Tuesday, May 31, 2005

A story that proves a point

As a follow up to the Great Library Experiment post –

Dyah made some great comments about the post: “Library as a ministry...That's a very good idea, Russell. I love the idea of the library, too; the idea of sharing and getting knowledge for free; something that might be taken for granted. I can't afford to buy every book I've borrowed from the library. And to be able to order books online and pick them up every week on the library that's three blocks away from home is amazing!”

However, God, in His infinite sense of humor, brought this subject back to my attention in church this Sunday. My good friend, Chris Reeder, came to preach for us. Chris is an Air Force Chaplain and a pretty straightforward preacher.

Chris told us how the public library was instrumental in his coming to faith. Before he was a Christian, Chris felt God hammering away on the doors of his heart. He said his first real prayer: “God, I don’t believe in you, so just go away.” But God didn’t go away, so over time, Chris began to pray “OK, God, If you’re going to keep bothering me, I have some questions you have to answer – I have some real problems with you.” Most of his problems were around the issue of suffering.

So Chris went to the public library and browsed the stacks of the religion section. Here he found works by Josh McDowell, CS Lewis, and others. And God used these books to answer Chris’s questions and bring him to faith. They weren’t the only factor, but they were a factor. So as Chris told the story, I couldn’t help but remember Paul in I Corinthians 3:5-7

“What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe – as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”

Paul is talking about divisions among church leaders, but he makes the point that God uses many different instruments in growing up disciples. As Chris demonstrated with his story, the public library can be a great instrument.

So I suggest we as Christians need to use the library – request that they carry books we’re interested in. Instead of buying books, let’s increase the circulation of good Christian books in the library – they will get the message. Let’s have our book groups study Mere Christianity and The God who is there and Augustine’s Confessions and let’s ask the library to stock extra copies. Lets throw our support behind libraries as they seek funding and be their best friend. And then, when we’ve scattered seed through the stacks of the library – who knows how God will make it grow?

A related thought for a future post perhaps – does the online wikipedia – the encyclopedia that readers edit – provide a similar opportunity? Just thinking.

Soli Deo Gloria

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Christianity and art -- take one

Michael Foster, in his blog post yesterday, posed a very simple and very good question “Why do Christians with conservative theology give so little attention to the arts?”

A fine question indeed. After all, we believe in the lordship of Christ over all areas of life. Abraham Kuyper, in his monumental Lectures on Calvinism, given at Princeton Seminary at the turn of the century, outlined an understanding of Christ as lord of all spheres of endeavor: science, arts, theology, politics, etc. (as an aside, Kuyper makes clear the church isn’t sovereign over these spheres – only Christ. It is up to the Christian artist, the Christian scientist, the Christian politician to work out with the theologians how to submit to Christ in these realms). When the author of Hebrews tells us “…in these last days, [God] has spoken to us by his Son, whom he has appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word,” we get a sense of Christ’s rule over all things. God, in creating the universe, created the very concepts of truth, beauty, justice, goodness, proportion, and all other things that are pleasing and right. And God has placed all of creation under Christ’s lordship, meaning that all that is true and good and beautiful belong to Him as well.

Thus it seems, that as Christians, we should care about the arts and sciences – not simply in an obstructionist sense that we block applications of the arts and sciences that are dangerous and immoral. We also must engage positively to provide the compelling, life-affirming alternatives that come from knowing the true Lord of the arts and sciences.

Consider these quotes from Marshall McLuhann’s famous book The Medium is the Massage. He cites composer John Cage, saying of art "…one must be disinterested, accept that a sound is a sound and a man is a man, give up illusions about ideas, order, expressions of sentiment, and all the rest of our inherited aesthetic claptrap. The highest purpose is to have no purpose at all. This puts one in accord w/nature in her manner of operation. Everyone is in the best seat. Everything we do is music. Theatre takes place all the time, wherever one is. And art simply facilitates persuading one this is the case. They (i ching) told me to continue what I was doing, and to spread joy and revolution. "

Simply said – there is no meaning. Everything is music, therefore nothing is music. There is no purpose. McLuhann applies this concept by finally concluding "art is anything you can get away with."

These people are deadly serious – they look into the abyss and see nothing, and they conclude that art must champion this void. This is the absolute best they can do – they would put ink on the feet of a running centipede and make the result a museum piece. (Indeed, one of Cage’s compositions was an extended period of nothing but silence – beyond the audacity of such a composition, there is a heart crying out about its own internal meaninglessness – dare we sneer?).

Surely we as Christians can offer something more compelling. Surely there is a reason we gather in art museums to see the great masters. There is something that draws us to hear music – something beyond the music itself. If you’ve ever felt the palpable energy in a concert hall as the musician keeps the audience enthralled, or the actors lull the theatre into a hush, then you know what I mean. If there is no meaning, then somebody has a lot of ticket refunds to offer.

So, I propose that we as Christians must engage Michael’s question – perhaps not all of us – it’s not everyone’s calling or interest. But some of us ought to wrestle with it, and so I offer these initial reflections, not as a polished and finished piece, but simply a conversation starter to draw in sharper minds than my own.

It seems that there are at least three questions involved:

1) What is art? (a whopper of a question)
2) How is the Christian artist to approach the creative process?
3) How is the Christian viewer to approach the interpretive process?

I don’t have a lot of insight on any of these, but I’ll be working through the last one as I prepare a study for the upcoming Cincinnati Art Musuem Exhibit: Brush Strokes of the Master: Oil Sketches of Peter Paul Rubens. This will be a significant challenge because Rubens was both a sensualist and a pietist. The very qualities that make his sacred paintings electrifying are the same qualities that arouse more carnal passions as we view his mythological scenes from pagan antiquity. How is a Christian viewer to make sense of all this – I’ll need to sort this out within the next couple of weeks. I hope you’ll join me in the conversation (especially you artists – Mom: I’m hoping you have some wisdom here).

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Stories from the field

This is why I do what I do -- I get to hear stories like this.

Just yesterday, before our Wednesday worship service, we had two gentlemen come into our chapel and sit there talking. Our staff was a little confused as to who these two were, so I went in to talk with them. They were in town for the Christian and Missionary Alliance conference just up the street at the convention center. The first gentleman said "years ago we were friends, but then we had a falling out" they had been angry with each other for a long time, and finally at this Christian conference, they ran into each other and they said "we need to talk" -- they came to our church as a quiet place and one asked the other "How can I make things right" -- after a tearful conversation, they were just about to pray when I walked in. So we prayed together, and thanked God for the reconciliation we have with one another through Christ.

Then, after lunch, I was conversing with a fellow who has been worshipping with us on and off for about two years. He told me about the woman he had been dating -- how she was not really a Christian, but a seeker, and he was concerned about this. He had been praying for her for quite some time. While in the LA Airport, this fellow had a vision of leading her through a gate; he wasn't sure what to do about this vision, but when he returned, he understood. She had attended a worship service at Crossroads church -- at the service, several adults were baptized in a heart gripping ceremony, and she yearned for that personal knowledge of God. As she told my friend what had happened, he simply said "you can know God personally too." and as he talked, he took her to the scriptures: and wound up at John 10 "I tell you the truth, I amd the gate for the sheep....I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved...I have come that they may have life, and have it in full." And there, in a tearful moment, she prayed that Christ would redeem her and turned in trust to Him as her king.

And I could tell other stories from these past few weeks -- the relationships that are being forged through some of our bible study classes, the challenge and encouragement that people are receiving from scripture. God is stirring the pot, and things are indeed happening in our midst. Should we not pray for even more?

In Christ's Grip


Tuesday, May 24, 2005

A Running Theme ... Revival

Let me pick up on the theme I started with in the post on the church in the Congo

Perhaps this will not seem strange to you, but it does to me. For the past two weeks, I’ve been confronted repeatedly with the theme of Spiritual Revival. First, it was the story of the 1828 Prayer Revival at Covenant-First (I’ll see if Dyah, our web guru, will put it up on the webpage): in short, the elders of the church committed to regular prayer meetings throughout the week to ask, not for church growth, but for revival of spiritual commitment. Within the year, the church grew from 231 members to 634. From the seeds of that growth, Presbyterian churches were planted all across the city.

Then I attended the Parkside Pastor’s conference, where one of the main themes was prayer and dependence upon the Holy Spirit – with the examples of Charles Haddon Spurgeon and George Whitefield, two of the great preachers of church history. Again, revival rooted first and foremost in prayer.

But wait, there’s more – I started reading Revival and Revivalism, Iain Murray’s book on American Evangelicalism from 1750-1858. Though this may seem like a heady topic (and indeed, it may appear dull to many of you), it has been electrifying because the theme once again appears in story after story of ministers and congregations who immerse themselves in ardent prayer of repentance and supplication. God again and again works a strange transformation on communities in response to the heartfelt prayers of His people (and this is not just a matter of “conversions” – this transformation leads Christians to ministries of mercy and blessing)

And yet, there’s more. Gary Sweeten was talking last night to our church leadership about Family Systems and their impact upon our leadership and upon church life (and indeed upon the climate of other organizations of which we are a part). He indicated that healing from past hurts comes only through prayer and supplication before Christ, the great physician. Blessing, renewal, and personal transformation (which leads to organizational transformation) comes from prayerful submission.

Then today, I went to a continuing education seminar with David Bryant speaking on the Supremacy of Christ And guess what one of the major themes was…. Nuff said.

One consistent theme running through the past few weeks – and then I think about how churches in our presbytery are talking about Congregational Transformation. We’ve had a consultant who has given us some great information about cultural change, structural change, and orientation to the mission to which God is calling a congregation. These themes are good and should be addressed – but we also need to stress the primacy of the need for a move of the Holy Spirit. If we would truly experience transformation, we need to beg God to grip us with his personal presence. We need to worship in Spirit and in truth. All the technique in the world can’t help us if we don’t have this spiritual power working in our churches.

As a response, I’ve done what every good Presbyterian does – I’ve read about it, I’ve written about it, I’ve pondered it. Have I brought it before God in prayer …. Sort of. I’m pretty good at the Brother Lawrence type prayers of yesterday’s post – it’s great fun to acknowledge God’s blessing in the moment. It’s much harder to hunger and thirst for righteousness.

And so now, late at night when I can’t sleep…. I’m praying for the Holy Spirit to bring spiritual revival at Covenant-First, in Cincinnati, and across America.
…. Before I crack open scripture ….. I’m praying that God would grip me with His word.
…. As I agonize over certain challenges of ministry and life …. I’m praying that Christ would show Himself to be in charge of all things.

It’s been on my mind a lot – hence it’s been in this blog a lot of late. But as a preview of coming attractions – I’m going to start working on a devotional for the upcoming Reubens exhibit at the Art Museum, and a devotional for the Fall session of the Gospel According to Shakespeare (so expect more Shakespeare stuff – and I’ll be looking for feedback).

In the meantime…. Let us pray

Soli Deo Gloria.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Designer Faith

I know how the title sounds, but don’t be misled. Here’s the thought. This month’s issue of Fast Company is all about the power of design. Design being an emphasis not just on function, but on form – on the experience of using a product/service. It’s an issue all about intentionality and coming up with creative, elegant, and new solutions to killer problems. I found lots of great articles in the issue; it is very stimulating.

But then I have to keep asking – how does this apply to church (particularly as regards the ongoing house church conversation). Do we have designer church where we try to tailor everything to the needs of “consumers” of spiritual goods – and we’re measured in our effectiveness by their willingness to return. Do we need to market ourselves effectively and provide engaging experiences that will tickle their fancy?

I think not.

The church isn’t an organization to be marketed – it is the congregation of the people of God – people who have responded to the inner call of the Holy Spirit to come and worship Jesus Christ as King. You don’t market that – you don’t manufacture that – you simply live it.

That said, I think it equally wrong that we ignore design and intentionality. God gave us a multiplicity of gifts, talents and skills. God called us together as a people, and God intends to use us for the advancement of his kingdom. Therefore we have to listen to one another, encourage one another’s gifts, and help one another be used by God. Some will have an eye for great design, and God will be most glorified in their using those gifts to create an environment where He is truly praised. We need to expand our thinking on how God is glorified in our activity. When we realize that any activity that is not sinful can be used as an instrument of praise, then we’re close.

Brother Lawrence understood this – he was a monk who wrote The Practice of the Presence of God. He worked in the kitchens, and used his cooking, cleaning (and messing up) as an opportunity to be in continual prayer. What would it be like if we developed a designer faith that expressed itself in continual prayer over whatever we’re doing at the moment:

Mowing the yard: Lord, let the beauty of this place bless others and bring you glory
Cooking dinner Lord, thank you for this food, help us to be content with your provision, and let it nourish us to Your service
Tucking in the children Lord, I give you praise for these children who bless me. Help me to be the parent you want me to be, and let them grow up to be your disciples

This kind of “designer faith” will also help us cut out some of those things that do little to advance God’s glory – I’m sure you can come up with your own litany of things.

Just thinking.


Friday, May 20, 2005

Advice from Africa -- Start with Prayer

Rick-Ufford Chase, the Moderator of the PCUSA (for those of you unaware, the Moderator is the highest elected office in the denomination, and holds office for 2 years -- among other things, the moderator travels the world representing the denomination to the global church), has been blogging from his trip to the Congo -- on a recent post, he relates some wonderful advice from leaders in the African church:

After dinner, our conversation broadened to include the rest of the group, and Jean Marie asked her favorite question. Though their church obviously faces many challenges in a country that is both unimaginably poor and caught in seemingly never-ending cycles of war and conflict, their numbers continue to grow. What advice can they offer their sisters and brothers in the Presbyterian Church (USA) about evangelization and church growth?

In response, Pastor Chibemba offered these suggestions:

He said that we must start and end with prayer and that everything we do must be reinforced with prayer. “When we confront great challenges in my church,” he said, “we begin by forming groups to be in prayer about that matter, and we pray continuously for God’s intervention.”

Second, Chibemba suggested that we must share with people in their hardships. We must be with people who are in need and let them know that the God loves them, Jesus Christ died for them, and the Church cares about them. This is the work of accompaniment with God’s people who are most desperate and most in need.

“Next,” Chibemba said, “we must commit to real evangelization – the kind that trusts our lay people in the church to invite others to know Christ. We must give them more responsibility, not less responsibility.” Later, in another conversation, he elaborated on this theme by suggesting that if a pastor doesn’t train the lay people to share their faith with confidence, the church can only grow by the number of people the pastor can get to know personally. However, if the pastor commits to trusting the lay people, the work grows exponentially and the possibilities for church growth are limitless.

Rick lists other items that struck him, but to me, these are the three most important:

Deep, dependent prayer.
Commitment to demonstrating God's love
Commitment to everyone as an evangelist.

This struck me because these were the main themes in the Parkside Pastor's conference this year. If we are to see church growth, transformation, revival (pick your term) we need to BEGIN with deep heartfelt prayer. We are dependent upon a move of God's Holy Spirit. How often do we settle for the obligatory 15 second prayer at the start of a 2 hour meeting -- how much more ought we to yearn for deep heartfelt crying out to God!

Demonstrating God's love by identifying with and assisting the poor. We learned at the conference about George Whitefield and Charles Haddon Spurgeon. A major part of George Whitefield's itenerant ministry was in raising funds for an orphanage in Georgia. Spurgeon, while a great evangelist, was also intimately involved in the social issues that confronted Victorian London.

And lay evangelism -- well, that was the subject of part of my post from the first day of the conference!

We have much to learn from our faithful bretheren in Africa!

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Continuing the Conversation from Presbytery Meeting

Continuing the conversation that started after last week's prebytery meeting (see the post Presbytery Meetings can be good)

Neighbor Aaron Klinefelter, a house churcher himself, shoots back some wonderful information in his blog (you have to scroll down to the heading "On Media and House Church" -- sorry Aaron, you didn't give me a permalink). Aaron ultimately brings it back to how do we know what we know (epistemology) -- which he rightly roots in the Holy Spirit and the community through which the Holy Spirit works, though I would also add (and place before the community) scripture. Scripture, I believe, is directly inspired by the Holy Spirit and is the main instrument the Holy Spirit uses in shaping community and guiding our faith. That said, Aaron's got some informative and thoughtful comments.

Then Gary Sweeten emailed back with these comments (which he did not post on his blog, but his blog is quite worth the read nonetheless):


I read your piece and went to your web but my old eyes are too unfocused to read such colors. I remember trying to read Wired Magazine when it first came out and was unable to do that either.

About house church. No need to defend your preference for that style as against other styles. Just do it.

Many years ago after getting the "Left foot of fellowship" from a local congregation in 1969 my family and I got involved in a local house church in the Hyde Park area. That led us to start a meeting in Clifton across from UC and that led some others to use our Ohio Avenue apartment house upper room to start another weekly meeting and that led another group to start another house group on Warner Street and that led to... You get it.

This led us to set up a monthly meeting of house churches in the city and we rented the Newman Center at UC so a couple of hundred people came and then it was no longer exactly a house church because we rented a church house. Even in the Clifton House we averaged anywhere from 30 to 60 people according to whether UC was in session. The Ohio Avenue house had up to 80 or so but we were afraid the place would collapse if more showed up. Warner Street was a mixed bag because it was smaller.

We were mostly students and faculty at UC so we prayer daily, met often, sang new songs, prayed for healing always, had communion after fasting weekly, shared our few goods openly and witnessed fervently. It was a blast. We saw people saved daily, baptized in the Ohio and Fountain Square and other bodies of water as was necessary and made up the traditions as we went.

The problem of the house churches was its strength. People loved it and it grew into something more and bigger and the intimacy was lost. So, keep up the good work. House meetings have been going since about 33 AD and will continue forever until Maranatha occurs. I just do not have the physical strength to join you any more.


Gary Sweeten

Gary has told me many times that the churches that embraced house church folks experienced a time of renewal and revival. As Aaron says in his blog -- house church folks are looking for meaningful face to face participation -- not sitting on a committee. They want to make a personal difference -- and they do.

Final thought -- as a result of this little online conversation, a new blogger has entered the scene: My friend Erwin Goedicke, pastor of North Presbyterian Church (whom I wrote about previously in Sometimes it's good to go hungry). His thoughts continue to center around these issues as well. Go, read and make plenty of comments.

Let's continue the conversation

Soli Deo Gloria

The Great Library Experiment

While salivating over books in the Parkside bookstore (eventually emerging with six books for my already bulging library), I met a fellow who told me “don’t buy the books, get them from the library.” I replied that the titles that I purchase at the conference are not available at the public library: Puritan reprints, history of revivals, etc. Thus began the most memorable Conversations from this year’s Parkside Pastor’s conference.

This gentleman introduced himself as an employee of Cleveland Public Library; he challenged me to think of asking the library to stock Christian classics as a ministry. Libraries have finite budgets, and they make a genuine effort to meet customer demand. If more customers ask for Christian classics, they will stock them (and thus leave less funds for less desirable books). While a book in my personal collection is mine to mark up as I see fit and is at my discretion to share it with another person, a book in the public library stacks is there for 20-30 years and is usually checked out by at least 5 people – but likely more than that. Some of those people may naturally be interested in the subject, but others may simply stumble across the title. In any case, you’re creating a cascading effect that will have benefit you may never see. Rather than thinking of a library as merely a resource, think of it as an opportunity to shape and mold the culture – don’t war against your library by asking for books to be banned – rather, ask for the right books to be in there, and you’ll make much more of a difference.

This challenged me. I have a natural affinity for libraries – I think quite highly of our Cincinnati Public Library, and I’m quite interested in finding ways to help it through its current budget crunch. I also love to recommend books – lots of good books. What would it be like if we could agree on a few books each year to ask the Local Public Library to stock – a few good books that we’re going to read, and then want to have lying around for some future reader to discover and benefit from. What might be the result.

This also seems to be a positive and simple way to engage the culture without taking on the stance of being “against” everything (which so many Christians seem to adopt). Much like Paul on Mars Hill saying “men of Athens, I see that you are religious people…” we can say “people of Cincinnati (or insert your city here), I see that you are literate people….”

So I propose The Great Library Experiment for all my readers. No matter what library system you’re in, I encourage you to invite your public library to carry some of the classic works of Christian literature. So we can all work on the same page here in Cincinnati, here are my recommendations for 2005 (some may be in rare books already, but we’re trying to get them to stock the reprints that can be checked out):

All things for Good by Thomas Watson (published by Banner of Truth)
The Art of Divine Contentment by Thomas Watson (published by Soli Deo Gloria). Biography of Martin Lloyd-Jones by Iain Murray (published by Banner of Truth) (volume 1 is available at the library, but volume 2 is not)

Other great titles to consider are my summer reading recommendations for Covenant-First Pres!

If we can get our libraries to stock these titles, it will benefit Christian publishers and devout Christians everywhere – a useful mechanism might be to actually have a study group on one of these books, and use that as a reason to petition to library to carry the title.

Let me know what you think.

Soli Deo Gloria.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Blogging from Begg -- day 1

I’m blogging tonight from Cleveland. I’m up here for the Parkside Church Pastor’s conference, put on by Alasair Begg’s ministry. I come up every year to enjoy fellowship and get renewed in the basics of biblical preaching. This year, I brought with me John Daly, of Cincy House, a house church that is doing some great stuff in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area (and he’s an all around good guy).

I took 10 pages of notes tonight – more than enough for a month of blog posts – though I won’t regale you with all the information. I’ll just give you two snippets for tonight:

First we heard Derek Prime, an English Anglican, who gave us an exposition of Ephesians 6 – putting on the whole armor of God. One of the most brilliant things Prime did was take us back to Ephesians 5:21 “submit yourselves to one another out of reverence for Jesus Christ” and then forward through the commands to wives and husbands, parents and children, and slaves and masters (read employees and employers). He made the connection that these intimate spheres are the spheres in which we experience spiritual warfare and have the need of God’s armor. Spiritual warfare is not some mystical fight against demon possession (like the exorcist) – rather it is the daily struggle against the subtle temptations to put me above those around me. Thus the command to submit ourselves to one another. Prime showed how if we were to exhibit true gentility in the home and at work, we are utterly dependent upon the empowering of the Holy Spirit to make it happen. This session made the whole of Ephesians 6 become very practical for me!

Then we heard from Ian Murray, founder of the Banner of Truth trust, who talked about the great Victorian evangelist Charles Haddon Spurgeon. One of the great points here was that Spurgeon saw evangelism as the act, not of one great orator, but an act of the whole church. The reason the Metropolitan Tabernacle grew with such leaps and bounds (to be 5,000 members in 1874 –the largest congregation in the world at that time) was that there were congregation members who were serious about inviting their unchurched friends to worship. Spurgeon would do his part, and his congregation did their part. Another aspect of the great growth was the commitment to prayer – to the recognition that growth doesn’t happen without a move of the Holy Spirit – and so the congregation members would spend great amounts of time in prayer for their friends, for the congregation, and for Spurgeon. That was the engine of growth – not slick technique or demographic marketing. It was a simple outpouring of spiritual power.

Lots of other great teaching, conversation, and really good food. I’ll try to post more tomorrow night!

Soli Deo Gloria

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Pentecost Fire

Today, we had a wonderful Pentecost service - something we've not really done in the past. We decorated the sanctuary with red flags, asked everyone to wear red. Then in worship, we featured congregation members who were born in other countries -- they would read scripture in their native tongue, and then in English. Our special guest was Pat Durst of International Friendship ministries, who told us more about her exciting ministry to International students at the University of Cincinnati. I preached on Pentecost (hear the audio on our website -- located on the resouces page). Finally, we adjourned to our regular fellowship hour which included red helium balloons for decoration (a bundle of which Sarah Grace insisted we bring home) and a special Pentecost cake (I still imagine the clerk taking that order "What kind of cake did you say????)

Then, checking my blog subscriptions this afternoon, I found this wonderful poem from Lily's Pad, a blog that I follow. I share it with you for your enjoyment.

The next few days I'm off to Cleveland for Alastair Begg's pastor's conference. I'll blog from there if I'm able, if not, I'll be back online on Wednesday night!

Soli Deo Gloria

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Nifty Quote and Word of the Week - May 14

Back in an earlier iteration, this weblog was actually a weekly email that I sent to all my family and friends. I called it “The Nifty Quote and Word of the Week” – I would give bite sized summaries of the events of the week, books I was reading, movies I liked, and then I would conclude with a word and a quote that caught my attention. I kept this up until about four years ago, when I became pastor at Covenant-First.

Now I’ve begun blogging, in part as a laboratory for processing all the cultural input that comes my way, in part as a means to expand our Church’s ministry, and in part as a means of reconnecting with all my friends and family from across the globe. In that spirit. I resuscitate the custom of the Nifty Quote and Word of the Week (sans so much personal news – this is the internet after all)

This week’s word: harridan (a modification of the French haridelle – old horse, gaunt woman): a shrewish woman. Two weeks in a row, I’ve seen harridan used in Time magazine. This week it was Joel Kline’s article on Hillary Clinton. Last week, it was the story on Ann Coulter (I believe describing her as a “pulchritudinous harridan” – I had always thought pulchritudinous meant “fat” from it’s use in the film Dumbo where the ringmaster describes the elephants as “pulchritudinous pachyderms”. When I actually looked it up in my Webster’s collegiate dicationary, the real definition is “physical comliness” ie pretty good lookin’ – but I digress). Harridan is a fine word – use it in conversation this week and baffle your friends.

And the quote of the week. From Robert Kaplan’s Warrior Politics “conflict and community are both inherent in the human condition.”


Friday, May 13, 2005

Push Marketing and Push Evangelism -- Yecch!

Permit me a quick rant. Yesterday a representative from Cinergy came knocking on our door, offering his wares. He was an articulate young man who was offering a one month free trial of their new high speed internet service. All that was required of my system was a little modem about the size of a light timer – it plugs into the wall, and then we connect our computer into the jack at the very bottom. He told us it was high speed access, faster than other high speed services, and if we liked it after the month trial, it would only be $26 dollars a month.

Now perhaps this was a good deal, perhaps it wasn’t. But I was completely unreceptive to the offer, and this is why – they interrupted my evening. When this joker (er, I mean gentleman) came knocking on our door, I was in the process of taking Sarah Grace upstairs so we could do our nightly routine of reading a book, singing a few songs, and tucking her in to sleep. I very politely listened to his canned schpiel, and politely told him “no thank you.”

If I want to purchase something or find out about something – I will go looking for it. I don’t mind receiving catalogs in the mail (though I do get ticked off when we are sent catalogs that I’ve never heard of – simply b/c they bought a mailing list from someone else). Companies that invade my private time to peddle their wares just plain bug me. And from everything I read, they bug other people too. This is one of the reasons a company like bzzagent is attracting so much attention – they try to market products through less invasive means: by encouraging honest word-of-mouth by people who use the product (whether they are a success at this venture is a subject of speculation – there are many who view the idea of paying to stimulate word of mouth as an extremely insidious venture – visit their website to which I link above, and make your own decisions).

For many, particularly of younger generations who are more saavy about manipulation in media, the concept of “push” marketing (aggressively chasing after the consumer) is dying. Look at the outright mockery of network marketing in the film Garden State – the main character runs into a high school classmate working as a clerk in a big box store – the classmate begins a stumbling and awkward pitch about “a great opportunity …. For an ambitious guy like you” or something to that nature. At which point the main character promptly ends the conversation. I don’t cite this to say network marketing companies are bad (in fact I think they are quite good for some people), but they do have a cultural stereotype of being very pushy.

I think of my own experience buying a car (way back in 1993)– I went to the Geo dealership and asked to look at a car. I clearly stated that I wasn’t buying, just taking a look to compare various models. The salesman was a good old boy figure, and we talked about football and fishing. But when we wrapped up the test drive, he said “Let me introduce you to my sales manager,” who amazingly looked just like the character Booger from Revenge of the Nerds. This joker (er… I mean gentleman) begins the high pressure tactic “Sir, what can I do to have you drive home in this car today.” I told him that I was just looking, and he keeps on with his harangue, chasing me to my car as I’m leaving the dealership in a huff.

I bought a Saturn (which now has 160k miles on it – and still going strong). Geo lost my business simply for disrespecting me and my time.

So, being the theologian I am, this makes me think about evangelism – the old style of door to door evangelism is dying out as an effective model. It may have worked back in the era where door to door salesmen were accepted, but no longer. “Push” models of evangelism are plain offensive (and subject to lots of mockery by secularists). I studied Evangelism Explosion in seminary, and couldn’t help but thinking “how cheesy” – to suggest cornering someone in an elevator and confronting them with questions about eternity! You need to earn the right to ask me such questions! (again, no disrespect intended, it was a great program for its time, but its time has passed)

This is not to say that the questions aren’t important – these are life and death questions about eternity, about life purpose, about what we were made for. However the way we open the question directly impacts the way it is received. Perhaps before Evangelism happens (evangelism being the sharing of the good news of Christ’s victory over sin and death, and the implications it has for us), we need to engage in being salt and light (see Matthew 5 “you are the salt of the earth…. You are the light of the world” We need to so demonstrate God’s power by our lifestyle and our integrity and our dogged determination to demonstrate love to others. This isn’t some call to work harder – we can’t really live this way unless we have the power of the Holy Spirit working in us. We will fight against our own inertia, apathy, and selfishness until the Holy Spirit overwhelms us and sends us out into the world.

In many ways, “Push” evangelism relies heavily upon our own knowledge, our own grasp of all the answers, our own ability to engage in debate and technique. “Permission” evangelism is doing what comes naturally when led by the Holy Spirit: Pray hard for other people, trust in God’s sovereignty during confusing or hard times, live lives of simplicity, beauty, and sacrifice. And being comfortable with saying, when confronted with those angry skeptics “Well, I don’t know about all that, but I do know Christ and his power in my life.”


Thursday, May 12, 2005

Comments from Dr. Gary Sweeten

Gary Sweeten emailed me this response following yesterday’s post. I didn’t realize people were having problems posting comments. I’ve added a new tool that allows you to post comments and for other websites that reference the post to track back. You should be able to click on “comments” at the bottom of the post – a new window will open and show all the current comments – and at the bottom will be an opportunity for you to make your own.

Anyway – I’ve included all of Gary’s email, b/c I thought it was pretty wonderful (I have added links to places Gary references.


The blog would not take my comments so I am responding on e mail.

Blogs are as much for writers as for readers for they require some thinking and self evaluation as we write. last week i wrote an article but, upon thinking, decided that I was unduly hasty in criticizing a particular group. Thankfully, I can go back and edit out my intemperate statements. So, even if no one else is keeping me accountable I am forced to evaluate what I say.

I have been doing some work with the Underground Railroad Freedom Center recently and my study of Christian Abolitionists had led me to the conclusion that they were well read, well spoken and well written. In addition, they were red hot in rhetoric and passion. They strongly pressed their points of view based on scripture and love and finally won the day.

This inspires me to think about ways I can also communicate my concerns and compassionate drives to influence a wider audience and I want to learn how to write my blog more persuasively and thoughtfully. I have been on Christian radio for over 15 years and people evaluate my performances by listening and responding to what I say. I can tell when i touch a sensitive chord.

Allow me to make one comment about mega churches and what they teach. It seems to me that many of them have learned how to talk about and act out the message of radical grace in a fairly wholesome manner. Steve Sjogren's theology was solidly Lutheran with some special Vineyardian approaches but his approach was a practical approach to Luther.

Many of the newer movements have not been around long enough to find their balance and have emphasized gracious evangelism over discipleship and the deeper things of theology. Perhaps that is their call in the family of God and should never abandon it. On Easter Sunday, Dave Workman gave an "altar call" and some 400 people came forward to receive Christ. I find it difficult to criticize any group that is bringing that many new babies into the family.


Dr. Gary R. Sweeten

Praise God for the Vinyard, and for Dave Workman (one of the gentlest spirits I’ve met in this town). We too did an “altar call” (as a good Presbyterian, I called it a time of recommitment), and dozens of people came forward simply to recommit themselves to Christ.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Haloscan commenting and trackback have been added to this blog.

Presbytery meetings can be good

I’m writing this up following last night’s regular meeting of the Presbytery of Cincinnati (which, for those of you not familiar with Presbyspeak, is the gathering of all ministers and elder representitives from the 70-ish churches in and around Cincinnati. The meeting is to encourage, provide worship opportunity, and serve as a forum for discussion and decision making).

Tonight, we heard from Dale Andrews, professor of preaching and worship at Louisville Seminary. Don’t let the title fool you – this man is no ivory tower academic. After thundering in the pulpit about how Jesus radical grace, Andrews then had us on the edge of the pew, challenging our mainline protestant complacency.

He made the oh so very clear point that Presbyterian preachers work in privileged pulpits. Though we may compare our salaries to the executives and doctors and lawyers in our midst, the more apt comparison is to other preachers – many of whom work for far less. Globally, many of our colleagues struggle to survive on a day to day basis (see yesterday’s post). He proposed that we all, in a sense, preach a prosperity gospel – when we preach “me centered” sermons about personal salvation, personal effectiveness and how we’re going to personally respond, we miss out on a significant part of the good news, which is transformational. Simply put, Jesus saved us that we might be personally changed, and be a part of a community that is being transformed. And that community is charged with being salt and light in a world of pain. The gospel is about something far beyond ourselves and our personal blessing.

He gave an honest and fair recap of what Megachurches (churches over 2000 in worship attendance) do well and what their dangers are. He charged us to learn from megachurches in their seeking out new ways to contextualize the gospel and reach people where they are, but not to fall into the trap of making the good news a commodity that is peddled for the sake of getting tushes in the pew. Then he gave us some really good stuff about how technology can lead us to information without relationship – we are able to receive and give information without accountability – a pitfall to which we must be sensitive.

The Question and Answer session is what plucked my gander. Cinda Gorman of Westwood First asked how important the web is to Generation X. Dr Andrews responded rightly that it is very important, but that there is no standard for evaluating web quality. At which point, I challenged him – the blogosphere is a huge society of mutual accountability. Bloggers found inaccuracies in Dan Rather’s story about the President’s military record; bloggers raked Google over the coals for violating its own principles. Bloggers have mutual accountability by distributing eyes and ears all across the world.

Dr. Andrews came back with two questions. To the best of my recollection they were 1) who do I know that is doing this kind of evaluation and 2) what standards of evaluation do I personally know about. At this point, you must understand, my brain shut down. This is why I never did Quiz bowl in high school, because in the moment of pressure, I went from being an honor student to Rain Man. Tammy keeps telling me I should go on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, but I know it would be a short time because as soon as the first question would be asked, my mind would blank entirely.

So I muttered that I couldn’t think of a standard of evaluation, but on the drive home (you know how that is – you’re driving back and you say “that’s what I should have said – yeah, it’s brilliant”) I realized that his questions could be applied to any extant medium. Where is the objective criteria for evaluation in the print media? The whims of the publishing houses are run entirely by profits, not pursuit of truth. Meanwhile, academic peer review is subject to the same kind of power politics and ego posturing that are endemic on the web. Magazines can print all kinds of inaccuracies, but without readers catching them, they simply get away with it.

Are there dangers to blogging? Of course – but there are also dangers to uncritically accepting any communication. Readers (and viewers) need to be better critical thinkers – to learn to say “Where’s the support for that argument” “what proof does he offer” “do his references check out” “does his logic hold up” “she is stating an opinion, not a fact”. These are basic critical thinking skills that I was taught in school, and yet I need continual reminders.

The web as a medium is neither more nor less dangerous than any other medium. We do need to be aware of the dangers, but it is most important that we’re aware of how to use it. My neighbor Aaron Klinefelter referenced BusinessWeek article that is a really terrific argument for using the medium. I’ve already referenced Seth Godin’s rant on the digital divide. Our challenge as good Calvinists is to find how the medium can be used in a redemptive manner.

I heard Marva Dawn speak at my alma mater about worship styles – she talked about how her church incorporates many different instruments in worship – and each instrument had a distinctive voice that can bring praise to God in a distinctive way. A saxophone for instance praises God in a distinctive way that drums just cannot do. I believe the same argument can be made for media – every media form has a distinctive way (or ways) that it can be used to praise God that cannot be replicated by any other media. Our task will be to discern how God can be uniquely praised and served by web resources (all the various resources: web pages, discussion boards, blogs, etc), and then throw ourselves into that. We need to be salt and light on the web as well.

I believe one of the great advantages of blogging is that it allows the conversation to occur – and so I’m sending this post to Dr. Andrews and a few of my Presbyterian colleagues and asking them to come and comment – essentially I’d like to continue the conversation. I’d also really be interested in hearing from some of you house church guys on this – what are some of the reasons you find people interested in house church rather than traditional church – that ties in to the topic as well.

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Sometimes it's good to go hungry

Last week, my good friend Erwin Goedicke told me a wonderful story. Erwin is pastor of North Presbyterian – an urban church here in Cincinnati where he regularly has to deal with poverty, crime, and hardship. He’s faithfully serving Christ in a very tough area – and the congregation is doing well under his loving leadership.

The church started a partnership a few years ago with an orphanage in Kenya – and last year they brought the director of the orphanage to the US for fundraising and telling the story of what God is doing through their ministry. They took the orphanage director to a fundraising banquet for another ministry the church supports. The meal was a delicious steak dinner with twice baked potato, huge salad, and dessert. The director of the orphanage looked at the meal, then looked to Erwin and asked:

“Do Americans ever miss a meal?”

He knew that she didn’t mean “do Americans skip a meal because they’re working too hard.” She meant do they ever miss a meal because the food isn’t there. Erwin answered “no” “It is good to sometimes miss a meal” she said.

She then told him how in their orphanage, there was a special signal – if there was no food for the meal, the signal would ring and all the children knew to proceed not to the dining hall but to the chapel. There, while missing their meal, they would gather and give God thanks for the next meal that they would receive.

This story hit me powerfully – as I restrict my diet in an attempt to lose weight and lower cholesterol, it is so tempting to feel “deprived”. And yet this example prompts me to give thanks for all the great food that I do have available to me. Just allowing myself to feel a little twinge of hunger makes me appreciate the flavor that God put into oranges, leafy lettuce, carrots, etc.

Eating can be a profoundly spiritual exercise – as can fasting. Lauren Winner, in her book on Chastity, compares chastity to fasting: when we abstain from something as a spiritual exercise, it becomes a vehicle for drawing closer to God. It is only by God’s grace that we’re able to live with the prohibitions, and in the twinge of hunger that we feel, we are driven to rely upon grace. Winner talks about this in her interview with World Magazine: “In Real Sex," she told WORLD, "I contextualize chastity as one of many ascetical spiritual disciplines, disciplines in which we renounce something in order to attend to God in a particular way." Fasting, for example, "is a time-honored Christian spiritual practice, not because food is evil, but because refraining from food can clear out space in which we can focus on God in a particular way."”

We protestants don’t understand fasting at all – it’s not some legalistic “don’t do this or God will blast you” (as portrayed in the movie Chocolat (which was a fine film in its own right) – rather it is an invitation to come and lose yourself that you might find God. And that is a wonderful thought.

Perhaps too, fasting is God’s way of helping us identify with the hungry, that we might be moved to be His agents of blessing to them? Which is one of the reasons I’m really looking forward to helping with the Hosea House Soup kitchen this weekend (one of our church projects). It’s not much, but at least it will help me feel like I’m doing something.

Anyone out there had experience with fasting?
Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, May 09, 2005

What's a blog

When I started doing this thing a few weeks ago, and emailed out the information, a number of my friends and family said "what's a blog" -- I was incredulous that they hadn't seen the stories about how bloggers took down Dan Rather, bloggers influenced the presidential election, and 2005 is the so called year of the blog. But in my infinite patience (that's a joke, ya'll), I did my best to explain.

Seth Godin, the marketing guru, had a great article that explains why I decided to start blogging. There’s a huge opportunity out there for communication and reaching a whole community that is somewhat cut off from the church. Read Seth’s article – and then, if you enjoy this blog, consider telling other people about it. It will really help us get ideas out there in the marketplace.


In a Garden State of Mind

I was having coffee with three young men who had planted house churches. I’m interested in actually talking with people who are participating in the emerging church, rather than just reading books on it. One of the recommendations they had was to watch the film Garden State. They told me that it was a window on the worldview of the people they were working to reach, so obviously, we went right out and rented the film.

The action begins when 20-something Andrew Largeman, an aspiring actor who has not been home to New Jersey, receives a call from his father telling him that his mother died and he must come home for the funeral. Largeman seems to be numb to just about everything around him, largely due to his medications (which we find out later, serve to numb the pain of some of his family experience). When he comes home, he’s reunited with several of his High School friends. Mark, a gravedigger at the cemetery where Andrew’s mother is interred, is obviously a close friend, and becomes Andrew’s companion through the film.

On the way to meet Mark at a party, Andrew runs into his friend Kenny who became a police officer. Largeman asks why, Kenny says “I don’t know…couldn’t think of anything better to do. No, but it’s really cool, though man. People really listen to you, I mean… they have to (pulling gun and laughing)”. Then at the party he runs into another friend who invented a product called “silent Velcro” – it’s just like Velcro, without the noise. He sold the patent for a fortune and when Largeman asks what he’s doing now he says, slightly uncomfortably, “Nothing…Nothing. I’ve never been so bored in my whole life.” And then he quickly changes the subject, asking for a joint. The next scene is an extended party scene of intoxication and sexually charged drug use, while Largeman sits numbly on the couch.

In another scene at Mark’s house, Mark’s mother starts nagging her son about doing something with his life (though her idea of doing something is ordering the obvious scam real investment tapes that you see advertised on late night TV infomercials). She tells him “I know what you could be if you only applied yourself” Mark snaps back “I do apply myself….” Everyday burying dead people. “I’m only 26. I’m not in any rush. What’s your rush for?”

This pretty much settles the tone of the whole movie – aimless wandering – indulging in so much alcohol and drugs that the pain of aimlessness is numbed. This is the kind of ache that is present in the so-called post-Christian generation.

Then Andrew meets Sam, a 20 something woman who talks incessantly, but has a bright adventurous streak in her. They begin to spend time together and strike up a friendship that veers toward romantic attraction. Sitting in her bedroom, they have the only religious conversation in the film. Andrew mentions the wailing wall in Jerusalem, and she asks “You’re really Jewish, aren’t you.” He says no – he doesn’t even go to temple. He says he doesn’t know any jews that go to temple – only on the Day of Atonement. And Sam shoots back with “I don’t really believe in God” – and then the conversation veers in a different direction.

So we have desperate 20 somethings longing for meaning in life, and yet they have out of hand rejected the traditions and beliefs that have given meaning for millinea. And there’s no wrestling with it, as though they were rejecting the idea of eating at the Chineese Buffet. “Oh, I don’t really like chineese food” – so lets try to derive meaning from within.

The film takes an interesting turn as Mark leads Andrew and Sam on a journey to purchase a goodbye gift for Andrew. It takes them to a house on the edge of a gigantic pit – a proposed site for a mall that when blasted open revealed a huge chasm going deep into the earth – the government closed the site to determine if they should study the fissure, and there on the edge of the Abyss is Albert and his family. Albert is paid simply to keep people off the premisies. Albert and his wife are very happy. He is keeping everyone out of the Abyss, but at night, he climbs down to be the first person to explore it. He playfully says that he likes to pretend that the abyss in infinite. “We think it’s important…I guess I just like the idea of discovering something. Of doing something that’s completely unique….that’s never been done before.” “Albert’s abyss” jokes Largeman. “Well, maybe,” answers Albert “who knows. But you know what, that’s all ego. None of that really matters. If I get to be with this person right here (gesturing to his wife) and our beautiful baby, that’s all I need.” A dramatic pause and then the film continues. As they leave Largeman shouts out “good luck exploring the infinite abyss.” And albert shouts back “Hey you too”

So the film becomes a statement about coming out of the meaningless existence by finding meaning where you are and with who you’re with. Again, relationships and being true to thine own self are what is most important in this worldview – and yet, I’m left wrestling because they seem to have stripped away everything that undergirds relationships and the self – what do you do when the relationship goes bad? Who do you turn to when you wake up and realize you don’t really like yourself. Every week, I have to deal with the messy fallout of people being true to themselves, and its not always pretty. If there is not some external meaning giver, then when my being true to my self clashes with your being true to yourself, we will have a bloody mess.

If you have endured this tugid description of the film thus far, you may be asking “So how does the Christian approach this film.” First, I would Echo Francis Schaeffer’s sentiments from The God Who is There – he outlines how culture has fallen below what he calls the “Line of Despair” – he shows the hopelessness in the worldview of many 20th century artists, musicians, etc. and then he writes with power: “These paintings, these poems and these demonstrations which we have been talking about are the expression of men who are struggling with their appalling lostness. Dare we laugh at such things? Dare we feel superior when we view their tortured expressions in their art? Christians should stop laughing and take such men seriously. Then we shall have the right to speak again to our generation. These men are dying while they live, yet where is our compassion for them? There is nothing more ugly than an orthodoxy without understanding or without compassion.”

Later in the same book, Schaeffer writes: “To live below the line of despair is not to live in paradise, whether that of a fool or any other kind. It is in a real sense to have a foretaste of hell now, as well as the reality in the life to come. Many of our most sensitive people have been left absolutely naked by the destruction. Should we not grieve and cry before God for such people?”

So I thank God for our house church planters, who feel heartbroken for a generation of lost and hurting people who have effectively cut themselves off from the church by assumption. I thank God for the people who are engaged in the messy and difficult task of involving themselves in deep relationships with those who are searching – for the relationships are the way to truly make the gospel real. It is so very wrong for those of us in the “institutional church” to criticize and condemn the house church and the emergent church. Can we not find a way to embrace people in the house church – to nurture them and pour ourselves into them – as missionaries to a post Christian subculture that is rapidly ascendant.

Just thinking….

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Ramones Re-dux

Scott Atkinson rightly (and quite gently) reminds me that punk is not all about anger – there are playful and fun elements to it as well. He’s right – I was somewhat hasty in my labeling it as an expression of rage alone. Perhaps a better all-encompassing term would be “energy” – there is a vast reservoir of untapped energy that is aching for release. The driving energy of punk music (and most Rock music in general) is simply a release of internal energy of the listener. It is a mild form of Aristotle’s catharsis, arising not from the purging power of a well plotted tragedy, but from the emotional power of music.

I also neglected the deep connection between punk, rock, and pop. Punk is perhaps a logical outgrowth of Rock – after all, one of the essential defining elements of rock is a sense of rebellion and finding your own way. I can’t help but think of Jack Black in School of Rock trying to explain Rock to the highly cultured children. He explains it in terms of releasing anger. “Rock and Roll used to be a way to stick it to the man. But then along came MTV!!!!” – lines directly echoed by the Ramones in the documentary. They basically said that MTV ruined their business because you had to fit their business model if you wanted to get played. Thus the rise of 80’s pop, which did have great punk influence, but it tamed down and characterized by sweetness and playfulness and exuberance.

And then I’m reminded of Douglas Rushkoff’s Coercion when he talks about the coercive nature of the spectacle – the stage show. Think of this comment in connection to the live stage shows of great bands: “When we are part of a crowd, we are free to experience heightened levels of emotions that just aren’t possible for smaller groups. Relieved of our responsibility to make considered judgments, we can allow ourselves to be swept away by the enthusiasm of the greater body. Whatever everyone in the crowd has in common -- yet may not be free to express in daily life -- is amplified by the intensity of the spectacle and the protection that the anonymity of a mob affords.” (118).

Rushkoff says that we live much of life with a rage that begs for expression -- the anonymity of a crowd allows us to give voice to that rage and “A person who is able to name this sensation at just the right moment can direct the raw emotional energy at such a gathering to almost any end he chooses.” (123). Rushkoff identifies the raw emotional energy that seems to be released by well done music.

So the question is – what is the redemptive analogy for this raw energy – is this the raw energy that we release in powerful experiences of worship? (go read some of the psalms again). Is this the thrill that comes as a team returns from a mission trip. Is this the energy we feel when a deep insight from the Word grips us? Is the Holy Spirit working in us to sanctify these raw bursts of energy within – or rather sanctify our expression of them?

Just thinking – let me know what you think.
Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Is the cigar just a cigar?

While working on the Gospel According to Shakespeare class, I was reading GK Chesterton’s collection of essays on Shakespeare. He wrote something to the effect of “The problem with Calvinists is that they’re always looking for a message rather than just enjoying” – of course I don’t remember the exact quote (it was 6 months ago, and I haven’t had a chance to look it up in my notes yet).

That comment stung – After all, isn’t that just what I’m trying to do with our cultural exegesis ministries (gospel according to Shakespeare, Art Museum Devotionals, etc). Then I came across this wonderful article on Belief.net by Frederica Matthews Green. It discusses the overanalysis of subtext in two children’s movies Shark Tales and the Incredibles. Both are wonderful movies, and both have led social pundits and commentators to go nuts in exploring the subtle messages that may or may not be behind the films.

  • See the article here

  • All of this leaves me wondering – are we doing this too? I really enjoy the films, plays, tv, books, experiences, and music that I write about here, but is this a case of overanalysis? There is an idea in deconstructionist philosophy that we simply play language games – we can deconstruct a work of art and then reconstruct its meaning in a playful and creative way – often directly contrary to what the artist intended. And if the philosophy holds true we can do this with every encounter. In effect, do we spend so much time “constructing our reality” that we don’t enjoy the reality that is around us? That seems to be exactly what Chesterton criticizes Calvinists for.

    And yet, there is a sense that we Calvinists are not trying to reconstruct reality, but simply portray the deep truth behind reality. We believe in the Sovereignty of God. I Chronicles 29 shows David praying to God “Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the spelndor; for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours O Lord, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all. Wealth and honor come from you; you are the ruler of all things. In your hands are strength and power to exalt and give strength to all.” Proverbs 8 depicts God as the master builder with wisdom, crafting everything in the Universe – including the foundational concepts of truth, goodness, beauty, love, faithfulness. All the virtues that we find in things reflect something of the Divine nature – even when that nature is not recognized. Artists who present beauty reflect God’s nature, even if they know nothing about God. This is the old doctrine of Common Grace.

    And so the Calvinist goal is to call attention to Common Grace at work in the world. It doesn’t mean we stop enjoying a work of art in order to read our own message into it fully. Rather it means that we more fully enjoy a work of art – for our enjoyment becomes an act of praise and worship.

    Soli Deo Gloria

    Monday, May 02, 2005

    Rock Rock Rock and Roll High School

    I confess that I was never into punk rock. I never got it – the black clothes, the weird makeup, the machinegun pace and edgy lyrics. I was much more of a singer/songwriter fan – Paul Simon, Cat Stevens, Jimmy Buffett, James Taylor. Of course I also enjoyed a lot of Southern Rock and 80’s pop. But pure punk seemed to seethe with anger – anger that I just didn’t identify with. But growing up, those bands were on my periphery and I heard lots of their more popular songs. I had lots of friends who listened to the Clash, the Violent Femmes, and of course The Ramones.

    So last night, as I was winding down, I turned on PBS to find a documentary on the career of the Ramones and how they had shaped Rock – and I was sucked in.

  • See the website for the documentary

  • At first, I felt like I was watching a re-make of Spinal Tap. It chronicled the band’s rise, the growing tension between vocalist Joey and guitarist Johnnie, and the revolving door of drummers. There was even a clip of strung out Dee Dee Ramone talking about the power of the new amps they had (and I kept waiting for him to say “this one goes to 11” – if you haven’t seen Spinal Tap, you really must). So I was finding this all rather amusing, but as the story developed, I began to feel for these characters.

    Consider Dee Dee – whose interviews were just a little shy of bizarre. He was so fried from heroin use that he looked 10 years older than his age – he had a hard time stringing together a coherent sentence. We learned about his disastrous attempt at a solo Rap album (the video was almost like a Weird Al Yankovic video, only trying to be serious). Shortly after the Ramones 2002 induction into the Rock and Roll hall of Fame, Dee Dee died of a herion overdose just two weeks later.

    Then there was the famous tension between Johnnie and Joey. Somewhat mirroring the tension between Paul McCartney and John Lennon – Joey, like Paul, wanted to have a more mainstream pop sound while Johnnie wanted to stay true to punk roots. Johnnie is painted as a micromanaging dictator who ran the band for 20 years. He basically alienated everyone else in the band – but his shrewdness kept them solvent and making music. Things came to a head in the 80’s when Joey’s love interest, Linda, dropped Joey for Johnnie. After that, Joey and Johnnie never spoke again, though they continued to make music and tour.

    What grabbed me most was the interviews with Johnnie after Joey’s death from cancer. He kept saying that he didn’t call Joey during his final few weeks because they didn’t get along and he was trying to respect that. But then he admitted he had very deep feelings for Joey. He said they were Ramones, and that was a bond that would keep them together even if they didn’t like each other.

    Tommy Ramone expressed something similar in an interview with Read Magazine on the passing of Johnny from cancer last year “We remained friends… we were close in the sense that we were bonded by the Ramones. Because the Ramones were like a family, a brotherhood of sorts. But we weren't close in any other way, really. But we remained friendly.”

  • See the Read Interview

  • So the Ramones remained bonded together even though they really didn’t get along. It became something beyond themselves. They had a different identity that they could not escape. Their dysfunction and fragmentation is tragic, but they still had a common identity as Ramones. Look past the raw energy of their expressed rage, look past the dysfunction, and you find a deep level of bondedness and commitment that arises out of their love of music and performing. Tommy Ramone says as much “I mean, you get all these dysfunctional people together, and you know, there's ego conflicts and turf conflicts and all this stuff, it's not going to be a happy camp. But as far as the music and the work is concerned, we all loved that, and we all believed in it, and we all worked very hard for that. And that was the fun part. The fun part was making the albums.”

    And so I’m wrestling with this – if they can find that kind of bliss, unity, transcendence even in the midst of raging dysfunction – should not we be able to experience something similar in the Body of Christ. Do the Ramones shed new light on Romans 12:4-5 “Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” Do we not have just as much, if not more, claim on one another.

    Just thinking…