Monthly Archives: August 2010

Taking Glenn Beck Seriously

I have to admit–every part of me wants to just completely ignore the fact that Glenn Beck exists. I want to accept him as a cheerfully wrongheaded caricature of some ghastly mutation of conservatism, and nothing more. My attempts to block him out of my mind were thwarted this weekend, however, when everything on the Internet pointed my attention to his Washington D.C. “Restoring Honor” rally. Suddenly, it was all very real. Were there really that many people packing the national mall cheering on Beck’s calls to reclaim America for “God” (is it his Mormon God? A Christian God? A blue deity from Avatar)? How was this joker the focal point of one of the largest political gatherings in recent history?

The significance of this man’s apparent following–I mean, just look at the ratings of his various TV and radio shows–demands that we take him seriously. Unfortunately, almost every commentary, tweet, or passing remark I’ve read about Beck since the rally has been either completely sarcastic, pointlessly angry, or simply dismissive. The discourse surrounding Beck by his many critics is as infantile and unhelpful as the man himself.  Beck is not going anywhere and his followers will not diminish by us simply pointing at the whole thing and calling it preposterous.

That huge crowd was there in D.C. for a reason. They believed in something enough to be there. Was it Beck and his charisma that drew them? Was it his (shudder) civil religious fervor that maintains Christianity is about individualism and anti-social justice? I’m not sure. But I know these are important questions. The “masses” here may be mostly white, middle-class, pro-military tea-partiers, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have brains. It doesn’t mean we can just joke about the whole thing and expect that their children will be more nuanced and all will be well.

Beck and his pop-polemics are just a natural outgrowth of a culture that has embraced division as some sort of high Hegelian virtue. No one really takes the other side seriously any more, out of intellectual laziness and an alarmingly delinquent aptitude for things like nuance, moderation, charity, and friendly dialogue.

Until both sides are willing to take the other seriously, even the Glenn Becks in the lot, there will only be more stalemate, more pointless sarcastic rants and hateful Facebook posts complaining about the unfathomable ignorance of this or that person. There will only be more extreme polarity, exacerbated by a media system that thrives on soundbite bickering and black-and-white divisions.

I’m not sure what the solution is to get us out of this quagmire, but I think it probably starts with someone who is willing to stop talking and start listening to the other. It starts with the abandonment of the notion that progress is about winning a tug of war match over America’s soul. It starts with someone–anyone–writing a serious analysis of Glenn Beck that doesn’t cynically dismiss him at the outset as a lab rat run amok. Has anyone read such a thing? Please, send me a link.

The Poetics of Late Summer

Although it is hotter right now in Southern California than it has been all summer, there are definitely signs that summer is ending and autumn is at hand. The sun is setting earlier, the fire season has begun, and three-ring-binders are 2 for $3 at Wal-Mart.

I’ve always loved this time of year. Late summer. For whatever reason, it is just incredibly poetic. The end of “vacation” season, an acute sense of both loss and hope, the onset of such wonderful things as Football season and apple picking. It’s a great moment of transition, and some far more perceptive writers than I have captured it beautifully in verse. Here are a few of my favorites:

“September” by Herman Hesse

The Garden mourns,
The rains coolly sink into the flowers.
The Summer shivers
Calmly against its end.

Golden falls leaf upon leaf
Down from the high acacia tree.
Summer smiles astonished and weary
In the dying garden dream.

It lingers yet by the roses
Remains standing, longs for rest.
Slowly it closes its large
Weary-grown eyes.

“Late Summer” by C.S. Lewis

I, dusty and bedraggled as I am,
Pestered with wasps and weed and making jam,
Blowzy and stale, my welcome long outstayed,
Proved false in every promise that I made,
At my beginning I believed, like you,
Something would come of all my green and blue.
Mortals remember, looking on the thing
I am, that I, even I, was once a spring.

“Autumn Day” by Rilke

Lord: it is time. The summer was immense.
Lay your shadow on the sundials
and let loose the wind in the fields.

Bid the last fruits to be full;
give them another two more southerly days,
press them to ripeness, and chase
the last sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now will not build one
anymore.
Whoever is alone now will remain so for a long
time,
will stay up, read, write long letters,
and wander the avenues, up and down,
restlessly, while the leaves are blowing.

“September” by John Updike

The breezes taste
Of apple peel.
The air is full
Of smells to feel-
Ripe fruit, old footballs,
Burning brush,
New books, erasers,
Chalk, and such.
The bee, his hive,
Well-honeyed hum,
And Mother cuts
Chrysanthemums.
Like plates washed clean
With suds, the days
Are polished with
A morning haze.

To Change the World

James Davison Hunter’s new book, To Change the World, has been stirring up buzz since it came out this spring, and for good reason. It’s an intellectually robust, complicated, nuanced treatment of a crucial, continually difficult subject matter: The relationship between Christianity and culture. How do Christians relate to culture? How do they transform it? Is this even the right question to ask? For those familiar with this blog and my prevailing concerns as a writer, you know that this is a subject near and dear to my heart. Thus, I read To Change the World voraciously, though critically, enjoying it as much as I’ve enjoyed reading any other book this year.

Hunter’s book questions how Christians have historically “changed the world,” or attempted to, and paints a picture of how he thinks we can or should undertake such a task.

Hunter says that changing the world can’t just be a matter of ideas. It can’t just be about changing “hearts and minds,” which he suggests is the dominant language used by many Christians today calling for the church to transform the world. Change doesn’t happen merely on the ideas level; rather, it involves a much more complicated, multifaceted  matrix of institutions, systems of production, political economy, status/influence, networks of power, etc. Culture is at its most powerful when it involves a dialectic between ideas and institutions, he says. Essentially, Hunter’s point is that Christians can be as earnest and passionate as they want to be in their attempts to have the right worldview and “think Christianly enough,” but as long as they continue to be absent from the arenas in which culture is actually produced, their impact will be marginal and their cultural capital negligible.

As someone who has lived and worked in Hollywood as a Christian, and who studied production cultures and the political economy of media industries while a graduate student at UCLA, I find Hunter’s insistence on complicating the way we understand culture/power/culture-making to be absolutely right on. There are a lot of well-meaning Christians moving to Hollywood (or who have been working here for a long time) with very earnest intentions to “change the world” via media production. But it isn’t as simple as just “having a good idea”… there are layers and layers of power structures, networks, socio-economic and anthropological narratives at play that all influence the way culture is created and consumed in Hollywood. Hunter is wise to point this out, even if it might not be the answer we’d prefer to hear.

Hunter spends much of the book discussing the cultural arena in which Christians have recently been most active in trying to change the world: Politics. Politics has been “the dominant public witness” of Christianity, notes Hunter, with little actual progress/impact to show for. He leaves no political persuasion un-critiqued. The Christian Right, the Christian Left, and the “neo-Anabaptist” (non-political/separatist) all receive thorough assessment and critique from Hunter. These political approaches represent, for Hunter, 3 larger paradigms of cultural engagement that he calls “defensive against,” “relevance to,” and “purity from,” respectively. Against these three paradigms (Hunter finds each lacking), he proposes another way of engaging culture: “Faithful presence within.”

What is “faithful presence within”? Hunter spends less time describing the actual details of what this looks like than I wish he would. He does mention that “faithful presence” includes such things as creating art (excellent art), generating networks of relationships, and creating space for meaningful discussion (he describes Paste magazine as being an example of it). All good things. He writes that “the practices of faithful presence represent an assault on the worldliness of this present age,” comparing the notion of “faithful presence within” to the Israelites in Babylonian exile as described by Jeremiah. Hunter says:

The people of Israel were being called to enter the culture in which they were placed as God’s people–reflecting in their daily practices their distinct identity as those chosen by God. He was calling them to maintain their distinctiveness as a community but in ways that served the common good… The story of Jeremiah 29 comports well with what we learn from St. Peter, who with so many others speaks of Christians as “exiles in the world” (1:1, 2:11) encouraging us to “live [our] lives as strangers here in reverent fear” (1:17)… In this light, St. Peter encourages believers repeatedly to be “eager to do good” (3:17) and for each person to “use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms” (4:10)…

In sum, Hunter says that “a theology of faithful presence calls Christians to enact the shalom of God in the circumstances in which God has placed them and to actively seek it on behalf of others. This is a vision for the entire church.”

I think I like this “faithful presence” vision for the church’s engagement with culture. But as I read Hunter’s description of it I couldn’t help but feel like what he is calling for seems a bit like a quiet-living, inoffensive, “we’re just doing our thing and we won’t bother you” sort of presence. At a July event in Washington D.C., someone asked Hunter about this and he denied that this was what he intended to propose, saying that “faithful presence” isn’t meant to imply a sort of privatistic, pietistic, individualistic way of being.

On the last page of his book, Hunter indicates that he believes the primary task of the church is to worship God (which he insists is not “cheap pietism”). Of course I don’t dispute the importance of worshiping God; For Christians, this is essential. But is worship really the primary task of the church in the world?

A seminary professor of mine recently discussed in class three common ideas for how Christians perceive the primary purpose of the church in the world–the end to which God intends his people to strive while they exist on earth in the now-and-not-yet time being: 1) Worship of God (upward), 2) Edification/fellowship/discipleship (inward), 3) Evangelism/mission (outward).

The professor mentioned that while worship and edification are important ends for the church, they cannot be the primary ends, for the simple reason that we will never worship God perfectly on earth or be morally formed to perfect righteousness or fellowship while on earth. If those were the ultimate ontological ends for which the church was formed, why wouldn’t God just take his church immediately up to heaven, where we’ll worship him perfectly and be in community perfectly?

Perhaps it makes more sense, my professor said, that the purpose to which the church is called–in and through a history that has not yet reached God’s preordained culmination–is that of evangelism: Spreading the Gospel of transformation outward. It is an active calling–going out and making disciples of all nations. All other purposes–worshiping God, growing/edifying in community, cultivating a positive witness and “faithful presence” in the world–are beneficial only insofar as they help spread the message of the Gospel and build the family of God. Being sent out–the missio dei–is absolutely fundamental for who we are as the church. We can’t just exist passively and let others wander into the fold. We are called to take action and go out to make disciples.

Hunter’s book is incredibly valuable, but if there’s a fault in his proposed paradigm it is simply that he tends to downplay the church’s need to “change the world” a bit too much. In his attempts (correct as they are) to complicate our vision for how change is actually effected and in his critique of the disastrous nihilism of our obsession with political involvement, he seems to conclude that we should probably just bide our time and not try to change much, because we won’t be able to anyway.

I’m not sure if this is practical, insightful, or defeatist… or maybe a combination of the three. But I do know that the message of Christ cannot just idle by and exist passively.  It can’t help but burst forth and be carried outward by the mobilized church to transform lives and make a difference, “changing the world” as it always has.

College Never Ends (Or Shouldn’t)

One of the things I love most about working at Biola University (a Christian university in Southern California) is that every day feels like I’m back in college myself. It’s an environment overflowing with ideas and discussions and lectures and interesting people. And my job requires me to interact and intellectually engage with professors and students on a regular basis. I absolutely love it.

Today, 1,300 new students arrive at Biola. The campus is buzzing with nervous freshman and weepy parents, carrying IKEA chairs into dorm rooms and making shopping lists for Target. It reminds me of the day 9 years ago when my own parents helped me move in to Traber dorm at Wheaton College, when my dad said goodbye to me in my dorm room while mom stayed behind in the car (she was too emotional to venture into the dorm to bid me farewell).

It reminds me of the first awkward orientation week of college, which was a weird and wonderful mix of making new friends, playing get-to-know-you games, and developing early crushes on girls from our “sister floor.”

It reminds me of the insane, life-altering blur that was college: Plato, theology, dorm parties, Neil Postman, media ecology, liturgy, falling leaves, Dostoevsky, art galleries, C.S. Lewis, David Lynch, late night debates about Calvinism, taking the train to Chicago, jazz festivals, football games, roadtrips, and on and on and on.

Part of me envies the incoming freshman, coming to Biola (and universities across the country) this weekend to start the journey that will forever change the way they think about the world. I lament the fact that college goes by so fast and the crazy concentration of learning and living in community is, at the end of the day, the exception in life rather than the rule.

But then I realize that it’s silly to envy these new students, because the intellectual journey they’re beginning now is one that I’m still very much on. It’s not something that has to stop, or even slow down, after graduation. On the contrary. Just because I no longer have to read 300-page books in a day for a class, doesn’t mean that I won’t still want to read 300 page books in general, as often as I’m able to.

The mark of a good college is that it trains you to want to keep learning, to keep reading, and to keep broadening your experience and understanding of the world, long after the days of worrying about credits and GPA. Sure, the “real world” of earning a living sometimes makes it hard to continue one’s intellectual journey. After an 8-hour-day at work, it’s usually not the case that I feel like picking up The Brothers Karamazov. But when I do make the time to keep developing my mind and challenging my perspective, I never regret it.

To the new students who are nervous, excited, and overwhelmed by the beginning of college, I urge you to enjoy every second of it and make the most of your education. And to the graduates who look back nostalgically on the cherished “college days,” I remind you that education doesn’t end with a diploma.

The world is far too complex, troubled, beautiful and dynamic for us to ever just exist in. It beckons us to make sense of it. To carve at least some comprehension out of the vast incomprehensibility of existence. This is what education is about. For anyone who cares about the destiny of this world, education is a high calling: a pursuit without end that is never wholly futile and never fully satisfying.

To attain knowledge, think critically, and ask questions is to engage the world in all of its furious complexity and elusive mystery — a maddening endeavor, to be sure, but one that will never grow tiresome and certainly not be exhausted by 4 years of college… Awesome and unparalleled as those 4 years may be.

My Ultimate Christian Hipster Playlist

At the official Hipster Christianity book release party last Friday night in L.A., I wanted to set the ambiance by playing music that represented a thorough (though not comprehensive) selection of the best counter-cultural, indie, rebellious, and quirky Christian music of the past 50 years. Special thanks to my friends Zach Malm and Jason Newell for providing me with many of these tunes. Here’s the playlist in full and in more-or-less chronological order, from the 60s to contemporary.

  • Agape, “Rejoice”
  • All Saved Freak Band, “Sower”
  • Chuck Girard, “Anthem”
  • Larry Norman, “Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus?”
  • Bob Dylan, “I Believe in You”
  • Crusaders, “God Lives”
  • Earthen Vessel, “Get High”
  • Love Song, “Welcome Back”
  • Malcolm and Alwyn, “Say It Like It Is”
  • Omni, “All For the One”
  • Parchment, “Green Psalm”
  • Springs of Joy, “Springs of Joy”
  • Dwayne Omarr, “Devastating Revelation”
  • The 77s, “The Lust, The Flesh, The Eyes And The Pride Of Life”
  • Amy Grant, “Love Will Find a Way”
  • DC Talk, “That Kinda Girl”
  • Collective Soul, “Shine”
  • Over the Rhine, “And Can It Be”
  • Danielson, “Be Your Wildman”
  • Starflyer 59, “Do You Ever Feel That Way?”
  • Sunny Day Real Estate, “5/4”
  • Pedro the Lion, “When They Really Get to Know You They’ll Run”
  • Poor Old Lu, “Digging Deep”
  • The Prayer Chain, “Bendy Line”
  • Sixpence None the Richer, “Within a Room Somewhere”
  • Plankeye, “Someday”
  • Bon Voyage, “West Coast Friendship”
  • Viva Voce, “Heartstrings”
  • Dear Ephesus, “Simpleton Walks”
  • Switchfoot, “Sooner Or Later”
  • MxPx, “Doing Time”
  • DC Talk, “Jesus Freak”
  • Sixpence None the Richer, “Kiss Me”
  • Danielson Famile, “A No-No”
  • Pedro the Lion, “Big Trucks”
  • Jars of Clay, “Flood”
  • Over the Rhine, “Lucy”
  • Starflyer 59, “Fell in Love at 22”
  • Vigilantes of Love, “Resplendent”
  • Sufjan Stevens, “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!”
  • Half-handed Cloud, “Praise Awaits You”
  • Over the Rhine, “The World Can Wait”
  • Harrod and Funck, “Brian Wilson’s Room”
  • Jars of Clay, “Fade to Grey”
  • Sleeping at Last, “Slowly Now”
  • Danielson, “Did I Step On Your Trumpet?”
  • Derek Webb, “Wedding Dress”
  • Don Peris, “Your Friend”
  • Waterdeep, “Good Good End”
  • Innocence Mission, “Brotherhood of Man”
  • Rosie Thomas, “I Play Music”
  • Denison Witmer, “Ringing of the Bell Tower”
  • Sufjan Stevens, “Amazing Grace”

Anatomy of a Christian Hipster

Confused about what a Christian hipster looks like? Fear not. There are interactive photos on the official Hipster Christianity website designed to describe (in great detail) what Christian hipsters look like. Click on the images below to find out more.

“The Artistic Searcher” – One of the most common types of Christian hipsters, the Artistic Searcher is the person whose deep spirituality manifests itself in the dark room and on GarageBand. They are poets, painters, writers, musicians, designers and creators who see themselves as image bearers of the Creator and thus charged with the task of incarnationally concocting and enjoying culture. Frequently art majors at evangelical colleges whose intellectual life was rocked by That One Art History Professor Freshman Year, these Christian hipsters usually undergo dramatic shifts in their views of art between the ages of 18 and 25. They grew up loving Thomas Kinkade-esque impressionism, later graduated to an affinity for abstract expressionism, and currently enjoy installation or video art by the likes of Tim Hawkinson and Matthew Barney. But mostly they just like to create–not didactically or in ways that are obviously “Christian,” but in ways that are subversive and individual and a true reflection of that ineffable, Chestertonian sense of “divine discontent.”

“The Frugal Collegians” – A huge number of Christian hipsters are college students or newly graduated wayfarers. Birthed in vast quantity on the campuses of Christian colleges, these sorts of Christian hipsters embody that newbie, activist spirit of “just now discovering that I can be Christian and care about the poor.” Because they are jobless or saddled with school loans, their hipster evolution has yet to reach advanced stages of Fred Segal materialism. Instead, it’s mostly conceptual. With one foot in their old Baptist youth group and the other on the unsteady terrain of viewing missions through the lens of post-colonialism, these kids are horizon-broadened, foundation-shaken and mind-blown on a daily basis, as they encounter such things as genocide, non-western plumbing, or Camus for the first time in their lives. All the while they are learning to live lives of unconventionality–dabbling in post-legalism rebellion and vice (cheap alcohol and tobacco mostly) while figuring out how to sustain a more authentic and substantial Christianity than the feeble religion of their upbringing.

“The Monied Yuppies” – Typically in their late 20s or early 30s, the Monied Yuppies are the types of Christian hipsters that gladly open their well-appointed homes for house churches or small groups (serving expensive wine or whiskey cocktails for each such occasion). More established in their tastes and less susceptible to fickle trends, these arts-patrons will not hesitate to pony up $100 to see Sufjan Stevens play Carnegie Hall. They eat well, drink well, love concerts, and attend churches with Vegan options at potlucks. More than likely they’ve thrown a Mad Men 60s-themed party or been involved in a discussion group for a book by Donald Miller, G.K. Chesterton or N.T. Wright. Gleefully at home in Anthopologie or Crate and Barrel, these stylish hipsters are highly recruited by the pastors of wannabe hip churches seeking young, culturally-savvy congregations that also have money to tithe.

“The Bookish Intellectual” – Usually a grad student and/or hardcore lifetime learner, this erudite iteration of the Christian hipster priortizes the life of the mind over the life of the wardrobe (though make no mistake: every inch of their appearance is carefully calculated in that patented “I’m a philosopher so don’t have time to look in a mirror” sort of way). Thoroughly conversant in all manner of mid-century Christian existentialism (Tillich, Bultmann, etc), the Bookish Intellectual is a frequent user of such words as “Other,” “problematize,” “ecclesiology,” and “historicity.” Typically well-traveled (semesters in Oxford or Berlin most likely) and impressively well-read (or at least impressively well aware of all the right books), this is the type of hipster who thrives anytime serious thought is given to just about anything. Is there a theology of corned beef and cabbage? Probably not, but the idea excites the Bookish Intellectual. They live and breathe implications… whether it be the cadence of words in their Anglican church’s liturgy, a feminist reading of McGee and Me, or the eschatological significance of the rise of Twitter. It’s all worthy of inquiry.

“Hipster Christianity” on Video

For those unsure about whether or not you’d like to read my new book Hipster Christianity, the following are a few audio visual resources that might give you a taste of what I’m trying to do with the book:

A “book trailer” produced by Conversantlife.com:

A “video review” of the book by Rachel Held Evans:

And then there’s this interview on The 700 Club… in which I explain how hipsters are similar to “hepcats.” (My part of the show begins around 13:30.)

Enjoy! And don’t forget to check out my piece on hipster Christianity in the Wall Street Journal tomorrow!