Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Hundred Year Plan

While in Orlando, I heard about a church that went to the trouble to develop a one hundred year plan. Back then, I thought the idea to be audacious and indeed a bit silly. How could we dare to dream that far into the future? How could we burden our children's children with visions not their own? It seemed to me to be an exercise in hubris.

I've tempered my views a bit. Dramatically changed them, in fact.

Maybe it was reading Brunelleschi's Dome, the story of the construction of the magnificent cathedral in Florence Italy: there I learned about the multigenerational effort involved in completing the project. The building was started with plans for a dome. However the engineers at the time had no idea how to actually construct a dome the size that would be required.... they left that problem for the next generation. Blessedly, Brunelleschi figured it out and designed what none of his contemporaries thought was possible.

Perhaps it was in reflecting on the US Constitution ... a document designed by the founders to last for generations.

Maybe it was from reading this article about 100 year business plans: Medtronic, Toyota, Nestle, SC Johnson are all names that come up as having (or likely having in some internal documentation) 100 year plans.

It could have been this video about the oak beams at New College Oxford. Though the story is completely false, it's still a lovely parable that just makes me think "well, even if it isn't true, it ought to be."

Whatever the case, I've come to the conclusion that audacious visioning for the future is what is in order. Strangely, now is a great time for it. For we are in a time of cultural fragmentation, declining economic opportunities, and general anxiety. What the world craves is a compelling positive vision. This is exactly what the church needs to provide. And I mean something other than the typical vision for political renewal ... Christians of both the right and the left have put too much hope in visioning around politics. I'm thinking whole cultural visioning.

Over the next few days, I hope to tease out this idea in a series of blog posts dealing with some of what I've been reading and thinking. But I'll lay out one principle right now. That hundred year plans necessarily deal more with transmission of values than of specific tasks.

The great for-instance in my own family. My grandfather 10 generations back was a Huguenot refugee who emigrated to Ireland. Most of his children moved to America, and as a way of encouraging family togetherness, he wrote his memoirs in which he told the family story going back 3 generations. He also used the memoirs as an exhortation for his children and their children to stick together, to impart the faith to the next generations, and to compact together for the mutual good. 10 generations later, the Fontaine-Maury society still exists to bring together the far flung members of the family. I have a copy of his memoirs in my library.... and thus through this artifact, Jacques Fontaine continues to exert multi-generational influence.

What are the artifacts that we leave behind .... Andy Crouch talks about this in his Culture Making... and his reflections should give us pause to consider. The hundred year plan finds its root in producing artifacts and customs that will outlast us. And they convey what we find most valuable.

Looking forward to your thoughts.....

Soli Deo Gloria

Friday, November 07, 2008

Now Available: Covenant-First Advent Devotional

We're doing something new at Covenant-First for Advent this year. I've asked several of our members, former members, and friends to contribute reflections for an Advent devotinal.

The theme of this devotional is The Call of the King. Centered on the major themes of the Sermon on the Mount (which we'll be preaching through for Advent this year), the devotional ranges all over the Bible. It really shows how the sermon on the mount's themes are woven all through the text of scripture.

Authors include: me, Nathan Wright, John and Liz McEwan, Rod Ford, Rob Heidenreich, Debby Welsh, Mark Holland, Teresa Bradley, Michael and Rachel Ludwig, June Holley, and Donn Rubingh.

And here's the added bonus. As part of our efforts at being technologically saavy, we're printing this devotional through Lulu.com.... which means that all of our extended friends and family are able to order this and go through it with us as part of their Advent preparations.
Support independent publishing: buy this book on Lulu.

So, I hope you'll consider purchasing a copy... you can even get it as a PDF download to your hard drive.

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, October 23, 2008

My one political foray this season: No on Issue 6

Here's the text of a letter to the editor that I submitted to the Cincinnati Enquirer ... thus far they have chosen not to print it. So, I thought I'd share it with you. It's an article encouraging a "No" vote on Issue 6: the Ohio Casino Initiative.

There is an episode of The Simpsons in which a con man comes to Springfield promising a solution to the town’s economic woes in the great benefit of a monorail. It’s part of a rich tradition of popular entertainment that relies on the motif of the smooth talking con-man who plays on the fears of the populace in order to fleece them. Think of Henry Hill in The Music Man and Starbuck in The Rainmaker. These popular stories teach us a basic truth: hucksters capitalize on fear, promise a great benefit, and get us to support their schemes. When they’ve made their money, they skip town leaving the citizenry holding the bag.

That’s exactly the sense I get when viewing the advertisements supporting Issue 6. These advertisements appeal to fear: fear that Ohio is missing out on great casino windfalls; fear that we’re falling behind other states; and fear that if we don’t do something – anything – soon then we’ll fall further behind. Their solution is a casino.

This primary appeal to fear should be a loud warning signal. Fear shuts down rational thinking. The fear that casino backers try to arouse distracts us from the truth that Issue 6 would create an unfair monopoly in the state for one casino. This same fear distracts us from the truth that our country is already saturated with casinos and gambling establishments. The dream of easy windfall profits is an illusion that will fade in the harsh reality of competing in an overdeveloped gambling market. Again, this fear diverts our attention from the truth that the profits will be leeched mainly out of the paychecks of Ohio’s citizens, rather than out of some imaginary tourist boom. What money the casino does make will be siphoned off out of the state into the pockets of the gambling industry.

In his second inaugural address, Franklin Roosevelt reminded us that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Rather than caving in to our fears, let’s put our energies and our hopes and our thinking into what we in Ohio do well. Let’s invest in agriculture to take advantage of the coming biofuel boom. Let’s work together to make our manufacturing the best in the world again. Let’s encourage entrepreneurs who actually make products that add value. Let’s develop tourism around the areas where we’re already strong: arts, sports, outdoor recreation, to name a few.

On election day, say no to the fear mongering of Issue 6, but then let’s get creative about building on our existing strengths.

Russell Smith is pastor of Covenant-First Presbyterian Church. These views do not necessarily reflect the position of the church, but his own as a private citizen.


Tuesday, October 07, 2008

More on Cross-Platform Institutions

Earlier this year, I put up a post about Hollywood's New Geek Elite... how they've transformed the entertainment industry by taking popular TV shows across multiple platforms. The idea was that storytelling would no longer be confined to the TV show itself.... the big arc of the story would be developed online, through gaming, graphic novels, tv, movie spin offs, book deals, etc. I put up some questions about how the church can also use these kind of media options.

Since then, I've found the wonderful weblog Museum 2.0, which is asking the same kinds of questions for Museums. How can museums extend their relationships with patrons/visitors beyond the physical visit? How can exhibit design be tweaked to draw more people in to asking questions? How do we engage people in participating in the museum rather than just viewing the museum?

At said weblog, they just put up a great post on how Scholastic Books is going cross platform for their new book series 39 Clues. Then they consider what museums can learn about enhancing their online experience:

But the approach is valuable. It takes humility to acknowledge that museum visits can't--in most cases--accommodate every kind of relationship museums would like to have with visitors. There are content-related experiences and preferences that would be better served in alternate environments. Art museums have always created catalogues to accompany exhibitions, which are one cross-platform way for obsessives to deepen their relationships with content.

But what about the grazers, the visitors who come once but never make it back to that time- and location-specific experience of visitation? What other engagement platforms could connect those individual museum experiences into a more continuous, growing relationship?The Web is certainly one of these platforms. Too many museums have an overly structured concept of the online pre- and post-visit experience that limit the opportunities for pervasive engagement. Rather than thinking of extending one museum visit with a pre- and post-visit, we should be thinking about linking many museum visits with online experiences.

Scholastic has the audacious attitude that people will want to read all ten books, and The 39 Clues online experience is unapologetically geared toward that long-term investment. Imagine a museum game that requires visitors to visit six times in a year to connect with six different exhibits that punctuate a more open-ended online narrative. Forget "build the exhibit and they will come". This is "build the narrative and they will return".These narratives need not be crass advertising grabs; they can become opportunities for visitors to educate themselves in a range of ways about museum-related content. Because despite what the New York Times may say, it's not an OR situation. All of the media experiences in our lives--of objects, of books, of games, of video--can be ANDs. We just need a good enough story to help people make the connection.

So the question becomes, how do we build multiple experiences, opportunities that build and provide opportunities to delve deeper..... how do we enhance our online and offline experiences to draw people in deeper?

Some practical for instances from Covenant-First. We're putting together a devotional for Advent. I've asked several authors to write individual reflections and we're compiling them and professionally printing it through Lulu.com (I'll put up an announcement when it is available online). This advent devotional can be done as a standalone devotional, but it is designed to support the sunday sermon series we're doing through advent.

This in of itself is a cross-platform attempt to get people encountering scripture together. Additinoally, it won't be place bound.... any of our extended family anywhere in the world will be able to order this devotional through Lulu and go through it. Lord willing, we'll have our sermon-audio challenges worked out and anyone will be able to download the sermons as well.

The next step? Online interactions. Perhaps we put together a Facebook Group to allow people to discuss insights, or tell their stories online. Enhance the reflections by adding your own... that kind of idea.

Your thoughts?

Soli Deo Gloria


Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Living in the Crisis

Two years ago, I blogged through Strauss and Howe's The Fourth Turning, a book written in the late 1990's that suggested, among many other things, that we would be soon entering a culture shaking crisis.

And then, a few years after that book came out we had 9/11
.... and the war on Terror
.... and the rise of China as an economic superpower
.... and the immigration crisis
.... and the re-establishment of Soviet-like aggression in Russia
.... and now the financial market debacle

Friends, we're not just entering the crisis.... we are living in the midst of a crisis that is maturing around us as we speak. The voices proclaiming the decline and fall of our culture are many. Consider a few titles on the shelves at your local book merchant:

Also consider the panic that is setting in: a herd mentality driving sell offs in securities, people snapping up gasoline in the South due to shortages, anger over the bailout bill leads millions to call their congressional representitives. Things loook bad.

Yet, strangely, this is the great time of opportunity.

Strauss and Howe offer suggestions for living in the crisis: build relationships, self reliance, return to the classic virtues of thrift, reliability, integrity, etc.

I suggest also that these times ought lead us to prayer, study, fellowship, worship, and a greater generosity. Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians (that wonderful book of comfort that should be required reading for us all in these times) "For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves, but for him who for their sake died and was raised." (5:14-15). We are not our own, but His. And we will be His and live for His sake in times of prosperity and fatness, and in times of leanness and struggle.

Indeed, this may well be an opportunity for many of us (and I count myself chief among all sinners) to repent of our self-centered ways ... to trust in the Lord's provision and be about the business of being a blessing to other people. "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." (Eph 2:10) Part of living for Him is living for others ... not that good works earns us salvation, but that when we're saved, He shapes us for good works.

We'll all be struggling: financially, emotionally, in our homes. This is the time for us to draw closer together .... look at how we can share, help one another out, meet one another's needs as we're able. We'll discover that we can entertain ourselves, rather than relying on the cradle of narcissism that celebrity culture has become. We'll discover that we can make many decisions for oursleves, without relying on experts to tell us how we ought to be. We'll discover our own tastes and styles, rather than being lapdogs to the mavens of fashion.

Our culture is not falling apart --- just the high-flying consumeristic element of it that preys upon the insecure. Now, we who build our lives upon the Rock that is Christ have the opportunity to build better culture.......

So let's be about it.

Soli Deo Gloria


Thursday, September 18, 2008

Election Addiction

Yesterday on Talk of the Nation, I heard a conversation with Megan Daum about election addiction. The idea that she had presented in an article of the same topic, was that we have moved to an unhealthy obsession with this election. She notes that people are showing all the signs of addiction ... abandoning hobbies to focus on the election, continually logging on to get the fix of the latest election news, etc.

I've seen it too. And it just plain bothers me. Yes, Christians ought to participate in the political process, but we ought not be obsessed by it. Idolotry of any form is .... well it's a bad idea. Neither McCain/Palin nor Obama/Biden are my saviors. (and in the interest of equal time, neither are Chuck Baldwin of the Constitution Party, Bob Barr of the Libertarian Party, Cynthia McKinney of the Green Party, Charles Jay of the Boston Tea Party, or any of those others). The issues are important, but at the end of they day, Christ is my savior.

Another tangential issue is that much of what passes as "political news" is actually analysis of strategy, tactic, polls, and campaiging. There's little substantive conversation going on about the issues.

And even if there were substantive conversation about the issues, it would have little bearing on the presidential race. Take a look under the hood of the political process in Washington, with it's byzantine collection of committees, staff, oversight duties, symbolic gestures, hearings, votes on procedure, press meetings, and pomp. One person's stand on the issues, while important, gets quickly dwarfed by a candidate's capacity to work through the labyrinth of legislation and administration. Simply put, much of what goes on in the electoral process has little or nothing to do with how governance actually happens. The best thing about the election process is that it gets the candidates out there rubbing shoulders with ordinary people, so they won't forget who it is they serve.

So I've turned off most of the news. I've turned my attention back to books and special projects and church and spending time with friends, family, and people in the neighborhood. Sure, I'm taking time to look at candidates web pages and their records; but I'm trying hard not to spend too much time heeding punditry..... I've got a life, after all.


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Now Playing double feature: Lars and the Real Girl and Be Kind Rewind

I had not planned on watching Lars and the Real Girl. It's the story of a shy upper midwesterner who orders a life-size girl doll (yes, one of those), and carries it around with him everywhere, passing it off as his "girlfriend". However, when an octegenarian says "You must see this movie", well, I sit up and take notice.

The film is not crude. Indeed, it's sweet. Lars is so chronically shy, he can't even endure skin contact with another person. He's not insane; he's not dangerous. He's just deeply wounded and trying to process what it means to be an adult. As Lars goes through this delusion, insisting that this doll is a wheelchair bound child of missionaries from Brazil, the whole town rallies around, trying to help him by treating her as though she were a real person. The whole community engages in this elaborate fiction.... even to the point of giving this doll a life of her own separate from Lars's life. This gracious extension of love and imagination becomes the classroom in which Lars learns what it means to grow up from a wounded child into an adult who takes responsibility for doing the difficult things in life. Lars' brother also gets confronted with owning up to his own past failures as a brother and seeking forgiveness. All of it because the whole community rallies around Lars to offer love.

And this is why I make the connection with Be Kind Rewind. This movie was something of a disappointment. Mos Def and Jack Black work in an old video store, and through a bizzare series of events, Jack Black erases all the videos. They hurriedly try to re-film all the movies themselves. Watching these two morons recreate Ghostbusters is a riot. Soon the whole neighborhood gets involved in making the movies and enjoying the movies. When the copyright goons come in and shut down the operation, the two heroes understand that they can make their own film. They create a documentary about legendary musician Fats Waller .... bringing the whole neighborhood in on the act. It's a complete work of fiction, but the project of creating the fiction brings the community together.

In both cases, we have instances where the community gathers in an act of creative storytelling. In both, we have strange quirky characters who are both annoying and loveable. In both we have a celebration of community, togetherness, and a confidence that even in the face of tragedy or discouragement, the community can write a newer more lyrical reality.

It's very telling that Lars is shown reading to his real girl from Don Quixote, the great story of a man who created his own reality of being a knight errant, and he was more alive in his world of fantasy than he was in his world of reality. Quixote understood that the name a man chooses for himself is oftentimes more his own than the one he's born with.

It's an interesting trend in film.... parallel with the epic larger than life superhero films, we have these very homey films that focus on the community. These films help us reflect on such community oriented passages as Romans 12:4-5 "For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another." -- come what may we belong to one another. Maddening though we are to each other, we are God's gift to one another. I Corinthians 12 hits at this as well "to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good." (v 7) and the whole chapter becomes a meditation on how the Spirit grants different roles and gifts within the body of Christ.

Strange and quirky as they are, these films help us reflect on what it means to live as the body of Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, September 11, 2008

As we sit at the seventh anniverary of 9/11, I simply link to this engaging book review from the Economist, August 23rd issue. It's the review of two books from two friends, one a Palestinian, the other an Israeli. The theme however, is music and its unifying power. I think it a fitting homage to the victims of those tragic attacks that in the midst of our remembering, we also look ahead to building anew.

I believe that lasting peace is found in Christ alone; I also believe that we are called to be culture makers (following the theme of Crouch's book which I've been slowly reviewing here) and this review has some pertinent ideas for culture making:

"We live in a world in which different voices -- different expressions of political will and behavioral norms -- collide and compete. Some struggle to be heard; others seem to be continuously present. In music we have the perfect model of contrasting voices working together harmoniously."

The review itself is well worth a read.


Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Culture Making Ch 4 -- Cultivtion and Creation

I truly enjoyed the film Tortilla Soup. Hector Alizondo plays the role of a great chef whose wife has died. Every Sunday, he and his three adult daughters gather for a home-cooked meal. The film dwells on shots of the selections of ingredients and preparation of food .... and we see that this family is bond together by the regular routines of preparation and enjoyment of a great meal.

Andy Crouch evoked memories of that film in this chapter on Cultivation and Creation. He makes the argument that the only way to change culture is to make new culture that displaces it. He gives the example of homemade chili. His kids may protest against it now, but with the consistent creation of it, he will teach them that preparation of food is a delight and a valuable thing. They may make their own recipies as a way of doing something else, anything else other than chili, but they still will have been taught the value of making their own meals.

Crouch thinks through the other stances toward culture in relation to Creation and Cultivation:

condemning culture: does very little... that which is condemned is still there. The show goes on unless an alternative is offered.

Critiquing culture: This looks for redeeming qulaities. It may shape the framework of some, but it only has lasting value if someone creates new culture in response (I'm reminded of a drama workshop I attended years ago taught by Charlie and Ruth Jones. Charlie opened with a talk about TS Eliot, the great poet who decided that his literary talents were better used in writing essays about the culture. Today, nobody reads the essays, but everyone still has to study The Waste Land in some literature class in their career. The illustration holds... analysis has value....but it's lasting value lies in what is done with the analysis. However, Eliots Criticism did arouse some pretty lasting effects.... that perhaps is a subject for a different article)

Copying culture: creation of a subculture is OK and something of a refuge for those in the subculture, but does little to touch those outside the subculture.

Consuming culture: Use the power of the purse to shape culture. Crouch uses the example of Barbara Nicolosi's "othercott" against The DaVinci Code. The idea wasn't to boycott going to movies the weekend of the opening of the lackluster film adaptation of Dan Brown's controversial thriller. Rather, the idea was to go see anything but the DaVinci Code. If Hollywood understands things in terms of dollars and cents, then in addition to punishing objectionable fare, positive and healthy fare needs to be rewarded. Crouch shows how this is a good idea, but on the aggregate scale, the kinds of numbers required to really make a difference are staggering.

Culture Making, by contrast, requires a decision to participate in the cultural tradition of which we are a part. This begins with Cultivation .... learning the tradition. It begins with the habits of conserving the true, the good, and the beautiful in our tradition and teaching them to the next generation. “One who cultivates tries to create the most fertile conditions for good things to survive and thrive.” (75)

Crouch points out that disciplines are simply systematic methods of cultivation. The pianist running through scales. The basketball player practicing free throws. The writer sitting down for his daily 30 minutes of writing. The disciplines we do on the day in day out, week in week out basis are the things that prepare fertile soil for rich and deep culture making.

This is one of the reasons Tammy and I have chosen to put our children in a private school centered on the Classical model. Yes, our children will spend much of their elementary school years memorizing and packing facts into their heads (fortunately they memorize using fun methods like songs, chants, body motion, and a variety of other methodologies).... but the disciplines of learning all these things will become a deep well from which they can draw in later years. Of course, I don't object to christians sending their children to public schools....there are great public schools here in Cincinnati, and many of our congregation members are public school teachers. However, this was a decision that was right for our family.

Another example....I somtimes get some of our members who say "you must read a lot, how do you find time to read all these books?" Admittedly, I do read a lot. However, I've been reading a lot for over 20 years. Just because I refer to a book (or a film) in a sermon, that doesn't mean that I was reading that particular book last week. Over a couple of decades, I've built up a deep well of knowledge about literature, history, and the arts. I'm not particularly more clever than anyone else, I've just been doing serious study for a long time.... and I've been archiving information in notes and journals so that I can come back to it later. This is just a basic discipline that cultivates the mind.

“So underneath almost every act of culture making we find countless small acts of culture keeping. That is why the good screenwriter has first watched a thousand movies; why the surgeon who pioneers a new technique has first performed a thousand routine surgeries; and why the investor who provides funds to the next startup has studied a thousand balance sheets. Cultural creativity requires cultural maturity. Someday my own children will undoubtedly cook me a wonderful meal – but by that time, they will also have learned to love chili. With any luck, they will be both culture keepers and culture makers – both cultivators and creators. And then they will be prepared to both conserve culture at its best and change it for the better by offering the world something new.” (77)

However Crouch points out....that is only the first step. Cultivation only sets the conditions. Then there comes the act of Creation. And here, unfortunately, Crouch ends the chapter. Of course he comes back to the call to create, but I would have liked more.

I would have liked more on the fears that are involved in creating. Creating seems to be a tremendous act of ego.... and it is terrifying. Bayles and Orland, in their work Art and Fear deal with this very issue. They talk about the fear of not being able to make the art we create match the art that is in our head. The materials are never as supple as we hope they'll be. They never fully respond the way we want. Bayles tells the story of learning to play the piano: After a few months practice he moaned to his teacher “but I can hear the music so much better in my head than in can get out of my fingers.” To which the master replied “What makes you think that ever changes?” (14-15)

Bayles and Orland also tell this most revealing story:
A ceramics teacher divided his class into two groups – those on the left would be graded on the quantity of the work they produced, those on the right solely on the quality of the work. The second group only had to produce one pot, but it had to be perfect to get an A. “Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the quantity group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.” (29)

In other words, a significant part of culture making....of the cultivation process itself....is in doing. We need to be producing.

So I ask ... what are you working on. What creative disciplines (beyond the spiritual disciplines) have you developed?

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Culture Making Ch 3 -- Teardowns, technology, and change

I often judge the quality of a nonfiction book by it's capacity to spark within me those "oh yeah" moments of syncrhonicity ... when I suddenly see connections with life and other readings that I've done (thought perhaps, that quality is more a judgment of my mental state at the time, but that is another topic entirely).

Reading chapter 3 of Crouch's Culture Making sent off fireworks of connections in my mind. He begins by talking about how change happens.... that change is unavoidable. Sometimes change is subtle in the form of Maintenance (a new coat of paint in the room, new roof, new strings for the guitar).... sometimes it comes in the form of tearing down something ... the tearing down of something may represent a cultural failure. Crouch uses the ideas of Stuart Brand (How Buildings Learn, The Clock of the Long Now) to show that the longer it takes to change something, the more lasting the impact is.

For instance, fashion is ephermeral. This year, more modest clothes are in. Next year it will be shorter skirts and outlandish ties. Shaping the world of fashion may not have much impact. We still live with the impact of the political changes that took place in the late 18th century; however the movement from wigs and breeches to loose hair and pantaloons is pretty irrelevant to us.

What of revolutions? Even revolutions are the product of a buildup of centuries of ideas and social tensions. They don't happen overnight. In one sense, 9/11 began with the crusades and the Barbary Pirates, and Charles Martel, and a host of other tensions building up over centuries. The American revolution began with the Magna Carta and the British Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and centuries of political thought.

And even thought revolutions are quick, they're usually more destructive than creative. “And like earthquakes, revolutions are much better at destroying than building. There is an important asymmetry here, whose roots go all the way down to the laws of physics: It is possible to change things quickly for the worse. It only took two hours after the collision between a 767 and the South Tower of the World Trade Center to destroy it. But no one can build the World Trade Center in two hours. The only thing you can do with Rome in a day is burn it.” (58). I'm reminded of John Adams, who was worried by Tom Paine's Common Sense “the writer has a better hand at pulling down than building.” (David McCullough biography, 97). So, Adams in 1775 began writing his Thoughts on Government, already working on building the new government, before the revolution even began. His work became foundation during the Constitutional convention in 1787, over 20 years later. The point is this...that we ought be very cautious in our ardency for radical change....radical change rarely helps. The American Revolution was helped by geniuses who knew how to build and thus tempered the radicals who wanted to watch things burn.

I think Crouch would have benefitted from looking at the economics of this, however. In a sense, to create anything, we must destroy something. To make omlettes, we must break eggs. To make guitars and violins, we need to cut down some trees and we need to shape raw materials into varnish and stain and glue. The concept of the opportunity cost is at play here.... to do something, we must sacrifice the opportunity to do something else. I think this is at play when he talked about horizons of opportunity in the previous chapter, but such a recognition would help us when approaching the topic of destruction.

Surely there are those who simply enjoy watching the world burn (see my post on Thuggery, trolldom, and the Joker ethos). However, there are some cultural artifacts whose time have passed and they must die. Clay Shirkey, in Here Comes Everybody, talks about Abbot Johannes Trithemius, Abbot of Sponheim, who in 1492 published De Laude Scriptorum, a defense of the scribal tradition. He defended the tradition of having professional scribes take copy manuscripts painstakingly by hand, rather than using the faster and more economical moveable type printing press. His argument centers around what will be lost if the tradition vanishes: a profitable use of time that sharpens the mind and bends the spirit toward God. However the irony was, he published the tract using a printing house.

Here then is a case of destruction....not out of wanton need to destroy nor out of cultural failure. The Scribal tradition was a grand success, but it was eclipsed by superior technology and a new tradition. It was time for the tradition, as it stood, to die. Even so, it didn't die completely. It carries on in some few enthusiasts who are passionate about calligraphy and hand illuminated manuscripts.

All said, I think a more nuanced discussion of this issue of change and destruction might have been helpful.

Even so, Crouch is asking all the right questions and wrestling with the right issues. A fascinating read up to this point.

Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Letter to the Editor re: Kathleen Parker on Rick Warren's Values Voter Forum

Every so often, I take up the mantle of submitting a letter to the Editor. My most recent attempt was in response to Kathleen Parker's editorial criticizing Rick Warren's Values Voter forum. Though the paper has not seen fit to publish my response, I thought I'd share it with you here. Be sure to read Parker's editorial. And then note this caveat that I generally enjoy Parker's writing and editorials....this is a rare case of disagreement. The text of my reply follows:

Kathleen Parker cries fowl over the Saddleback Church Candidates’ Forum. In her August 21 column she writes: “…while, yes, everybody has some kind of worldview, it shouldn’t be necessary in a pluralistic nation of secular laws to publicly define that view in Christian code.”

Just a little thought shows the intellectual poverty of her argument. The wall of separation of church and state is indeed a brilliant principle. It provides for a robust government and a robust religious climate by separating two institutions into different realms of responsibility. Institutions deal with management of resources, decision making, and setting the parameters of their constituent members. However, faith and politics are not institutions; they exist but in the realms of ideas and worldview. Faith and politics do not have constituent members, for they are inherently personal and held privately. The wall of separation does not apply to them.

A cursory glance at the great documents of American History shows that our leaders have always felt comfortable with such a distinction. FDR’s first inaugural address was replete with imagery ripped straight from the Bible and a request for prayers of the nation. Lincoln, in his second inaugural address dabbles deeply in the theology of providence and discerning the will of God. The very document that coins the phrase “wall of separation of church and state” ends with Jefferson asking for the prayers of the Danbury Baptists. Nowhere do the great minds appeal to the coercive power of churches to bind the consciences of their membership (an institutional no-no). Rather, they appeal to the personally held faith of the American citizens and leave it to the citizens how to respond. Historian Larry Witham’s recent book City Upon a Hill shows that the reverse is also true: American citizens have always felt the freedom to bring faith based concerns to the political sphere. Simply put, calls to remove faith talk from political discourse exhibit a reckless disregard for American history.

The genius of the American experiment, both in politics and in religion, lies in the right of private conscience. Because we have a wall of separation between the institutions of church and state, Rick Warren’s views, opinions, and questions carry as much coercive weight as do Oprah’s, or Kathleen Parker’s. One may find his views, opinions, and questions to be offensive or distasteful. However we must realize that Rick Warren has no institutional authority over the American public. The only authority he carries in America is the authority people have granted him through the persuasiveness of his faith grounded ideas. What could be more American than that?


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Culture Making: Ch 2 -- cultural worlds

Continuing our reflections on Andy Crouch's Culture Making.... now up to chapter 2

I've been re-listening to the Ed Kilbourne tapes that I have from oh-so-long-ago. He has an outstanding rendition of the Pierce Pettis piece "Grandmother's Song" (enjoy this YouTube performance of Pettis singing it in 1984:

It's story of the grandmother who wrote poetry, but didn't share it with those around her. And it illustrates very well what Crouch is talking about in this chapter on cultural worlds.

Simply put, not all our cultural artifacts shape culture. “Culture requires a public: a group of people who have been sufficiently affected by a cultural good that their horizons of possibility and impossibility have in fact been altered, and their cultural creativity has been spurred, by that good’s existence.” (38) Indeed, I would suggest that the public is bound together in a special way by that shared cultural artifacts. Consider fan movements --- Trekkies as a glaringly extreme example. These are people who so identify with the cultural artifact of Star Trek that they write their own fiction, attend conventions, wear costumes, invent rules to the games that were portrayed on the show. And they're bound together.

Marketing and branding guru Kevin Roberts applies this very insight to his profession in his book Lovemarks when he writes: “Today the stakes have reached a new high. The social fabric is spread more thinly than ever. People are looking for new emotional connections. They are looking for what they can love. They are insisting on more choice, they have higher expectations, and they need emotional pull to help them make decisions. And finally, they want more ways to connect with everything in their lives -- including brands.” (36). If brands, as a cultural artifact, can bind people together with emotional attachments, so then can other cultural artifacts.

Crouch continues, asserting that: “Culture making requires shared goods. Culture making is people (plural) making something of the world – it is never a solitary affair. Only artifacts that leave the solitude of their inventors’ studios and imaginations can more the horizons of possibility and become the raw material for more culture making.” (40). He tells the story about Steve Jobs speaking with his engineers when they wanted to delay the release of the first Macintosh computer. "Real artists ship." was his reply. He dignfied their work as art, but he reminded them that art, to have impact, must have a public.

Put in different terms, my Rotary Colleague Mike Robinson frequently says "Information without action is overhead." In other words, if we don't do anything with the information that we receive, then it's a waste of time. Bayles and Orland have a wonderful little book called Art and Fear that addresses the problem of how the Artist overcomes fear and gets down to producing. One of the great fears is the fear of not really having any talent, to which Bayles and Orland reply “The world is filled with people who were given great natural gifts, sometimes conspicuously flashy gifts, yet never produce anything. And when that happens, the world soon ceases to care whether they are talented.” (27). The challenge of the culture maker is to produce and not sit on the blessings God has given.

Crouch then shows how this concern for a public immediately leads to an understanding that there are many publics. This blog has a public of a couple of dozen readers. Other blogs have vastly different publics. Different spheres produce different cultural artifacts. I'm fascinated how in the Presbyterian Church USA, we have our little publishing house with our little in house heroes...and just over the way, our Methodist brothers and sisters have their little publishing house with their little heroes....and so do the Episcopalians....and the Catholics....and the Orthodox. Cultural artifacts in each of those spheres rarely leak over into other spheres. And people wonder why we have Red and Blue America?

Crouch also deals with scale. He speaks of his favorite local coffee shop, in contrast to Starbucks. It may be small and localized and quirky, “But it is a real enterprise in making something of the world, with real cultural effects, and just because it is small does not mean it is insignificant or simple.” (45)

And this insight gives great hope to churches. Small churches need not envy the mega faith-plex that has the barrista, they indoor play place, and the super size communion meal. Bigger isn't necessarily better. If your church has a public, that is a good and it shapes and affects lives. There is dignity and worth in that shaping.

Crouch then tightens the lens to the family ... the crucible of culture making. We may not be able to do anything individually about the broader culture as a whole, but we can very powerfully impact the culture of our families and those closest to us. And that may very well have a cumulative effect far beyond what anyone expected.

Let me know your thoughts.

Soli Deo Gloria

Friday, August 22, 2008

Culture Making: Ch 1 - horizons of the possible.

In 1988, the summer between Junior and Senior years of my High School career, I attended the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts as an acting student. It was a five week intensive experience that brought together students from many different disciplines to learn and create together with expert instructors. Part of the experience was living together in the dorms at Furman University.... and one night, a bunch of the guys on my hall were gathered in Shev Rush's room, having conversations that were deeper than anyone would give us credit for, but not as deep as we thought we were.

And somewhere we talked about why we make art. I forget all the things that were bounced around, but in that session, I proposed that we make art so that we can be more like God. After all, God made us in His image. God reveals himself as a creator, so therefore it makes sense that creativity is a part of being made in his image.

I wouldn't remember this conversation were it not for what happened later. Just a few days later, a famous producer came to speak to the entire school. After giving a rousing speech, he asked the same question "Why do we make art?" .... and one of the other guys (I can't for the life of me remember his name) stands up and says "So we can be more like God." I was grateful that someone else picked up on my idea, but also a little disgruntled that he was stealing my thunder. Until famous producer, puzzled look on his face, said "Yeah...OK...why else?" and the point was forgotten.

But not by me. I've stewed on and cogitated on the idea that a significant part (not the totality, but a part) of what it means to be made in the image of God is to be made to be a creator.... not ex nihilo, as God did at the beginning of the space/time continuum, but a creator nonetheless.

And this is exactly where Andy Crouch begins his book Culture Making. And so today, I begin my chapter by chapter reflections on this most important book. Crouch looks at God as both creator and ruler: “Creators are those who make something new; rulers are those who maintain order and separation.” He sees that maintaining of boundaries and order are what enable future creation in others. The ruler's job is to set the bounds...and strangely, bounds help unleash creativity. “So in a way the Creator’s greatest gift to his creation is the gift of structure – not a structure which locks the world, let alone the Creator himself, into eternal mechanical repetition, but a structure which provides freedom. And those who are made in his image will also be both creators and rulers.” (22)

And we as creatures find ourselves born into the midst of this already extant creation, and we have to "make something of the world" (Crouch borrows the turn of phrase from Ken Meyers). This making something comes in the sense of using raw materials to actually make things (chairs, buildings, roads, farms, dixie cups) and also the sense of applying our minds to make sense of our situation.

In this broad sense, culture is whatever we do when we make something of the world. Every meal we cook, every crossword puzzle we work on, every present we wrap, every plant we cultivate, every report we generate....all of it is making something of the world, whether or not we acknowledge it (I suggest that one of the great gifts of this text is to make us consciously aware of all our activity .... liberating us from timekillers so that we can be both purposeful in activity and restorative in liesure).

However our culture making also is combined with our capacity for wonder. A chimpanzee can make a tool, a human has the capacity for wondering at the purposefulness of tools and considering how good design can make tools wonderful.

Crouch then takes us another step, relying on Peter Berger's work in Sacred Canopy, showing that we enter into culture that already exists. We also must make something of that culture....and that culture shapes our horizons. The culture that my children have been born into, that of an urban American Citizen, is vastly different from the culture of the children of a Kalihari bushman. And vastly different from the culture that my great great grandparents were born into. There is a sense in which culture is a feedback loop....things are transmitted to us and we must make sense of them.

He acknowledges that no-one individual makes culture. We make cultural artifacts (and I would add, we create cultural experiences ... like concerts or summer camps or worship services or football games). Some of those artifacts will become big enough to be incorporated into the framework of the culture, and these artifacts (and expereinces) will expand the horizons of the possible for people across a culture at large.

For instance: the interstate highway system. in the 19th century, long distance travel was accomplished mainly by river or rail. Any educated person knew the geography of the US rivers and cities (including Cincinnati) grew up as major centers of culture because these were the artieries of transportation. However, when Eisenhower had returned from Germany after World War II, he knew that the United States would benefit from a highway system like the autobahns of Germany (Eisenhower knew this firsthand: in the 1920's, he had led a convoy of trucks from east coast to west, just to see if there were enough roads that could connect the major cities....perhaps this cultural experience primed him for being impressed by the autobahns).

Now the interstates are the arteries. They have made possible many things: cheap transport of goods, easy access of travel to millions, Cracker Barrel and Waffle House. However interstates have made other things impossible. It would be very hard to travel from Boston to Philadelphia via horse anymore....the system of inns and boarding houses that accomodated horses are all gone. Horses aren't allowed on interstates. Cultural artifacts (and experiences) not only make new things possible, they make some old things impossible.

So Crouch proposes 5 questions to ask of any given artifact in doing analysis:
1) what does this artifact (experience) assume about the world (interstates assume automobiles for instance. Cookbooks assume easy access to materials)
2) what does this artifact assume about how the world should be (interstates assume that easy travel is better than difficult travel)
3) what does this artifact make possible?
4) what does this artifact make impossible?
5) what new forms of culture are created in response to this artifact (AAA becomes much more popular in response to interstate highway system. profusions of stores at interstate exits. Attractions in various locales. The Billboard industry, etc).

Notice that his questions avoid the immediate value judgement....is this good or bad. Crouch seems to lead us to ask a lot more questions before we get into the waters of making a value judgment.

So the challenges that come to my mind in this first chapter....the immediate questions that come to my mind.... what kind of cultural artifacts/experiences am I creating for my children/friends/readers/congregation members etc. I do things with my children that I think will be fun, but does it expand their horizons? How do I challenge our congregation members to make culture? How do I equip and empower them to?

Consider for instance the cultural artifact of the home .... a home is a constellation of a lot of cultural artifacts and experiences. In some ways, I think of it as a setting, a backdrop to culture making. However the setting sets the horizons for those who dwell in that setting.

The home in which I grew up was spacious. The most important setting for me was books. The house was saturated with books. The living room stretched along the back of the house...it was painted white with beige carpet. Windows facing the southeast lined one whole side of the room, flooding it with light. the other side was floor to ceiling bookshelves, including a complete set of the World Book encyclopedias. Books were important.

The kitchen was huge, as was the back yard. Cooking and nature were always around me. Mom and dad are extroverts who enjoy entertaining....so I saw a parade of interesting people come through our home...somtimes in big parties, sometimes in intimate dinners. Though at times a 7 year old child might have been bored by the grownup conversation, I learned that having people in the home is "normal" and ought to be relaxed and fun.

Just in these two paragraphs, I see how the horizons of my world have been set differently than those of people raised in a different setting. It's not necessarily better or worse (that will depend on what I do with those horizons). I was not raised around farm animals, nor was I raised learning to make handcrafted items with power tools .... my horizons are limited there. That's not good or bad, it just is.

The question is, how can I be intentional about the setting, the environment in which I raise my children? In which I work on a daily basis?

And there is the value of the book. I hope it raises for you more questions....questions about the hows and wherefores of your own life...questions about how to be faithful even in your choice of home design or cooking choices.

More to come.....

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Off the shelf: Culture Making

Thank you, Tullian Tchvidjian, for recommending Andy Crouch's Culture Making.

I can't remember who it was that said that reading William F. Buckley made them feel both smarter and dumber at the same time. That was my experience with this text. It is a humbling thing to read an author who articulates my best thoughts about christian practice and the call to make culture. The ideas ring like a solid and true tower bell within me, but Crouch phrases them far better that I have been able to at this point. Humbling.

And then, after 100 pages of being simultaneously excited over finding a kindred spirit and humbled over this man's craftsmanship, I found myself being whisked to new places where I hadn't even considered going. Crouch takes us on a gallop through redemptive history....pointing out God's redemptive purposes through culture. From Genesis to Revelation, friends. It was a glorious guided tour.

By the time I arrived in the third section of this book, in which Crouch suggests some disciplines for daily living, I found myself grabbing my notebook and scribbling down ideas. If Crouch's goal is to create cultural goods that expand the horizons of others, then he has succeeded wildly. Tullian was not indulging himself in hyperbole when he wrote: "Mark my words: this is one serious book, that if taken seriously, has the potential to make a serious impact. Seriously!"

I've finished it, and now I'm going to go back through a second time with you, dear readers. So rush out to the bookstore or library and pick up your copy. I'll be starting the Culture Making series, Lord willing, tomorrow.

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Saddleback church and the candidates forum

I missed a very important event on Friday night....the Saddleback Church candidates forum. Pastor Rick Warren hosted a forum in which he would ask identical questions of both John McCain and Barack Obama. The questions were designed to get at the heart of the concerns of evangelical Christians.

Most of us probably missed it....but you can read a transcript of the whole thing on the CNN website.

Warren has done a great service in putting this thing together. While many Eagle and Child readers are wary of the megachurch pragmatism that Warren exhibits when it comes to church growth, I suggest that his capacity to host events like this are a very positive contribution to Christianity and the cultural dialogue. Read Al Mohler's assessment....I'm usually in agreement with Mohler on these type things....and he has a very balanced read on his reservations about the event and his positive evaluation following the event.

Of course the whole thing is posted on YouTube as well....I strongly encourage you all to watch this as you're able. Here's an index:

Section 1: Warren's introduction and initial questions to Obama.
  • Warren makes great points here about the relationship of faith and politics. "We believe in the separation of church and state, but we do not believe in the separation of faith and politics, because faith is just a world view, and everybody has some kind of world view. It's important to know what they are." Readers of the Eagle and Child will recognize that I make the same distinction btwn separation of church and state (institutions) and separation of faith and politics (spheres of human activity)
  • Warren also hits on a theme dear to my heart.... restoration of civility: "....they both care deeply about America. They're both patriots. And they have very different views on how America can be strengthened. In America, we've got to learn to disagree without demonizing each other and we need to restore civility -- Yes. We need to restore civility in our civil discourse, and that's the goal of the Saddleback Civil Forum. " the words of the book of James keep coming back to my head...all that about taming the tongue and the tongue being a consuming fire.
  • Warren has the guts to ask about the "greatest moral failure of your life" and the "greatest moral failure of America. Obama's answers -- for himself was drug use. For America, that we don't apply the command in Matthew to love your neighbor as yourself.
  • Obama has good words about McCain for their work together on campaign finaince reform.

Section 2:
  • What have you changed your mind upon over the past 10 years. (Warren acknowledges that a change of mind is not always bad). Obama: welfare reform... he has come to understand that work must be a centerpiece of social policy. He acknowledges that we're made for work.
  • Most gut wrenching decision: Opposition to war in Iraq.

Section 3: Worldview questions

  • What does it mean to trust in Christ? What does that look like? It pays to quote his entire answer here to put to rest some of the crazy speculation that Obama is a "dark horse muslim"

OBAMA: As a starting point, it means I believe in -- that Jesus Christ died for my sins, and that I am redeemed through him. That is a source of strength and sustenance on a daily basis. Yes, I know that I don't walk alone. And I know that if I can get myself out of the way, that I can maybe carry out in some small way what he intends. And it means that those sins that I have on a fairly regular basis, hopefully will be washed away. But what it also means, I think, is a sense of obligation to embrace not just words, but through deeds, the expectations, I think, that god has for us. And that means thinking about the least of these. It means acting -- well, acting justly, and loving mercy, and walking humbly with our god. And that -- I think trying to apply those lessons on a daily basis, knowing that you're going to fall a little bit short each day, and then being able to kind of take note and saying, well, that didn't quite work out the way I think it should have, but maybe I can get a little bit
better. It gives me the confidence to try things, including things like running for president, where you're going to screw up once in a while.

  • Abortion: when does a baby get rights? Obama comes down on being pro-choice, while acknowledging the great moral struggles in this issue. His goal is to work within the Democratic party platform to reduce the number of abortions.
  • Definition of Marraige: Obama says it is a sacred union of a man and woman. Against a constitutional ammendment: it is a matter of state law. Believes in the concept of Civil Unions (for issues like hospital visitation)
  • Stem Cells: Obama: let's avoid moral quagmires if at all possible, but the use of embryos that are about to be discarded (a careful, limited use) is OK.

Section 4:
  • Evil does exist and must be confronted. Acknowledgment we can't erase evil "that is God's task" we can confront it, however. We must have humility in confrontation....much evil is perpetrated in the name of good.
  • Which supreme court justice would you not have nominated (great question Rick:) Obama: Clarence Thomas. Scalia (acknowledges his brilliance). Guarded on John Roberts: because he has been "too willing and eager" to give power to executive branch.
  • Faith based organizations: believes in power of faith based organizations, but when using federal funds, they have to guard against discrimination in hiring.
  • Education: Merit pay for teachers. Obama: set up a system of performance pay (in consultation with teacher union). We need to reward excellence.
  • define rich: what is a number? (answer on next video, but it is below $150k as a definition of middle class.

Section 5:
  • Rich defined continued: if you're making $250k then you're doing well .... you're in the top 3-4%. Call for fiscal responsibility (irresponsible to spend huge amounts without paying for it now). tax cut for $150k down. "modest increase" for $250k up.
  • War. What's worth dying for? American freedom, national interests. need to co-operate internationally when genocide is involved
  • Orphans: (warren's pet issue) -- great idea to have a national plan for orphans working with nongovernmental organizations. Obama has priase for Bush on AIDS plan
  • Religious Persecution around the world. Obama: bear witness and speak out. Don't pretend it's not taking place. We also need to look to our own house...not engaging in torture and abiding by habeas corpus.

Section 6:

  • International Slavery: Obama, this is a high priority and we need to work on this
  • Why do you want to be president: Obama: grandmother made me imagine how the other guy feels.
  • What would you say if you knew there wouldn't be repercussions: Obama "Well, you know what I would tell them? Is that solving big problems, like for example, energy, is not going to be easy and everybody is going to have to get involved. And we are going to have to all think about how are we using energy more efficiently and there's going to be a price to pay in transitioning to a more energy- efficient economy and dealing with issues like climate change. And if we pretend like everything is free, and there's no sacrifice involved, then we are betraying the tradition of America.I think about my grandparents' generation, coming out of a depression, fighting World War II, you know, they've confronted some challenges we can't even imagine. If they were willing to make sacrifices on our behalf, we should be able to make some sacrifices on behalf of the next generation."

Section 7: McCain is on the hot seat.

  • Three wisest People you would rely on: Gen Petraeus, John Lewis, Meg Whitman (CEO of Ebay)Greatest personal moral faiulre and greatest moral failure of America: Personal is the failure of his first marraige. America's greatest moral failure is that we've not been devoted to causes greater than our self-interest. Post 9/11 we should have called upon people to serve a cause greater than yourself. When did you lead against your party's interests and own self interests: rattles off a list of places he bucked his party and "reached across the aisle" He dwells on opposing Reagan's desire to send troops to Beruit.
  • What have you changed your mind on from 10 years ago: McCain -- offshore drilling, we need to do it now.
  • Most gut wrenching decision: the decision not to be released from POW camp while friends stayed behind.

Somehow, a whole section is cut out from the online video ... and a very important section. Here are relevant answers from the transcripts:

  • What does it mean to be a Christian? McCain: I'm saved and forgiven. McCain tells the story of the Prison Guard who etched a cross in the dirt on Christmas day.
  • Abortion: McCain: life begins with conception. References his 25 year pro-life record.
  • Marraige: McCain: Defined as between one man and one woman
  • Stem cells: in favor of stem cell research....interested in new breakthroughs on skin cells.
  • Does Evil exist: McCain: it does and we must defeat it. McCain defines the transcendent challenge of 21st c: Radical Islamic Extremism.
  • Supreme Court Justices you would not have nominated: McCain: Ginsburg, Breyer, Souter, Stephens. Opposes them b/c they've been legislating from the bench.

Section 8

  • Role of faith based organizations and federal funds: McCain -- faith based organizations should have no restrictions on hiring. McCain talks about Resurrection Baptist Church co-ordinating relief after Katrina....more than the government organizations.
  • Education: McCain supports merit pay for teachers. Believes in choice and competition for schools. Charter schools, homeschooling, vouchers work. This is the "civil rights issue" of the 21st c.
  • Define Rich: McCain...I want everybody to be rich. Don't believe in redistribution. Let's keep taxes low for everybody. i don't think you can talk simplistically about this.
  • Line between security and privacy: Need to keep up with new technological advances for enemies to communicate...we have to step up to monitor those.

Section 9:

  • What is worth dying for? McCain: freedom. We can't fight every wrong, but we can be a beacon of hope for the world. Troops would be committed only if American National Security interests are threatened. Our obligation is to stop genocide where we can. Speaks extensively about Georgia (the nation)

Section 10:

  • Religous Persecution: Use of the bully pulpit, just like Reagan against the Soviet Union.
  • Orphans: Would you commit to an emergency plan for orphans? McCain -- adoption has to become a lot easier here. Teddy Roosevelt was the first to talk about the importance of it. McCain talks about adopting a child from India (who is now 17)
  • why do you want to be president: McCain ... to serve a cause greater than ourselves. To reach across aisles and talk with people.

Well, if you've made it to the bottom, I hope you've benefitted. This has been very helpful to me (though I'm still not telling you who I'm voting for).


Monday, August 18, 2008

The greatest singer/songwriter you've never heard of....

In yesterday's sermon, I made reference to "the greatest singer/songwriter you've never heard of: Ed Kilbourne."

Here's some background for Covenant-First members (and everyone else listening or interested). You may have heard me mention from time to time my involvement in the Salkehatchie Summer Service program when i was in High School (you can read the story here in this sermon I preached on Ruth 4).

The first three years I went on Salkehatchie, I attended the Penn Center Site in lovely Frogmore, SC. We worked on the homes of the Gullah people in the South Carolina Sea Islands. This was a time of the emotional highs and lows of being a teenager.... and the Holy Spirit moved powerfully in all of our hearts. The many adults who volunteered during those years poured their faith into us. I would go on to work with Dave Dillon, who was a professional carpenter. I would learn about guitar from Ross Cooke. After those early years, I moved my involvement to the Columbia camp...and those times are for a different story.

But Ed Kilbourne always came to perform for us at Penn Center Salkehatchie. His performances were heartfelt and stirring. He talked about Jesus as a real Person, not some abstract mathematical formula. Over the years, I purchased a couple of tapes, and during the long drives from college to home, Ed's lyrics were healing and strengthening for me. He sang of the great delight that Jesus has in his children....the great calling that God has on his people for righteousness and love and justice. He sang folksy down home songs. And he did covers of some of my pop favorites....showing me that non-Christian singers can inadvertantly write pretty good gospel songs (if you look at the songs from a slightly different point of view....consider Cindi Lauper's "True Colors"....with the perspective of the song being sung by Jesus to His bride the church).

But I had tucked away all my old cassettes and hadn't listened for years. Until I was ruminating on my sermon for Sunday.... and an old lyric sprung to mind that captured beautifully the sense of ceaseless activity that carries no real meaning "He's got eyes that do not see, ears that do not listen, and his hands have let the truth run through their fingers. And his feet are always moving, but they go in tiny circles. He's got it all. But he's got nothing at all." With the Isaiah imagery and the vision of perpetual busyness shuffling in tiny circles, Ed hit something right about human attempts satisfy a drive that only the Living God can fulfill. And thus, I thought to share it with everyone in the congregation.

And I'm listening to old tapes again....probably will order some new ones.

Thanks for the ministry Ed.... the Holy Spirit used you greatly.

Soli Deo Gloria


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Off the Shelf: The Crucifixion of Ministry

Next month, our church plays host to Andrew Purves, professor of Pastoral Theology at Pittsburgh Seminary. He came for last year's fall conference. With him he brought wonderful teaching, pointing to Jesus as the center of our hope and faith.

Thus, it is good to prepare for Andrew's return by reading through his latest book, The Crucifixion of Ministry: Surrendering Our Ambitions to the Service of Christ. I requested the Cincinnati Public Library to stock a few copies...they purchased 6 and have them available.

The book is a 149 page medidation on this theme: Ministry isn't ours, it's His. It's all His. In every pastoral situation, Jesus is up to something. We need to kill our ambitions and desire to appear in control. Only then are we released to be used by Jesus in the unfolding work of His Kingdom.

Like a great Jazz artist, Purves weaves key themes through the text: the Mystic Union with Christ (that when we are His, we're united with him...thus his righteousness is exchanged for our rags, and vice versa) and the Vicarious Ministry of Jesus Christ (that even now he reigns, he continues to serve as the High Priest in the Heavenlies, and He offers His worship to the Father). Thus everything important is being done.

None of these are new to me....cognitively I was aware of them and their implications long ago. However Purves shows some great wisdom in making us aware that intellectually knowing a truth is not the same as living into it: “More elusive is the deep conversion of mind, will and heart where we know the inner reality of being laid hold of by Christ in the Spirit, so we share in his active obedience to, communion with and mission from the Father. From my observation it requires the pains of ministry in midcareer to prepare a person for the radical transformation of ‘I, yet not I, but Christ.’”(111)

From my vantage point, I see pastors who talk about the transformational power of Christ, but live as practical atheists....little prayer beyond the obligitory few sentences at the start of a committee meeting. Little brokenheartedness before the Lord. Sure we can pray, but then let's get on to something practical for Pete's sake. As though Jesus' work wouldn't get done without them. And there's a vast moneymaking industry of conferences, publishing houses, gurus, and seminars designed to give you the magic keys to effective ministry. I suggest that none of the people involved in this industry would deny the truths that Purves lays out. Yet in the room are palpable and false excitements that betray where the treasure is buried.

I know, because I'm there too. I know better, but too often have I picked up Leadership Magazine with despair because I'm not on the cutting edge. Too often have I felt anxiety because we're not doing some cutting edge ministry. And time and again, I must repent.

A helpful illustration comes from Iain Murray's Revival and Revivalism. Murray looks at the history of the Second Great Awakening. He shows the difference between true revival of heartfelt religion and the manufactured kind of revivalism that relied on technique, tents, and snappy goodfellow preachers. Murray leans heavily on BB Warfield's history of Perfectionism, in which Warfield shows that the revivalist Finney was very good at using technique to get people to come forward, but very bad at making disciples who would last. The Ghosts of revivalism float around today, and they haunt me with their howling.

Purves, however aims his guns at the more prevalent model in the mainline churches...not revivalism, but Ministry as Chaplaincy. Purves describes the stereotypical Chaplaincy model of pastoral ministry: “Everybody…has something that oppresses them. Your job as a hospital chaplain is to assist people to bring the feelings from that oppression to the surface and then to draw from within themselves the strength to overcome it. You connect with people on the ground of their own agenda and needs. Ministry means drawing out latent possibilities for healing that lie buried within. It is not your job to introduce God language or to provide a theological commentary on the person’s situation.” (58)

Now don't get me wrong, I profited greatly from my Chaplaincy experience. That said, I'm with Purves that Chaplaincy is not the model for Pastoral Ministry. “….the only mission strategy which will encourage our congregations, usefully employ our clergy, enable history-changing and kingdom-of God anticipating ministry, and enable us to evangelize with any degree of faithfulness and power is the preaching that there is salvation in no other name.” (44).

Purves speaks of God who is not a frozen celestial iceburg, but rather a vital living active God. Perhaps the best part of this book for me is Purves' own story of God showing up in the midst of his own crisis:

“I remember lying in hospital after cancer surgery, wondering what the upcoming six months of chemotherapy would be like and whether I was going to make it through the process. What I need now, I thought, is not a theological treatise to edify my mind, though that has its place, not some sense that God in Christ is in solidarity with me in my suffering and fear, though that too is helpful. What I need is a God of power. I need a God who acts to change things.

As I cried out ‘Save me, Lord!’ I did not expect any rending of the heavens. What I did hear in an inner way was the quiet word of the God who acts. It was a voice heard by a lonely, fearful, pain-filled, morphine-dominated, fifty-six year old man.

God said to me that whether I lived or died, I did so unto the Lord, and he would not abandon me.Not everyone gets healed, and that is a great mystery, but the promise of his peace is not an empty promise, and it is given for all who know him. God acts. I believe it even when God acts in ways that utterly confounds my xpectations.” (49-50)

The most common error in critiquing Purves book is to accuse him of saying that pastors should do nothing. Far from the point, indeed. Rather, Purves calls us to be freed from distraction and throw ourselves with abandonment into the work that we're called to. “Grace does not leave us passive. In grace (charis) the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Grace (Hebrews 10:29) gives to each Christian his or her particular grace-gift (charismata), which is to be expressed in thankfulness (eucharista) in Christian service and ministry.” (67) Christ's grace is utterly transformational of us ministers too. Deep down we want to be useful. Grace frees us to be useful, rather than simply "productive"

I think that Purves' point could benefit from reflecation on the doctrine of Providence. Providence talks of God's superintending of all the Universe. And in His Providence, He delights to use His servants. Providence helps us see ourselves as agents, as pots in the hands of the potter, as an instrument in the hands of the musician. Michael Card captures this sense in his wonderful song "Poem of Your Life"

This is a book that could also profit anyone in the church. Too many people are burned out by church machines that chew up their gifts and then move on when the people are exhausted. Too many people buy into the idea that they can buy God's love by service to the institution. I would love to see Purves come out with a second title: "The Crucifixion of Church Membership."

Soli Deo Gloria

For a more critical analysis of this text, check out Jesus Creed's take on it from last December: He points out that Purves doesn't interact with the Pastoral Epistles in working up his theology of pastoral ministry, and that there are an awful lot of "do" commands when the Bible actually speaks of pastoral ministry. I think that this critique misses some of Purves' point. It also misses out on how the Last Supper Discourse of John 14-16 is likely the most pointed treatise on pastoral ministry ever given .... Jesus to his twelve disciples who will carry on his ministry. I suggest that in dealing with John's discourse, Purves is deeply rooting his theology in what the bible says about Pastoral ministry. Even so, it's worth reading the critique.

Friday, August 08, 2008

On Thuggery, trolldom, and the Joker ethos

I've seen a strange, dare I say providential, convergence of articles and themes in the past week or two, all centering on what I am loosely dubbing the "Joker ethos". The Joker, for those not in the know, is the pasty faced amoral sociopathic villan of this summer's Dark Knight film.

In the film (forgetting for a moment the background we assemble from the comic book franchise), the Joker appears out of no-where. The police can trace no background on him, all his clothes are hand stitched. He gives different stories about how his face became horribly scarred. He uses terrorist plays directly out of Al-Jazeera's book. His interest is entirely in watching the world burn. As Batman/Bruce Wayne and his butler/advisor Alfred talk about dealing with the Joker, we get this very telling exchange that I believe is the most important in the film:

Alfred Pennyworth: When I was in Burma, a long time ago, my friends and I were working for the local Government. They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders, bribing them with precious stones. But their caravans were being raided in a forest north of Rangoon by a bandit. We were asked to take care of the problem, so we started looking for the stones. But after six months, we couldn't find anyone who had traded with him. One day I found a child playing with a ruby as big as a
tangerine. The bandit had been throwing the stones away.

Bruce Wayne: Then why steal them?

Alfred Pennyworth: Because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.

[later in the film] Bruce Wayne: Did you ever catch that bandit in Burma?

Alfred Pennyworth: Eventually, yes.

Bruce Wayne: How?

Alfred Pennyworth: ...we burned the forest down.

Fair enough that the villan of a summer fantasy movie should be terrifying, glorying not in rational theivery, but simply in the thrills of destruction. However, Les Newsome has some interesting thoughts over on Common Grounds Online. He relates sitting in the theater watching the film as four teenage girls behind him talk about how awesome the Joker is. Les writes:
It would be wrong, however, to say that the Joker represents this culture’s fear of terrorists. That’s too shallow. No, the Joker is what we fear about terrorists. A terrorist comes without warning, without consideration, like a dishonorable kamikaze, set on nothing other than upsetting the plans of those who think they have a plan. They destroy hope and safety and the idea that your life will go well in pursuit of “the good.” Harvey Dent is driven to madness as Gotham’s “White Knight,” a crusader who must feel the futility of his best-laid plans and live in the insanity that flows from the knowledge that we are helpless before the darkness of fate.
Remember how the line goes, “Madness is like gravity.” The terror is in the inability to stop the evil that will come upon you if you believe in something, anything, to save you. (emphasis mine)

Les nails it....the Joker ethos lies in destruction, not just for kicks, but as a prophetic statement that belief in anything is an illusion. The Joker ethos aims to make us all jokers....it aims to reshape us all in its own image: "what which doesn't kill you only makes you.....stranger"

The troubling truth is that there are plenty of people out there who subscribe to their own version of this Joker ethos. I've been following for a while the efforts of Anonymous to take down Scientology. Anonymous is a nameless, faceless, and pretty amorphous group of hackers who play pranks, sabotage websites, and operate on the fringes of civility (and sometimes the law). However, someone in this group has decided to take down the church of Scientology. They have anonymously put together worldwide protests (with hordes of people showing up wearking Guy Fawkes masks), they have flooded YouTube with anti-Scientology propaganda. And they're scaring Scientology.

The question is 'who are these people?'. The New York Times Magazine ran this very telling article showing how these people (called internet trolls) harrass mock and ruin lives. They do it for the "lulz" ... a satirical way of saying there into it just for the fun of watching overly sensitive people get upset at them. The article gives an explanation of how this works "Another troll explained the lulz as a quasi-thermodynamic exchange between the sensitive and the cruel: “You look for someone who is full of it, a real blowhard. Then you exploit their insecurities to get an insane amount of drama, laughs and lulz. Rules would be simple: 1. Do whatever it takes to get lulz. 2. Make sure the lulz is widely distributed. This will allow for more lulz to be made. 3. The game is never over until all the lulz have been had.”"

The author meets with one of these people and we get a telling reply to the whys of it all:

As [he] picked up his cat and settled into an Eames-style chair, I asked whether trolling hurt people. “I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Oh, God, please forgive me!’ so someone can feel better,” [he] said, his calm voice momentarily rising. The cat lay purring in his lap. “Am I the bad guy? Am I the big horrible person who shattered someone’s life with some information? No! This is life. Welcome to life. Everyone goes through it. I’ve been through horrible stuff, too.”

“Like what?” I asked. Sexual abuse, [he] said. When [he] was 5, he said, he was molested by his grandfather and three other relatives. [his] mother later told me, too, that he was molested by his grandfather. The last she heard from [him] was a letter telling her to kill herself.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Joker, live and in person. The abused who is so horribly scarred that he decides that he must remake the world in his own image....not because of some vengance thing, but simply because it is. There is no right and wrong, bad or good, there just is. Deal with it and quit your whining. That my friends is the essence of the Joker ethos. Beat you until you quit your whining and become a Joker yourself.

The full article is a must read....the stories are sobering. I could go on with stories about Chineese Hackers, Jihadists....all of whom, in some shape and form, are fascinated with watching the world burn....only to reshape it in their own image.


Soli Deo Gloria

See other posts on the theme of builders vs. destroyers

Thursday, August 07, 2008

A little levity: choice videos from my nephew

My Nephew, Jackson Smith, had some stellar videos to share with me last week. As a break from the seriousness of talking about JAARS, I thought I'd share them with you.

The first is "The Gospel According to the Ewoks" .... how can we forget that it was really the little fur creatures who saved the galaxy from the evil galactic empire? And we also see that Billy Dee Williams continues to have a career.....

The second is how the Lord of the Rings should have ended.....I wish I had thought of this...

Finally....one from mom about Christian the Lion....a lion that two men purchased from Harrods in London back in the 1970s, and then released into the wild.

Read the story behind the video here.


Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Mission Experience to JAARS: Vernacular Media Services

One of the more interestesting services we learned about at JAARS was the Vernacular Media Services Team.

This is a ministry that I had never considered. After a language is analyzed, a grammar is developed, and scripture translations completed for that language....there still remains the problem of disseminating the stories through the culture that uses that language. Realistically, only a fraction of any given language group will exert the effort to become literate so they can read the Bible for themselves. Therefore, missionaries need many other tools to help spread the truths of scripture. These tools need to be culturally relevant so as to have the greatest impact.

For instance....in cultures that are deeply musical, Bible songs can be written and recorded so as to teach the great truths of scripture. In storytelling cultures, there are various visual media that are available to teach the stories. In many ways, this is not unlike the Medeival Cathedrals in which the stained glass windows told all the stories of faith ... they were called the Bibles for the poor (because the poor were usually illiterate).

Without a doubt, we want people to be literate and be able to read God's word for themselves (hence the great value of an organization like Literacy and Evangelism) .... however we must also practially realize that the life giving truth of the Living Lord Jesus Christ doesn't wait on learning literacy (indeed coming to know Christ while illiterate may actually goad people into taking on the challenge of literacy so they can know Him better). The Washington Post gives us this great article about how these kind of vernacular media are used (things like the Jeuss film, MP3 players, cell phone audio, etc).... the closing story shows how the drive for literacy brings people in contact with Jesus Christ.

In Rong Domriex, the farming village where children play knee-deep in the rice paddies, a local Christian pastor said he believes maybe half of the 11 children in Im's literacy class will become Christian.

"Whether they follow Jesus Christ or not is up to them," said Dom Saim, the pastor and a former Buddhist.

Im's father, Sum Tel Thoen, 37, a fisherman, said he didn't care that Christians were teaching his daughter. "It doesn't matter if my daughter is Christian. My focus is education," he said. "I can't read or write. I want my daughter to." He said he was pleased that his daughter was dreaming of getting a job someday, now that she can read, instead of spending her days collecting firewood. Brushing her black hair away from her large brown eyes, she said matter-of-factly, "I am too poor to go to school."

Her father said that he, too, was learning about the new faith from Im. He stood next to his daughter as she described Jesus. "He says, 'Don't steal other people's property, and if someone scolds you, be silent and don't scold back,' " she said, holding tightly to a paperback Bible, the first book she has ever owned.

This video that accompanies the Washington Post article demonstrates how many mission organizations team together to make this work happen.

All this interest in Vernacular Media got my head spinning around reaching our own culture. What are the vernacular media that we need to be using to tell people about Jesus? How are we telling gospel stories through novels, film, video games, small group gatherings, social organizations. How are we analyzing the cultures that surround us to discern how best to bring the gospel to them? For this is our task as the American church. Perhaps we can learn best from missionaries in the field ..... learn from them how we are missionaries in our field at home.

I forgot to add this link before I posted. Vernacular Media Services cooperates with other mission agencies around the world in figuring out culturally appropriate strategies....and they've put together this resource wiki ... a database that is continually being updated from people working in these fields....it's a great resource for anyone interested in evangelism and missions:
so go visit www.vernacularmedia.org to see the resources that they share.
Soli Deo Gloria