Monthly Archives: August 2011

Higher Ground

Higher Groundwhich releases today in New York and Los Angeles–is a great companion piece to the searing must-see Korean drama, Secret Sunshine, which released this week on Criterion DVD and Blu-Ray. Both films center on a woman’s journey of faith–evangelical Christian faith–through ups, downs, doubts, renewal and tragedy. Both films are made by outsiders to evangelical Christianity but with a sympathetic eye toward truly understanding the complexity of the life of faith. Subsequently, both are brutally honest, messy, sometimes difficult portrayals that get one thing very right about the journey of religious faith: It’s not always easy.

Directed by and starring Vera Farmiga (Oscar nominated for Up in the Air), Higher Ground is a comprehensive narrative of one woman’s struggle with faith, from her girlhood to parenthood and beyond. Farmiga’s character grows up amongst hippies in the 70s and becomes part of a small charismatic band of evangelicals (Jesus People-esque) who do life together as a Christian community, struggling to grow in faith together while also dealing with all the attendant issues (pride, temptation, gender issues, inequality of “gifts,” legalism, etc) that come along with any church family.

Though perhaps too sprawling and ambitious in its multi-decades span, Higher Ground nevertheless manages to be truly perceptive about Christian faith in places, even more so than the average Christian-made film these days.

Perhaps the film’s most resonant insight is its reflection on the centrality of relationships to the life of faith. Farmiga’s attention to the nuances of her character’s relationship to her parents, her husband, her children, her best friend, her pastor and so on all feed in to her complex relationship with God. The film recognizes that our human relationships–and their accompanying experiences of trust, love, affection & abuse–color our relationship with God. How can they not?

Of course the tragic parts of Ground are those that showcase the damage that can be done in one’s trust in God when one’s trust in other humans is betrayed. But the film also displays hope in its recognition that even when we are frustrated with God and want to end our relationship with him, he may not be through with us. He’s the pursuer. Even in the midst of the follies and betrayals of a community of his followers, God still pursues us. Even in the midst of our doubts.

What’s wonderful about films like Higher Ground and Secret Sunshine is that they don’t shy away from the difficulties of trusting in God. They don’t pretend its easy; nor do they pretend that faith exists in some sort of rigid space where we’re either 100% rock-solid in our certainty or we’re hopelessly adrift and stubbornly skeptical. Faith is a grey area, because humans are imperfect and messy. It’s only by the grace of God that any of us have the gift of faith. And that’s the most reassuring fact of all.

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Kickstart This

Have you heard of Kickstarter? It’s part of the new “crowdfunding” fundraising craze, meant to give starving-artist types a chance to raise money for their creative projects by enlisting the power of grassroots social networking on the Web. A similar example of “crowdfunding” is “IndieGoGo,” which also affords everyday entrepreneurs the chance to try their hand at grassroots fundraising.

I recently stumbled across this video by a seemingly earnest hipster named Josh, who is–like 90% of white twentysomethings–interested in one day opening his own coffeeshop. Josh put together the following video as a promotion for his project, hoping to pull in more donations:

I’m not sure if the video received much in the way of fundraising dollars, but it did inspire this hilariously angry rant by a Brooklyn blogger.

All of this got me thinking about the whole Kickstarter/crowdfunding idea, and whether or not it’s a good idea. For one thing, it seems to open the doors for any and everybody to start soliciting money from their friends and contacts for every little vanity project that comes to mind. On one hand this is very American, very power-to-the-little-people. But who is going to donate money to all these upstart causes? It seems like mostly it will result in a lot more depressing failures and half-hearted small business attempts that fall flat after the initial burst of ambition and funds dries out.

No offense to my friends who may one day hit me up to support the funding of their album recording or to help finance their lifestyle while they work on an “important book,” but I’d rather give my money to established nonprofits with professional fundraising teams and systems of accountability in place to make sure my investment makes a difference.

Still, I suppose the idea is that in crowdfunding, as in anything Internet, the cream of the crop will eventually rise to the top. Projects that are worthy and compelling will in theory succeed, and everything else will flounder until mercifully abandoned.

And so on that note, which of my 10 ideas for potential entrepreneurial ventures would you hypothetically support if I hypothetically started a Kickstarter campaign one day?

  1. A British East India-themed colonial/tropical bar (think Raffles Hotels) specializing in fine IPAs, imported rums, and a cigar salon.
  2. A food truck that specializes in artisan chicken nuggets from free-range local farms
  3. A salon-esque cafe that sponsors a lecture series and includes a back room pamphlet press that revives the lost art of Thomas Paine-style pamphlets
  4. A pocketwatch boutique that doubles as a tea room
  5. A Margaret Thatcher-themed “Britain in the 80s” pub
  6. A cask ale tasting room, with fine food pairings
  7. A gluten-free market and pastry shop named “Kira’s”
  8. A hyper-local raw food garden restaurant where you pay a set fee to go out in the backyard to pick all your food straight off the plants to eat.
  9. A milk and cookie shop where for $3 you can pick a fresh, warm cookie and a glass of milk (of any kind, including almond milk)
  10. A church-potluck themed hipster bar, with an interior that looks like a fellowship hall and fine food that includes casseroles, cobblers and crock-pot dishes.

To Search or Wander

“The Search” is the name of my blog, but it’s hardly meant to be a celebration of the act of searching in itself. I’m always searching, not aimlessly or without purpose, but to find answers. To find truth. To see how it all connects and to progress in life.

More and more these days, however, I see “searching” held up as a value unto itself. I see “discussion” and “dialogue” becoming fetishized as the most valuable end, as if the suggestion that they were merely a means to an end was somehow naïve or demeaning.  I see my elders patting my cynical, intellectually fragmented peers on the back saying, “great questions,” but not offering wisdom or guidance in the direction of answers or truth. It’s sad, really.

Sometimes I want to shake the shoulders of the baby boomers in my life and remind them, “You have something to say to us! Me and my generation have a lot to learn from you! Help guide us out of this postmodern aimless wandering!”

We are a generation of navel-gazing, pseudo-intellectual youths who enjoy hearing ourselves speak and love sounding intellectual and playing at discourse. We are born searchers, but we don’t know what we are searching for. We like the idea of intellectual discussion. But we don’t trust truth, facts, and answers, and thus prefer to dwell in the land of questions. Furthermore, we don’t have the proper boundaries, foundation, or directional motivation to make any sense out of anything anyway.

That’s why we need guidelines, structure, purpose, a raison d’etre. To set off on a journey without a destination in mind is not to journey; it’s to wander. And in this world—with its collapsing empires, volatile markets, surging unemployment and widespread suffering—we don’t have the luxury of just wandering.

This is not to say that what the world needs are dogmatic assertions of certainty or recklessly rigid, partisan solutions. Rather, it needs a populace who is capable of and committed to a discourse that goes beyond argument, performance and circularity and actually moves things forward productively. It needs politicians who are willing to stop arguing and start looking for answers that work, from whatever side of the aisle they come from. It needs teachers and preachers and leaders who are willing to tell younger folks when they are wrong and when they are right, or at least on the right track.

I don’t want to live in a world where there are no wrong answers, where all ideas are good, where expressing an opinion is elevated above understanding the truth. No, I want to live in a world where seeking is thrilling only insofar as a prize–a goal, an epiphany, a discovery–is in sight; where discourse is valuable only insofar as it moves the conversation forward; where the space between me and my other pontificating peers is charged with the electric awareness not of our own individual brilliance, but of the collective inkling that maybe, just maybe, we are on to something.

Mere Christians

I’ve had the privilege over the past few weeks to be in Europe, hanging out with Christians of great diversity and from all over the world.

First I was at L’Abri in Switzerland, where I stayed for 3 days along with about 30 others who were staying in “Chalet Bellevue” for a time. I’ll say more about my L’Abri experience later—let’s just say it was somewhat different than the Schaefferian picture I’d envisioned—but I will say that I got to meet all sorts of really interesting Christians. I met cynical students from Christian colleges in America, a passionate Spaniard worship leader, a Korean lawyer, an Asian German student from Hamburg, a Swiss teacher, Australians, and people of every imaginable denominational persuasion. There were Calvinists, Arminians, and even some agnostics with a bone to pick with God. This made for a lively, challenging, somewhat chaotic mish-mash, but it also allowed for some truly special moments—like spontaneous worship singing with three people in three languages, or a time of prayer between people who had only just met, but felt a unity in Christ that transcended normal inhibitions and differences.

It was a similar experience in England the last 10 days, where I’ve been a part of the C.S. Lewis Summer Institute in Oxford and Cambridge (pictured above). Here, around the theme of “Paradigms of Hope: Transcending Chaos, Transforming Culture,” hundreds of Christians from around the world (Australia, Canada, England, China, Switzerland) and of a variety of persuasion (conservative, liberal, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox) gathered to listen, study, and learn together in community. I don’t think there’s anything better than singing “In Christ Alone” with 400 fellow “mere Christians,” with a massive organ accompanying, in a Cathedral that is more than 1,000 years old.

This weekend I’m in Altea, Spain, participating in another Christian community called the Edge Project. Here again I’m surrounded by a variety of Christians with a variety of passions and perspectives, but bound by a passion for Christ and a belief in the importance of seeking his kingdom in all areas of life—academics, arts, worship, service, etc.

These experiences have been enriching and overwhelmingly fruitful for a number of reasons, but perhaps the most important lesson for me has been their reminder of the crazy diversity and room for difference within the kingdom of God. I’m not talking about universalism or even some ambiguously defined “big tent Christianity.” I’m simply reminded that the body of Christ is magnificently large, impressively diverse. Thanks be to God, it’s bigger than one tradition or corner of Christendom. It’s the one truly global religion, because (as one speaker in Cambridge reminded us) it’s the one religion where membership has absolutely nothing to do with who your parents are. It’s not a religion by birth. It’s not an inherited faith. It’s an alternative family open to anyone, anywhere, at any time… and that makes for a remarkably, healthily, robustly multifaceted and dynamic community.

10 Things I’ve Learned Since Freshman Orientation

I was reflecting recently that this August marks the 10-year anniversary of the month that I started college. I still remember that August: packing up my parents’ car and driving from Kansas City to Wheaton, IL., shopping at Target for dorm room necessities, attending the Wheaton College orientation week activities, meeting people for the first time who would become my best friends. In many ways those days were the turning point in my life, the beginning of my intellectual and spiritual coming of age. When I look back on who I was in those days and who I am now, I see so much change. So many lessons. I’m sure people can relate.

The following are 10 things that I’ve learned in the decade since I began my college journey. It’s been a wonderful ride, and I thank God for everything he’s shown me.

Christianity is big. One of the biggest things that I’ve learned since beginning college is that Christianity is much bigger than the Middle-American, suburban evangelicalism of my upbringing. A lot of this lesson has come from traveling throughout the country and abroad, seeing different cultural expressions of Christianity, worshipping with people in other cultures and traditions (I even attended an Episcopal church one summer after college… gasp!) What an amazing thing it has been, to have an enlarged, enlivened conception of the faith tradition I’m a part of… Something that’s far bigger, grander, and more gloriously diverse than I ever knew before college.

The local church is a precious thing. Perhaps because I took it for granted growing up, and then got a little lazy about it in college (why go to church if the college you go to is practically a church?), the re-learning of the preciousness of the local church has been a huge thing for me. When you’re in a new place, with few friends around and not a lot of community (a scenario I’ve experienced more than once in the last 10 years), the local church is a godsend. But more than that, it’s something that offers rhythms of worship, rest, quietness and connection to the larger body of Christ.

Reading for pleasure is awesome. In college and grad school—and high school before that—reading was mostly for school. Everything I read was because I had to. But over the years I’ve come to value the importance of reading for pleasure… Reading not just to check off a list, but to edify myself and learn about something new. A few years ago I started allotting a few hours every Sunday to go to a coffeeshop and read something completely unnecessary. It’s harder than I thought it would be, but those Sunday reading times have been so precious and growing for me.

Christians can believe in evolution and/or be Democrats. Strange as it seems to my present self, my high school self would have had serious doubts about the faith of a Christian who was a Darwinist and/or Democrat. Needless to say, a combination of collegiate education, secular grad school, and just living life with friends of solid faith who voted for Obama has led me to a more moderate understanding of these things.

Most Christians don’t even know what a Calvinist is. When you grow up in the Christian bubble, go to the “Christian Harvard” for college, and regularly attend esoteric theological conferences, it’s easy to forget that most Christians in the world don’t live in an insular faith-based bubble. Through experiences at a secular grad school, and in getting to know Christians in L.A. who had not had the luxury of theological training, I came to understand that the life of following Christ doesn’t have to feel like a term paper. It’s a vibrant, emotional, real-life thing that transforms us and directs our lives, regardless of whether we consider ourselves infralapsarian or supralapsarian on the question of predestination.

Alcohol is best sipped slowly. In my twenties, I experienced the typical evangelical-who-went-to-a-Christian-college journey of discovering alcohol. And it was a wonderful thing. I discovered that a good beer with a good friend is one of God’s most generous gifts. But along the way—and after one or two unfortunate experiences of over-indulgence—I discovered that alcohol is good only in moderation, and it’s best when sipped slowly. Nothing beats a slowly consumed glass of scotch on the patio of the Ritz-Carlton in Miami, or a glass of wine (or two) that lasts for a couple hours over dinner with someone you love.

The entertainment industry is stressful. For a while I wanted to work in the entertainment industry. I went to film school at UCLA and got a graduate degree, did an internship at Focus Features, and tried my hand at screenwriting, short-film making, etc. But over time I came to see that the entertainment industry was far too hectic, too cutthroat, too stressful for me. I like things slow, deliberate, measured, thoughtful. So I turned into a writer.

N.T. Wright is heroic. I don’t think any one person has been more significant on my faith journey over the last ten years than N.T. Wright. I’ve read about 10 of his books (currently trying my hand at Jesus and the Victory of God) and even attended the Wheaton Theology Conference dedicated to his work. Wright is a figure of astounding intellect who also happens to be devoted to Christ and the church. And he’s a phenomenal writer with an uncanny gift at injecting big-picture excitement into a biblical, evangelical, mission-oriented faith.

Technology is a mixed bag. In college I became something of a Luddite—hyper skeptical about most new technologies (especially such abominations as the then-nascent Facebook). In graduate school (media studies) I towed this line less aggressively, but also began to see how simplistic was the so-called technical-determinism assessment. Over the years I’ve tempered my Luddite ways and tried to approach the thinking and writing about technology with more nuance, understanding that technological ecosystems are as complex as any other, and invariably contain both good and bad things within them.

Christians can learn a lot from heathens. Essentially this is the whole common grace awakening… realizing that, contrary to some of my former sacred-secular dichotomy impulses, there is the possibility of discovering truth and experiencing grace in almost anything. Over the last ten years I’ve been grown intellectually and spiritually by many people of belief, but also by many artists, poets, musicians, and intellectuals who do not share my beliefs. What we do share—and here’s the real lesson—is a sincere hope of discovery, epiphany, connection and enlightenment about the existence we all share.