Monthly Archives: July 2010

Arcade Fire, The Suburbs

The Arcade Fire’s new album, The Suburbs, is their Joshua Tree. They are the hipster U2. Of course, this could mean that in another decade or so they’ll be playing stadiums packed with 40somethings while the young hipsters are doing something else. But that’s ok. Things change. Tastes are fickle. Nothing lasts except memories and nostalgia. In the future, we’ll remember the time we saw Arcade Fire play at the Hollywood Bowl in quaint old 2005, when “Wake Up” galvanized us fresh-out-of-college idealists and gave us something to spur us on in our awkward entrance into adult existence. We’ll remember it with laughter and tears, marveling at how fast the world went from there.

The Suburbs—the complicated, nostalgic, thoroughly concept-driven third album from Montreal’s resident indie rock royalty—is a monumental collection of epic songs that after a few listens reveals itself to be undoubtedly the best album of the year so far. It’s an album that embodies growth both as a concept (aging, growing out of certain things) and as an artistic process (the sound of the album, described recently as “stadium glo-fi,” builds on the band’s baroque tendencies, adds some synthesizers, and with every note declares the future of rock to be upon us). Almost all of these songs are of the “arena rock / to the rafters” variety—generational anthems that seethe with passion, anger, regret, and hope. It’s what Arcade Fire does. But this album does it better than ever.

The Suburbs, though not a “concept album” per se, is cohesive and literate in ways few albums are any more. Each of its 16 tracks (neatly divided into two 8-song halves) follows smoothly and deliberately from the previous one, with repeated words and phrases (and ideas) that tie things together. “Modern Man,” a catchy song about the drone-like, waiting-in-line-for-a-number routine of middle class adulthood, is immediately followed by “Rococo,” which describes “modern kids” who loiter downtown and use big words they don’t understand. Thematic phrases like “they built the road then they built the town” or “In the suburbs I learned to drive” are repeated in multiple songs. Images and motifs like cars, highways, pavement, writing letters, bike-riding, World War 3, and the snobby hubris of youth (“Month of May”… Arms folded tight!) give the album its own distinctive voice.

Arcade Fire is a band that always creates music at once personal and universal, capturing resonant emotions and truth even in the most personal, cryptic packaging. With The Suburbs, frontman Win Butler revisits the Texas locales of his youth with brother/bandmate William (they grew up in the suburbs of Houston). There, they take nighttime, Lynchian bikerides through the neighborhoods of their memory, searching for that most elusive bit of Americana: Home.

Arcade Fire knows they are something of an iconic voice for the hipster culture, and with this album they take on that culture (including themselves in it, to be sure) with refreshing honesty. “Rococo” critiques hipsters who go around uttering words like “rococo” just to sound cool (funnily enough, I also used “rococo” in my description of the “dilettante hipster” in my book). “Suburban War” describes suburban kids who grow their hair out, rail against their suburban milieu, bolt for a city, and become music snobs. “Wasted Hours” describes kids on a bus in the suburbs, feeling boxed in an longing to be “anywhere but here. But ultimately Butler recognizes that the “war on suburbia” that characterizes hipster culture (and to some extent his own life) is superficial and fleeting. By the time we abandon the suburbs and move to the city as grown ups, we begin to long for the suburbs again, recognizing that it wasn’t necessarily the hell we felt it to be as adolescents. Our childhood days in the suburbs, before the cities opened our eyes to the world, were not just “wasted hours” but rather days to be cherished. Butler closes the album with this sentiment: If I could have it back / All the time that we wasted / I’d only waste it again.

In many ways, The Suburbs is an album about the very human longing to always be elsewhere. The grass is always greener on the other side. We always want what’s next. The album uses the metaphor of America and its obsession with movement, manifest destiny and “highways before cities” sprawl to get at a deeper cultural (existential?) value: wanting more. Industry. Progress. Development. Real Estate. The album tells a history of growing up in a brutally fast world, the age of computers and Y2K (“Deep Blue”). In “We Used to Wait,” Butler sings about how we used to wait on snail-mail letters to come to the physical mailbox, happy to do so and gleefully unaware that one day we’d call it “snail mail.” Sings Butler: Now our lives are changing fast / Hope that something pure can last.

Here the album’s key tension—between our innate drive to want to build, move, and experience “the new” on one hand and the pesky, ineffable tug of permanence and safety on the other—begins to reveal itself. A key song (and one of the album’s best tracks) is “City With No Children,” which offers a scathing critique of the comforts and protections of suburbia (Never trust a millionaire / Quoting the Sermon on the Mount) but also laments the downsides of urban life (I feel like I’ve been living in a city with no children in it).

Another key song—and the album’s best—is “Half Light II (No Celebration).” Musically, thematically, emotionally… this is the climax of the album.  Following the gorgeous orchestral conclusion of “Half Light I,” its sequel begins with throbbing, warbly synth and white noise, and the apocalyptic line Now that San Francisco’s gone / I guess I’ll just pack it in / Wanna wash away my sins / In the presence of my friends … The song—which includes imagery of driving away from cities crumbling and “paying the cost” of markets crashing—soars to a stunning climax of impassioned lament as Butler sings of the interminable process of change: One day we’ll see it’s long gone / One day we’ll see it’s long gone / One day we’ll see it’s long gone / One day we’ll see it’s long gone.

Not to be outdone, Butler’s wife/bandmate Regine has her own epic moment in the sun with the album’s penultimate song, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” a hopeful, rollicking, roll-down-your-windows-and-turn-up-the-volume jam about seeing the city lights from the suburbs and believing in your dreams. It’s the sort of song that makes you think, “really? 15 songs in and we’re still getting hit with explosive classics like this??”

But The Suburbs is this sort of album. It makes you smile, sing, laugh, cry, and feel part of something. It’s grandiose and intimate, soothing and unsettling, retro and progressive and effortlessly “of the moment.” An album of our times? Yes. One that will resonate in our stadiums in ten years when we are parents and professionals, unsure of what the kids are listening to? Probably. One that will outlive the fads, ephemera, and strip mall superhighways of tomorrow’s industry? Maybe. But I have my doubts. I have my doubts about it.

Christian Hipster Music: A YouTube History

Last week on the Hipster Christianity Facebook page, I posted YouTube videos from the last 4 decades of “Christian hipster” music, or music that was at least pivotal in the ultimate development of today’s culture of hipster Christianity. Here they are, in chronological order… Enjoy!

Love Song, “the Christian Beach Boys,” out of the Laguna Beach dope scene (ca. 1970s):

Children of the Day, “the first CCM group” (1971):

Explo ’72, “the Christian Woodstock” (1972) featuring Johnny Cash:

Glass Harp (Phil Keaggy) live in ’72:

Daniel Amos (ca. 1979):

Steve Taylor, “Meltdown (at Madame Tussaud’s)” music video (ca 1984):

DeGarmo & Key, “666” music video (1986):

Altar Boys, “You Are Loved” video (1986)… early Christian punk:

Stryper, “Battle Hymn of the Republic” live in Japan (mid-80s)… Christian glam rock/metal:

DC Talk, “Walls” music video (1989):

Vigilantes of Love at Cornerstone, “Earth Has No Sorrow That Heaven Can’t Heal” (1993):

The debut of Danielson Famile (1994):

Over the Rhine, “Happy With Myself” music video (1994):

Starflyer 59… Christian shoegaze (mid-90s):

Jars of Clay, “Flood” (1995):

Rich Mullins, “If I Stand” (1997):

Derek Webb, “Wedding Dress” (mid-2000s):

Sufjan Stevens 2005 MTV interview, in which he’s labeled “the ‘it’ boy of indie music”:

Cold War Kids on British TV (2006)… Biola University kids turned indie rockstars, bypassing CCM altogether:

The Thin Red Line Comes to Criterion!

It’s Christmas in July! My favorite film of all time–yep, it has been for over 12 years now–is being released by the Criterion Collection this September.

I’m so excited. Extras on the DVD include everything I would have wanted (except for a Terrence Malick commentary… but that would never happen).

I love this film. I watch it at least once a year, or whenever I need a catharsis. It’s an utterly transcendent, pure, soul-enhancing masterpiece.

In honor of the momentous milestone of its long overdue Criterion release, I’ve posted the text of an essay I wrote about the film last year. If you haven’t seen the film, don’t read it–contains spoilers!


After two acclaimed films in the 1970s, Terrence Malick fell off the Hollywood radar for two decades, moved to France, and lived the quiet life of a recluse. No one knew when or if he would ever make another film. But in 1998 he emerged with a third film, a big-budget WWII film (adapted from a James Jones novel) released the same year as Saving Private Ryan. It’s as if Malick wanted to hold the unresolved tension of his first two films as long as possible, waiting for just the right project to release the catharsis.

If The Thin Red Line is anything it is certainly a catharsis.  The line between the holy and human is never as blurry within the Malick corpus as it is here.  Even the form of the film, with its indistinguishable voiceovers and exchangeable characters, echoes this uncertain harmony. From the opening line of the film (“What’s this war in the heart of nature?”), the dualistic balancing act in nature takes center stage.  While the protagonists of Malick’s two earlier films (Martin Sheen’s Kit and Richard Gere’s Bill) both encounter this “war” in nature, neither recognizes the simultaneous horror and rapture of existence for what it is. Only Line’s Witt (Jim Caviezel) sees, though the sharpened eye of war, the transcendental “light” amid the darkness all around him. Where others in that film succumb to desperation or nihilistic ambivalence, Witt sees sparks of a heavenly glory. He recognizes the seemingly paradoxical notion that “even—no, especially—in the throes of self-annihilation, man can apprehend the sublime,” as Gavin Smith wrote in his Film Comment analysis of the film.

The film’s World War II backdrop underscores the message of conflict as an elemental part of life, something running much deeper than just guns and bombers.  It is a very Heideggerian notion—that reality shapes itself through conflict and struggle. As Heidegger puts it, the world (humanity) and earth (physical nature) are in a constant and essential striving, opponents that “raise each other into the self assertion of their natures” (“The Origin of the Work of Art”). Malick turns the philosophical concept into artistic exposition by showing us how conflicts between war and peace, darkness and light, love and strife drive our existence. It’s a film that is more interested in the fact that the world is governed by conflicts, and less in the question of which side is right and which is wrong.

At the heart of the film is the notion that this warring tension is evidence of something other—some oneness and perfection that life can’t fulfill. It is perhaps what Chesterton deemed “divine discontent”—the happiness that comes from both loving and disdaining the world around us. If pure happiness is possible for man in this life, Chesterton says that it “will be an exact and perilous balance; like that of a desperate romance.” Happiness in life comes from the deepest longing for the other—for the filling of “the lack.” We see through the inhumanity of battle in Line that beyond the divisions of people and nations lays a common humanity that longs for that oneness and reconciliation that nature—in its beautiful brokenness—reflects.

In Line, as in his other films, Malick uses raw and unmediated nature as a chief expository tool.  Much more than just a setting (the jungles of Guadalcanal) or a pretty background, the imagery in Line forms the heart of the film.  Nature is at once cruel (creeping, suffocating vines) and beautiful (light filtering through the canopy), though in either case indifferent to human affairs. Like the final shot of an improbable palm sprout on the shores of a battle-weary beach, nature pushes on despite our best (or worst) intentions.  The war in nature is eternal (at least as long as this world exists), and our own inner battles are indifferently digested in its “neverthelessness.” As such, there is a cleansing, redemptive power in nature. Our transitory place within the realm of the physical brings us into a close, almost spiritual bond with it. Water imagery in Line shows this, as does light.  The baptismal quality of the former appears throughout—when Witt swims with the natives, when the soldiers swim during their leave, when the G.I. huddles in the cold, drenching rain, longing for purification. The divine illumination of the latter also offers redemption—lighting our dark hearts, warming our cold souls, and keeping the “spark” alive.

If nature is the heart of this film, then the character of Witt is its soul. Not that the two are, in the end, distinguishable. Witt sees the spark in others, even when they don’t see it in themselves (as in Sean Penn’s character). Witt looks into the eyes of the dying, and where others might see depravity and waste, Witt sees the glory. What Witt sees in his comrades and enemies is less the ‘heart of darkness’ than the ‘heart of the ordinary’—ordinary men bound by the thin red line which encircles them as they walk the threshold between life and death, meaning and meaninglessness. The line is thinnest at the point of death, and this is where pure transcendence occurs.

Witt approaches death with startling metaphysical calm. He begins the movie skeptically, musing about his mother’s death: “I was afraid to touch the death that I see in her. I couldn’t find anything beautiful or uplifting about her going back to God. I heard people talk about immortality, but I ain’t never seen it.” In the course of the film, however, Witt comes to realize that mortality and immortality are symbiotic rivals, at war and peace with each other like most else in nature. Glimpses of immortality are seen all over life (the holy) as are pictures of death (the human), but to be completely either is to be completely both, and that happens when one crosses the thin red line.

At the beginning of the film Witt explains his longing to meet death in the same way as his mother (“with the same calm”), because “that’s where it’s hidden—the immortality that I hadn’t seen.”  When death comes knocking, Witt faces it with similar peace, looking upwards at the light as it ushers him out of time. Heidegger calls it “Angst”—a peaceful state in the face of one’s physical extinction and the only real place of immortality. Witt knows death is a just punishment—if not for anything specific he has done, then at least for his fallen nature. It is death that is at once the cruelest act of nature and the most merciful.  It is the punishment for sin and the only resolution for it—a terrible moment of rapture and grace where the two sides of everything make peace and return to the oneness that was torn asunder.

Key Dates in the Formation of Hipster Christianity

How did today’s Christian hipster come to be? Here are some key dates in the formation of hipster Christianity:

June 5, 1955: Francis Schaeffer opens L’Abri.

1967: The Living Room coffeehouse opens in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district; origins of Jesus People movement.

1969: Larry Norman’s Upon This Rock (Capitol Records) is released; major release of a “Christian rock” record.

June 21, 1971: The Jesus Movement is profiled in Time magazine article, “The New Rebel Cry: Jesus Is Coming!”

1971: First issue of the Wittenburg Door (or The Door) is published by San Diego youth worker Mike Yaconelli.

1971: First issue of Sojourners is published.

June 17, 1972: “Christian Woodstock.” During the Expo ’72 evangelistic conference sponsored by Campus Crusade and held in Dallas, a day long Christian music festival draws a crowd somewhere between 100,000-200,000 and features the music of Love Song, Larry Norman, Randy Matthews, The Archers, Children of the Day, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson.

1977: Ron Sider publishes Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, which will become a classic among later generations of Christian hipsters.

June 18-20, 1984: JPUSA holds the first Cornerstone Music Festival in Grayslake, Illinois.

1984: Thomas Howard publishes Evangelical is Not Enough, charting his pilgrimage from evangelicalism to liturgical Christianity.

July 21, 1984: Christian metal band Stryper releases its first EP, The Yellow and Black Attack, launching a successful career which included one Platinum and two Gold records.

1984: Degarmo & Key’s video “Six Six Six” is the first Christian music video selected for rotation on MTV, and almost as quickly banned for excessive violence and disturbing images.

March 9, 1987: U2 releases The Joshua Tree, cementing their status as the world’s most epic pseudo-Christian rock band.

1988: DC Talk, a trio of students from Liberty University, signs a recording contract with Forefront Records.

November 1993: Brandon Ebel founds Tooth & Nail Records.

October 1995: Mark Noll publishes The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

April 1997: Pedro the Lion releases first EP, Whole.

January 2003: Christian satirical website Lark News is launched.

March 1, 2003: Relevant publishes its first issue.

2005: Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois is named the best album of 2005 by Pitchfork and countless other secular music critics.

February 2006: Shane Claiborne publishes Irresistible Revolution.

February 18, 2006: Icelandic post-rock darlings Sigur Ros perform a sold out concert at Calvin College.

(Excerpt from Chapter 4, “The History of Hip Christianity,” of Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide)

Note: This post is part of “Know Your Christian Hipster History” week… Throughout the week, if you re-post a FB item from Hipster Christianity (tag Hipster Christianity in your post) or tweet a link to a Hipster Christianity post (tag @brettmccracken on Twitter), you’ll be entered in a drawing for a free autographed copy of the book. 5 books will be given away on Friday!


Christopher Nolan’s Inception is a film that requires high levels of mental engagement from its audience. It’s the summer blockbuster that might have been concocted had Freud, Dali, Esher, Lacan, Baudrillard and Jung been able to brainstorm a movie together. But this is not a committee-made picture. It’s the singular vision of one of cinema’s most visionary contemporary directors, Christopher Nolan. It’s an expansive, ambitious, unlikely triumph that started with an idea from an artist, expanded with the resources of designers, actors, technicians and a movie studio, and is now filtering into the consciousness of moviegoers worldwide. Such is the power of inception. An idea conceived.

This is not a film about emotions or characters. It’s not Toy Story 3 and will not make you cry. But that’s ok. It’ll make you think. Man will it make you think.

Unlike any film I can remember, Inception surely puts the psychological in “psychological thriller.” This is a film that is about the mind, takes place in the mind, and will stick in your mind. It’s energy comes not from explosions or cheap thrills but from the steady, deliberate way that it wraps itself around your brain, python like, a tighter and tighter coil as the film goes along.

To say Inception is a layered film is a vast understatement. It is about the idea of ideas on so many levels: 1) The plot: A group of hired professionals who plant an idea into someones subconscious via shared dreaming, with the hopes that the seed of an idea–the “inception”–will grow to a predictable, causal conclusion. 2) The form: The film’s visual style and narrative structure evoke the labyrinth-type trajectory that an idea embodies as it is born, expands, and takes unexpected turns. 3) The ideas raised: By the end of the film, the audience is left with ideas to consider. One in particular (I won’t spoil it) is foreshadowed throughout the film and encapsulated in the closing shot. It’s a familiar meta idea (The Matrix raised it 10+ years ago) but fits particularly comfortably in this film, which oddly seems more real (even in dreamscape) than most “realist” films one might encounter.

Some have complained that this film doesn’t develop its characters or make us care for them. One hardly should expect time for that in a film so frantically and economically devoted to taking us down the wormhole of consciousness, memory, and idea inception. And what does it actually mean to “care about the characters” anyway? If Inception reminds us of anything, it is that film–like our dreams–is ultimately about us. We are the ones whose minds puts flickering images together. We are the ones who connect the dots and navigate the maze. Characters in our dreams–like Leonardo DiCaprio playing  some fictitious protagonist or Joseph Gordon-Levitt doing cool gravity-defying fight scenes–are important only insofar as we see ourselves in them, or recognize some curiosity about the world through what they say and do.  In the case of Inception (and particularly by the end), what’s most interesting is how we the audience make sense of the chaos, where our minds go, and what we ultimately conclude (I think Michael Haneke’s White Ribbon is another stellar example of this).

In my case, what I concluded is that I am finally going to get around to reading Richard Weaver’s classic book Ideas Have Consequences.

Have Missions Become Too “Deeds”-Centric?

I really enjoyed a column by Brad Greenberg (of The God Blog) a few weeks back in the Wall Street Journal‘s “Houses of Worship” column. The piece, entitled “How Missionaries Lost Their Chariots of Fire,” took a look at the trends in Christian missions in recent years–most notably the shift among younger evangelicals from proselytizing and preaching to doing more service and social justice oriented work as mission. A shift in focus from words to deeds.

Evangelical youth now hold the term “missionary” at arm’s length, afraid of the colonialist connotations of the word. They prefer being involved in “social justice” under the auspices of a more generalized Christian sense of charity rather than operating under anything resembling (groan) “soul winning.”

Greenberg cites such popular organizations as Invisible Children, an ostensibly Christian social justice organization whose media kit states that its founders “believe in Christ, but do NOT want to limit themselves in any way.”

Greenberg, who notes that “Christians today typically travel abroad to serve others, but not necessarily to spread the gospel,” ultimately concludes that as much as abandoning the colonialist undertones and “vacationary” short-term reputation of evangelical missions is a good thing, we have to remember that both actions AND words are necessary in missions.

He writes:

Spreading Christianity through deeds alone aligns with a quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words.” But research suggests that non-Christians often miss the message without the words.

A 2006 study by Calvin College’s Kurt Ver Beek found “little or no difference” in the spiritual response between two groups of Hondurans—one which had its homes rebuilt by missionaries who did not proselytize and the other by local NGOs. Intuition would suggest as much. Unless foreigners explain that they are motivated to help by their religious beliefs, locals may be grateful for the new home but they should not be expected to connect dots that they may not even know exist.

The reality is the Church should be doing both: serving the needy and spreading the gospel. This is what makes the humanitarian work of Christians different than that of the American Red Cross. Both are motivated by the desire to help others, but Christians are spurred by that Jesus thing.

Props to Greenberg for highlighting this important point–that in our desire to move away from the ills of “old school” missions thinking we don’t throw the baby (preaching the gospel) out with the bathwater (colonialism, etc). Sadly, we  pendulum-prone evangelicals have a hard time with these both/and scenarios–always inclined to correct the ills of one thing by a wholesale replacement of it with something equally full of its own ills.

I’m all for social justice. I’m passionate about it. Christians have to be serving people and loving them not just in word but in deed. But man, if I hear another well-fed, Toms-wearing evangelical kid quote St. Francis (“preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words”) one more time as a justification for their unwillingness to utter a word to anyone about Christ as the one true hope, I don’t know what I’ll do.

It’s an ongoing debate in missiology: Should missionaries in foreign countries prioritize meeting physical needs (food, water, social justice, development) before they preach the gospel, or should evangelism always be given primacy?

To me, the debate is silly. Can’t we do both simultaneously? Can’t we serve others and meet their circumstantial needs while at the same time telling them about Jesus? Yes, we should be in Africa building water wells, or in Haiti building schools, but what’s the harm in mentioning along the way that we are Christians acting as the church, loving the world because God loved it?

I’m not sure missions could ever be too focused on deeds–unless it is at the expense of the equally important words of truth that people need to hear. I hope my generation figures out a way to emphasize both.

Interview With Rachel Held Evans

Evolving in Monkey Town is a great new book by a young evangelical author recounting her spiritual journey as she’s moved from the “all questions are answered” certainty of her evangelical youth to the somewhat more complicated, “questions are ok” place she now finds herself. It’s a great read, full of provocative insights and disturbing questions about Christianity–the sorts of things that lead many Christians of a certain age to abandon their faith. In spite of the spiritual crisis she recounts in the book, author Rachel Held Evans hasn’t abandoned her faith, just allowed it to evolve a little bit (hence the title). In this interview, she discusses some of the problems that led her to question her faith (hell, “the cosmic lottery,” etc), the damage done by “false fundamentals,” and what parts of Christianity she’d like to see evolve.

Why did you title the book Evolving in Monkey Town?

Being from Dayton, Tennessee—home of the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925—the title was just too irresistible. I’m really glad Zondervan decided to keep it, even after I submitted a list of alternate titles for them to consider, (including my husband’s suggestion of “Maturing in Ape Village,” just for fun).

In addition to being a fun play on words, the title points to a larger theme in the book: that sometimes faith has to adapt to change in order to survive. I think this happens on both an individual and collective level, whenever circumstances prompt Christians to reexamine what it really means to follow Jesus.

Who is the audience you’d most like this book to reach?

I wrote it with young (evangelical) adults in mind, but I hope it’s helpful to anyone who wrestles with tough questions about faith.  My goal isn’t really to answer all those questions, but rather provide a little companionship for the journey.

In many ways, your book is a chronicle of your faith crisis, and one of the big issues you wrestle with is what you describe as the “cosmic lottery.” Could you describe this term, and how it posed problems for your faith?

I think Adah Price—a narrator in Barbara Kingsolver’s book The Poisonwood Bible—says it best.  “According to my Baptist Sunday-school teacher,” she explains “a child is denied entrance to heaven merely for being born in the Congo rather than, say, north Georgia, where she could attend church regularly. This was the sticking point in my own little lame march to salvation: admission to heaven is gained by luck of the draw. At age five I raised my good left hand in Sunday school and used a month’s ration of words to point out this problem to Miss Betty Nagy. Getting born within earshot of a preacher, I reasoned, is entirely up to chance. Would Our Lord be such a hit-or-miss kind of Savior as that? Would he really condemn some children to eternal suffering just for the accident of a heathen birth?…Miss Betty sent me to the corner for the rest of the hour to pray for my own soul while kneeling on grains of uncooked rice. When I finally got up with sharp grains imbedded in my knees I found, to my surprise, that I no longer believed in God.” (p. 171)

It took me longer than Adah to ask myself these questions, but when I did, they irritated me like grains of rice stuck to my knees.

Aside from your very brief Reformed phase, it doesn’t sound like you’ve had a very good experience with Calvinism. Are there any aspects of the Reformed tradition that you appreciate?

I deeply appreciate the Reformed emphasis on undeserved grace. My Reformed friends are often the first to acknowledge their complete dependence upon the transformative work of Jesus, and I admire that a lot. It is perhaps a common misunderstanding that Arminians do not share this perspective on grace, that we believe ourselves to be the initiators of reconciled relationship with God.  This isn’t true.

Arminians simply believe that God initiates relationship with all people, not just the elect. Both groups seem to agree that it is God who loves first and that grace is completely underserved.  But I like the way Reformed leaders in particular have so poignantly expressed this through the years.

Hell seems to be a big problem for you, as it is for many Christians–especially the notion that every non-Christian will go there when they die. Do you still believe that hell exists? If so, who do you think goes there?

Short answer: I don’t know.

Long answer: I believe that one day Jesus will return to judge the nations and that everything will be set right. I wish I knew exactly how he was going to do this, but I don’t. One minute the Bible seems to support the notion of eternal damnation, the next minute it seems to support universalism. Most days I lean toward a sort of conditionalist (or annihilationist) view that God will get rid of evil once and for all, so that no trace of it remains, and then reconcile all things to himself. Regarding the fate of non-Christians, I like what C.S. Lewis said—“We do know that no person can be saved except through Christ. We do not know that only those who know Him can be saved by Him.”  But I could be wrong, and I’m open to other people’s perspectives on this.

Our generation of evangelicals were often brought up with an apologetics mindset–always wanting to defend the faith or make the “case for faith” to the supposedly atheist, secular humanist throngs who had it out for Christianity. But you point out that most of your peers are actually not “searching for historical evidence in support of the bodily resurrection of Jesus” as much as they are “searching for some signs of life among his followers.” What role do you think apologetics should play in Christianity today, if any?

Apologetics are great as long as they help us love God and our neighbors better.  People always point to Paul’s sermon at Mars Hill as an example of making a good case for Christianity, but what I love about that story is that Paul pulled from Greek literature and philosophy to make his point—seeking common ground rather than mocking what other people believed. So I think apologetics should continue, but perhaps with a different tone and emphasis, one that seeks to build bridges rather than conquer and destroy. And I think we have to keep in mind the fact that we preach Christ crucified—not the most logical thing in the world! Our best apologetic is a life transformed by the love of Jesus Christ, and that’s not something you can cram into an argument.

I thought this was an interesting statement: “I am convinced that what drives most people away from Christianity is not the cost of discipleship but rather the cost of false fundamentals.” What do you mean by false fundamentals?

Those things that sorta a get attached to Christianity along the way, but don’t really belong….or at least aren’t essential. In evangelicalism it tends to be things like young earth creationism, Republicanism, religious nationalism, a commitment to the culture wars, etc. It makes me really sad when friends feel they have to walk away from the faith just because they took a biology class or voted for Barack Obama. But there seems to be this impression among Christians and non-Christians alike that you can’t be a Christian and believe in evolution, you can’t be a Christian and be gay, you can’t be a Christian and have questions about the Bible, you can’t be a Christian and appreciate elements of other religions, you can’t be a Christian and be a feminist, you can’t be a Christian and drink or smoke, you can’t be a Christian and get depressed, you can’t be a Christian and doubt. The list goes on.

I’m inclined to say that the only fundamental requirement for following Jesus should be love—for God and for one another. But I usually get talked out of this by someone who makes a good point about maybe adding the Apostle’s and Nicene creeds…which is fair enough. :-)

Near the end of the book, you write that you are “learning to love the questions” and that you hope that “the questions will dissolve into meaning, the answers won’t matter so much anymore, and perhaps it will all make sense to me on some distant, ordinary day.” Could you elaborate on what you mean by this?

In some ways the journey of faith is a lot like the writing process. In Bird by Bird Anne Lamott writes about how sometimes you have to write three or four pages of material that you will never use in order to get to “that one long paragraph that was what you had in mind when you started, only you didn’t know that, couldn’t know that, until you got to it.” Sometimes I think of my questions and doubts like that. I need to experience them right now in order to learn something in the future—maybe the answers; maybe something more important than the answers. I just have to have patience with the process in the meantime.

I think that’s what Rilke meant when he said to “have patience with everything that remains unresolved in your heart…Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question.”

As Christianity evolves in the next decade or so, which of its present attributes would you most like to see go the way of the dodo bird?

Haha! I love the way you asked that question.

I’m hoping that over the next few decades we will talk less about the culture wars and more about reconciliation. I’d like it if we stopped trying to force the Bible into modern scientific paradigms and instead embraced it as an inspired, ancient text in which God chose to use the language and culture of the people he loved in order to communicate to them.  And I hope we move from an individualistic view of Jesus in which he is our “personal savior” to a kingdom perspective in which he is the “savior of the world.”

Cool vs. Christianity

To celebrate the fact that in about a month (on Aug. 1), Hipster Christianity will finally be released, I thought I’d post something that, in a sense, summarizes one of the main points of the book. Over the course of my research and writing about “hipster Christianity,” some have questioned my assertions that “cool” doesn’t really go well with Christianity. Just as we are beginning to crawl out of our fundamentalist ghettos and gain legitimacy in the eyes of culture, why am I spoiling the party by saying we (Christians) shouldn’t be cool? Can’t Christianity be both hipster AND soundly biblical? Well, yes, in some rare cases (see Ch. 12: “Authentic Christian Cool”). But there are far more points at which cool and Christianity clash. In fact, there are very few attributes they share in common. No wonder “cool Christianity” frequently becomes so awkward and ugly! It’s like mixing oil and water.

Read the following list of juxtaposed attributes of “cool” and “Christianity,” and tell me if you think I’m wrong to suggest they are fundamentally contrary ways of being.

Cool: Self-obsessed
Christianity: Selfless

Cool: Vain/narcissistic
Christianity: Giving/altruistic

Cool: Self-sovereignty
Christianity: Submitting to God

Cool: Exclusive club
Christianity: Inclusive/open to all

Cool: Elitist/arrogant
Christianity: Humble

Cool: Alienating
Christianity: Inviting

Cool: Transient
Christianity: Transcendent

Cool: Focused on Now
Christianity: Eternal

Cool: Style is king
Christianity: Substance is king

Cool: Cutthroat
Christianity: Trustworthy

Cool: Ironic
Christianity: Earnest

Cool: Hedonism championed
Christianity: Asceticism/sacrifice championed

What is the iPhone Doing to Us?

I’m sure I’ll buy an iPhone some day.  But on that day, I’ll feel a resigned regret similar to what my grandmother must have felt when she realized the organ would never be played again in church because tacky and repetitive praise choruses were the new accepted standard. I will feel similar to the forty-something parent who is forced to learn how to text so they can communicate with their teenager.

It will be a sad day because I will be buying an iPhone only because to not have one in an iPhone-run-world would be a costly mistake. I’ll be buying it for the same reason every American dad in 1966 had to buy a color TV set—not because black and white TV sets had been insufficient, but because the industry was changing for a color-TV world. Sometimes we can’t just throw up our hands in protest and say “Hey! I’m okay with the way things are!” The wheels of industry and capitalism will move on in spite of me.

So, as most of the world celebrates the arrival of the hallowed iPhone 4—a device that “Changes everything. Again.”—I will sit back in apathy, thinking about that dreaded future day when I too will somehow be excited about video calling and “better than my eyes” image resolution.  By then, not having something in my pocket that allows me to video chat with my sister while following a basketball game on ESPN will be a debilitating calamity. It will be akin to leaving the house without a phone or going a day without wifi. And it will be the only reason why I, even I, own an iPhone.

Full disclosure: I do already have an iPad. But it’s for work! I keep trying to figure out ways to make it useful—but so far all I’ve come up with is Netflix and a mildly amusing “build your own rollercoaster” app. Whenever I go to the app store I sort of feel like I’m in IKEA with no real goal, plopping 99 cent Japanese lantern votives in my cart because I can.  There are waaaaaay too many apps out there, solving problems we never knew we had and offering diversions we never knew we wanted. I can use my phone to blow out birthday candles? I can use it to do fake bubble-wrap popping? Of course I can! With the Blower and iBubbleWrap apps—both only 99 cents!

I recently heard about a university app that allows students to check the status of their dorm laundry machines on their iPhones, so they don’t have to waste time trudging down to the basement and waiting around for the rinse cycle to end. Awesome, right? So efficient! But what if “time wasting” is actually an edifying part of life? What are college students missing when they are so efficient that they never have to kill time in the laundry room, where a passing conversation with a fellow launderer might spark a serious friendship? What conversations or interactions are missed on the subway when everyone spends their commute glued to their iPhones, tweeting or emailing or checking Facebook?  Not that any of this is in itself bad—It’s just what it replaces in our “spare time” that worries me.

With an iPhone—which contains endless amounts of “task” potential within its aluminosilicate glass frame—“spare time” is a foreign concept, because when the world is literally in your pocket, there’s always something to do. But really, these “things to do” (that they are called “tasks” or “applications” is a clever way to convince us of their utility) are mostly just distractions. The iPhone is perhaps the greatest one-stop-shop distraction-generating device of our time. When we could be sitting silently, thinking, daydreaming, or waiting for something, it beckons us from inside our pocket: “Come on! You can’t just be doing nothing right now! Boredom is not an option. There’s an app for that!”

I don’t hate iPhones. I think they are beautiful to look at and impressive evidence of the ingenuity of man. And I realize that “we don’t need it” isn’t really a valid argument against it. We don’t need a lot of things. I just wonder if the iPhone mentality—of having everything at our fingertips (information, recreation, communication, etc) instantly, conveniently, efficiently—is necessarily a good thing for humanity.

Neil Postman once said that we shouldn’t worry about technology changing human nature; We should worry about what part of our humanness technology nurtures.

Technology doesn’t make us do anything. But it can certainly fuel instincts and reinforce behavior that is already there. In the case of the iPhone, perhaps what is nurtured is our human instinct to want to escape into our individual, subjective, “this is how I want it” worlds where we can access everything and say anything, wherever and whenever we want.  But is this the sort of humanness we were created to embody? I’m not so sure.