Thursday, July 28, 2005

Pedro offers you his protection -- The Napoleon Dynamite Phenomenon

While driving back from our vacation, we stopped at a gas station in the upstate of South Carolina. And there in that gas station, while I waited to pay for my three varieties of Twix bars, I saw the display for Napoleon Dynamite merchandise. This was the last place I expected to be able to purchase keychains, stickers and wall mounts featuring the hero of this humble hit film. And yet there were all the “Vote for Pedro” and “Lyger: bred for its skills in magic” trinkets I cared to see.

Napoleon is something of a phenomenon: They’re playing sound bytes from the film at Reds games – people are putting bumper stickers on their car – some preachers are even slipping in obscure references into their sermons. What is it about this odd, quiet little film that appeals so much?

I won’t presume an academic treatise on why Napoleon appeals to so many – that would essentially prove that I just didn’t get it. Instead, I’ll simply tell you why I liked the movie. Bear in mind that about half way through the film, I thought “This is the most idiotic feature I’ve ever rented” – there seemed to be no action, little plot. I didn’t really find the characters all that engaging at first.

And then I realized that this was a teen movie, and the actors actually looked like teenagers, as opposed to the hyper-sexed refugees from Hef’s mansion that usually populate teen comedies. The cheerleaders actually looked like high school cheerleaders. Neither was there any of the typical zany hijinks and outsmarting of the doofus adults that have become stock and trade of most teen comedies. How about the obligatory coming of age sex scene between the male and female leads? Nope – another convention out the window.

Suddenly all the quirkiness made sense – the pet llama, the odd 80’s fashion statements, the penchant for tater tots and quesadillas, the love of tetherball as a pastime. What we had here was not a collection of stock characters, but of sketches of individuals who could actually be real – this was a film that looked at human life, with its disappointments and frustrations and weirdness and it affirmed the dignity of the oddballs. Those of us who were not the pretty boys in school suddenly found a hero we could identify with.

There’s more to tell and more to like, but I’m interested in your thoughts –

Soli Deo Gloria


Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Clarification on Cluetrain -- Take a Ride to Reformission

Seems like yesterdays post generated a lot of good discussion -- lots of stimulating comments. A special thanks to Presbyweb for picking up the post.

The comments from yesterday, however, seem to center around the idea that I'm bashing or critiquing the idea of being relevant. Obviously I didn't communicate clearly enough, and for that I'm sorry. My intent was not to point the finger at some particular church and say "they're doing it wrong", nor was my intent to say that we're wasting our time in doing demographic marketing or seeking to be relevant.

These things are helpful tools -- however, I was trying to raise the caution of their becoming idols. The key part of yesterday's post was this quote:

"Anytime a church makes an appeal to a demographic more important than faithfulness to Christ, there is a problem. CS Lewis taught me (particularly in his great book The Great Divorce) that we are capable of making idols out of anything -- even good methodology."

To give another perspective -- when I started working with the Purpose Driven Life and working us toward the 40 Days of Purpose, I received very good advice from my friend Erwin Goedicke, who has been doing this pastor thing for a while. "Don't let being Purpose Driven become the Purpose" was his counsel. Dyah makes a great point in her comments about judging church styles -- she give her criteria "..God is there and he is the center. And for me, the average christ follower, that's all that matters." And that's exactly my point. The temptation for church leaders is to put the methodology at the center (because we think about growing the church all the time) and forgetting that our methodology is a servant to the King of Kings.

Yet another perspective -- David Bryant's ministry (which I referenced in an earlier post on revival) -- he is calling churches back to subjection to the Supremacy of Christ. He challenges us that we treat Christ more as a mascot than a master. That we often trot Christ out to pep up the fans, and then push him back to the sideline so that we can play our little games.

Or perhaps another perspective (and this is why it is on my brain -- because I'm reading this book) -- Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle (which is one of the cutting edge missional churches in the country) has written a teriffic book called The Radical Reformission (follow the link to check out reviews on Amazon). Mike Foster tossed it my way, and I've devoured it. He makes exactly the points made by Dyah, Arnold, and Yenny on yesterday's posts -- that we need to slay the cultural shibboleths of "churchianity" in order to be relevant. He makes the case that we are all missionaries where we are, and we need to talk to the lost around us and find out the questions that they're asking so that we can answer them (particularly eye opening is his list of questions that he gets in Seattle -- for instance "can I tattoo the body God has given me?", "Is it okay to improve my appearance with plastic surgery?", "Why are smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, or taking prescription mood-altering medications oday, but smoking pot is considered a sin?", "Are there any sexual practices between a husband and wife that are outlawed in the Scriptures?" -- and these are the tame ones). So believe me, he issues some withering critique at the old traditional way of doing church.

But then he comes right back with this statement: “Today’s danger is not only nostalgia. Equally damaging to reformission is the tendency, most common among young Christians frustrated with the constraints and failures or backward-looking churches and ministries, to ignore church history and its lessons in pursuit of unrestrained and undiscerning innovation. The irony of this innovation is that churches and ministries that pursuie it become so relevant to the culture that they are, in fact, irrelevant and are unable to call lost people from or to anything because they have lost the distincitive and countercultural nature of the gospel.” (52) Understand, this is not from some traditional tall steeple guy -- this is from a guy who goes into gay bars and who ministers to people with so many piercings, they look like the fell into a tackle box.

All this to bring it back to my point -- we can make an idol out of anything: even "relevance", even "patriotism", even "family values", etc. It doesn't mean we don't pursue these things -- it means the subject them to Christ.

The second half of the post talked about being true to ourselves -- and I think that's a key point as well. I go back to my youth ministry days on this one -- if you're trying to reach someone, and you do it by trying to adopt everything they are for yourself, you look ridiculous. Haven't you ever seen a 40 year old desperately trying to look 18? Not only is it phony, but the people you're trying to reach can tell its phony. It seems much more respectful to be yourself -- and then seek to understand the other person as an individual -- seek to learn from them, acknowledge what you are, and what you aren't.

Again -- Driscoll talks about meeting up with a friend of his who had come out of the closet as a homosexual. Driscoll went with him to a gay bar, and even sat in on a planning session for the gay rodeo. He didn't try to pretend to fit in. He just came and respectfully listened -- and that opened up doors for conversation.

And lest anyone think I'm judging other pastors/churches here -- the main reason I wrestle with these topics is that I know me. I know my own tendency to get so caught up in organizational process, that I forget the sovereign God who is over all our organization and who is to be served by our organization. I know my own temptation to want to please people so much that I waffle on things of critical importance. I'm painfully aware of my own inadequacy to the task of being a pastor, administering a church, bringing hope to the hurting, expounding the word of God, and speaking truth in a loving and relevant way. I desperately need God's grace to make it day by day in what I do. I write these things because I need the reminder myself -- that Christ is the king of all creation.

Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, July 25, 2005

Getting on the Cluetrain and being ourselves

I'll confess that I am a fan of the Purpose Driven Life. I've enjoyed watching it arouse the ire across the spectrum -- from stodgy old mainline church practitioners who feel threatened by its immense popularity ("it's shallow" they say); from spiritual life advocates who worry about the "drivenness" of the title ("when can we be still and know that God is God"); from my paleoorthodox bretheren who critique the minutae of the book (and rightly so, but they forget that they could also find just as many things to critique in the writings of Spurgeon, Calvin, and Edwards -- any writer, if you look deep enough, has serious flaws -- that is why Scripture is our rule and guide for life, not the writings of men).

Sure, the book is flawed, but it has a lot commend it.

My issue is not with the book -- it is with the people who read the book (and the Purpose Driven Church) as a mandate to become a cookie-cutter of Saddleback church. Too many churches look for the "golden key" in a series of programs or a series of tricks. Too many churches take too seriously the concept of demographic marketing ("we have to find out what appeals to X population, and then do everything we can to make that appeal").

Anytime a church makes an appeal to a demographic more important than faithfulness to Christ, there is a problem. CS Lewis taught me (particularly in his great book The Great Divorce) that we are capable of making idols out of anything -- even good methodology.

That's why I find Evelyn Rodriguez' blog so interesting -- she is a branding guru, but she is sensitive to this issue. She demonstrates over and over again that branding isn't about controlling the conversation, it is about engaging the conversation as the authentic person that you really are. Her latest post "Signature Voices, And Perhaps What I Learned About Branding While Strolling Galleries" provides a vivid illustration of this from the art world -- each artist has a distinctive voice -- and so long as they remain true to that voice, they are distinguished and compelling and we listen.

In this same post, she directs us to the Cluetrain Manifesto, a 95 Theses to the corporate world. Again, the theme is authenticity and being yourself -- genuinely engaging in the conversation without concentrating on massive amounts of spin. Too often, we talk about Evangelism and Transformation as though it were some kind of technique that if we just mastered, people would come through our doors.

Yet the key thing expressed here is that we find our unique voice -- even if that voice is one of traditional music. Even if that voice is one of art and movies and books as illustration of timeless truth. Voice has nothing to do with the content of the truth, but merely the way in which we present it. The truths of scripture will remain timeless and rock-solid, but each of us will see application of that truth in a slightly different way -- and part of our calling is to tell the stories to one another.

For instance -- It is a timeless truth that God created the heavens and the earth. It is a timeless truth that "The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech, and night after night they display knowledge." however Thomas Kinkade will shed light on this truth differently than the astrophysicist. And a good walk through the woods, with your ears attuned to the cadences of the cicadas, the sudden burst of flight from a bird, and the gentle rustle of wind through the leaves, will make my heart sing "gloria in excelsis deo" in yet a different way. (add to the list all the panolpy of artists and people who have reflected glory in so many different ways)

The point being, we each have been given calling and gifting by God to accomplish what we were created to do -- Bring Him glory. Yes we work this out in community under the authority of scripture and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but ultimately, we have a voice that is uniquely ours -- let us find it, and not try to steal someone else's.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

More on Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

This post is a huge spoiler – do not read any further if you haven’t finished Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, and you still intend to read it.

You’ve been duly warned.

I’m not kidding ... Quite serious indeed. What I’m discussing in this post will blow the ending of the book ... Turn back now before it’s too late.

Last chance ...

For those of you still with me – you’ve either read the book or you haven’t. I’m commenting on one of my favorite characters: Albus Dumbledore.

Dumbledore is the headmaster of Hogwarts School, and he’s something of Harry’s mentor and protector. I enjoy the character so much because he maintains a childlike and playful spirit throughout all the books. We meet Dumbledore in the first book of the series when he stands and welcomes new students to the school: "Welcome to a new year at Hogwarts. Before we begin our banquest, I would like to say a few words. And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!" (123). The secret password to get into his offices are invariably his favorite sweets ("sherbet lemon" being my favorite). He is powerful and at times solemn and always proper, but he is not always serious.

But what I most enjoy is how he is the master of giving second chances – he accepts into his school as professors those who are otherwise ostracized by the wizarding world: the bumbling but ever brave half-giant Hagrid, the incompetent but once gifted teacher of Divination Trelawney, the threadbare warewolf who is a brilliant teacher Lupin, and the former servant of evil who repented Snape. Again and again, Dumbledore shows himself to be a picture of grace – of the idea that these people didn’t earn their positions off their titles or how good they looked. Dumbledore granted them their positions purely out of grace, and his love for them transformed them into the delightful, if oddball, characters that they are. Not a bad image of the kind of radical transforming grace God extends to us, is it? “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)

Now for the spoiler – it seems in this new book that Dumbledore’s desire to give second chances causes his downfall. In the climactic scene, Dumbledore is killed by Snape – who he had sent to work as a double agent, spying on Voldemort’s plans. In this book, Dumbledore dies.

It’s a sad scene, and it has made a lot of readers mad, but it makes perfect sense. Evil does destroy – even beloved mentors. Dumbledore is prepared for this, and he's ready to pass the baton. It is time for Harry to grow up. Harry must confront the evil and combat it. However, that is not the end – Harry will also have to become a Dumbledore figure to the next generation.

Now for my totally unsolicited theory – and this will get Potterheads gabbing with comments: I don’t think that Snape really betrayed Dumbledore. A careful reader of that climactic scene will notice that Snape didn’t inflict nearly the destruction on Dumbledore’s allies that he should have, if he were truly given over to the dark side. My theory (and Tammy shares this, so it must be a good theory) is that Dumbledore knew Snape might have to kill him in order to preserve his underground status – he knew that Snape’s proximity to the villain was a key element in ultimately overthrowing him. I think that Dumbledore, working like an expert chess master, placed his pieces on the board in such a way so that when he sacrificed on major piece (ie, himself), he is able to ultimately win the day.



What books are on your bedside table?

Reading Lily Lewin's blog post about Harry Potter and her summer reading reminded me that I've been getting the all to frequent question "What are you reading right now" -- so in answer to the burning question, here's what books have passed through my hands recently:

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince -- see my thoughts from yesterday, and more to come tomorrow (or even tonight!)

The Forgoten Half of Change by Luc de Branbandere -- a new leadership book that explores the need to change twice -- first in fact and then in perception. Read about this at the Boston consulting group website.

John Adams by David MacCollough -- the great biography of our second president. A story of a true intellect and statesman who is overshadowed by his predecessor (Washington) and his successor (Jefferson).

The Annals and the Histories by Tacitus. The great ancient historian from the first century gives some insights into the culture of the Roman empire -- and thus the world in which Jesus and the early church dwelt. Tacitus is also one of the few pagan historians who directly mentions Jesus.

The Radical Reformission by Mark Driscoll -- Mike Foster turned me on to this right on call for Christians to be missionaries where God has placed them. Mike is supposed to be leading an online book discussion over at the Dog Eared Journey -- still waiting to see it happen Mike!

The Metamorphoses by Ovid. The classic work of ancient mythology -- again to help me get into first century worldview. It also helps that one of the stories is used as a basis for Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, which I'll be examining in this fall's Gospel According to Shakespeare class (for those of you interetsted in this one, it can be a bit ... naughty)

That's about it for now. More Harry Potter coming later (and perhaps in a few days, a review of the Brabandere book)

Soli Deo Gloria

Initial thoughts on Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince came out in bookstores Friday night – on Saturday morning, we had our copy. This book shattered earning records all across the country. Within 24 hours, the complete text was downloadable online from fans who wanted it digitally accessible. Tammy was done with it by Sunday morning, I was done by Monday morning. I cant even tell you if it was a good book, for I am so enraptured with the story that my critical judgment is impaired.

I can tell you, however, why I like the book! This post will not really be a plot spoiler, so if you haven’t yet read the book, but plan to, you will not get any critical surprises.

One of the main reasons I like the book (and indeed the series) is the emphasis on friendship. Harry continually has to rely upon friends to escape peril, and Dumbledore, the wise and seemingly all knowing headmaster, encourages Harry's development of friends. In a scene quite early in the volume, Dumbleore advises Harry about the wisdom of keeping a certain discovery secret, but then qualifies his advice “ ‘I think you ought to relax [the secrecy] in favor of your friends, Mr. Ronald Weasley and Miss Hermione Granger. Yes.’ He continued, when Harry looked startled, ‘I think they ought to know. You do them a disservice by not confiding something this important to them.’” (78). Dumbledore’s advice indicates that friends have a deep claim upon one another – that Harry has certain obligations toward Ron and Hermione, even as they have proven their loyalty toward him. This scene helps me get my mind around the mutual commitment we have to one another in the church: “…so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (Romans 12:5). Our mutual commitment to one another in Christ implies that we have certain claims upon one another.

But the scene goes on with Harry blurting out “ ‘I didn’t want to –‘ ‘—to worry or frighten them?’ said Dumbledore, surveying Harry over the top of his half-moon spectacles. ‘Or perhaps, to confess that you yourself are worried and frightened? You need your friends, Harry.' ” (78) Again, Dumbledore’s words illustrate a powerful truth – our friends help us see our own weaknesses and frailties, but they also help us overcome our weakness “If one falls down, his friend can help him up, But pity the man who has no one to help him up!” (Ecclesiastes 4:10 – see the surrounding context too)

Later in the book Dumbledore reveals to Harry three of Voldemort’s (the arch-enemy and uber villain in the series) personal failings 1) contempt for that which ties him to “ordinary people” 2) a love of collecting trophies to commemorate his cruelties and 3) self-sufficiency to such a high degree that he is friendless. Dumbledore exposes one of the great falsehoods – the idea that we can be a self-sufficient power grabber, living without regard to those around us.

I like the whole series because we don't see single noble heroes battling it alone against the unconquerable foe. We see a collection of friends bound by affection and loyalty – this is what Dumbledore hopes to teach his students, and this is one of the endearing qualities of the books. When we miss out on the relationships, we miss a significant aspect of what makes this series delightful on multiple re-reads (and belive me, I’ve had many bleary eyed reads of Harry Potter stories). Indeed these are the friendships that many lonely dream of having -- and they give us a shadowy picture of the commitment we ought to enjoy as a part of Christ's Body.

Soli Deo Gloria

Friday, July 15, 2005

Travelling is the adventure

On the return trip from vacation, I convinced Tammy that we ought to drive liesurely and explore some of what’s on the interstate from Cincinnati, OH to Columbia, SC. I learned from my mother a long time ago that travel is an adventure, not just an ordeal to get from point A to point B. Might as well enjoy the trip and have a little fun.

We broke the trip up into two days. We’d drive up I 26 to Ashville, then take I 40 to Knoxville, where we’d stop for the night. The next day, we’d take I 75 north from Knoxville to Cincinnati. Done in one trip, it would take about 9 hours, but we made it take 2 days.

Our options were wide open – there’s much to see in that first stretch, but we opted for the Forbidden Caverns, just outside Sevierville TN (not too far from Dollywood and Gatlinburg – what I like to call “Myrtle Beach in the mountains”). For $12 a piece (the kids were free) we had an hour long tour through some quite pretty caverns that were once used as a haven for moonshiners and as a winter retreat for Native Americans. What I enjoy is how the beauty of the flowstone and the stalactites and stalagmites were hidden from our view for centuries. It was a great reminder of how much there is in this universe that is hidden from us – species of animals that have not yet been discovered, suns that blaze beyond the reach of the Hubble telescope, remote tracks of jungle or desert islands that have not been seen by human eyes for centuries. All of these things exist simply for the pleasure of their Creator – and their being brings Him glory.

So after our enjoyment, we hit the road and passed a quiet evening in a run-down Days Inn in Knoxville (you can be sure, next time, we’ll stay at Hampton Inn). The next day, we visited the Museum of Appalachia. I’ve been wanting to visit this place for four years ever since I first saw the sign on I75.

I wasn’t prepared for the quality that I found. The main part of the museum was a reconstructed homestead and series of cabins that mountaineers used to live in. In this respect it was like Old Salem or Colonial Williamsburg – you could actually see the restored homes as they would have looked like when used. It was a sobering thought to see how they packed large families into single and double room cabins. We also saw vintage blacksmith shops, corn cribs, and gardens with heirloom vegetables.

But the highlight was the “Appalachian Hall of Fame” which was a large two story (and blessedly air conditioned) building featuring exhibits about famous Appalachians (such as Sgt Alvin York, who was lionized in the terrific film Sgt York), and handicrafts from the region. Many of these people were extremely poor, yet they were not stupid – the exhibits demonstrated a great cleverness and a zest for life – particularly in the section on bluegrass music. It struck me that many of my forebears (such as great great grandfather RY Russell) lived in upstate SC, and these exhibits were giving me a taste of their life. I was struck again with the great dignity we all bear as bearers of the image of God – dare we mock these people as ignorant hillbillies? I think not.

So, an exhibit well worth the trip and the $12 admission price – we spent the whole morning there. Then, the museum being just north of Knoxville, we had a 4 hour trip back home.

Travel is an adventure indeed.