Monthly Archives: November 2010

Advent is Here

Guest post by Ryan Hamm, associate editor at Relevant, and an eloquent appreciator of the church calendar. This is the first of several Advent-themed posts coming to this blog over the next several weeks.

When I was a kid, I didn’t even know there was a “church calendar.” I knew there were Christian holidays, like Christmas and Easter. And I lived in in Austria, so I knew that the Catholics had something called All Saints Day where they did weird stuff at a cemetery that kind of freaked me out and CERTAINLY wasn’t Christian. I also knew that Good Friday was the day Jesus died, but that we didn’t dwell on it because we (unlike, say, Catholics, who still had him crucified above their altars) knew he came back to life a few days later.

To my parents’ credit, even if they didn’t teach me the church calendar (and frankly, I don’t know if any kid can really get a handle on something so abstract—especially when the much-more-pressing school calendar is built around trick-or-treating, Valentine’s and the eternal Pilgrim/Indian dichotomy), they did instill a deep respect for the Christian understanding of holidays. But I only ever knew what a portion of them meant, and I only knew of all of them out of context.

I knew what Advent was, because we lived in Austria and even my non-denom (but mostly Baptist) church celebrated it. I never thought of it as a “Catholic” thing, as I’ve heard it called in the States—instead, it seemed like a way to stretch out the observance of Christmas an extra few weeks, which was fine with me, mostly because singing Christmas carols never seemed as laborious as normal church songs (this is still true).

It was a subtle, but meaningful shift when I began to learn about the church calendar. I saw how our everyday lives were, in fact, framed by a way of thinking that meant more than eight hours of work. And the church calendar instructed me that each part of life was savored and used, not discarded in favor of something more palatable.

To a great extent, the church calendar is the reason I learned to sit in mourning (though never hopelessly) instead of demanding that everything be fixed right away. It’s why I learned that Easter is so much richer when you’ve gone though the joy of Palm Sunday, the reflective servanthood of Maundy Thursday, the ache and horror of Good Friday and the weird in-between of Holy Saturday. It’s why I came to treasure the Sunday liturgy that takes us through confession to absolution to the receiving of Christ’s body broken for us and his blood shed for us.

And it’s why my December turned into Advent.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those people who refuses to acknowledge any celebration of Christmas. I have a deep love for Christmas kitsch, from the Rat Pack to Charlie Brown Christmas, from stockings to a staunch support of Santa Claus as the embodiment of a nostalgic “Christmas spirit.”

But Advent is deeper. It’s under all of that.

Advent is about waiting. It’s a restless yearning. It’s four weeks (and, well, lifetimes) of apprehensive, hopeful, breathless, doubting, eager anticipation. It’s the time that forces our schedules to fit into a bigger one—where we try to remember what it was like to wait for Christ’s coming, and we do so by remembering we’re also waiting for Christ’s coming. For people expecting the arrival of Messiah, we must imagine that evoked many of the same emotions his second coming evokes in us. A mixture of hope and fear, and the knowledge that the mysterious unknown will somehow, by God’s grace, be better than the present. Advent reminds us that we are observing the time before Christ’s birth, death and resurrection declared that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand. And it reminds us that we are all waiting for a time when he will again declare his victory—but this time the fully consummated Kingdom will be brought to fruition.

There’s something comforting to me that things don’t happen immediately with the church calendar. Because things don’t happen immediately in life. We don’t turn off the light on Thanksgiving evening and then wake up on the day after suddenly celebrating Christmas just like we don’t go though a traumatic experience and get healed in a day, or fall in love in a day, or make friends in a day. There is value in truly being in the present, preparing for the future with what you’re given. When we adjust ourselves to the timing of God, we find a breathtaking, faith-giving depth in the booming quiet.

One of yesterday’s readings in churches around the world was Romans 13:11-14. Part of that passage reads “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.” It’s a reminder that the light is just on the horizon—but it’s not yet here. We wait and yearn for the light. In the meantime, we’re in the darkness but we live as if we’re in the light. We spend our time preparing ourselves for the joy of Christ’s birth and second coming. We wait, but we don’t spend our time doing nothing. We wait expectantly, like those virgins who trimmed the wicks of their lamps. We wait like Simeon. And in the waiting, God moves.

In short, Advent is about unresolved and promised hope. A hope that we cling to, even when we’re not quite sure it exists. Waiting is about faith, not certainty—certainty doesn’t require any trust. In Advent, God promises “Christ will come.” Because he already has. And the quiet anticipation changes everything.

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Thankful for Airports

On Wednesday I will be traveling to to Kansas City for Thanksgiving. I’ll be flying out of John Wayne airport in Orange County, and I’m sure it will be a hassle to wait in security lines. I’m sure it will feel invasive and unnecessary to stand in the nude scanner or get padded down, “Don’t touch my junk” style. I’m sure the whole rigmarole of flying on the busiest travel day of the year will be somewhat painful. But I really don’t want to complain.

Rather than lamenting the difficulties and inconveniences of flying these days, I want to give thanks for the amazing fact that I can fly home, that planes and airports even exist to transport us in three hours distances that used to take three months to traverse. What a gift! How lucky are we? We don’t deserve airplanes.

Our culture is a complaining culture, and I’m as guilty as anyone. We are constantly complaining about how busy we are and how stressful work is, even though we’d doubtless also complain if we were unemployed. We complain about everything from the weather to the way our food is prepared to the lack of parking spaces and the cost of gas. We complain about traffic, taxes, spotty cell phone coverage, lukewarm lattes and wifi that isn’t free. How dare we not be given free wifi!

We are spoiled, fickle, snotty-nosed complainers, all too eager to wallow in what’s bad and difficult and inconvenient in life. We spend so little time dwelling on all that we have that we don’t deserve (i.e. everything good). We don’t spend enough time focused on giving thanks for what we’ve been given. It shouldn’t just be one day out of the year.

As I observed the endless articles, blog posts, tweets and Facebook updates last week about the TSA’s annoying new security measures, I thought about how much we take for granted and forget to be thankful for. Instead of being thankful that no 9/11 repeats have occurred in America, we moan about having to take our shoes off in the security lines. Instead of being thankful that we have shelter, clean water, plumbing, electricity and warm clothes, we go nuts when Facebook does a redesign.

I’m not saying there is nothing worth complaining about, or no injustices worth fighting against. There are. We just need to keep things in perspective and focus a little bit more on positivity, thankfulness and hope, rather than grumbling about how much of a chore it is to get on a plane and fly somewhere we want to go.

Fair Game

Of all the Iraq War-themed films that have come out since 2003, Kathryn Bigelow’s Hurt Locker is the best. But Doug Liman’s Fair Game is probably the second best.

A ripped-from-the-headlines thriller about the Valerie Plame-Joe Wilson-Scooter Libby spy drama (read here for a background on that), Fair Game recounts a curious real-life spy drama incident from America’s recent past. Starring an excellent Naomi Watts as the covert CIA spy Plame and a somewhat preachy (isn’t he always?) Sean Penn as Plame’s husband Joe Wilson, Game hits all the right notes as a taut, smart, well-acted political drama, even if it becomes awkwardly heavy-handed and didactic at the end (it is a Participant Production, after all).

Fair Game is about betrayal. It’s about the government (specifically the White House) betraying the protected secrecy of its own spies. But it’s also about betraying the trust of the American people, who were erroneously convinced of all sorts of false proofs of Iraq’s nuclear power in the lead-up to an inevitable invasion.

Watching this film, I couldn’t help but think that that moment in history, though not wholly unique in its corruption, was a pivotal point in the erosion of public trust in the government. If 9/11 was a moment of unprecedented unity and earnest goodwill in America, the years that followed quickly ushered in an unprecedented cynicism and jaded disgust not seen since the days of Watergate.

The Plame affair didn’t single-handedly turn an entire generation into skeptical cynics dubious of any “truthiness” claims. Years of political lies, advertising half-truths, ubiquitous media spin, defamed heroes and fallen idols had already made self-protecting irony the preferable approach for dealing with reality. But the events depicted in Fair Game certainly capture exactly the sorts of reasons why it’s hard to have faith in anyone or anything these days, politicians or otherwise. If the highest realms of authority in government aren’t subject to the very laws they’re sworn to uphold (such as, for example, not leaking the name of a covert spy in order to discredit a political enemy), how are we expected to trust anyone or anything?

The cynicism of my generation is lamentable and depressing, but totally understandable. I sometimes wonder if it’s even possible that we’ll be able to regain a sense of confidence or trust in our leaders/government/institutions. I think deep down, beneath all the cynicism and malaise, people really do want to trust again. You saw this in the way my generation so fervently embraced the idea of Obama–a visionary of hope untainted by political messiness.

Who or what can rise up from this sea of cynicism and disillusionment and truly command our respect? Who in government, if anyone, will we ever give our trust to again?

As the World Tunes

In the world of viral video, “hey check this out!” YouTube amusements, there’s nothing hotter right now than the “Auto-Tune the News” creations of The Gregory Brothers, Brookyln’s zeitgeist-capturing wunderkinds.

The Gregory Brothers are the talented folks behind the “Double Rainbow Song” and the astonishingly popular “Bed Intruder Song,” among many others you’ve probably seen.

Taking clips from the news–which range from local news crime reports to cable news debates about the legalization of pot–and auto-tuning them into catchy songs, the Gregory Bros are masters of the craft of Internet-era recombinant pop art (or “modern-day Warholianism” as The Village Voice described it). They are vaudevillian ringmasters of the circus that is contemporary media, playfully subversive archeologists of the “aggregator-as-artist, remix-as-reality” world. They’re cultural icons in the post-Justin Bieber landscape of irony, absurdity and RSS discontinuity. Even if all they’re really doing is having fun with Final Cut and Pro Tools.

The videos are, above all, fun and catchy. It’s fun to see people who take themselves so seriously get the auto-tune treatment. But what is it about auto-tune that makes someone instantly seem ridiculous? In a matter of a few short years, auto-tune has gone from being a rite of 90s nostalgia, to being avant-garde, to being too trendy and somewhat grating (to Jay-Z especially), and now (courtesy of The Gregory Bros) to being a strangely therapeutic medium of collective cultural synthesis.

Auto-tune is ridiculous (and thus a perfect asset in the art of skewering) because it represents humanity’s goofy but persistent Star Trek cyborgian dreams. It represents the “technology will purge human imperfections” mentality that leads to all sorts of bad things like cloning, designer babies, botox and bluetooth ear pieces. It represents our dissatisfaction with the natural when the digitally-enhanced is so much… cleaner. Auto-tune began in the 90s as a way to make chronically-off-pitch popstars sound more perfect than they were. And the silliness and quaintness of that “Look what we can do with technology!” moment in pop history is what has made the tool so gleefully ironic for us today.

But auto-tune is just one of many digital enhancement tools in the air-brush arsenal of the Photoshop world. The irony of auto-tune’s disposition as the joke of Y2K remix culture is that it’s really no worse than any of the other digital tools we have at our disposal to, for example, take clips from TV and turn them into re-edited assemblages ripe for viral video glory.

Maybe auto-tune is so stigmatized because it is utterly unapologetic and unsubtle… there’s no mistaking its intentions. And while it strives to be graceful and inconspicuous in correcting pitch, it more often comes across as an ostentatious “hey look at me!” gimmick. And so for that and other reasons, it’s just hilarious and appropriate for the task of highlighting outrageous things.

Props to the Gregory Brothers for so aptly assuming the role of our culture’s most prolific auto-tune auteurs (sorry Kanye). Enjoy some of their best work:

“Bed Intruder Song”:

“Rent: Too Damn High”:

“I’m Not a Witch”:

Take Comfort in Rituals

I love Starbucks. Unabashedly. Starbucks is like Coldplay or The Shawshank Redemption: wonderful things that are widely beloved and thus not “cool” to like… but wonderful nonetheless.

I also love Starbucks’ new advertising slogan–Take Comfort in Rituals–for a number of reasons. I love it because it’s just so right for Starbucks’ brand. As someone who works in marketing/advertising for a living, I have huge respect for brands that get their messaging so right. But I also love it because, for me, it captures precisely why Starbucks is so appealing.

Every Sunday morning, before church, I go to my local Starbucks to read for a few hours, have a tall dark roast drip coffee, and eat a breakfast sandwich. It’s the one time of the crazy week that I set aside–no matter how busy I am–to stop what I’m doing and relax with coffee and a good book–preferably something I’m not required to read. Starbucks has comfy chairs, reliably good coffee, and I always know that wherever I am in the world, Starbucks will be also (confession: I went to at least 3 Starbucks in Shanghai a few weeks ago). I look forward to my weekly ritual at Starbucks; I take comfort in it.

Why are rituals such a blessing? Why are they so comforting? Why–after spending 10 days seeing amazing things on another continent–was I so excited to return to the routine rhythms and rituals of my “normal” life back home? Why am I confident that some day, I will go to bed at the same time every night, have the same breakfast cereal every day while watching the same morning show, and love every minute of it?

Perhaps one reason is because rituals make the chaos of life just a bit more manageable. And the older we get, I think the more we can appreciate anything that will help decrease the chaos.

Perhaps it’s also because there’s something transcendent about repetition, about the mundane and predictable patterns of life. The seasons, for example. They happen every year, like clockwork… and there’s something gloriously moving about that.

Paradoxically, it seems that things like repetition, ritual, and regularity actually make our battle against time easier. The tyranny of time–which is that it constantly reminds us of impermanence, deterioration, and mortality–is somehow diminished in rituals, which help bring a semblance of continuity and constancy to an otherwise constantly changing existence.

Or maybe rituals are appealing because when we find something that works for us, or gives us joy, we often go back to to it time and time again. Things like sitting in a coffeeshop with a good book, or being with family on Christmas, or listening to Parachutes on a melancholy evening. Things that give us a reprieve from surprises and spontaneity (which can also be good!), and connect us with former but familiar versions of our self.

The process of it all is a gift. And I certainly take comfort in it.