Cool Hand Luke: From Icon to Meme (and back again)

16th C work showing Luke creating icon of Mary

When most think of Luke, they think of the ancient physician who wrote a biography about Jesus.  But most don’t think of Luke as an artist.  In fact, Luke is counted as the patron saint of artists.

According to the writings of the early church, Luke was one of the first people to paint an “icon” of Mary, Jesus’ mother.  What is an “icon?”  The Latin word eikon simply means “image.”  The early church didn’t have cameras.  They didn’t have photograph albums, and they couldn’t “tag” Jesus on Facebook.  Icons were simple, stylized portraits used for Christian worship.  They mostly were portraits of Jesus and related saints, as well as painting narrative scenes from the Old and New Testaments.

They were also highly symbolic: the color red, for example, was usually used to convey

"Pantocrator," 6th C. portrait of Jesus. Note the two fingers representing His two natures

humanity.  Jesus’ two fingers were meant to indicate His two natures: fully God, fully human.  So if you had a basic understanding of the symbols and traditions of ancient iconography, you could find a rich meaning in the symbols of the early Church.

FROM ICON TO MEME

I say “if,” because as we fast forward to the present day, we realize that the concept of “image” has become completely unglued.  Beauty is assumed to be in the eye of the beholder, and along with it come goodness and truth.

We have replaced the icons of old with the memes of the temporary.  A “meme,” for those not tech-savvy, is basically a cultural fad.  It can refer to a viral video, a cartoon, a picture, a phrase, or anything else that can easily be passed around Facebook and the blogosphere.

In his excellent book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman wrote of the arrival of television, the combination of sound and image, as contributing to a breakdown in critical reasoning.  And so, too, memes have shaped the way we view and interpret the world around us.

A simply contrast between an “icon” and a “meme” shows us the way that our way of using image to make sense of the world has shifted radically:

Icon Meme
Static/unchanging Fluid/constantly changing
Communicate truth Interpret truth
Convey purpose Promote play
Reverence Sarcasm

THE JESUS MEME: WHY HE’S STILL COOL

Author and professor Barry Taylor writes:

“People would rather be perceived as cool than good; it is a postmodern virtue…Surprisingly, or not so perhaps, Jesus remains cool.  It’s just his official earthly representation – the church – that has been deemed ‘uncool.’…The perception that in spite of any ‘religious affiliations’ Jesus remains cool and is a subject of interest in the postmodern matrix extends to a continuing number of publications, books, and magazines devoted to wresting Jesus away from the authority and confines of the Christian church.…This is theology with a larger populist intention, the ultimate goal being the ‘saving’ of Jesus, to quote a recent title.  Saving Jesus from what exactly?  The stultifying, smothering confines of the church, and particularly the fundamentalists or conservatives, who, the consensus seems to say, have done Jesus a grave injustice by making him out to be just like them – uptight, overly religious in the pejorative sense, lacking a sense of humor, and disconnected from the way things really are.”  (Barry Taylor, Entertainment Theology, p. 153)

The end result?  A steady stream of cultural representations of Jesus.  While the icons of old conveyed Jesus as He was, the memes of today say more about the person who created them.  Some are serious, some are intended to just be jokes.

We have Madonna, who “crucified” herself for one of her concert performances, saying later that “we all need to be Jesus in our time.”

The song “Personal Jesus,” originally by Depeche Mode, has been covered by several other artists, including the dark imagery of Marilyn Manson’s video.

Kanye West did not one, but three different music videos for “Jesus Walks,” where classic imagery was blended with various settings of human need and depravity.

Urban outfitters has made quite a profit selling “Jesus is my Homeboy” t-shirts.

South Park portrays Jesus as a kind but typically ineffective character on a call-in advice show.

The film Dogma gave birth to the “Buddy Christ” image, used by the church in the film to make Jesus more appealing to the masses.

And if anyone is looking to get their pastor a gift, look no further than the Jesus action figure.

THE POINT

The point is that we live in a world of great spiritual confusion.  Like Theophilus, people have a basic idea about who Jesus was, but are unsure of their feelings toward the church.

In our world, the church has unfortunately shied away from clear teaching on Jesus in the name of political correctness.  We prefer teachings on social activism, happy marriages, and financial advice.  The result is that Jesus is increasingly being defined by those outside the walls rather than within them.

Icons were born from the idea that just as God became man, so too could truth became solid reality through artistic expression.  But even after Jesus returned to the Father after the resurrection, the Body of Christ was still present on earth in the form of His followers.  The Church has the great privilege of showing the world who Jesus is in both word and deed.

LUKE’S PORTRAIT

I like Luke because as both physician and painter, he possessed both the sharp mind of a scientist and the tender heart of an artist.  The magnificence of this series is that as we move through Luke’s gospel, we’ll see him paint a new and incredible picture of Jesus, watching his brush move across the canvas as we turn each page of his account.

So we hope you enjoy this series.  Be sure to check back frequently to interact more as we grow together.

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David Grohl: The Grammy’s, Art and the Gospel

If you saw the Grammy awards, you know that what rocked the house was not the presence of all the rising young stars, but the speech David Grohl made when the Foo Fighters earned the award for best rock performance:

“This is a great honor because this record was a special record for our band. Rather than go to the best studio in the world down the street in Hollywood, and rather than use all of the fanciest computers that money can buy, we made this one in my garage with some microphones and a tape machine.  To me, this award means a lot because it shows that the human element of music is what’s important. Singing into a microphone and learning to play an instrument and learning to do your craft, that’s the most important thing for people to do. It’s not about being perfect; it’s not about sounding absolutely correct; it’s not about what goes on in a computer. It’s about what goes on in here [the heart] and what goes on in here [the head].”   David Grohl, 2012 Grammy acceptance speech

The reason everyone’s talking about this is because, well, there’s some truth to it.  When Nicki Minaj becomes a pop icon, we really have to scratch our heads and wonder what exactly is wrong with our culture.

So we’re not just thankful for Grohl and the Foo Fighters for staying true to their craft, but we also can find some deep, spiritual insight in his comments.  Christian theology has always emphasized that man was made in the imago Dei, the “image of God.”  This means we resemble God, perhaps not in appearance, but in His character traits.  And the phrase “image of God” first appears in the opening chapter of Genesis, a chapter that primarily emphasizes God’s creativity.  This means that all humanity is similarly gifted with the capacity for creativity.

This means that all creative expressions have a spiritual side to them, even though they might not necessarily be explicitly “Christian” in nature.  Art – all forms of it – becomes a spiritual act.  But because art is a spiritual act, it has profound implications on the shaping of our souls and character.

In his work An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis observed that we can either “receive” art, or we can “use” art.  He explains:

“We sit down before [a work of art] in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it…[When we ‘receive’ art,] we exert our senses and imagination and various other powers according to a pattern invented by the artist…[When we ‘use’ art, we] treat it as assistance for our own activities.  ‘[U]sing is inferior to ‘reception’ because art, if used rather than received, merely facilitates, brightens, relieves or palliates our life, and does not add to it.”  (C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism)

What Grohl is (perhaps unknowingly) reacting against is the tendency to “use” music for the thrill of temporary, subjective experience.  Grohl admits the lack of perfection in his own art, but recognizes its value in contrast to the inherent  “forgetability” (yes, I made that word up) of so much pop music (remember the Spice Girls?  Neither do I).

And the problem, spiritually speaking, is that a tendency to “use” rather than “receive” numbs us to the inherent beauty that God breathes into the world.  When we teach ourselves to put on our iPods and “use” art that glorifies shallow, transient relationships, when we teach ourselves to medicate ourselves with synthesizers rather than musical chords, when we teach ourselves that excellence is determined by popularity, we have allowed ourselves to be shaped into people who fail to appreciate beauty and depth.

The problem, as I see it, stems from at least three key factors:

(1)    The subjectivity of beauty.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we’ve repeatedly been told.  This means that no longer are we concerned with traditional standards of beauty such as proportion, rhythm and progress, but rather evaluate beauty on the basis of subjective experience.  No longer do we ask, “Is the music good?” but, “Do I like it?”  And a generation beneath us is having an increasingly difficult time differentiating between those two questions.

(2)    The loss of moral center.  The artist Paul Klee once wrote that “The more horrible this world is, the more abstract art will be, which a happier world brings forth a more realistic art.”  Our world is fractured and broken.  The wave of technology has only brought such brokenness not only to our front doors, not only to our living rooms, but constantly fed to us through hand-held devices.  Just as the horrors of the last century brought us the abstraction of artists such as Kandinsky and Pollock, so our present world will continue to churn out “low” forms of pop music, often in an effort to numb us to the brokenness that we inhabit.  Stated another way, what’s the point of creating beautiful music if the world isn’t beautiful?

(3)    The culture of charisma.  Traditional cultures value the presence of authority, systems that help us evaluate things such as meaning and beauty.  But today popularity is governed by the ubiquitous cult of celebrity.  Value is determined by one’s number of Twitter followers.  In such a climate, we are forced to “use” art, because by its very nature it can never truly add to our lives or improve our character.

The Christian doctrine of creativity helps us navigate our way out of these problems by offering us a viable solution.

(1)    Valuing reflection over entertainment. In his excellent book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman observes the way our culture has been shaped into something that resembles Alduous Huxley’s Brave New World.  Postman argues that Huxley “was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.”  (Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, p. 163)  The solution, therefore, is to be a people who critically evaluate the standards of our beauty and creativity in the world around us.

(2)    Suffering should nurture, not stifle art.  In the movie The Shawshank Redemption, Andy and Red discuss the value of music.  Red insists that music doesn’t “make much sense in here,” referring to the bars of their prison world.  But Andy protests: Here’s where it makes the most sense. You need it so you don’t forget. … Forget that… there are places in this world that aren’t made out of stone. That there’s something inside… that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch. That’s yours.”  What’re you talking about?” Red asks, to which Andy replies: “Hope.”  

The optimism of a previous century collapsed under the collective weight of wars and rumors of wars.  Art gives voice to a culture that yearns for beauty and meaning, values that are integral to the Christian story.

(3)    Blurring the line between sacred and secular.  The language of common grace tells us that beauty, goodness and truth may be found in creative expression regardless of the faith of the artist.  There is no more “hard surface of secularity” (to borrow Barth’s phrase) in a culture that has become enamored with spiritual exploration.  It’s no accident or clever phrasing that the former pope spoke of the via pulchritudinous (“the path of beauty”) as a vehicle toward the via veritatis (“the path of truth”).  The arts form a natural bridge for truth in a world that suffers without it.

I’m thankful for Grohl and his optimism that beauty and authentic creative expression can be recovered.  And I’m glad to hear that great garage-band sound back in their music.  Is it “high art?”  Maybe not exactly.  But certainly award-worthy, and certainly a great teachable moment for a culture that has lost the capacity for reflection on such things.  I mourn the fact that such a moment moment will quickly fade with the “next big story” about a Kardashian wedding or something (the consequence of the “culture of charisma,” as I mentioned above).  Still, a good chance to pause and reflect, and to appreciate art far as the curse is found.

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“Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down” (Part 5): “God as the Center of Worship”

If you’ve missed it, we’ve been blogging through the book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time by Marva Dawn.  For reference, here are the links to the previous chapters:

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

In chapter 5, Dawn begins the book’s third section which focuses on the culture of the Church itself.   The present chapter is entitled: “God as the Center of Worship: Who is Worship For?”  She mocks her own poor grammar in the title, meant to emphasize that the purpose of worship is not a “what” but a “who.”

GOD AS THE CENTER OF WORSHIP

Dawn’s thesis in this chapter is that “in genuine worship God is the subject” (p. 76).  She emphasizes that God is both the subject of worship, meaning that worship is about the revelation of God’s character, as well as the object of worship, meaning that worship is focused on praising God.

While such statements may sound obvious to some, Dawn identifies the way that worship services have shifted from God as the center to man as the center.  And if we pause to reflect, we know this: how often do we hear someone say, “I got a lot out of today’s service,” or, negatively, “I just didn’t really get much from the service today.”  Such attitudes only reinforce Dawn’s earlier critiques about the consumerist impulse that seeks religious ceremony as a means to satisfy felt needs.

THE LOSS OF GOD AS THE CENTER OF WORSHIP

Dawn highlights four key reasons for such a loss:

(1)   Conception of the self: In today’s narcissistic culture, it’s difficult for anyone to see past their own needs and see the needs of others.

(2)   Authority: Absolute truth resides only in the individual.

(3)   Meaning Systems: We have abandoned the historical revelation of God for a God of our own imagination and preferences.

(4)   Spiritual Styles: There is a divergence between those who emphasize traditional spiritual discipline and those who wish to abandon all tradition to better adapt to the culture.

RECLAIMING THE CENTER

The bulk of the chapter is focused on the ways that the Church has often missed the mark in reclaiming God as the center of worship.  The chapter is among the longest in the book, so I’m summarizing in a few broad strokes:

Praise and Lament: While the Psalms contain a wide range of emotion, contemporary music has largely jettisoned the language of lament.  At the same time, praise has been equated with happiness, resulting in a style of music that is assumed to be praise solely because it is upbeat.

Should this surprise us?  In a narcissistic, consumer-driven, self-esteem culture, how could we expect anything but such a trend?  The problem, of course, is that the Church suffers when it loses the language necessary for Godly sorrow.  In the wake of 9/11, songwriter Michael Card raised the question: “Why do churches have praise teams but no lament teams?”  Probably the most spiritual response to this suffering was the performance of U2 at the Super Bowl that following January.  During a time when prominent, outspoken Christian leaders were arguing about why such a tragedy occurred, U2 gave voice to the brokenness that was felt by a nation, and offered hope for a place “where the streets have no name.”  I’m hardly suggesting that their message was distinctively Christian – only that the language of lament was found in the rock stadia rather than the walls of the Church.

Worship Styles: Dawn argues, quite convincingly, that worship styles are not the real issue, because both “contemporary” and “traditional” assume that the appeal of worship is human creativity.  She cites the fact that traditional churches (Catholic and Orthodox) have seen a recent increase in young Christians despite the repetitiveness of their liturgy – the appeal instead, according to research, is that such liturgies invite participants into the presence of God.

The Kind of God We Worship: The content of worship has often focused on personal feelings about God rather than God’s character.  As in our earlier post, lex orandi, lex credendi: the way we worship often forms our attitudes about what we worship.  The result is that God’s holiness is often minimized and marginalized.

Such a critique is nothing new to me – let’s be cautious that we don’t criticize with an air of spiritual superiority.  The issue has more to do with the imbalance of God’s attributes as described in worship, which often emphasize love to the neglect of other attributes.  If we do not fully understand God’s holiness, righteousness and, yes, even the politically-incorrect doctrine of His anger, how then can we truly understand the magnitude of God’s grace?

Mystery, Awe and Reverence: Ironically the appeal to personal feeling has numbed the worshipping community to the awe-full experiences of God’s majesty.  We’ve allowed the language of the marketplace to dominate God’s worship, and the result is the loss of a true, vivid encounter with who He is.  Dawn cites a lecture by Martin E. Marty in which he argues that while contemporary, seeker-driven worship services may draw crowds, they run the risk of allowing worship to become “measured by the aesthetics and experience of those who don’t yet know why we should shudder.”

The Language for God: Dawn concludes her chapter with a discussion of the way we describe God in our worship, both in music and in the sermon.  Much of her discussion relates to the way we describe God in masculine and feminine terms.  I’d prefer to sidestep this issue for the time being, for no other reason than the fact that this issue ranks much lower on the list of priorities for the church at present.

SOME CONCLUDING RECOMMENDATIONS

While I would have greatly preferred an appeal to scripture as much as sociology and tradition, Dawn articulates a genuine need in the content of contemporary worship.

But because I don’t like to align myself with critics without also pointing toward solutions, I conclude with a small sampling of music recommendations.   The following are simply some albums that I have found to be both musically appealing as well as theologically rich.  And they vary in style and genre, so don’t assume the list to be a monolith.  In no particular order:

David Crowder, “B Collision

Sandra McCracken, “The Builder and the Architect

Bifrost Arts, “Come O Spirit! Anthology of Hymns and Spiritual Songs

Derek Webb, “I See Things Upside Down

Gungor, “Beautiful Things

Red Letter, “Red Letter

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“Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down” (Part 4): “Worship as a Subversive Act”

If you’ve missed it, we’ve been blogging through the book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time by Marva Dawn.  For reference, here are the links to the previous chapters:

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

In yesterday’s post, I expressed caution regarding Dawn’s rather acerbic take on the idolatries within the walls of the church.  Chapter 4 is titled “Upside-Down: Worship as a Subversive Act,” in which Dawn offers a very thoughtful and helpful analysis of the struggle between faithfulness to God’s character and appealing to current cultural trends.  It is this attitude that allays any fears we may have had that we might be sliding to pure cynicism, and that Dawn is uninterested in leveling criticism without also offering a solution. 

Worship is “subversive” in the sense that true, authentic worship goes against the culture outside the church (the subject of chapter 2) and the idols within the church (the subject of chapter 3). 

Echoing Bach, she writes:

“If the Church’s worship is faithful, it will eventually be subversive to the culture surrounding it, for God’s truth transforms the lives of those nurtured by it.  Worship will turn our values, habits, and ideas upside-down as it forms our character; only then will we be genuinely right-side up eternally.  Only then will we know a Joy worthy of our destiny.”  (p. 57-8) 

WORSHIP IN THE WORLD OR WORSHIP OF THE WORLD?

The various technological and cultural trends that Dawn analyzed in chapter 2 have lead many churches to try and adapt to the needs of the culture.  The result, she argues, is that tradition has been supplanted by subjectism.

Tradition has always been counter-cultural.  When faced with tradition, Dawn observes that faith communities are usually split between two equal and opposite reactions:

(1)   Holding fast to tradition to the point of alienating the culture the church tries to reach.

(2)   The revitalization of tradition in order to attract those outside it. 

“To accent either [of these two extremes] without the other is to lose them both.”  (p. 60)

The Church holds truth and love as two similar extremes:

“The pole of truth is essential to keep the Church alive with theological content and depth.  The pole of love is necessary to minister to those who need that truth.  To cling tenaciously to truth in a way that excludes the uninitiated is to lose love in a gnostic superiority.  On the other hand, to be driven only by a marketing analysis of what people ‘need’ is to lose the uniqueness of the Church’s truth in a false attempt at love.”  (p. 60)

Nothing has changed in the years since Dawn’s book was first published.  When looking at these two extremes, I am reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s observation that Christianity stands as if on the edge of a knife – stray only a little to one side or the other, and we risk losing both theological truth and cultural relevance. 

Tim Keller writes:

“to over-contextualize to a new generation means you can make an idol out of their culture, but to under-contextualize to a new generation means you can make an idol out of the culture you come from. So there’s no avoiding it.”

MARKET SHARE AND THE WORSHIPPING COMMUNITY

Even recent emphases on church growth has hardly been concerned with “avoiding” such extremes.  Dawn cites Douglas D. Webster, who recognizes the significant challenge of “being church” in a world like ours:

“How do we present Christ to a consumer-oriented, sex-crazed, self-preoccupied, success-focused, technologically sophisticated, light-hearted, entertainment-centered culture?  How do we strategize, as Jesus did with the disciples, to distinguish between popular opinion and Spirit-led confession?  And how does the confessional church…engage the world?

Many respected church consultants are offering straightforward, unambiguous answers.  They are promoting strategies that encourage churches to establish a market niche, focus on a target audience, meet a wide range of felt needs, pursue corporate excellence, select a dynamic and personable leader and create a positive, upbeat, exciting atmosphere.”  (Douglas D. Webster, Selling Jesus: What’s Wrong With Marketing the Church, p. 20-21)

As we’ve already explored, the attractional church has become dominated by marketing strategies and promotional tools.  But Dawn cites Chistopher Lasch in analyzing the deeply rooted problems of consumerism:

“[Consumers are] perpetually unsatisfied, restless, anxious and bored.”

“[Consumers have] an unappeasable appetite not only for goods but for new experiences and personal fulfillment.”

“[Consumerism is an effort to answer] the age-old discontents of loneliness, sickness, weariness, lack of sexual satisfaction” and “feelings of futility and fatigue”

“[Consumerism] creates new forms of discontent peculiar to the modern age.” (Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, p. 72)

In light of this, Webster (cited above), expresses four concerns: (1) Churches who rely on marketing often underestimate the radical nature of the consumerist demand, resulting in a perpetual uphill struggle to fulfill the evolving felt needs of the culture, (2) if churches are appealing to consumers, how much can we hope to rely on strung-out, overworked, burnt-out people to form a dynamic Christian community? (3) the gospel message is reduced to (if not equated with) what is attractive, and (4) the Church is held prisoner to the felt needs of consumers. 

Can I add two more?

(5)   Church-shopping.  When we cultivate a climate of consumerism, is there any wonder why people are quick to migrate from church to church to satisfy a sense of spiritual boredom?  Obviously, people leave churches for a variety of reasons – sometimes perfectly good ones – but it is lamentable that so many are quick to abandon lifetimes of relationships for the next big thing.  “The music is more upbeat.”  “They have more young people participating.”  [Regarding the sermon]: “I cry every time I come here.”  And what’s truly, remarkably sad is that such excuses are presumed to not only be valid, but in some way Godly – such is the result of a religious faith that has been built on the shifting sands of consumerist demand and personal choice rather than on the solid rock of scripture and deep relationships. 

(6)  One-generation wonders.  Marketing teaches that you can only target one demographic group.  Stop and think: when was the last time you saw a product marketed towards the entire family?  Churches therefore often fragment and focus on one generation or one life-stage.  The result is that multi-generational churches struggle to meet the competing, consumerist demands of various life stages within the church. 

To be fair, the marketing strategies of current church growth trends are motivated by a profound, undeniable love for unbelievers.  But when church health is reduced to market shares and felt needs, what room is there for the vital truths of the gospel that shape our community?

COUNTER-CULTURAL, NOT JUST “RELEVANT”

Dawn writes that there will always be some truths that will not appeal to cultural tastes, yet are vital to our understanding of ourselves as humans and who we are in God’s grand story:

“Talking of sin and forgiveness certainly runs counter to the present culture, but the recognition of each and both together is the great gift of the Church’s worship to our world’s self-understanding.  Recognizing the potency of sin and evil but also knowing profoundly the greater power of God’s love and mercy frees believers to work for social change without flagging in zeal.”  (p. 69)

It is often assumed that the message of the gospel is to be delivered in a way that is “relevant.”  Such language is especially attractive to young people – often for the commendable desires to take ownership of their faith independently of their parents, as well as to have an impact on the world around them. 

The problem, of course, is that the church has been pursuing “relevance” for quite some time now, and often the results are precisely as Dawn and others describe.  Churches have done well at competing with one another, but done little to actually reach the culture it seeks to be relevant to.  In 2006 Outreach Magazine released a report that church attendance has remained nearly constant between 1990 and 2004, despite a nearly 18% growth in the total U.S. population.

Dallas Willard writes:

“A leading American pastor laments, ‘Why is today’s church so weak?  Why are we able to claim many conversions and enroll many church members but have less and less impact on our culture?  Why are Christians indistinguishable from the world?’ Should we not at least consider the possibility that this poor result is not in spite of what we teach and how we teach, but precisely because of it? Might than not lead to our discerning why the power of Jesus and his gospel has been cut off from ordinary human existence, leaving it adrift from the flow of his eternal kind of life?” (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy)

 When our church health is measured in terms of market share and consumer trends, is it any wonder than the Church has taught people to become consumers?  When we place high value on technological superiority, is it any wonder that members migrate to the church down the block that’s doing it even bigger and better?

But what if our values flow instead from the character of Jesus and the Great Commission?  Tim Keller writes:

“The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones….That can mean only one thing.  If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message as Jesus.”  (Tim Keller, The Prodigal God, p.15-16)

The solution cannot be an attempt at cultural relevance, for the gospel message will never truly be culturally relevant.  For the Church to be the Church, she must embrace a message that is decidedly counter-cultural:

“By offering music that educates instead of entertains, that uplifts and transforms through the renewing of the mind (Rom 12:2), the Church exposes the meaninglessness of our present culture….By maintaining a vital, balanced dialectic of thought and feelings, the Church displays the shallowness or emptiness of our culture’s laughter and trains people in habits for thinking.” (Dawn, p. 72)

Blind traditionalism leads to worship that is stale and stagnant.  But consumer marketing has led to worship that while exciting, is anemic and impoverished.  In the next chapter, Dawn examines the character of God in the worship of the Church as she works to offer a new paradigm for the Church’s worship.  

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“Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down” (Part 2): Technology and Generational Divides

We’re blogging our way through Marva Dawn’s book, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent TimeIn the previous post we looked at her opening chapter: “Why This Book is Critically Needed.” 

Chapter 2 begins her next section dealing with “The Culture Surrounding Our Worship.”  Dawn appeals to Wade Clark Roof for a definition of “culture:”

“Culture has to do with making sense out of life and formulating strategies for action; and the ideas and symbols that people draw on in these fundamental undertakings are, implicitly if not explicitly, saturated with religious meaning.  Religion is itself a set of cultural symbols.”  Wade Clark Roof, A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation, p. 5)

Dawn uses the term in this section to refer to “aspects of U.S. society at the turn of the century, attributes of our world that cause people in this time and space to make sense out of life in certain ways.”  (p. 18)

The second chapter is entitled: “Inside the Technological, Boomer and Postmodern Culture,” which will be the subject of this post, where we will see that technology and philosophy has changed the cultural landscape that God’s worshipping community inhabits. 

TELEVISION AND TECHNOLOGY

Dawn draws heavily from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to DeathShe agrees with his assessment that, like the characters in Brave New World, “people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacity to think.”  (Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, p. vii)

According to Postman, the telegraph was the first means by which information became reduced to a commodity.  Information could be conveyed without any actual context.  And what the telegraph did verbally the photograph did visually. 

Fast forward to the television age.  Television assembled words and images into a disconnected series of “sound bites” and “trivia,” whether on the evening news or on the game show.  Television provided the means to turn these “disconnected facts” not into coherence but into “diversion.” 

The results were twofold: a decreased emphasis on rational thinking, and a concomitant emphasis on emotional appeal. 

Television provides “a surfeit of entertainment [that] makes reasoning seem anachronistic, narrow, and unnecessary.”  (Kenneth A. Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture, p. 171)

Postman identifies the way that advertisers have capitalized on this shift:

“[An advertisement] is not at all about the character of the products to be consumed.  It is about the character of the consumers of products….What the advertiser needs to know is not what is right about the product but what is wrong about the buyer.  And so, the balance of business expenditures shifts from product research to market research.  The television commercial has oriented business away from making products of value and toward making consumers feel valuable, which means that the business of business has now become pseudo-therapy.”  (Postman, p. 128)

Dawn sees this as having a profound impact on the church:

“Church leaders must see how dangerous such a method is, lest we be tempted to let worship also be ‘market driven.’  We permit that to happen when we study the consumers/worship participants fancy more than we study what is right with God!  Then worship, too, becomes pseudo-therapy and not the healing revelation of God.”  (p. 24)

The technological age has also lead to a loss of intimacy.  Dawn draws from the various writings of Jacques Ellul, who argues that the industrial revolution brought an abrupt end to the closeness of family and community as the tilled earth of the family farm was replaced with the smokestack of industry.  The head of the house was now spending increased time outside the home, a problem later exacerbated during WWII when women also left the home to pursue careers.  Over time the family sedan eclipsed the popularity of public transportation, and isolation became the expected norm.  The neighborly stereotype of the front porch was replaced with the seclusion of the backyard patio.  And television and radio allowed Americans to experience life vicariously without the risk of actual intimacy. 

And, according to Dawn, worship suffers from this loss of intimacy.  “Lacking sincere intimacy in congregational fellowship, we often put false pressure on worship to produce feelings of intimacy….Alienated by our lack of true ‘public’ worship, many people, conditioned by our culture’s sterility, prefer merely to attend, and not participate in, worship.”  (p. 28)

Ellul suggests the presence of a “technological bluff” that highlights the advantages of technology while blinding users to its potential hazards.  Neil Postman calls this “technopoly:”

“[Technopoly] consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfaction in technology, and takes its orders from technology.  This requires a new kind of social order, and of necessity leads to the rapid dissolution of much that is associated with traditional beliefs.” (Postman, Technopoly,  p. 71)

 

BOOMERS AND POSTMODERNS

Dawn next identifies the distinctive cultural features of “boomers” and “postmoderns” (some readers may already be familiar with my series on Changing Generations from more than a year ago, which may be helpful if you want to read more of this stuff).  While the shift from modernism to postmodernism is hardly a generational shift, young people are more attuned to this shift simply from having grown up within the framework of postmodernism. 

Boomers

Dawn cites authors who suggest the 1960’s are actually framed between 1963 and 1973 with the assassination of JFK and the energy crisis and economic recession.  Through such jarring incidents, the questions raised during the 1960’s (“How can I be successful?”) gave way to a different set of questions in the 1970’s (“How can I be fulfilled?”). 

Such introspective attitudes have been fed by both the rise of technology as well as the many facets of a modern culture that has sought its identity in choice and autonomy.  “Higher” questions of God, truth and authority were moved to the periphery, often replaced with a search for “self-realization, self-help, and self-fulfillment.” (p. 32)

Postmoderns

A new transition has occurred recently in the shift to postmodernism.  While I appreciate the nuanced description that Dawn offers, I’d prefer to simplify for the sake of time.  Modernism emphasized the power of individual human reason.  All things could be known through science and through discovery.  Postmodernism rejected this, arguing, among other things, that there is no objective “self,” that all knowledge is based solely on the perspective of the observer.  Hence, truth claims are, at best, the “intellectual heritage” of a community (to borrow Richard Rorty’s phrase), meaning there is no one “master story” that can be used to make sense of life.  Truth and morality become entirely subjective and relative to the individual – what’s “true” for one person is not assumed to be true for another.  If the error of modernity was to claim that man can know everything, the error of postmodernity is to claim that man can know nothing. 

The following chart may be helpful in seeing the way that values have shifted between generations:

Modernism

Postmodernism

Purpose

Play

Design

Chance

Hierarchy

Anarchy

Centering

Dispersal

Selection

Combination

(Modified from Alister McGrath, A Scientific Theology, Volume 1: Nature, p. 122)

Historically, the advent of postmodernism was assumed to be a liberation from the oppression of the modern period.  Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly) the lack of absolutes and the diversity of viewpoints has only led to a pervasive nihilism.  To say that one may believe in anything is not altogether different from saying that one may believe in nothing.  When combined with the undeniable suffering of the last century, postmodernism has only deepened a generation’s cynicism and loss of hope. 

ACROSS THE DIVIDE

Through Dawn’s lens, we can see that the American church has been affected by the rise of technology and the shift to postmodernism.  To my mind, this has led to at least two broad divisions in the church today (and I would suggest they are interrelated):

(1)   Generational divide: Generational division is nothing new, but the recent technological renaissance has led to a world where the generations are farther apart than ever before.  Technology has tutored young people into valuing connectivity over intimacy.  The loss of intimacy also means a drastic increase in the number of young adults who delay marriage.  And the shift to postmodernism means that many young people are bored with the introspective self-help philosophies of the previous generation, and would sooner voice concern for their world than listen to a sermon. 

(2)   Stylistic divide: The ascendancy of technology means that worship is often expected to be all things to all people – surely we must find ways to appeal to mass audiences, and for many, the only way of doing this is to stay on the cutting edge.  The shift to postmodernism also means that worship music has become deeply personal, shifting its focus away from the attributes of God (the “product,” to use our marketing language from above) to the worshipper (the “market” or consumer).  Worship becomes equated with music; I’ve heard at least one worship leader express well-intentioned hesitation over making any statement corporately for fear of interfering with what God might be trying to say to each person individually (for my local readers, I’m not referring to someone you know, so don’t think I’m throwing rocks).

 At least part of this division is seen in the fundamental expectations of worship leaders.  “Traditional” churches have valued “respectability.”  The worship leader (usually a guy in a suit) is expected to lead the congregation in worship (I’ve been in more than one setting where the leader actually moves his hands as though conducting music, which may have made more sense in an era when people were reading from hymnals and could…you know, actually read music).  In “contemporary” settings, the value is “authenticity.”  The worship leader is on stage worshipping, and the congregation is invited to join him.  The difference is subtle, but reflects the experientially-driven culture that we currently inhabit.

Such divisions have fueled the consumerist impulse.  The New Testament describes the Church as the Bride of Christ.  Consumerism is the equivalent of casual sex: the immediacy and experience become more valuable than intimacy and commitment. 

WORSHIP SINCE 9/11

It’s worth mentioning that Dawn is writing in 1995, six years before the cataclysmic events of September 11, 2001.  From that day forward, it has been assumed that all forms of religion have the potential to be dangerous.  Americans are inherently distrustful of all institutions – even their own government.  The result is a divide between those who pursue personal spirituality and those who pursue entirely secular lifestyles (what Tim Keller calls “the disappearance of the mushy middle”).  Recent economic downturns and Wall Street protests will only intensify the cynicism of rising generations. 

To that end, Dawn’s words seem almost prophetic:

“No one denies the immensity of our world’s problems.  What can the Church offer in the face of them, in contrast to postmodernist despair?  How does our worship deal with the intensity and scope of suffering?  Do we proclaim true hope, universally accessible?  Are we equipped by our worship to work to ease suffering and to build peace and justice in the world?  Or do we merely provide a private happiness, a cozy comfortableness in our own safe sanctuaries?”  (p. 39)

Having now explored the cultural trends that affect the church from outside, Dawn’s next chapter will explore the various idols that affect the church from within.  

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Friends for Rent

It used to be that if you wanted to ride the see-saw, you could just ask one of your friends. Thank goodness those days are over. Now we have the convenience of being able to rent a friend.

Seriously.

Time Magazine reports:

RentAFriend.com  offers up friends for hire with prices ranging from $10 to $150. If you need someone to go to a movie with, go for dinner with or be a wingman on a night out with, you can just search the site and connect with someone who’s willing to do it with you—for a fee.

I haven’t seen the site. Frankly, I’m really curious about who sets the price. I think it would make more sense to do it as an auction, but that’s just me.

Time Magazine observes (rightly, I believe) the inherent absurdity of the whole thing:

While some of the suggested uses for the site do seem pretty practical (having someone show you around town or teach you a skill), many of them seem a bit like a crutch. Has social networking changed real-life interaction to the point where we need to pay someone to be a real-time friend? Is this the next step in social networking fads that continue to kill, you know, being social?

In his popular book, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam describes what he calls “social capital,” the idea that “social networks have value.” “[S]ocial capital,” Putnam writes, “calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a dense network of reciprocal social relations. A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital. (p. 18)”

Basically, what it all means is this: our quests for individualism and self-esteem has only led to a profound sense of isolation, a state that author Douglas Coupland refers to as a “cult of aloneness.” The end result is a society where friends may be requested, added and even (apparently) rented, but deep relational connections are few and far between.

The friend-rental site already has 200,000 members, and climbing. Clearly there’s something to this. The good news here is that the church can provide opportunities for deep social connections, both within generational boundaries and without.

Though I suppose I should warn all my friends out there:

I’m billing you all retroactively.

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Update Subscriptions/Free Book Giveaway

Hey all. Major changes are on the way. Starting next Friday the blog will have a new look and its own address (www.thornscompose.com). Not a major change, but it will simplify things as well as give me more control over the content.

This means:

Some subscribers must update their subscription status.

Previous Feedburner subscriptions will no longer function after Friday.

To subscribe, you must click the button on the sidebar:

      1. Click the button.
      2. Enter your email information.
      3. Check your email and click the conformation link.

Already a subscriber? You should not see a button but the following message:

You are subscribed to this blog (manage).

Those who see the above message will still be a subscriber after Friday.

Those switching from Feedburner to this new system may receive duplicate emails a day for a brief time. Sorry. Bear with me; I’ll try and remove the “bad” one ASAP.

FREE BOOK

I realize this is all very annoying. Sorry. To ease the pain, I’m offering a free book giveaway.

Next Friday I will be giving away a book to a lucky subscriber. So update ASAP to ensure your place in the giveaway.

The book I will be giving away is Jared Wilson’s excellent Your Jesus is Too Safe. It’s a funny, excellent book on the gospel and American culture.

Thanks so much for your patience and support.

I’ll be speaking at a local church in Hagerstown, Maryland tomorrow. Contact me if you are interested in details.

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Dealing with Blog Critics: Comment Guidelines Now Posted

Most regular readers will already know of the hostility that erupted over a recent blog post.  Following the example of another writer, I have deleted all comments from that post.

I have been very hurt by this, not only because of my own sensitivity, but because on a blog that finds readership from those of a variety of spiritual backgrounds, Christ was so poorly represented.  The question I found myself facing was how to deal with it.

Billy Graham, I’m told, used criticism redemptively.  Regardless of the nature or content of the criticism, Graham sought to learn something from what was said.  I’m certainly not comparing myself to Billy Graham, but I would like to think I have the humility and courage to learn something from the situation.

To that end, I admit that since I come from a generation raised on The Simpsons, sarcasm and irreverent humor is part of my vocabulary.  I need to be understanding of the fact that not everyone will understand my tone or intent when I use phrases such as “chill the heck out.”  While I would contend that these individuals also need to read my blog when I refer to my own writing as “garbage,” I also need to understand that sarcasm may be poorly received.

At the same time I stand by what I said.  In seminary you are carefully examined for issues of character and spiritual giftedness.  One of my greatest flaws has been an unwillingness to be confrontational.  My desire for gentleness must not override the need for rebuke and challenge.

I am greatly encouraged by my conservative friends who understood my intent.  Unfortunately I have failed to protect these individuals by leaving my Facebook profile public.  This has been corrected in order to protect them.

In seeking to understand the issue more fully, I’ve come up with several lessons that apply here.

(1)Biblical passages do not apply in an atmosphere of anonymity. Matthew 18 speaks of confronting wayward Christians.  Matthew 5 speaks of reconciling with others before proceeding in worship services.  Both passages assume face-to-face interaction.  When commenters hide behind a fake name and false identity, neither passage may be applied.  I can only move on.

(2)The gracious tongue must also be sharp. To paraphrase Martin Luther, you cannot be too gentle with the sheep, but with the wolves you cannot be too severe.  Titus and Timothy were instructed to rebuke with “all authority” (cf. Titus 2:15).  When Christians promote and/or defend immoral behavior, it must be challenged.

(3)Don’t use good words for bad things. Words like “humor,” “joke” and “political discussion” are good words.  Joking about God killing Obama is in clear, moral violation.  The Bible does not say “don’t kill your leaders.”  It says to “honor” them.  You can’t honor them by making jokes about their death.  Don’t hide sinful, dishonoring attitudes behind humor.

(4)Don’t use bad words for good things. People need to be rebuked and challenged.  This means that their feelings may get hurt.  Let’s resist the myth that we have the right to not be offended. A “rebuke” is a good thing.  Let’s not use a bad word like “arrogant” to describe it.

For the first time, I have been forced to establish policy regarding the comments section of this blog.  My reasoning is simple: this is a blog dedicated to issues of faith and culture.  Not everyone who reads this blog is at the same spiritual place.  Open hostility, such as has been recently witnessed, is unacceptable.  These guidelines are not intended to be control (frankly, they offer a great deal of freedom).  They are intended to protect.  They will permanently appear as a separate page at: http://thornscompose.wordpress.com/comment-guidelines/

They are reproduced below for convenience.  A hearty thank you to all who have shown their support.  I ask for continued prayer for encouragement and wisdom.

COMMENT GUIDELINES

Thank you for reading.  Your comments are welcome and appreciated.  But remember that you are my guest.  Guests in my home are expected to act respectfully.  I only ask you be as respectful here as you would in my living room.

This means that you are more than welcome to disagree.  You are not welcome to behave disagreeably.    I desire dialogue, not diatribe.

To that end I ask only that you follow these very simple guidelines:

(1)Provide the requested information:

Name: (first-name only is fine)

Email: (will not be made public or used for soliciting)

Website (optional): (Feel free to post a link to your own site/blog)

(2)Real names only.  Comments made under false names will be automatically deleted.

(3)Disagreements must be based on content.  Please be specific.  Comments containing undocumented accusations (including personal accusations) will receive warning and may be deleted.

(4)Absolutely no name-calling.

(5)Stay on topic.  Do not leave comments unrelated to the post.

(6)Again, you are my guest.  I reserve the final judgment on what is and is not appropriate.

Violations:

Comments violating these guidelines will be deleted.

After two such violations, you will be banned indefinitely from posting comments.

Thanks for respecting my house.  Would love to hear from you.

Mr. Smith Goes to Nineveh: Why Obama Critics Need to Chill the Heck Out

 “DEAR LORD, THIS YEAR YOU TOOK MY FAVORITE ACTOR, PATRICK SWAYZIE. YOU TOOK MY FAVORITE ACTRESS, FARAH FAWCETT. YOU TOOK MY FAVORITE SINGER, MICHAEL JACKSON. I JUST WANTED TO LET YOU KNOW, MY FAVORITE PRESIDENT IS BARACK OBAMA. AMEN.”

Even if you’re one of the five people in America who don’t have a Facebook account, you recognize the above statement as the name of a Facebook group jokingly(?) offering prayers for Obama’s death. 

To my knowledge, there’s nothing distinctively Christian about the group, though the form of a prayer brings an obvious association with evangelical Christianity and, indeed, I’m aware of many who are jumping on the online bandwagon.

It’s a passing thing, to be sure; at least I should hope. But it does reveal the growing anti-government attitudes that seem to be swirling in certain political circles, and the fact that technology can so easily be used as a political platform.

In a recent interview, former president Bill Clinton observes this same phenomenon, noting how technology has changed since even the recent past:

“There’s the same kind of economic and social upheaval now…Then you had the rise of extremist voices on talk radio. Here you have a billion Internet sites…they can communicate with each other much faster and much better than they did before.….Now everybody has got a computer, Web sites are easily accessible. And you can be highly selective and spend all of your time with people that are, you know, kind of out there with you…”

Idolatry thrives in an environment rich in unexamined emotionalism, precisely the environment offered by the instantaneous, connective medium of the internet.

Now mind you, I am hardly downplaying the need for political involvement. But no one could possibly confuse this kind of anti-government paranoia with responsible social action.

Al Mohler is such a clear mind on this issue. He writes:

Love of neighbor for the sake of loving God is a profound political philosophy that strikes a balance between the disobedience of political disengagement and the idolatry of politics as our main priority. As evangelical Christians, we must engage in political action, not because we believe the conceit that politics is ultimate, but because we must obey our Redeemer when He commanded that we must love our neighbor….we are concerned for the culture not because we believe that the culture is ultimate, but because we know that our neighbors must hear the gospel, even as we hope and strive for their good, peace, security, and well-being. (R. Albert Mohler, Jr. Culture Shift, p. 4)

That’s precisely it, isn’t it? The problem is that for many, culture has become the central issue, and those who threaten our preferred order are enemies to be eliminated.

CONCERN FOR NINEVEH?

The city of Nineveh was the last place Jonah wanted to go, as there existed deep hostility toward the Ninevites. Not without good reason – the Ninevites were notorious for being a barbaric, oppressive people. To compare this hostility to the political division we’re seeing today is quite laughable – which is all the more reason it’s so illustrative of the absurdity of the present conflict.

God called Jonah to go to Nineveh so that they might be saved from destruction. Jonah headed in the complete opposite direction. When he finally does get to Nineveh, he becomes angry that they repent and turn to God. What’s more, he’s openly angry at God’s merciful character – saying that he knew all along that God would spare them. For a brief time, he is happy under the shade of a plant, but again turns bitter when a worm comes to destroy it.

What can we learn? At minimum we can make four very general observations:

  1. Jonah would rather maintain division than promote conversion.
  2. Elimination of Jonah’s enemies was preferable to God’s mercy.
  3. God’s mercy angered Jonah’s desired social order.
  4. Jonah’s personal comforts were more valuable than his fellow man.

The story of Jonah concludes on a note of irony – God asks Jonah whether his pity towards the plant is more justified than God’s pity towards His wayward people.

PRIORITIES

Control – this is what it often boils down to. Political preferences and involvement is one thing, but this collective hostility is just absurd.

Observations?

  1. Is elimination > conversion?
  2. Do we spend more time promoting politics than promoting the gospel?
  3. Similarly, are we more upset over those who ignore the constitution than those who ignore the gospel?
  4. Which would excite us more: for our President (or our neighbors, for that matter) to publicly commit to following Jesus, or to become a Republican?

How we address those questions speaks volumes about our priorities. Most, I fear, would come back with a long list of “But…” statements. Again: political involvement I’m ok with. Facebook groups about praying for the President’s death? A symptom, I suggest, of a much deeper cultural and spiritual psychosis, one that must be exorcised in order to have a meaningful impact with the world.

Frankly, the defensiveness I routinely observe among Christians may be a very good sign of just how unexamined we’ve allowed ourselves to become.

LESS THAN MISSIONAL

When she learned of this group’s existence, a friend of mine replied, “that Ghandi quote just keeps replaying itself over and over in my mind….”

The quote she is referring to is the famous one: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.”

Ouch.

Our impact on the world has to go deeper than a political agenda. As Christians, we must work hard to strike more than just a nerve. Charles Colson writes:

“Politics is not the church’s first calling. Evangelism,…providing discipleship, fellowship, teaching the Word…are the heartbeat of the church. When it addresses political issues, the church must not do so at the risk of weakening its primary mission.” (Charles Colson, Kingdoms in Conflict, p. 290)

This anti-government rhetoric does not just “weaken” the church’s mission; it sabotages it. Those who feel a draw towards such rhetoric might do well to lay off the keyboard for a while, quit the lame Facebook groups, and just learn to chill the heck out.