.S. Lewis’ desk in Oxford. I thank God for entrusting this project to me and I pray—I PRAY—that what I say in the book leads the church to a productive place of questioning, considering, and defining its identity in the 21st century.

As I write in the Introduction, my motivation in writing the book is not to position myself as some sort of expert or to make some audacious claim about anything, but simply because I love Christianity and I love the church. She is the bride of Christ. I want to see her thrive, expand, and be all that she can be for the world. I want to see the cause of Christ advanced and not muddled up. And this topic—the relationship of the church to the notion of “cool”—strikes me as a vitally important thing that needs to be addressed with tenderness, nuance, and—when appropriate—constructive rebuke.

I’ve always viewed this book as a gift—as something I didn’t think I’d get to do and yet got to do. I’ve always felt like it was a book that needed to be written by someone and that things just happened to come together in the right way so that I could be that someone. It just floors me.

So yeah. The book is written. It’s now going to be edited and doubtless revised over the next few months. If all goes well, it should be on schedule for an August 2010 release.

Thanks for listening and offering feedback along the way. I look forward to the book’s release and all the conversations that will ensue. This exploration is really just beginning.

In the meantime, I’m going to relax and enjoy my favorite things that I’ve mostly neglected in the hectic last eleven months of writing. Things like classical music, fiction, daytrips to the desert, Heidegger, not talking about hipsters, and being still.

And maybe I can also get to the task of opening my quaint elegant eatery. There will be cask ales, Spanish cheese, dark wood interior, and lots of pine nuts.

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Songs of Summer 2009

Every summer I try to make a mix that is made up of the best current songs—the songs that capture the freewheeling whimsy of these long humid days. These are the songs I’ve been blasting in my car on the California highways these past months. This was my list last summer, and the following are my picks for this summer. What are yours?

Sufjan Stevens, “You Are the Blood”
Neko Case, “Middle Cyclone”
Akron/Family, “River”
Death Cab for Cutie, “Kicked In”
Sunset Rubdown, “You Go On Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II)”
Clipse, “Kinda Like a Big Deal”
The Shins, “Plenty Is Never Enough”
Bibio, “Ambivalence Avenue”
Wilco, “You and I”
Dirty Projectors, “Stillness is the Move”

Animal Collective, “Summertime Clothes”

Phoenix, “1901″

Santogold, “Lights Out”

Grizzly Bear, “Two Weeks”

Passion Pit, “Sleepyhead”

Jay-Z, “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)”

M. Ward, “Rave On”

(500) Days of Summer

(500) Days of Summer is a love story for my generation. Though it proudly declares at the outset that “this is not a love story,” the film is wholly about love. Or rather, it’s about our discombobulated, postmodern idea of love mixed with the rapturous ephemera of passion and romance. It’s about how difficult love is for a generation of youngsters who haven’t seen love first hand (their parents are usually divorced) and yet have been fed a steady stream of love abstractions as filtered through soap operas and The Sound of Music and Jesus and Mary Chain songs. This is a movie about “movie-style” love and “movie-style” life. It’s about the difficulties that arise when our ideas of love and life come entirely through artist renderings and Hollywood fakery.

The film is on one level a conventional “boy-meets-girl” love story. Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meets Summer (Zooey Deschanel), they fall in love, break up, maybe get back together, and then… But the film is aggressively unconventional in a familiar (but refreshingly well executed) indie sort of way. The storytelling is nonlinear, there are unexpected camera angles, split screens, clever editing, eclectic songs, pastiche references at every turn, etc. It’s a film that embraces postmodern stylistic mixology in a way that doesn’t feel contrived because this is exactly what the film is about: hyper-mediated love among the ruins of modernism.

It is fitting (and hardly a coincidence) that when Summer and Tom first meet, Tom is wearing headphones, listening to a Smiths song. They are in an elevator, Summer hears the song and makes a comment. They bond over a shared love of The Smiths. Their romance is off to the races.

It is appropriate that their first connection comes through the separation of headphones and indie music, because their entire relationship is ultimately defined through these sorts of media experiences. Their first romantic date—and one of the best scenes of the film—takes place in IKEA, an icon of 21st century yuppie capitalism that in this film stands as a sort of contemporary version of post-war Sears suburbia of the Ozzie and Harriet variety. Tom and Summer “play house” in the various IKEA showrooms, lounging on beds and acting the part of husband and housewife. This nostalgic simulacrum is as close as they ever get to a true domestic bliss scenario, however. Though Tom wants a deeper relationship, Summer isn’t ever completely sure. But both of them seem completely comfortable acting the part.

Throughout the film, there is a keen sense that Tom and Summer are living out performances on a dramatic stage rather than real lives in real places. At various points in the movie they are singing or dancing (literally), appearing in their own Bergman film festival (Tom), or talking about themselves in terms of pop culture characters. Summer likes to think of their relationship as like that of Sid and Nancy (i.e. doomed), while Tom has a romantic belief that they are more like Ben and Elaine from The Graduate.

The whole film—their conversations, dress, hairstyles, and the filmmaking style itself—is filtered through pop culture history, from “Knight Rider” to Jean-Luc Godard to An American in Paris. It’s an anachronistic film that feels strangely like it could be set in Mad Men-era NYC even though it is actually set in Wii-era Los Angeles (a Los Angeles film that feels as cool as New York?? What??), though it’s really not about real place as much as surreal, Hollywood-conjured place. The L.A. of Summer is the “downtown, vintage revival” L.A. that is currently drawing gentrified hipsters back to the urban core. But it still feels unfamiliar and distant to me, as does most everything in the movie. But in a weird way it still feels true.

(500) Days of Summer is an enchanting film that rings true by virtue of the fact that everything in it is so infused with artifice, melodrama, and indie tropes. It feels real even while it constantly reminds us that it is fiction. Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt are fantastic in it and really sell us on the excitement and bipolar confusion of young love in a post-MTV world where “love” is easy to imagine but increasingly hard to live out naturally, apart from prescribed scripts, cultural narratives, and Smiths soundtracks.

Introducing the Poorgeoisie

Devendra

When I was in New York City earlier this year, I took some pictures of a person lying on a couch on a sidewalk in the East Village. I wasn’t sure if he was a hipster or a homeless person. This question has come up numerous times in my hipster field research over the last couple years, and it’s definitely becoming harder to tell the difference. Apparently the homeless look is hotter than ever. Actually, I first noticed the trend a few years ago in L.A. and wrote a post on my blog entitled “Derelict Chic” back in 2007.

Recently I read an article from Details that summarized and analyzed the trend quite nicely. The piece, “How Looking Poor Became the New Status Symbol,” puts the emerging class of wanna-look-poor hipsters under the microscope and coins them “the poorgeoisie.” In the article, author Steven Kandell suggests that while the poorgeoisie is largely in rebellion against the Wall Street, Reaganite yuppie set, they’re ultimately just as consumer minded. I recommend reading the whole thing, but here are some excerpts from the article:

While Wall Street’s hedge-funders have become whipping boys, those who have mastered the art of inconspicuous consumption are living as large as ever. But they’re not easy to spot, resembling, as they do, Trotskyite grad students—a look that doesn’t come cheap: $300 Acne jeans, $175 hand-stitched guayabera shirt, $150 mussed haircut with beard trim (not too short, please). This brand of consumerism escapes condemnation—it’s okay to be a capitalist pig as long as you’re the sort who roots around in your organic garden for truffles.

… Just because the cultural moment is dominated by bloodlust for the heads of AIG executives doesn’t mean public sentiment has turned against the accumulation of material possessions—it’s just that the material in question is likely to be double-brushed flannel. And that’s the advantage guys who look like Devendra Banhart have over guys who look like Patrick Bateman: The poorgeois are in cultural camouflage, blending in perfectly with a landscape full of genuine privation. The fact that their accoutrements may cost more than many suits is their secret pride.

Kandell goes on in the article to elaborate on the notion of “inconspicuous consumption” and “under the radar rich,” which is the form of materialism these hipsters prefer (i.e. materialism that buys only local produce, handmade clothes, hybrid cars, and anything that offsets a consumerist carbon footprint). But this is nothing particularly new. We all know that while hipsters may be a “special sort” of capitalist, they are capitalists nonetheless.

Kandell’s most insightful stuff comes at the end of the article when he describes the philosophy that underpins the poorgeois lifestyle in Brooklyn, Silver Lake, and Portland as being “almost indistinguishable from the justifications of an I-banker who drives a Maserati and wears a bespoke suit: that quality, craftsmanship, and rareness are worth paying top dollar for.”

Kandell is right on in saying that the current hipster consumer sensibility privileges anything that is “a throwback to pre-industrial times, when regular folks actually knew how to make things with their hands.” Hipsters love things that are homemade or handmade. Things like hand-carved wooden jewelry, self-cured meats, and home-grown vegetables. They also love things that are old and vintage: antique tables, grandmother’s dresses, 60s sunglasses. And Kandell also picks up on the current 20s-era speakeasy rage, which fits nicely into the new big-spending-and-yet-inconspicuous-hipster trend: “Good-bye, $300 worth of bottle-service vodka in the back corner of a velvet-rope warehouse; hello, $300 worth of single-malt-and-Chartreuse Depression-era cocktails mixed by a mustachioed dude wearing an arm garter.” It’s SO true. I’ve seen this in person and its exactly as Kandell describes—down to the arm garter.

Of course, on one level none of this is really new. Thorstein Veblen wrote all about this stuff back in 1899 with his book, The Theory of the Leisure Class. Even back then in the Victorian era, Veblen picked up on the fact that the fashionable classes found authentic or hand-made things desirable while mass-produced, machine-made products were deemed unsightly and pedestrian.

“The ground of the superiority of hand-wrought good, therefore, is a certain margin of crudeness. This margin must never be so wide as to show bunging workmanship, since that would be evidence of low cost, nor so narrow as to suggest the ideal precision attained only by the machine, for that would be evidence of low cost… The objection to machine products is often formulated as an objection to the commonness of such goods. What is common is within the (pecuniary) reach of many people. Its consumption is therefore not honorific, since it does not serve the purpose of a favourable invidious comparison with other consumers. Hence the consumption, or even the sight of such goods, is inseparable from an odious suggestion of the lower levels of human life, and one comes away from their contemplation with a pervading sense of meanness that is extremely distasteful and depressing to a person of sensibility.”

How true Veblen’s words are even today! Though the Victorian aristocrats he was writing about likely would faint at the prospect of dressing like a destitute vagrant, they share many other attributes with the contemporary poorgeoisie hipsters. Both seek things that are rare and hard-to-find (and thus inaccessible to the mainstream masses); both avoid the “common” things that are mass produced and mass consumed by people with negligible taste (things like McDonalds, Wal-Mart, and pleated slacks). And though the Victorian aristocrat was a lot more conspicuous than the more socially conscious “I can only spend $30 on a cocktail in the secret speakeasy darkness where no homeless person or starving child will see me” hipster, both are in the business of finding and accumulating (or imbibing) high quality things.

So before hipsters start decrying the audacious, materialistic lives of their suburban hedge fund foes, they should probably take a look at themselves and audit their own consumptive habits.

Sad Times for the Episcopal Church

I attended an Episcopal church one summer a few years ago. I’m not Episcopalian, but I enjoyed the church and the experience. I loved the liturgy and tradition of it—the sense of being part of an ancient, worldwide, structured body of believers. I loved the use of organ and the singing of 500 year-old hymns. I loved the creeds.

But sadly, the Episcopal Church is a dying denomination, and the events earlier this week at the Episcopal General Convention in Anaheim only underscore its deterioration.

At the convention, Episcopal leaders pronounced gays and lesbians eligible for “any ordained ministry,” even though Anglican leaders had sought a clear moratorium on consecrating another gay bishop after the Gene Robinson hoopla of 2003.

This bold move by the American Episcopal church—a slap in the face to the authority structure of the worldwide Anglican communion—is symptomatic of the larger and long-developing rifts in the communion, and it’s likely going to be the last straw before a major schism.

I think N.T. Wright—Anglican Bishop of Durham and respected author/theologian—is correct when in The Times this week he described the situation thusly: “In the slow-moving train crash of international Anglicanism, a decision taken in California has finally brought a large coach off the rails altogether.”

There are a lot of denominational politics at play here, but what this whole thing comes down to is the fact that some within the Anglican world (American Episcopalians) elevate personal preference over the Bible, tradition, and authority. Essentially it comes down to a lack of discipline and a selfish “I should be able to do whatever I want!” attitude that disregards anything that isn’t inclusive or tolerant. It’s a blurring of biblical teaching and an intentional obfuscating of morality to meet the fickle whims and needs of our own variegated sexual impulses.

N.T. Wright addresses this idea in his article:

…But Jewish, Christian and Muslim teachers have always insisted that lifelong man-plus-woman marriage is the proper context for sexual intercourse. This is not (as is frequently suggested) an arbitrary rule, dualistic in overtone and killjoy in intention. It is a deep structural reflection of the belief in a creator God who has entered into covenant both with his creation and with his people (who carry forward his purposes for that creation)… Jesus’s own stern denunciation of sexual immorality would certainly have carried, to his hearers, a clear implied rejection of all sexual behaviour outside heterosexual monogamy. This isn’t a matter of “private response to Scripture” but of the uniform teaching of the whole Bible, of Jesus himself, and of the entire Christian tradition.

Gay Episcopalians would likely retort by pointing out that it is simply unjust. They are Christians and they want to serve God in a pastoral role in the church, and they can’t help the fact that they are gay. It’s just not fair that they are forbidden from the ministry.

Again, N.T. Wright answers this well:

The appeal to justice as a way of cutting the ethical knot in favour of including active homosexuals in Christian ministry simply begs the question. Nobody has a right to be ordained: it is always a gift of sheer and unmerited grace. The appeal also seriously misrepresents the notion of justice itself, not just in the Christian tradition of Augustine, Aquinas and others, but in the wider philosophical discussion from Aristotle to John Rawls. Justice never means “treating everybody the same way”, but “treating people appropriately,” which involves making distinctions between different people and situations. Justice has never meant “the right to give active expression to any and every sexual desire.”

The thinking of the Episcopalians in Anaheim this week is simply a symptom of the larger culture in the postmodern world. We can be whoever we want to be, and no one can argue against the rightness of our own feelings or inclinations. Tradition and authority (and scripture) be damned! What matters is my own experience.

To that, N.T. Wright says this:

It is a very recent innovation to consider sexual preferences as a marker of “identity” parallel to, say, being male or female, English or African, rich or poor. Within the “gay community” much postmodern reflection has turned away from “identity” as a modernist fiction. We simply “construct” ourselves from day to day.

But at the end of the day, the Christian life requires discipline and sacrifice. The deterioration of Episcopal-Anglican relations reflects the unpopularity of this idea in the contemporary world. People don’t want to believe that to be a Christian means that they can’t do things they feel are right, or that they must deny themselves the pleasures they so strongly desire. They don’t like the idea of self-control and restraint. But that’s what being a Christian is all about.

Wisely, N.T. Wright mentions in his article that we must remember that there is a distinction between inclination and desire on the one hand and activity on the other. It is one thing to have disordered or confused sexual desires. It is an entirely other thing to act on those. “We all have all kinds of deep-rooted inclinations and desires,” notes Wright. “The question is, what shall we do with them?”

In the Anglican church, there is no prohibition against the consecration of a person with “deep-rooted inclinations and desires.” But the understanding is that, in reverence to God, scripture, and the church, that person remain celibate. And it’s possible. It just takes discipline.

The Episcopalians—those wild, rebellious, American Anglicans who insist that active homosexual lifestyles are okay to God—are clearly lacking in the discipline department. And as a result, the world’s third largest body of Christians (the worldwide Anglican communion) is losing its unity and–perhaps–credibility.

The Hurt Locker

the-hurt-locker-20090610112913952_640w

The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break), is far and away the best film about our current war in Iraq. And it’s easily also one of the best films of the year. If you’re looking for nonstop action, white-knuckled suspense, and emotionally draining human drama this summer, I doubt you will find any film more satisfying than this.

The film is set in and around Baghdad in 2004, at a time when the war was devolving into a hellish quagmire of roadside bombs and unexpectedly forceful insurgent resistance. Locker follows a trio of highly apt American army specialists who are part of Delta Company, whose harrowing task it is locate and defuse bombs and I.E.D.s before they blow up and kill bunches of citizens and soldiers.

The film’s three main characters are the levelheaded Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), the chronically unnerved Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), and “wild man” Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), who is sort of like Macgyver-meets-Mad Max. The three men have vastly different temperaments, psychological hang-ups, and personalities, and yet thrown together in the high-stress hell of war, they are as close and brother-like as a band of soldiers could be. Of course, this also means that they fight and sometimes want to kill each other as much as they want to kill the enemy. Indeed, one of the sources of this film’s uncommon intensity is that Bigelow and her three main actors (each of which is deserving of Oscar accolades, in my view) recognize that the “always-on-the-edge” melee of war has as much to do with psychological, spiritual and interpersonal strain as it does with the tangible ubiquity of carnage and death.

Where countless other Iraq war films have only superficially attempted to truly understand the psychological experience of soldiers, Locker puts us right there, in the midst of the throbbing realization that this war—beyond politics and PR and ideological clashes—is a life and death thing for the people actually on the ground fighting it. Largely ambivalent of anything political, Bigelow and her impressive teams of set designers and technical craftsmen instead focus the film around the experiences of the soldiers who are forced to perform at high levels of no-errors-allowed competency even amidst unthinkably stressful circumstances.

Structured episodically, the film immerses us in one nightmarish bomb-defusing scenario or sniper gun standoff after another, where the odds of survival are almost nill in each and every instance. Each heartpounding sequence of near-death is accompanied by a timeline reminder of how many days left our heroes have before they can safely leave Iraq (e.g. “60 days left in Delta Company’s Rotation”). It’s a countdown to their survival, and yet with each passing day and with each new I.E.D. the odds become slimmer that all three of these men will make it out alive. Part of the reason why the film works so well is that we desperately want these characters to survive. We care about them and feel existential solidarity with them. We feel the cold horror of death and the numbing tension of life on the brink—embodied in everything from a buzzing fly to a Capri Sun juicebox—and we sweat and flinch and grimace right along with them.

The Hurt Locker is not as grandiose as Saving Private Ryan or as philosophical and luxuriant as The Thin Red Line, but I do think it is one of the best war films I’ve seen in recent years. It’s a visceral, affecting action film about contemporary urban warfare (perhaps most akin to something like Blackhawk Down) and it will leave you utterly drained and yet thoroughly satisfied, with a newfound appreciation for the complex and frightening experiences of our servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan.

God Knew I Would Blog This

john_calvin_-_young

500 years ago today—on July 10, 1509—one of the most important theologians in Christian history was born. John Calvin.

A second-generation reformer during the Protestant Reformation, Calvin was a scholar out of the Renaissance humanist tradition and produced a striking amount of scholarly output, including commentaries on most books of the Bible and his magnum opus, Institutes of the Christian Religion–one of the most significant systematic theologies ever written.

But he’s also known for Calvinism—the theological approach (also known as Reformed) that emphasizes things like God’s sovereignty, predestination, and the inherent depravity of man. And Calvinism, strange as it may seem to some, is now more popular than ever.

Back in March, I wrote a blog post about why I think Calvinism is increasingly resonant and attractive to younger generations of Christians. I mentioned such things as the fact that Calvinism is about certainty, that it doesn’t shy away from talking about sin and yet also emphasizes grace, and that it views God in the highest way possible. Read the whole post here.

I would consider myself Reformed, Calvinist, whatever you want to call it. I believe God is huge and in complete control and worthy of all praise. He’s God. All notions of truth and justice begin and end with the reality of his being. In other words: what he does—whatever he does—is true and just, even if it sometimes doesn’t seem that way from our perspective. Would it be just if God decided to condemn every human to hell for eternity and didn’t save any of us? Yes. He can and should do whatever he wants. But that he DOES save some of us, in spite of our sin, is truly remarkable. He’s a loving God.

Anyway, in as much as I agree with Calvinism and most of its controversial points, I have to say that the “neo-Calvinists” and the current crop of Reformed defenders do sometimes annoy me. It sometimes seems like they love Calvin more than Jesus, and elevate TULIP above even the Bible. They know who they are. They’ve pit themselves against “the rest of the world” in a sort of battle mentality, cloistering together with like-minded comrades, and it isn’t doing anyone any good. Calvin would not be pleased with the way that some Calvinists have commandeered his theological namesake.

And another thing that annoys me is the way that some Calvinists and Reformed types have misinterpreted sola scriptura. One of the five solas that are associated with the Reformation, sola scriptura (“by scripture alone”) was meant to articulate that scripture held the final and only infallible authority for Christianity, not that it was the only thing that mattered or the only thing that held any truth. Some neo-Calvinists act as though the Bible is the only thing that a good Christian ever needs, that they should just study it and look to it alone for all questions and matters of import.

But none of the Reformers would have agreed with this “just me and my Bible” approach to the faith. They all thought that it was important to have theological guidance and that we should build on the orthodox beliefs that the church had already established. The Bible was the most important thing, yes, and its authority superseded everything else… but it wasn’t the only thing. Calvin was all about the Bible and wanted it to be held in high esteem (much higher than himself), but he also understood that it was a document that needed to be thoughtfully interpreted and systematically analyzed through lenses and thoughts that others had articulated before (like Augustine, for example).

The Bible is completely and utterly true and authoritative, but it is not necessarily self-evident. It needs human minds to makes sense of it, and many minds throughout history have taken up the task. Calvin was one of them, but he wasn’t the only one. There are many others who have looked at the Bible and made different insights and saw different, though equally helpful patterns and themes. And Calvin would be the first to point this out.