Monthly Archives: July 2013

Cultured Christians

There’s a lot of talk these days about “cultural engagement” and how it’s important for Christians to be culture-makers, culture-watchers and culture-advocates. Umpteen books, blogs and conferences have been developed around these themes. And rightfully so. This is an area in which evangelical Christianity has been notoriously apathetic for far too long.

But what does it actually look like to be a “cultured Christian”? And by “cultured,” I don’t mean fashionable, well-heeled aristocrats who frequent the opera and attend gallery openings. I simply mean people who take culture seriously and love it enough to approach it with nuance, intentionality and an open mind. What does it look like to do this Christianly?

It’s my belief that Christians, of all people, should be the best connoisseurs, appreciators, advocates and patrons of culture. Why? Because for Christians, culture—what human beings make of the world—is far more than just an end unto itself. It’s far more than just something that brings glory to man. It’s a means by which we understand, reflect and glorify the Creator God.

To be a “cultured” Christian, then, is not to inordinately elevate or idolize the makings or thinkings of man; it’s rather to see God more clearly and humbly worship him more dearly through the goodness, truth and beauty all around us, in both the natural and cultural world.

What else does it mean to be a “cultured Christian”? Over at Q Ideas, I list “9 Attributes of a Cultured Christian.”

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Freedom to Drink And Not Drink

I went to an evangelical Christian college that did not permit the consumption of alcohol. I grew up in a household and a conservative church culture–Midwest to boot–where drinking was out of the question and seen as bereft of goodness. I’m the child of an American evangelicalism that has had a decidedly contentious (to put it mildly) relationship with alcohol (see “Christians and Alcohol: A Timeline”).

But as I grew older, left home and left college, I came to see that drinking alcohol is a) not forbidden by Scripture (as opposed to drunkenness, which is) and b) actually quite wonderful. Like many of my peers who grew up in similar environments, I became rather fond of drinking fermented beverages in social settings, whether a Cabernet with dinner, IPA with friends or a single-malt scotch on special occasions.

Over time I noticed that it seemed increasingly popular amongst my fellow “twentysomething Christians” to embrace the fullest extent of liberty in the area of alcohol. I attended church small groups where beer and cocktails were regularly consumed; I went to parties where dozens of Christian college students and alumni were drinking from kegs and doing Sake bombs; I visited churches that met in bars; I went to Christian conferences where the “after parties” were raucous affairs at pubs; I met Christian beer critics, bartenders, pub owners.

I’m not saying any of this is inherently bad. In fact much of it is to be celebrated as harmless, good-old-fashioned “exhilaration,” as in the famous Martin Luther quip, “we should not be drunken, though we may be exhilarated.”

What worries me is this question: Are we so embracing our Christian liberty to partake of alcohol that it threatens to become less a “liberty” and more a shackling legalism–something we can’t, or won’t, go without? As my pastor Alan often says, are we as free to abstain from alcohol as we are free to enjoy it?

Other questions I think many of us would do well to ask ourselves:

  • Is alcohol a “nice to have” or a “must-have”? Can we go out to eat without ordering an alcoholic beverage? Attend a party and only drink soda? Dare to not have some booze in our house for a stretch of time?
  • Are we mindful of those around us, and if they struggle with alcohol in any way are we willing to abstain for their sake? Drinking alcohol may be a perfectly biblical, perfectly Christian thing to do. But if for others in our community it is a hardship or a temptation, then shouldn’t we abstain? As Christians, the ascetic call to deny ourselves perfectly good things for the sake of a community or a commitment is a worthy pursuit.
  • Do we wear our freedom as a badge of honor, as “proof” that we are under grace and thus can drink and party to our heart’s content? If so, we should check ourselves, because reducing grace to a sanctioning of pleasure is tragic; furthermore, if we are talking about freedom under grace, then what about the freedom to deny ourselves and go without? Grace makes this possible too.
  • Do we have a serious-enough understanding of how dangerous alcohol can be? Alcohol has a long and tumultuous history as an addictive wrecker of lives. We all know people who’ve been ruined or nearly ruined by it. We must be careful that our incremental habituation of it in our lives doesn’t become a controlling idol. Alcohol is not something to be trifled with.

Christians have the “right” to consume all sorts of things, though we are told not everything is beneficial or constructive (1 Cor. 10:23). Rather, we are instructed, “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31) and “do not cause anyone to stumble” (10:32).

This last part is key, something the Apostle Paul routinely emphasized (especially in Rom. and 1 Cor.). Because it is true that Christians have differing tolerances (“One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables,” Rom. 14:2), we should not pass judgment on or treat with contempt those with different liberties than us.

But we must also be real with ourselves. What’s the point of freedom if it doesn’t free us to enjoy, but also to abstain from, something in culture? And it goes beyond alcohol. There are all sorts of good items and activities in culture that we are free to enjoy in moderation. Food, fitness, movies, music, travel, sports, gaming, and on and on. But the minute any of this becomes something we can’t live without, or something we excessively consume to the point that we need it more than we enjoy it, we should be concerned.

Because ultimately, the goodness of something that we might consume is at its most good when we enjoy it in a God-centric way rather than a me-centric way. That is: when we see it as a gift from God and something to reflect glory back to him, rather than something that serves us and our needs.

Alcohol, like food or any number of things in God’s created world, is a good thing that can become a bad thing if we consume it recklessly, excessively or selfishly. It’s good insofar as we consume it not as something we must have but as something we can have, as a special delight of God’s glorious creation, which includes man’s creative (fermenting) genius. The freedom to drink should not be a freedom to drown one’s sorrows, prove a point or get a fix; it should be a freedom that fixes our eyes ever more on Christ, the giver of life who turns water into wine and makes all things new.

This is the third in a series of posts on contemporary Christianity’s relationship to culture, based on ideas from my new book, Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker Books). See also: part one and two.

Christians and Alcohol: A Timeline

Christians have had a decidedly love/hate relationship with alcohol. The infamous “drink” has been regarded by Christians at various times with awe, horror, religious devotion, fear, obsession, prohibition, addiction, and temperance. It has been one of the most divisive issues within modern American evangelicalism, creating rifts within churches, within families, within Christian institutions. As Mark Noll has noted,

Some evangelicals have made opinions on liquor more important for fellowship and cooperation than attitudes toward the person of Christ or the nature of salvation. This is particularly unfortunate since the Bible speaks clearly about Christ and salvation, but not about the question of total abstinence.

How did alcohol become the subject of such an emotionally charged cultural debate? Have Christians always been so divided about it? (Short answer: no.) Is it significant that followers of Christ were the first people to invent sophisticated wine- and beer-making techniques (in medieval monasteries), but also the people who led the charge to make alcohol illegal in America?

My new book Gray Matters has an entire chapter devoted to the fascinating history of Christians and alcohol, but for a brief overview  of key points between the life of Christ and today’s world, see below timeline:

  • 27–28 AD: Jesus performs his first miracle: turning 120- 180 gallons of water into wine at a wedding banquet in Cana (see John 2:1-11).
  • 30–31 AD: Jesus says of wine, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20).
  •  Second Century: St. Clement of Alexandria publishes Pedagogia, which included the first scholarly treatment of the subject of Christians and alcohol.
  • Fifth Century: St. Brigid of Ireland reportedly changes her dirty bathwater into beer so that visiting clerics would have something to drink.
  •  Twelfth Century: Benedictine nun Hildegard von Bingen discovers hops in beer.
  • 1620: Ship carrying John Winthrop to Massachusetts Bay Colony also carries more than 10,000 gallons of wine and three times as much beer as water.
  • 1670: Hard cider a staple at ministerial ordinations in apple-rich New England
  • 1673: Increase Mather publishes Wo to Drunkards, in which he says, “Drink is in itself a good creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness, but the abuse of drink is from Satan, the wine is from God, but the Drunkard is from the Devil.”
  • 1736: The ill effects of gin in England lead Anglican clergyman Thomas Wilson to publish Distilled Spirituous Liquors the Bane of the Nation.
  • 1759: Arthur Guinness opens his brewery in Dublin; eventually uses money from its success to fund Christian charities, hospitals, and Sunday School programs.
  • 1770s–80s: Spanish Catholics plant first vineyards in California at missions up and down the coast.
  • 1805: America’s first temperance sermon, “The Fatal Effects of Ardent Spirits” is delivered by Rev. Ebenezer Porter in Washington, CT.
  •  1826: Revivalist pastor Lyman Beecher publishes Six Sermons on the Nature, Occasion, Signs, Evils, and Remedy of Intemperance, condemning liquor for “the moral ruin it works in the soul.”
  •  1840: The Washingtonian Movement, one of America’s first anti-alcohol organizations, is formed.
  • 1869: Methodist pastor Thomas Welch invents a method of pasteurizing grape juice so that it isn’t fermented. He persuades local churches to adopt this non-alcoholic “wine” for communion services, calling it “Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine.”
  • 1873–74: “Mother” Eliza Thompson—a devout Methodist—leads “crusade” of women protesting American drinking establishments.
  • 1874: The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) is formed.
  • 1893: Ohio pastor Howard Hyde Russell establishes Anti-Saloon League, a nationwide pressure group aimed at ridding the country of alcohol.
  •  1899: Carrie Nation attacks saloons with hatchets and sledgehammers and becomes an icon of female-led temperance movement.
  • January 17, 1920: Eighteenth Amendment goes into effect in America; Billy Sunday holds symbolic funeral service for “John Barleycorn.”
  •  1933: Twenty-first Amendment ends Prohibition.
  • 1933–1949: “The Inklings” convenes Christian luminaries like C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford for beer-aided literary discussions.
  •  1935: Christians “Bill W.” and “Dr. Bob” found Alcoholics Anonymous.
  • 1980: Televangelist Jack Van Impe publishes Alcohol: The Beloved Enemy.
  •  2000s: First “bar churches” begin popping up.
  • 2003: Wheaton College changes rules to allow faculty, staff and graduate students to drink alcohol in private, when not around undergrads.
  •  2009: Bestselling author Stephen Mansfield publishes, The Search for God and Guinness: A Biography of the Beer that Changed the World.
  •  August 9, 2011: In blog post, evangelical pastor/author John MacArthur chastises the “Young, Restless, Reformed” community for their reckless approach to alcohol.

The above is an excerpt from Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism & Liberty (Baker, 2013).

On Selfies and Narrative Deprivation

What and how we consume says a lot about what we value. And what and how we consume has never been more public.

Thanks to the broadcasting devices in our pockets and the social network audiences always just a few finger taps away, our interactions vis-a-vis culture are increasingly the means by which people make assumptions about who we are and what we worship.

One of the premises of my new book, Gray Matters, is that in this consumerism-as-social-media-identity world, it is all the more imperative that Christians be intentional, thoughtful and critical in their consumer choices. People are watching. We are observed, processed, known through our consumptive habits. What message are we sending?

The new paradigm of digital/mediated/consumer “identity” is on disturbing display in Sofia Coppola’s new film, The Bling Ring, which depicts the true-life drama of a group of L.A. teens who robbed the Hollywood Hills mansions of celebrities in the late 2000s. The film’s opening is interspersed with snapshots of partying teens’ photos on Facebook and Instagram, and the plot turns on the way that social media makes one’s cultural consumption public, enviable, and (in this case) vulnerable to property theft. But what is most striking is the sheer proliferation of “selfies”: characters holding out their arms with phone cameras to document (and immediately publish to the world) all manner of pursed-lip posing, stolen cash flaunting, booze-imbing and other such glamorization of vice.

There’s an unsettling ambience of directionless vacuity in these youngsters’ lives. Where is their sense of purpose (moral or otherwise)? All that seems to animate their reckless behavior is the possibility that it will play well on social media or get picked up by TMZ.

Bling’s teen bandits are obsessed, first and foremost, with celebrity. But it’s not that they are fans of the films or television shows which made people celebrities in the first place. Nor is it that they are particularly interested in the celebrities as people, with unique personalities and stories. Rather, what interests these Millennials most about celebrities is simply the celebrity-ness of them: their paparazzi aura, nightclub exploits, tabloid scandals and–above all–haute fashion. In short: their conspicuous consumption. As Richard Brody observes in his New Yorker review of the film,

Nobody here cares very much about movies or television shows. Nobody talks about stories, and certainly nobody is reading anything other than magazines. They know the actors whom series and movies have turned into celebrities but have little interest in the shows themselves.

This sort of fetishizing of celebrity at its most superficial (the Louboutin heels, Rolex watches, Birkin bags and Herve Leger dresses they wear), isolated from any broader narrative of who they are and why they are famous, helps explains the existence of famous-for-being-rich people like Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton. But it also reveals a larger cultural problem, which Brody pinpoints as “narrative deprivation.”

Today’s youth, reared in the Google age of on-demand, isolated bits of information and the real-time feeds of a million little “snapshots” (tweets, Vines, rabble-rousing blog posts, etc.), have no patience for narratives that give context or make connections. It doesn’t matter who Kim Kardashian is or how she became famous. What matters is that she gets to wear Lanvin dresses while on red carpets with Kanye West, while paparazzi take note of the slightest details of her Judith Leiber clutch. And these kids want that too. Brody continues:

In their selfies and their videos, the teens broadcast themselves living out crude fantasies of what, as one of them says, “everyone” aspires to be. What isn’t shared is the way they actually live: the teens don’t depict themselves breaking into houses and cars, stealing, selling stolen goods, or driving drunk. They don’t talk about their own lives in terms of stories. Rather, they live in a world that detaches effect from cause, and they depict only the outcomes.

Hence the sheer ubiquity of selfies. For them, earning jail time for thievery is a small price to pay for the opportunity to broadcast images of themselves wearing Prada sunglasses and guzzling Cristal at Lindsay Lohan’s favorite nightclub. It doesn’t matter what they had to do to get there (steal) or what will happen later (jail). The “now” of social media glory–however fleeting it may be–is what matters.

This “narrative deprivation” is symptomatic of (or perhaps another name for) “narrative collapse,” a phenomenon discussed at length in Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock. Rushkoff suggests that today’s world is defined by presentist, fragmented media consumption and an “entropic, static hum of everybody trying to capture the slipping moment.”

Narrativity and goals are surrendered to a skewed notion of the real and the immediate; the Tweet; the status update. What we are doing at any given moment becomes all-important–which is behavioristically doomed. For this desperate approach to time is at once flawed and narcissistic. Which “now” is important: the now I just lived or the now I’m in right now?

Social media’s “what are you doing now?” invitation to pose, pontificate and consume conspicuously only amplifies the narcissistic presentism of the generation depicted in The Bling Ring. It makes it easier than ever to tell the world exactly what you want them to know about you. Through a carefully cropped and color-corrected selfie, depicting whatever glamorized “now” we think paints us in the best light, we can construct a public persona as we see fit.

But it’s a double deception. The projections of our self that we put on social media blast are more often than not deceptive in the way they skew, ignore or amplify realities that constitute our true identity. But it’s also a self-deception. That social media conflates our identity with what we consume leads us to the erroneous conclusion that “who I am” can be easily summed up in the ingredient-listing “profiles” of the bands, brands, books and causes we “like,” the restaurants at which we “check-in,” or the songs we let everyone know we are currently enjoying.

Social media exacerbates our ever-growing tendency to approach cultural consumption as more of a public, performative act than an enjoyable, enriching experience. It becomes less about the thing we consume and more about how our consuming of it fits our preferred image. Bling’s high school burglars steal thousands of dollars worth of jewelry, clothes, and shoes not because they find those things inherently interesting, beautiful or pleasurable; but because they hope the accoutrements of celebrity will rub off on them. The things themselves are merely a means to an end.

For anyone who loves culture and recognizes the inherent beauty and value in, say, an expertly crafted table or an exceptionally roasted coffee bean, it is regrettable to see such things reduced to status symbol or fodder for social media selfie-deception. Making cultural items mere props in our social media performance is just another way of “using” culture to meet our needs rather than “receiving” it and letting it “work on us,” to borrow from C.S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism.

For Christians, resisting the temptation to use culture rather than value it for its inherent goodness is a worthy endeavor, but it’s not enough. Using culture for self-worship is bad, but worshipping culture for its own sake is too. The “goodness” of culture, while certainly a thing to be celebrated, comes not from what it can do for us or even what it is in itself, but rather what it reflects about God and how it points humanity toward Him.

Every piece of culture we consume is an opportunity to glorify and give thanks to the Creator. We of all people should not cheapen culture by reducing it to something that mostly serves our narcissism. We of all people should not strip a cultural thing of its God-given goodness by focusing on its potential to aid in our strategic social media identity construction.

For Christians, culture should never be a tool in service of selfie-deception or self-worship. Rather, it should be something that brings us to posture of gratitude and confronts us with who we really are, laying our deceptions bare and focusing us away from ourselves. And if our consumption of culture communicates anything to the world, it should be a testimony not to our own greatness, style, or Valencia-filtered taste, but to the grandeur and glory of God.

This is the second in a series of posts on contemporary Christianity’s relationship to culture, based on ideas from my soon-to-be released book, Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker Books).

Best Films of the First Half

Because movie awards season falls where it does (December-February), the films crowned as the “best of the year” are more often than not the ones that were released in the final months of any given year. Anything released prior to September often gets forgotten or (at best) a token surprise nomination or two. Which is a shame, because every year there are masterful films released in the “less prestigious” first six months of the year. And this year is no different. The following are the five films that I enjoyed most during the first half of 2013:

1) Before Midnight: The third entry into Richard Linklater’s exquisite “Before” series, which began with Before Sunrise (1995) and continued with Before Sunset (2004), Before Midnight drops in on a few hours of the lives of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) as they negotiate the challenges of commitment, family, and the pangs of time lost, regretted, wished for and not-yet-had. Beautifully written and acted, deeply emotional and constantly thought-provoking, Midnight is as smart and soul-enriching a film as you’re likely to see this summer. (more)

2) To the Wonder: Ben Affleck–hardly masking his less-than-pleased assessment of the final product of Terrence Malick’s latest film–said that To the Wonder “makes The Tree of Life look like Transformers.” There is some truth to this. Wonder, smaller-scale and relatively mundane in comparison to the universe-spanning scope of Life, is nevertheless a more challenging film–arguably Malick pushing his maverick sensibilities to the audience’s outer thresholds of tolerance. And yet given the time (and the requisite multiple viewings) and a willingness to give oneself to Malick’s way of seeing, this is a film with immense power to move, provoke, and stir up thankfulness for the “Love that loves us”. (more)

3) Frances Ha: Noah Baumbach’s black & white, Brooklyn-set film is much more than the depressive hipster navel gazing we’ve come to expect from him. It’s actually a vibrant, often hilarious and deeply perceptive portrait of a twentysomething liberal arts grad (the excellent Greta Gerwig) going through  a quarterlife crisis. Something of an ode to the French New Wave, the stylish film possesses a lightness of being and existential astuteness that is regrettably  rare in contemporary indie filmmaking. (more)

4) Stories We Tell: One of the best documentaries I’ve seen in a long time, Stories We Tell is a very personal exploration of director Sarah Polley’s family. It’s a film about family, legacy, generational ghosts, the passage of time, and ultimately truth and narrative itself: how the stories we tell do and do not illuminate the “reality” of what actually happened in a certain place or time. It’s a fascinating re-invention of the documentary genre that is as gut-wrenching as it is thought-provoking.

5) The Bling Ring: Sofia Coppola’s latest continues in the vein of her previous films, examining things like celebrity, materialism, partying, and “the ineffable sublime,” mostly through the lens of the female adolescent experience. The film’s ripped-from-the-headlines true story of celeb-obsessed teens turned Hollywood Hills burglars is the jumping off point for a meditation on consumerism, social media and what Douglas Rushkoff calls “present shock”–the woozy vertigo that accompanies our cultural collapse of narrativity and obsession with (and ironic distance from) the moment. For more on that, and tying it back nicely to Before Midnight, see this article.

Honorable Mention: Mud, The Place Beyond the Pines, Much Ado About Nothing, 56 Up, Kon-tiki