Tag Archives: culture

Gray Matters: In Stores Now!

August 1, 2013, is a day that for over a year I have looked forward to: the slated release date for my new book, Gray Matters (Baker Books). When you write a book–something that consumes immense amounts of energy, time and yes, draws a fair share of blood, sweat and tears–the release date is something filled with emotion. For the first time, the words and ideas you mulled over, jotted down and then refined over and over and over again, are out there.  Sparking discussion, provoking thought and action, inviting critique. It’s a weird and wonderful feeling. And now it’s here. I’m humbled and grateful for this opportunity.

Gray Matters is the culmination of ideas I’ve long contemplated–perhaps dating back to high school when I first starting really getting into movies and “secular” music. How and why should Christians enjoy art and culture? Is our consumption of culture simply a “diversion” with no meaningful bearing on our faith? Or should our faith inform, deepen, and open up new layers of enjoyment in our consumption of culture? And how does a Christian evaluate and interact with the thornier areas of culture? Is it better to just flee from anything potentially hazardous and consume only the safe, sanitized or “Christian” cultural items? Or does Christian liberty (e.g. Romans 14) make it possible for us to consume anything and everything as it pleases us, without worrying about it?

Those are a lot of questions. And most of them have been asked before. Gray Matters is a book that continues asking these questions, offering not definitive answers but principles and a toolbox to help us think through the issues. Rather than pontificating on these age-old questions from my own relatively shallow well of wisdom, I draw upon all sorts of other thinkers, including Abraham Kuyper, C.S. Lewis, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Miroslav Volf, Hans Rookmaaker, Philip Ryken, Kevin Vanhoozer, N.T. Wright, Ben Witherington, Tom Schreiner, Tom Beaudoin, Lisa McMinn, Megan Neff, Charlie Peacock, Chuck Colson, Nigel Goodwin, Kevin DeYoung, John Piper, Nancy Pearcey, Scot McKnight, Mark Noll, Clement of Alexandria, Jamie Smith, Mako Fujimura, among others.

I wrote Gray Matters to continue the conversation about Christianity and culture with special focus on some of the particular challenge areas for my generation. But it’s a book with principles and discussion points for everyone. I wrote it with the idea in mind that it would be discussed in small groups, amongst friends, wrestled with in classrooms or around the dinner table.

If the book sounds at all interesting to you (if you’re still reading, that is), please consider purchasing a copy on Amazon, or at your local Barnes & Noble (find it in the “Christian Living” section).

Download a free sample from the first few chapters of the book here.

If you purchase a copy of the book and post a review of it on the Amazon page, leave a comment here linking to it and I will personally mail you a copy of my first book, Hipster Christianity

You can also help spread the word by sharing about the book on social media, or just recommending it to friends, pastors, parents, kids, cousins, professors, etc.

If you are reading this, you are both the reason I’ve been able to write this book, and the means by which it will be a success. Thank you in advance for your support.

And if you’re in the Orange County area on Aug. 25, come to the book release party!

Coffee and Basketball

Here are two things I love: coffee and basketball. That is: good coffee and college basketball. March has been a good month for both. My hometown team, the Kansas University Jayhawks, have made it to the Final Four in March, and I’ve cheered wildly (at times nervously) for them along the way. March has also been a spectacular month for coffee-tasting. I’ve enjoyed amazing drip coffee at some fantastic destinations in the L.A. area: Handsome Coffee, Portola Coffee Lab, and Primo Passo. If you’re in the area, I highly recommend all of them (as well as IntelligentsiaLAMill, Demitasse and Spring for Coffee).

I’m passionate about good coffee and a good college basketball game. For me, both of these things can, at their best, reveal the beauty of creation and the pleasures of God.

Some people are surprised when they come across people who care about the flavor nuances of a bourbon varietal but also the shot-blocking stats of a power forward. Some people are surprised that one can be intensely interested in the oeuvre of Jim Jarmusch but also the careers of hall of fame quarterbacks. But these are usually the people who make more of the whole “red vs. blue state culture” division than is warranted. In any case, it needs to be said that so-called “high” culture and “low” culture can both be engaged in profound ways, just as they both can be engaged superficially. It’s all in the way one goes about appreciating them.

I enjoy sipping single-origin coffee black coffee (the only way to go) in the same way that I enjoy watching a well-played college basketball game. Both are examples of excellence and complexity; the results of creativity, passion and hard work. They are both the enjoyable fruits of human capacity, having been concocted out of the raw materials of creation to be fine-tuned for maximum enjoyment. Who else but humans, created in the image of a creative God, would come up with a beverage based around roasting and grinding a little brown bean? Or a game involving an elevated basket, a ball, and dribbling?

I don’t drink coffee to wake me up when I’m tired, and I don’t watch basketball to relieve boredom. It’s not about what these things can do for me; it’s about aggressively pursuing them for their beauty, appreciating them for the mysteries of humanity they uncover. Coffee is more than just “fuel” and basketball is more than just a sport with tall guys running back and forth, amusing the masses.

Basketball is like life in microcosm: competition, striving, winning, losing, doing battle for every loose ball. It’s individual achievement and team dynamics. It’s momentum, upsets, emotion, strength, humility, and the glorious feeling of coming from behind to pull out a victory with a last minute shot. It’s an elegant sport, simple and yet complicated, full of intertwining narratives; like life.

Coffee, too, is more than meets the eye. It’s an incredibly complex, multi-faceted drink with near infinite flavor dynamics. Next time you brew your Folgers (but I’d really recommend some Stumptown), take a step back and think about how crazy it is that we have this treasure. A curious Ethiopian bush, whose berries/seeds were extracted by humans and (for some reason), dried, roasted, crushed, and used to flavor hot water for a beverage. Absurd! Sometimes when I’m sitting there, sipping a particularly fragrant cup of coffee, I just smile and marvel at the fact of coffee: that a plant God created could be turned into a drink that humans can so thoroughly enjoy.

I’m not trying to convince everyone to get on board with Third Wave Coffee or to embrace March Madness in the way I do. Not everyone loves the exact same  culture or sees the beauty and truth of existence in the exact same things; and that’s fine. We all have our tastes, our preferences.

We should like what we like; but we should like it well, and we should know why we like it. And we should be open minded in the way we engage culture and consume it, opening ourselves up to the possibility that lessons can be learned and beauty can be found in areas we might not have thought. Our society has very prescribed notions of consumer identity: if you are ___, then you will like certain movies, magazines, clothing brands. But to truly connect with culture is not necessarily something bell curves or demographic patterns can predict.

I love coffee, and I love college basketball. I also love Spanish cheeses, Mark Rothko paintings, Friday Night Lights and (recently) Downton Abbey. It doesn’t necessarily follow a rhyme or reason. I just find quality, truth, and loveliness in all of these things. I celebrate them.

I think there’s wisdom in what Chuck Klosterman says in Chuck Klosterman IV about how we enjoy culture:

“If you really have integrity–if you truly live by your ideals, and those ideals dictate how you engaged with the world at large–you will never feel betrayed by culture. You will simply enjoy culture more. You won’t necessarily start watching syndicated episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond, but you will find it interesting that certain people do. You won’t suddenly agree that Amelie was a more emotive movie than Friday Night Lights, but you won’t feel alienated and offended if every film critic you read tells you that it is. You will care, but you won’t care. You’re not wrong, and neither is the rest of the world. But you need to accept that those two things aren’t really connected.”

So if you’re not watching the Final Four this weekend, while enjoying the mango and papaya notes of the Mpito bean, that’s OK. But I hope you are doing something you enjoy, and are enjoying it deeply, thoughtfully, appreciatively.

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.