Monthly Archives: July 2009

Hipster Church Tour: Life on the Vine

life on the vine

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. The goal is to gain a good bit of qualitative data on the subject I’m writing about and 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.

The second stop was Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Click here for that one.

Next up is Life on the Vine, a “Christian community” in the suburbs of Chicago.

Church Name: Life on the Vine
Location: Long Grove, IL
Head Pastor: David Fitch

Summary: This unassuming little church in the Chicago suburb of Long Grove may not be as flashy as some of the other hipster churches (it’s not really flashy at all), but it represents the type of congregation that more and more Christian hipsters resonate with. It’s a church that is deeply rooted in early church traditions and believes in the importance of community, liturgy, symbol, and sacrament—but not in a pretentious or overly stylized way. It’s also a church that is very mission-minded and committed to social justice. Part of the Christian Missionary Alliance denomination, Life on the Vine is pastored by David Fitch, who teaches theology classes at Northern Seminary and authored the book The Great Giveaway. I visited on a cold, snowy Sunday morning in January, and had the pleasure of going out to lunch with several of the church leaders (including Fitch) after the service.

Building: The church occupies an old, nondescript Christian Missionary Alliance building in a quiet, leafy suburban setting. It’s a very small building with a sanctuary that can’t hold more than a few hundred people. The chairs are set up in a round, so that worshippers are looking at each other during the service and no one is all that far from the preacher or scripture readers—who read or pray from the four sides of the square space.

Congregation: The congregation at Life on the Vine is slightly more diverse than the average hipster church. There is a fair share of fashionable young people and suburban yuppies, but there are also some older folks and a lot of families and children. While the church does have a children’s catechesis-type class, it doesn’t have a youth group. “Youth groups destroy children’s lives,” Fitch told me. The church is big on involving the congregation in service and equipping the laity for leadership. There are no full-time pastors or staffers, and the alternating schedule of preachers includes a handful of seminary students from the nearby Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. It’s a very user-driven church.

Music: The worship band at Life on the Vine is led by Geoff Holsclaw, and the band is situated somewhat awkwardly (but totally deliberately) in the back corner of the building. This unassuming position is meant to remove any “performance” element and facilitate a more collective worship experience. It fits with the church’s larger focus on a more communal experience where individuals are not emphasized as much as the collective group.

Arts: The church walls and projector screens are full of visual art, described on the website “not as decoration but as windows into God’s goodness or as mirrors confronting our sin. In a culture dominated by deformed images, we believe God uses these holy images to renew our imaginations.” The church seems to be open to secular art and culture as well. In the sermon on the day I attended, the young preacher referenced Coldplay’s “Death and all His Friends” and Sufjan Stevens’ “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”

Technology: Minimal. There was a projector screen with song lyrics and some art images, but that was about it. It might as well have been the early 90s.

Neighborhood: Wealthy suburban. Long Grove is part of the middle and upper class stretch of Chicago’s Northwest suburbs. It’s an odd setting for a progressive, hipster church like this—but the presence of Trinity in nearby Deerfield feeds a lot of Christian hipster traffic.

Preaching: This is where Life on the Vine is perhaps most unique. David Fitch is not a fan of expository preaching or three point “life application” sermons that isolate a passage of scripture from its larger context. Rather, he advocates a preaching that is grounded in the larger narrative of scripture. Before the sermon at Life on the Vine, two passages from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament are read aloud, as context for the main sermon’s text. The preaching at this church is more descriptive than prescriptive; it’s less about handing out “to do” lists than unfurling the reality of who God is and what the world means in light of the gospel of Christ. It isn’t about “how-to” or “self-help” as much as it is about honestly telling the story of scripture and letting its reality speak for itself.

Quote from pulpit: “We cannot reach up to Heaven. Heaven reaches down to us.”

Quote from website: “Sermons inspire, but Scripture is inspired. Preachers motivate, but the Spirit moves. We want to preach the Word with humility, being wary of the pitfalls of topical preaching, proof-texts, and legalistic application. We think the Bible can speak for itself.”

Public Enemies

Depp pitt

There is a lot that could be said about Public Enemies—a lot, for example, about the HD digital photography which is perhaps the most polarizing aspect of the film for many audiences. For a really insightful take on the visual style of the film, I recommend Manohla Dargis’ review for The New York Times (a review I happen to totally agree with).

I enjoyed the film. It is beautiful to look at and a fascinating rendering of the criminal underworld. It is definitely a Michael Mann film, and thoroughly comfortable in the company of his other crime classics like Heat or Collateral.

The film is about John Dillinger—an iconic American criminal in the most hardened sense of the word. The film is about his criminal behavior and his continual outrunning of the authorities (J. Edgar Hoover, G-Men, Christian Bale, and some no-nonsense Texan lawmen), but it’s also about his persona. He was a celebrity, a fashionable womanizer, a face every American knew, feared, and in some ways respected.

As Dillinger, Johnny Depp unsurprisingly hits the bullseye. Some will argue that his acting in this film is “minor Depp” and consists mainly of iconic posing, Tommy-gun shooting and simply looking suave and cool in front of Mann’s numerous high-def close-ups. But that is exactly the point. Depp’s Dillinger is incredibly self-aware and comfortable in the spotlight, if not in his own skin. The extent to which he has a stable sense of his own identity is inextricably tied to his celebrity and criminal clout. As long as he is on the run, robbing banks, and stealthily usurping the standards of class and law, he knows who he is. His image on the “Public Enemy #1” posters is exactly how he wants to conceive of himself.

Depp’s Dillinger in Public Enemies feels very similar to Brad Pitt’s Jesse James in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Both actors play these criminal icons in understated ways that emphasize visual grandeur and iconic posturing. Both films are about American crime, celebrity, and how we can or cannot relate to larger-than-life antiheroes. Both films have gun battles and death and the slow killing-off of the villainous allies and gang buddies of the central figures. Both end with the iconic men being shot from behind in appropriately dramatic (and yet almost anticlimactic) fashion.

And like Brad Pitt’s Jesse James, Depp’s Dillinger never feels completely relatable; we never get a full or deep sense of who he is or what exactly motivates his criminal impulses. All we know is that Depp, like James, enjoys being bad. He doesn’t know how to be good—though there are glimpses (subtle flinches of the eye, moments of emotion, etc) when we can see that he wants to be good or regrets ever turning to the dark side. We know he loves a woman, for example (Marion Cotillard), and that he likes baseball, movies, good clothes, and fast cars. But beyond that we are in the dark about his character—if only because he himself is not sure of who or why he is.

There are numerous times in the film where he says something about how he only cares about the now—having fun in the present. And this makes sense for a person like him. The past is full of darkness, evil-doing, and lost innocence. The future contains an almost certainly ugly end to his criminal free-for-all. The present is the only place he can exist, and that is one of the reasons why he is such a hard character to read. His identity comes only through his situation and circumstance. It is not deeply rooted. It only comes through the immediate impression he gives off to bystanders, cops, fellow criminals, and everyday people who see his face on posters and FBI newsreel footage.

In this way I think Mann’s unorthodox photography in the film makes perfect sense. People have complained that the HD digital, handheld look of the film is anachronistic and too distracting. It undercuts the believability of the 30s era milieu and brings too much attention to itself, they say.

But this is indeed the point. Depp’s Dillinger is best—indeed only—understood through the camera lenses and the perceptions of external observers. Mann underscores this by making it extraordinarily clear that this is a movie, that you are viewing these people through a camera’s rendering—a camera that is moving, present and perceptive in ways that neither you nor Dillinger could ever be. It is intrusively hyper-realistic and reveals more about Dillinger than perhaps he even knew of himself, which is the reason why a film like this is so valid and so haunting.

On one hand, the film is complicit in the maintenance of Dillinger’s mythic iconography. One gets the sense that if a team of HD digital cinematographers were sent back to 1933 to follow Dillinger around, Dillinger would glory in the attention and feel most himself in front of the hyper-attentive, deeply probing cameras. But—as with Jesse James—the conspicuously cinematic mediation of the man’s myth, especially via the sometimes brutal and unforgiving form of HD, also serves to demythologize. It unsaddles the epic story of its more romantic adornments and florid embellishments, leaving us with a dark, cold, hard-edged reality that feels far from the storybook world of gangs-and-guns adventure in which Dillinger and James would probably want to be remembered.

Best Music of the First Half

I’m not as comprehensive as I used to be when it comes to new music, but I still try to get my hands on anything I hear buzz about or that people whose tastes I respect are recommending. And in the first half of this year, I’ve heard quite a few good albums. Here is my list of the best albums from the first half of 2009. Feel free to suggest your favorites or recommend those that you think I’ve missed.

10) Bibio, Ambivalence Avenue
9) St. Vincent, Actor
8) Passion Pit, Manners
7) Akron/Family, Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free
6) Neko Case, Middle Cyclone
5) M. Ward, Hold Time
4) Wilco, Wilco (The Album)
3) Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca
2) Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest
1) Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion

Other albums I liked:
Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career; Andrew Bird, Noble Beast; Dan Deacon, Bromst; Aaron Strumpel, Elephants; U2, No Line on the Horizon; Coldplay, LeftRightLeftRightLeft; Various artists, Dark Was the Night [compilation].

EPs I liked: Bon Iver, Blood Bank; Julie Lee, Will There Really Be a Morning; Death Cab for Cutie, The Open Door; Future of Forestry, Travel.