Monthly Archives: May 2010

We Live in Public

This past week, Facebook users had another one of their patented uprisings, this time crying foul over the purportedly confounding privacy settings that make it hard for people to switch away from the “everyone sees everything” default settings. Out of anger about the great “invasion of privacy” phantom, thousands of users have vowed to delete their Facebook accounts in protest.

It was enough to force Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to call a press conference, apologize, and institute changes such as requiring only minimal information to be visible when people search for others (name, profile picture, and gender). Facebook had earlier required users to make more of their information public.

But who are we kidding? Why would anyone sign up for Facebook if they were worried about privacy? Isn’t the whole point of Facebook to put yourself out to the world via status updates, photos, and “likes”? I question whether the 10 million people who joined Facebook in April (and the 500 million worldwide who use the site) are in any way concerned about “privacy” at all.

Talk of privacy is a joke and an absurdity when people are getting up each morning to voraciously begin a day of tweets, or to post a thought about the weather on Facebook, or to blog about what they did over the weekend (or to blog about most anything, for that matter). If you want privacy, quit putting anything of yourself on the Internet! The Internet is inescapably, necessarily, and wonderfully public. It is open, free, limitless. But we can’t have our cake and eat it too.

I think a lot of times the privacy “issue” is really just a scapegoat/smokescreen that covers up for our own frightful inclinations toward exhibitionism. We decry Facebook’s Orwellian, oppressive invasion of privacy because our own willingness to daily cede ourselves to the public performances of Internet life scare us a little bit. We paint the whole “we live in public” thing as a travesty, a lamentable byproduct of the digital age. But all along we roll with it, urge it on, and expand its possibility with every passing post, tweet, or status update.

In the 2008 documentary film, We Live in Public, filmmaker Ondi Timoner examines the life and work of Internet pioneer/visionary/prophet Josh Harris. The film shows his 1999 project “Quiet: We Live in Public,” which was a NYC art installation piece that invited 100 volunteers to live in an underground bunker (Japanese pod hotel-style, or concentration camp-style, depending on how you look at it) and have every second of their lives taped for a month. A cultural descendant of Bentham’s Panopticon, Warhol’s Factory, Orwell’s 1984, and MTV’s The Real World, Harris’ project was painstakingly crafted to encourage over-the-top exhibitionism that would inevitably lead to fights, chaos, and “I can never be alone!” existential breakdown. It was trying to make some sort of point about how the Internet will probably end up like this–everyone living publicly for everyone else–and that this could make us all lose our minds.

Later in the film, we see Harris’ next big “art project/exploration of privacy.” He wires his own house with tons of surveillance cameras–in the bedroom, the bathroom, the toilets, etc. He and his girlfriend go about their life together as a “normal couple,” but broadcast every moment of it live on the Internet, while also chatting with their growing fan community watching their every move. Naturally, the experience takes its toll on their relationship. Their Internet fanbase becomes the third person in their relationship, and the most important one. After they have a fight on camera, they rush to their respective computers to see what the audience is saying about it. “Make him sleep on the sofa!” seems to be the consensus, so that’s what she does. It’s life lived through social networking; It’s community storytelling. Harris and his girlfriend don’t last, of course, but they got some great Internet celebrity out of the arrangement.

We Live in Public is an insightful but ridiculous film. It correctly theorizes that the Internet is pushing culture in the direction of vast openness and away from old notions of privacy. But–ridiculously–it assumes this will be some sort of jarring, fascist, unwelcome surprise, or that we won’t all gleefully collude in the erosion of privacy. We will, and we are.

Half a billion people are on Facebook. And they are there for reasons that have much more to do with unabashed exhibitionism than with the preservation of interior, personal, and private existence.

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CCM Albums of the 90s That Make Christian Hipsters Nostalgic

A lot of Christian hipsters today were raised in the evangelical Christian subculture in the 90s. Thus, while most of them have completely abandoned CCM by now, they still look fondly and nostalgically (with a smidge of irony) upon the Christian music they were reared on. Here are 20 albums that Christian hipsters today love to listen to for a trip down memory lane. What would you add to this list?

Amy Grant, Heart in Motion (1991)
Michael W. Smith, Change Your World (1993)
DC Talk, Free at Last (1993)
DC Talk, Jesus Freak (1995)
Audio Adrenaline, Bloom (1996)
Newsboys, Take Me To Your Leader (1996)
Rebecca St. James, God (1996)
Jars of Clay, Jars of Clay (1995)
Third Day, Conspiracy No. 5 (1997)
OC Supertones, Adventures of the OC Supertones (1997)
Reality Check, Reality Check (1997)
Plankeye, The One and Only (1997)
Project 86, Project 86 (1998)
Mxpx, Life in General (1998)
Sixpence None the Richer, Sixpence None the Richer (1998)
Plumb, candycoatedwaterdrops (1999)
Insyderz, Skalleluia (1999)
All Star United, International Anthems for the Human Race (1999)
POD, Fundamental Elements of Southtown (1999)
Switchfoot – New Way to be Human (1999)

“Green Like God?” Interview with Jonathan Merritt

As the BP oil pipeline continues to uncontrollably gush oil into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening ecosystems, coastal communities, fishing industries, and all sorts of other living things, the conversation about protecting the environment continues–and perhaps is more relevant than ever.

Christians (particularly evangelicals) have been sadly absent from this conversation in the past, for reasons more political than theological. But that has started to change in the past decade, and one of the leading voices in the evangelical movement for “Creation Care” is my friend Jonathan Merritt, who just released his first book, Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet.

In the last couple years, Jonathan has organized a national coalition of Christian leaders who care about creation, and founded the Southern Baptist Environment and Climate Initiative. He writes for numerous newspapers and magazines, has been interviewed by the likes of NPR and The New York Times, and has emerged as a strong young voice representing the next generation of evangelical leadership.

I recently interviewed Jonathan about his book, the issues at play in the idea of “Creation care,” and why this is such an important thing for Christians to think about. Here is part of the interview:

What was God’s intended purpose for Adam in Eden?

I have a friend who says, “God’s original plan was to hang out in a garden with some naked vegetarians.” It’s funny, but it underscores that the original intent for everything we see was radically different than what we now live. Humanity’s history began in a good garden where nature flourished. God placed Adam there to preserve, work, and care for nature (Gen 2:15). This is a task we’ve all been given, and it is one that has never been revoked.

After Jesus came and achieved victory over sin and death, how does (or should) that change our approach to things like nature and the environment?

Colossians 1 says that everything was redeemed by Christ’s blood on the cross–both things in heaven and things on earth. The cross began a process of cosmic redemption that includes, but is not limited to, human redemption. Because of the cross of Christ, we can see humans restored to a right relationship with God, nature, and each other. This is the power of Jesus Christ, the one who “makes ALL things new.”

Why do you think this issue is an important one for Christians?

It is important for many reasons. First, it is important because our witness partially depends on it. When people see Christians responding with ignorance or callousness to the world’s problems, our gospel suddenly has less credibility. Second, because they are important to God. He took the time to speak about the earth over and over from Genesis 1 to Revelation 11. If they are important to God and we love God, then they will be important to us. Third, because people are dying. This year, for example, three million people (mostly children) will die from preventable, water related diseases. How can we claim to serve the one who asked us to love our neighbors and care “for the least of these” if we ignore such things?

In the book you say things like “The Bible doesn’t teach the sanctity of human life, but the sanctity of all life.” Are you trying to sway the conservative pro-lifers to start fighting to protect whales as well as unborn babies?

The one thing I don’t want to communicate is that human lives and animal lives are equivalent. But we need to recognize that what makes life sacred is not that it is human. What makes life sacred is that God created it, has placed value on it, and it is the object of His love. The Psalms tell us that God loves “all that he has made.”  Although plants and animals—from flowers to frogs—are not equivalents to humans, they remain creations of a God who loves them and has placed value on them. If we love the Creator, we’ll love what the Creator loves. Like God, we should love and value all life.

What does it mean that the world is “God’s apologetic about himself?”

God has revealed himself in nature. Psalm 19 says “the heavens declare the glory of God”; Romans 1 says that God’s attributes are clearly seen “through the things He has made.” The world is a divine soundtrack, and I think God wants us to listen in.

Are there any theologians or other Christian writers that have influenced you on this issue?

Yes. I was especially influenced by Francis Schaeffer, Alister McGrath, N.T. Wright, John Stott, Matthew Sleeth, and Christopher J.H. Wright.

How does or should one’s eschatology influence their view of creation care? If I’m a pre-trib premillenialist, why should I care if the ozone layer gets bigger?

I am often asked, “Why should we worry about the future of an earth that has no future?” I struggled with this when I first started investigating creation care, but then I read the Parable of the Talents. Here we find a master who entrusts his servants with some money before going away on a long trip. When he returns, the very first thing he asks is, “What did you do with all that stuff I left in your care while I was gone?” The point is that the knowledge of a returning master does not free us from our earthly obligations; it calls us to them. When my Lord returns, I want to be caught in the act of loving others, spreading the gospel, and stewarding all the things he has entrusted to my care.

Lost and the Burden of Global Responsibility

Television critics/theorists have had a tendency to talk a lot about the explosion of reality TV as being the quintessential post-9/11, decade-defining phenomenon on television. And certainly there is a lot to be sad about that. But we should recall that Survivor, the survival-on-an-island reality show that kicked off the whole “unscripted” boom, began in May of 2000, 15 months before 9/11. “Reality” may have been a sort of comfort food TV that carried us through the trauma of post-9/11 culture, but it wasn’t necessarily the ontological offspring of that fateful day.

Lost, however, is a show that seems more akin to the spirit and legacy of 9/11. It feels like a cultural touchstone that resonated with audiences–global audiences–in part because it embodied so many of the decade’s post-traumatic questions and preoccupations–that sense of existential unease, renewed spiritual interest, “Where are we?!” discombobulation, and “I’m not really surprised by anything anymore” resignation to the otherworldly unpredictability of this treacherous life. Polar bears on a tropical island? Unexplained smoke monsters? It somehow made sense in a “I just watched skyscrapers fall to the ground” world.

As Lost prepares to close the book on it’s rather short, “of-the-moment” 6-season run, I think one way we can make sense of its huge international success is by thinking of how it truly did reflect this moment in history–particularly in terms of global responsibility and digital-fueled collectivism. There are of course a gazillion other ways of interpreting Lost, but what follows is my humble attempt to put forth my final theory of the show: not so much a theory about what Lost‘s monsters and mythologies mean but rather what the show itself means as a show, for us.

On September 11 ,2001, we all woke up to world in which the local was suddenly thrust into the global, a world where complacent status-quo isolationism was no longer an option. That day made it very clear that the global world–full of conflicting ideas, worldviews, cultural values–could no longer be held at bay as some sort of textbook abstraction. It ushered in a new era of global responsibility. What we do in our everyday lives matters not just for our households and not just for our cities or states or nations… but for the world. The world is a smaller, more connected place than ever. We can’t just sit idly by and let the chaos reign–whether it’s on the other side of the world or in our own backyard. Lost–with its globe-trotting locations, mulitnational cast (including an Iraqi solider, not coincidentally), and universal themes–was truly a show for the world, a popcorn catharsis that embodied the urge toward global responsibility and unity in the midst of an island (this planet) we are stuck on together and can’t escape.

Riding the wave of decades of world-flattening globalization, the geopolitical impact of 9/11 was just one factor in the decade’s developing ethos of “global responsibility/connectedness.” But another big factor was technology. The Internet has only made it easier to contribute to or involve oneself in large, global dramas. One of Lost’s legacies will certainly be that it represented an important moment in technology-fueled convergence television, wherein the audience (through blogs, fansites, message boards, and frame-by-frame analysis) became a crucial part of the show’s storytelling. In the age of wikipedia and digital collective intelligence, the audience of a show like Lost can pool its wisdom and act as an instant force of continuity accountability, while also helping to fuel the obsessive theorizing about the show. Lost beckoned its consumers out of passivity and empowered them to make the show their own. And that sort of “becoming part of a lathe sort of clarion call our culture responds to today.

But Lost embodied this not just in its medium, but in its storytelling themes and worldview.

As I reflect on the show having seen all six seasons, I think the central thematic tension of Lost has always been that of the global vs. the local, the big view vs. the narrow view, “for the greater good” vs. “my own private island.”

It’s the tension between wanting to stay on the island for some mystical “I’m part of something big” reason (Jacob, Richard) vs. wanting to get off and live a life free of highfalutin world-saving (Jacob’s dark-haired brother).

It’s the tension between believing we are part of a grand design/purpose/destiny (Locke) and believing we should just help those we can help in our immediate contexts (Jack… in the early seasons at least).

In one of the series’ most crucial and memorable exchanges (between, of course, “man of faith” John Locke and “man of science” Jack Shepherd in the ever-dramatic hatch), we see the tension play out in terms of willingness or unwillingness to believe the hype about destiny/fate/brought-to-the-island for a reason.

Locke: “Why do you find it so hard to believe?”

Jack: “Why do you find it so easy?”

It’s also the tension between feeling the urgency of doing (busily trying to save the world) vs. the peace of just being–a tension represented well in this clip from season 5:

Though it may come across that Lost most often sides with the “save the world” approach to actively engaging global issues, this scene–in with “retired” Rose and Bernard give everyone a bit of “who cares?” hippie perspective–might indicate that Lost’s creators also believe that our personal love for one another is perhaps our most revolutionary, world-changing act.

Indeed, the show has always been about relationships, and love, and community–even and perhaps above all the “let’s save the world” stuff. Time and time again you see the tension between individualism and collectivism play out in terms of characters eschewing their “every man for himself” survival instincts for sacrificial actions on behalf of the community. From day one, Lost proved that it wasn’t just Survivor: Fiction Style. It wasn’t about who can outwit and outlast all the others. It was about how this diverse group of plane crash survivors could together form a community to survive in a very strange and foreign place, even if it meant paying the ultimate price to protect their friends and loved ones (as was the case for Charlie, Michael, Sayid, Jin/Sun, Juliet, and so many others).

Even from the show’s earliest days back in season one, critics picked up on the importance of the community vs. individualism theme for the show. Variety’s Brian Lowry noted that Lost’s island inhabitants were forced to “grapple with what’s expected of them in close-knit societies” as they had to “adapt to a strange new world.”

In the world of Lost, there are certainly a few lone wolves still acting mostly out of personal self-interest (Smoke Monster, Widmore, at least seemingly), but it seems like most characters are motivated at the very least out of love for their friends and family, if not out of a sense of duty to protect the whole world from some sort of cataclysm.

The show presents a way forward for our chaotic, treacherous, “WTF?! Where are we??” world. And the way forward is sacrificial love for our neighbor– “neighbor” meaning our children and love interests, but also our broader global family… those who are very different from us and yet nevertheless struggling to make sense of “the island” we all inhabit.

In a world where horrifying plane crashes can sometimes change the course of history–whether they’re crashing into buildings or onto islands–we cannot just sit back and watch the world self-destruct. But we also shouldn’t become battle-hungry busybodies, always looking to catalyze change or fix every problem (I’m talking to you Dr. Shepherd!). I think we should rather be somewhere in the middle–aware of our limitations and the power of external forces, but also willing to fight for what’s good and change the world through the love and selflessness we can display in our immediate contexts.

“Sunday’s Coming”: An Analysis

If you are at all plugged-in to the evangelical twitterverse or blogosphere, you’ve likely been bombarded by links to the unavoidable video, “Sunday’s Coming,” produced by North Point Church. If you haven’t seen it, watch it here now.

The video, which launched a buzzword (“Contemporvant”), cleverly capitalizes on the recent fervor for evangelical self-parody (see the massive success of Stuff Christians Like, for e.g.) and conveniently resulted in exactly the sort of viral buzz promotion for North Point that its creators doubtless intended. That’s all well and good, but what are we to make of the whole thing?

I like what Bill Kinnon–an expert on church use of media technology–had to say in his blog post on the subject:

Rather than comedy, the above video from Andy Stanley’s North Point Church’s very well-equipped media department should really be seen as simply admitting the truth of something that won’t be changing anytime soon in that world. No doubt, some churches will even use it as a teaching tool for their teams who aspire to megachurch greatness.

In the past couple of days, Twitter has been filled with the “wink, wink, nudge, nudge, nod, nod” tweet response to this video (which went up on the 5th of May).

The “isn’t it great we can make fun of ourselves” response of many made me want to pick up my laptop and toss it across the room (into a stack of pillows so it wouldn’t be damaged, of course.)

People mistakenly want to call this “satire.” But the definition of satire is the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices.

Do any of you really think the North Point media team meant to expose the “stupidity or vices” of their Christotainment Sunday morning services which no doubt follow the very pattern shown in the video?

Hardly.

Now onwards and upwards with more and better video, graphics, cameras, lighting, presenters, music and preachertainers – until Christotainment Excellence™ is achieved and the appropriate rewards handed out.

That’s the curious thing about the “Sunday’s Coming” video: It is using “hip, cool, and media-savvy” language  to make a statement about how silly our evangelical church attempts to be “hip, cool, and media-savvy” have been. Is that the ultimate irony North Point is seeking to embody? Are they making a meta statement ABOUT meta-statement self-parody videos? I doubt it.

If I had seen this video before writing my book, I would certainly have included a brief discussion of it, for it presents an interesting case-in-point in the whole “hipster Christianity” rigmarole. Clearly the video hit home with many evangelicals, because it so aptly captured the decidedly un-cool/formulaic/lame nature of the average evangelical “wannabe cool” church today. Evangelicals laughed and passed it around in droves because they could collectively identity and purge their shame of having been associated with such ridiculousness. It allowed people to point a critical finger at something both familiar and “other,” while simultaneously allowing them to derive a satisfied sense of “we have moved on from that now” elitist amusement.

“Hipster Christianity” is similarly self-aware and “we are beyond that” elitist, reacting against the evangelical tendencies to try so hard to be cool. They are NATURALLY cool, they will argue, denying “hipster Christian” labels at all cost because to be implicated as such is to be called out as just the most recent manifestation of evangelical Christianity’s long and sordid search for cultural relevance or “cool.”

So in the case of “Sunday’s Coming,” it’s not the subject matter of the video that represents hipster Christianity (quite the opposite actually), but rather the way in which the video was consumed, processed and (possibly) passed along by young Christians (mostly evangelicals) desperate to distance themselves from stodgy megachurch/mainstream Christianity (though many Christian hipsters simply ignored the video or scoffed at it from the outset).

It seems to me that despite what North Point had in mind when they made the video, it has probably been received in a number of different ways, such as:

  • People saw the video, were amused at how true it was, and passed it along to others who would get a kick out of it.
  • People responded to it favorably because finally someone captured the insipid ridiculousness (and helped all of us collectively put the final nail in the coffin) of “That Type of Christianity.”
  • People (like Bill Kinnon), saw it as a bit of doublespeak for a well-equipped church media ministry to make a parody of well-equipped church media ministries, and saw it as no sort of revolutionary moment in progressive church self-critique.
  • People just thought the video was dumb, or just another Christian ripoff of something secular people are already doing.

How do you react to the video?

Book Updates

A lot of exciting stuff has been happening on the book front this week, so I thought I’d note it all in one place, for those of you who may not have known about these things yet.

1) WEBSITE: It went live on Sunday, and has been a big success so far. If you haven’t explored it yet (particularly the quiz, and the “Anatomy of a Christian Hipster” section, which I toiled MANY hours to create), you should take a few minutes to do so now. Launching the website is a huge relief and I’m very proud of it. I’ve been working on it, with designer Tim Dikun and photographer Laurel Dailey, for about three months. So please enjoy it! And pass it on to any and all others who might be amused/provoked by it.

2) FACEBOOK GROUP: This also launched on Sunday, and so I urge you to “like” (the action formerly known as “become a fan of”) this page, which will be a more interactive venue for the book’s fans, readers, and yours truly. There will be book giveaways, caption contests, and other such Facebook-friendly things in the coming months on this page.

3) INTERVIEW: I did an interview with author Rachel Held Evans about the book, and she posted it on her blog this week (most graciously!) to help publicize the launch of the website. Check out the interview if you want a good, concise summary of what I am trying to do with the book.

Please Give

Please Give, the new comedy/drama written and directed by Nicole Holofcener (Walking and Talking, Lovely and Amazing), is one of the best films of the year so far, and as refreshingly generous as its title implies.

Featuring a mostly female cast (Catherine Keener, Amanda Peet, and the amazing Rebecca Hall) and talking place in yuppie/neurotic/Woody Allen Manhattan, Please Give is a film about generosity: given, received, refused, messed up, and contemplated. It’s a film about the small moments of human connection in which we give of ourselves and bond over a mutually understood abundance–that the world can actually be a beautiful place if we open ourselves up to the idea of living for others rather than just ourselves.

The slice-of-life film follows a series of interlocking stories of family, neighbor, and other relationships as they invariably collide in the strapped-for-space urban landscape of Manhattan. Each character, on each day, must interact with dozens of people–sometimes just a homeless person on the street, sometimes a coworker, sometimes an emotional teenage daughter or cranky 9o-something grandmother. Each interaction is an opportunity for either generosity (a smile, a compliment, a gift, a gesture of kindness) or a cold refusal to engage, which is sadly the most typical course of action.

The film’s focal point is Catherine Keener’s character of Kate–a wealthy furniture dealer with a husband, daughter, and a heaping ton of white bourgeouis liberal guilt. Played with characteristic empathy and nuance by Keener, Kate is the type of person who gives cash to homeless people every time she sees one and looks for voluteering opportunities at nursing homes and special needs schools. Unfortunately she is utterly undone by the pain and misery of the less fortunate, and can’t help a child with Down Syndrome without crying. Her generosity is thus largely in the context of narcissim–she gives because she is guilty. But is it that simple?

Please Give is a film full of gifts–visual, emotional, comedic–but perhaps its most valuable offering is that it tackles the issue of generosity and helpfully complicates it. Generosity isn’t always about giving people things. It’s also about relationships and whether or not we truly love people unconditionally and put their interests before our own. It’s about self-denial on one hand (thinking of yourself less and others more) and the affirmation of hope/desire on the other (learning that sometimes we are too easily pleased, and that life is actually capable of offering happiness and even joy). In this film, generosity is both helping your ailing grandmother and forgiving your husband for infidelity. Generosity means not taking advantage of someone else who is taking advantage of you. It is enjoying the beauty of the autumn leaves.

This is a movie that has a refreshingly positive attitude about life, if not always feel-good. It’s a movie that reminds us to give of ourselves–of our time, of our resources, but mostly of our hearts. We are all so broken and in need of even the littlest act of altruism or generosity to get us through the day. And life is short. People are suffering and dying. Rather than rushing by one another in our haste to fulfill our own needs and get to the next important thing, why not pause to just be with someone, or listen to them, for a minute? I think the world is urgent for this sort of generosity. It’s begging us with this call to otherness and action: “Please give.”