Monthly Archives: September 2009

New York Cares

The subway is a porno
And the pavements they are a mess
I know you’ve supported me for a long time
Somehow I’m not impressed
But New York Cares…

Those lyrics are from Interpol’s “NYC,” one of the iconic songs of the immediate post-9/11 era of music. It’s a song that captures the confused emotional tenor of the city in the traumatic aftermath to that dark day 8 years ago, a mix of the old New York harsh-edged urbanity and the “United We Stand” solidarity of a city reborn amidst ashes.

Perhaps moreso than other cities, New York has that peculiar combination of crowded connectedness and desolate urban isolation. On one hand the city cares and accepts all people and all dreams; on the other, it is an impenetrable, callous machine of industry and ambition. On 9/11 both faces merged as the city in all of its seething terror and magnificence forever changed. Before that day, NYC was the incomprehensible nexus of the world. But after that day, NYC was forced to consider the truth of its mythos: that it is still just a city, vulnerable and imperfect as anything else.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote this of New York City, in his 1932 essay “My Lost City”:

From the ruins, lonely and inexplicable as the sphinx, rose the Empire State Building and, just as it had been a tradition of mine to climb to the Plaza Roof to take leave of the beautiful city, extending as far as eyes could reach, so now I went to the roof of the last and most magnificent of towers. Then I understood-everything was explained: I had discovered the crowning error of the city, its Pandora’s box. Full of vaunting pride the New Yorker had climbed here and seen with dismay what he had never suspected, that the city was not the endless succession of canyons that he had supposed, but that it had limits – from the tallest structure he saw for the first time that it faded out into the country on all sides, into an expanse of green and blue that alone was limitless. And with the awful realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe, the whole shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the ground.

Of all the things 9/11 has taught us, and of all that it has meant, perhaps one of the greatest lessons has something to do with this “crashing to the ground” realization. Empires fall. Power and prominence and pride are impermanence. The things we create and build and glory in… they all fail us. Even the grandest of structures and dreams will disappear with time.

But New York cares. Or we do. …Or we can.

There are September 11ths every day, in every corner of the globe, in every loss and failure and setback. What else are we to do—against this massive, ceaseless, impersonal machine called mortality—but look each other in the eye and say Shalom. Resolution is coming soon.

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Obama’s Conservative Speech

On Tuesday, President Obama—following the precedent of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush—delivered a “Back to School” speech to American students, beamed live via the Internet and C-SPAN into thousands of classrooms across the country.

It was a fantastic speech. Read it here.

I always love a good Obama speech. He’s a great, inspiring orator, and in recent years he’s delivered some of the best American speeches of the 21st century (such as this race speech from the campaign trail).

His speech to America’s schoolchildren was impressive as ever, and I hope that it inspired some children to want to learn, study, and succeed in school.

Unfortunately, in the days leading up to the speech, the buffoons of conservative talk radio and Fox News preemptively labeled the speech “socialist propaganda” and basically accused Obama of trying to indoctrinate America’s children.

Sean Hannity claimed that “it seems very close to indoctrination,” while Fox News commentator Monica Crowley said “just when you think this administration can’t get any more surreal and Orwellian, here they come to indoctrinate our kids”; similarly, Michelle Malkin claimed that “the left has always used kids in public schools as guinea pigs and as junior lobbyists for their social liberal agenda.”

Maybe I’m missing something, but a careful read of Obama’s speech reveals that it is far from a propagandistic sales pitch for the social liberal agenda. On the contrary; It’s actually borderline conservative. Why? Because the point of the speech is personal responsibility. Obama makes it clear that we all have circumstances that make achievement difficult. We have absentee fathers (Obama talks about his own), poverty, prejudice, and a whole battery of other challenges that make success in life difficult. But they are all excuses. Here’s something Obama said in the speech:

But at the end of the day, the circumstances of your life – what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you’ve got going on at home – that’s no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude. That’s no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. That’s no excuse for not trying.

Isn’t this sort of what conservatives are always saying? That it’s all about moving beyond handouts and pity and taking ownership over one’s destiny? Here’s another excerpt from the speech:

We can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.

To me, the speech is about as American and far from socialism as you can get. It’s a speech about believing in yourself, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, overcoming adversity, etc. What was Fox News thinking in their overanxious denouncement of it?

Meanwhile, other conservatives—like Laura Bush and Newt Gingrich—have responded to the speech by praising it. Here’s what Gingrich said about it on the Today Show:

“If he could give a speech tomorrow night in the tone of his speech today to the students, this country would be much better off … It’s a good speech, I recommend it to everybody if you have any doubts.”

So, lesson for conservatives: Don’t be too quick to throw out something of value just because Obama’s name is attached to it. Maybe try listening to what he is actually saying and evaluating it on its own terms.

Christian Cussing

When I was a writer for The Wheaton Record circa 2003, I wrote a feature entitled “Cursing at Wheaton.” It was a two-page spread, 3,000 word story that I had researched and worked on for a month. It covered all the angles of cursing from a Christian perspective, including insightful interviews with English and Anthropology professors (Roger Lundin and Brian Howell), and even a survey of 100 Wheaton students who reported on their cursing habits. My biggest finding in the article? Seniors at Wheaton were about 30% more likely to cuss on a daily basis than were freshman. And more likely to use the f- word on a daily basis. No big surprise, I guess. The language of Christian young people isn’t as pristine as it used to be.

The issue of language is of course a terribly complex one, and an entire book could be written on the whole idea of cursing, profanity, expletives, etc.

But to me (call me old fashioned), the issue for Christians is pretty cut and dry. We should avoid using profanity; we should keep our cussing to the absolutely minimum, especially in public.

It has less to do with anything inherently wrong with the words themselves and everything to do with our Christian witness. Even if you disagree that certain words are “profane,” you can’t change the cultural perception. You can’t change a taboo. And as long as certain words are viewed as offensive, profane, or taboo, Christians should make every effort to avoid speaking them. We are called to a higher standard, right? Aren’t we supposed to be set apart? For the same reasons that we should avoid drunkenness and drugs and other “worldly” activities, we should avoid cursing. We are the salt of the earth. We need to discipline ourselves as such.

When I am around Christians friends and I hear them cussing up a storm, I cringe. It makes me sad. The words themselves don’t necessarily bother me. They aren’t what make me cringe. Rather, it is the fact that my Christian brothers and sisters are so recklessly abandoning scruples in what I daresay is one of the most crucial areas of our Christian witness: our language. Just read James 3:1-12.

Not using profanity in today’s world is noticeable. It is the sort of abstaining activity that people will take note of. What an opportunity for Christians to truly show restraint and demonstrate the different-ness of the Christ-like life! I’m not saying we should chastise non-Christians for using bad language or avoid movies or music with salty language; I’m just saying that we, as Christians, should set an example by being different.

Certainly the case can be made that a well-placed swear word can be appropriate for a Christian when no other word will get across an idea or express a certain level of emotion/emphasis. Some of my favorite Christian artists will occasionally throw a profanity into their lyrics to really drive home a point.

Dave Bazan, for example, in his Pedro the Lion song “Foregone Conclusions”:

And you were too busy steering the conversation toward the Lord /
to hear the voice of the Spirit, begging you to shut the f— up.

Or Over the Rhine, in their beautiful song “Changes Come”:

I wanna have our baby / Somedays I think that maybe / This ol’ world’s too f—-d up / For any firstborn son.

And most recently, Derek Webb caused a stir when his record label refused to include the song “What Matters More” on his new CD because of this lyric:

‘Cause we can talk and debate until we’re blue in the face / About the language and tradition that he’s comin’ to save / Meanwhile we sit just like we don’t give a shit / About 50,000 people who are dyin’ today.

So there is definitely a place and a time for a well-placed cuss word. But it has to be used sparingly and with a real meaningful purpose behind it.

In general, Christian brothers and sisters, we need to clean up our mouths. I don’t want to get all pharisaic or anything, and maybe in the grand scheme of things it’s not a huge thing. But it is a thing. And a thing we need to be better about controlling. We have cussing pastors now, and cussing Christian bands, and LOTS of cussing Christian college graduates (they tend to take special pride in developing their long-silenced cursing skills). If I was a non-Christian observer I would be wondering, “What ever happened to the good little Christians who always said darn and dang and butt and shoot? I kind of miss them.”