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No such thing as secular

Updated: 2016-10-27T14:07:00Z


Bruce Springsteen’s Long and Noisy Prayer


Entitled Born to Run, naturally, Bruce Springsteen’s highly anticipated and Posted on 10/27/16 Entitled Born to Run, naturally, Bruce Springsteen’s highly anticipated and completely self-penned memoir riffs on his roots, his family, the music that inspired him, the faith that emerged from the ashes of dominating religiosity, the demons that still haunt him, and the way he sees himself in the halcyon glow of stage lights, FM radio, vinyl, and today’s digital technology. Rock fans are certainly not accustomed to this kind of poetic transparency, especially from artists as influential and private as The Boss. Yet this is what makes Born to Run—from the non-traditional writing style to the exhaustive scope of the subject matter—such a delight. Like the sweet spot found just behind the beat of a great groove, there’s a mysticism on display here that is amazing to behold. On the final page, after reciting the Lord’s Prayer as a benediction, he describes the entire effort—both the book and the music that came before it—as his “long and noisy prayer.” Awesome. Who knew Springsteen could write so well? Sure, any fan can rattle off examples of his lyrical prowess, but crafting 500 pages of stories is an entirely different enterprise. He starts at the beginning, recalling his youth spent, literally, in the shadow of the Catholic Church in Freehold, N.J., the son of Irish and Italian parents in post-war America. He switches between present and past tense the way a guitarist flips between his neck and bridge pickups, depending on which tone is called for. Each section is short, compelling, and easy to digest. He sets a mood and sticks to it. It is humorous, tragic, inspiring, frustrating, and satisfying. Without the backing of the greatest band in rock and roll, Springsteen rocks nonetheless. That Bruce Springsteen became, and remains, one of the biggest names in American music is certainly one of the great graces of the modern era. Coming out of the context of rock’s coming-of-age in the 1960s, Springsteen and his band focused on bar music; the music of the people. R&B and soul shaped him and protected him from the excess and vapidity of so much 1970s schlock. Having studied the soul bands that frequented the clubs in nearby Asbury Park, The Boss understood why fans went to see bands, and what made American music great. While other artists labored to express themselves and make statements, Springsteen’s mission was always to provide an escape from workaday reality, in which so many of his fans were trapped. He saw his job as that of a servant, just like the blue-collar men and women on his street. Rock and roll was an escape for him, and he intended to hold that door open for as many people as he possibly could. In these pages we are treated to a frank, if stylized, retelling of what made and makes Springsteen the larger-than-life artist he is. We get more context for the religious imagery we hear throughout his songs; namely his deep history with the Catholic Church and the non-traditional Christian faith he now embraces. He admits that, although he rejects many of the elements of orthodoxy, he still believes he has a “personal relationship with Jesus,” and that, try as he might to get away, he’ll always be “on the team.” Although the shadow of the steeple looms large as a motif throughout his story, this is no ponderous theological treatise. Springsteen also gives us the names of the artists whose music inspired him to pick up a telecaster. We are treated to a private tour of his artistic, spiritual, and political evolution. We get to hang out backstage as he manages to maintain his intimate and personal core on the biggest stages in the world. He tells us how it feels to age, to see the world change around him, and to wonder where he fits anymore. In his stories we hear and resonate with the questions he has been asking—and the deliverance he has been seeking—for ov[...]

Why Loving Our Neighbors Includes Voting Down Ballot


I will cast a vote this year for a public office that deals with a host of pressing public Posted on 10/26/16 I will cast a vote this year for a public office that deals with a host of pressing public issues: economic development, agriculture, urban infrastructure, environmental quality, and land use, to name just a few. What’s more, the official who wins the office will have some serious authority, including the power to levy taxes and borrow money without approval of other elected officials or voters. I can’t think of another position in my state with that sort of unchecked power (even if it’s limited to certain places and objectives). Yet, despite these purposes and powers, few voters know anything about the office. Fewer still are talking about the race to fill the seat. Most citizens would be hard-pressed to name the candidates or the outgoing incumbent, let alone explain the goals and authority of the job. In the hierarchy of offices on the ballot, it’s near the bottom. The office is Drain Commissioner for Kent County, Mich. Perhaps the name alone helps explain its obscurity. “Drain commissioner” just sounds painfully bureaucratic, technical, and perhaps irrelevant and even a little gross. And the job description doesn’t generate much more enthusiasm. Drain commissioners manage surface water by building and maintaining, well, public drains–or, more precisely, all of those culverts, retention basins, storm drains, and open channels that are hidden in plain sight throughout our communities. But scratch a little deeper and it’s clear that this public work is as crucially important as it is nitty-gritty. Drain commissioners deal with one of our most basic goods–water–in the most basic ways. The goals of the office, which include implementing state law on flood prevention, storm water management, and soil erosion, are focused on both protection and restoration of the best uses of land. Advancing those goals in practice can be an enormous challenge. Commissioners are frontline public servants who must often make tradeoffs or seek difficult balance among competing purposes: a clean environment, agricultural production, robust transportation infrastructure, health and sanitation, and so on. Some Michigan counties have recast the position as “water resources commissioner” to signal the evolving pressures of a wide-ranging job with a great deal at stake. Yet most of us care about these officials’ performance only when there is a failure of the vital systems they oversee. Just ask the people of Flint in the wake of their water crisis, which was a failure of public leadership that few citizens imagined until it was too late. In a September article at Capital Commentary, Stephanie Summers called Christians to rooted citizenship. As we consider what that means in the upcoming election, we should take some of our cues from the lowly drain commissioner, who reminds us that some of the primary decision-makers in policy areas of highest complexity–the environment, for example–are not necessarily officials at the highest levels of government. As justice-seeking citizens, we must confront the special challenges of how to vote “down ballot.” As justice-seeking citizens, we must confront the special challenges of how to vote “down ballot.” Political scientists often say that the United States presidency has become a mismatch of capacities and expectations. Citizens demand more from presidential candidates than that highest office can deliver. We imagine that presidents could clean up environmental hazards in low-income housing or restructure energy production or reduce CO2 emissions if they only had the will. Of course, even presidents with that kind of will don’t have the capacities to act alone in a system of separate and federated powers. Yet we often vote as if they do. But what about public officials down the ballot? Here I would argue[...]

Meet Evan McMullin, the Candidate of Choice for Frustrated Christians


Earlier in October, with only a month left until the American presidential election, a Posted on 10/24/16 Earlier in October, with only a month left until the American presidential election, a relatively unknown third-party candidate achieved a milestone: polls in Utah began showing Evan McMullin at a statistical tie with the major-party candidates. The statistical analysis site FiveThirtyEight explained how it was technically possible, although extremely unlikely, that McMullin could take enough electoral votes to prevent either major candidate from reaching the required 270 votes, which would send the decision to the House of Representatives, where McMullin is reportedly well-liked and well-known. With Donald Trump’s continued decline in the polls and the general ambivalence voters have towards Hillary Clinton, McMullin could then be elected president. Since the release of those positive polls, McMullin’s popularity has only increased, especially among Mormons and evangelicals. I am one of those evangelicals. The appeal of McMullin and his running mate, Mindy Finn, is that they offer a hopeful conservative vision for America, one that is not based on the fear-mongering, conspiracy theories, and racism of Trump and one that aligns much more closely with my own Christian convictions. Faced with a strongly pro-choice candidate in Hillary Clinton and an arrogantly immoral candidate in Donald Trump, many white evangelicals have abandoned their historic commitment to demanding high character in public officials and embraced Trump. But some of us have come to the conclusion that when a candidate is unfit for office, they are unfit, no matter how unfit their opponent is. McMullin supports a robust pro-life platform of appointing Supreme Court Justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade, reducing the number of abortions by reducing unwanted pregnancies, and providing more support for mothers. As a Mormon, he understands the importance of preserving religious freedom. Where the GOP, led by Trump, seems to be abandoning minorities in favor of stirring up white resentment, McMullin has called for criminal justice reform and earning the votes of minorities. While Trump demonizes Muslims and belittles their efforts to combat extremism, McMullin rightly sees the Muslim community as invaluable to our national security. On almost every major policy, Trump and McMullin diverge in some way, but there is even more divergence in their character and rhetoric. Whereas Trump unapologetically lies, mocks, and abuses others, McMullin is gracious and honest. He represents a new movement among younger conservatives towards diversity, principled pluralism, and virtues. Since I cannot in good conscience support Trump or Clinton, endorsing Evan McMullin has been an easy decision, despite his lack of experience in office. (His background includes time as a CIA operative and the House GOP’s Chief Policy Director.) The only problem is that McMullin is not on the ballot in most states, and even with a write-in campaign, the likelihood of him tying up enough electoral votes to prevent either candidate from winning seems vanishingly small. Why bother voting for a candidate who almost certainly cannot win? Because the major-party candidates support policies and ideals that contradict Christ’s command to love your neighbor, because a vote for Trump is a vote for Trumpism in the future, because McMullin’s values and ideals are good and worthy of support, and because there still is that faint hope that he can get elected. In my estimation, that faint hope is still more likely than Trump winning and being a good president. Comments (14) [...]

Does The Good Place Have Room for Grace?


Whatever the afterlife turns out to look like, The Good Place suggests there will probably Posted on 10/20/16 Whatever the afterlife turns out to look like, The Good Place suggests there will probably be a lot of bureaucracy involved. This isn’t only true of the sharp, thoughtful new NBC comedy, created by Michael Schur (of Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine fame). It’s also true of many of the last century’s most indelible depictions of the next world, from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (with its “conductors” and heavenly appeals court) to Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life (where the newly dead are systematically examined, then loaded into trams “moving on” or “going back”). The question in all of these portrayals are the same: What do we deserve? Where do we belong? And who is in charge of determining that? When Eleanor Shellstrop (played by the irresistible Kristen Bell) arrives in the hereafter, she is told that the universe weighs each person’s good and bad deeds. If there’s a lot more good than bad, presto! You wake up in the Good Place, a heaven that is three parts wish fulfillment (Live in your dream home! Gorge on a zillion flavors of FroYo! Spend the day flying!) and one part life-project fulfillment (Spend eternity with your perfect soulmate! Achieve your ultimate purpose!). But if there’s more bad than good, or even if you’re just “medium,” as Eleanor posits, there’s no place for you in the Good Place. Michael (Ted Danson), the cruise director of the heavenly town where Eleanor has landed, gives her a little audio snippet of the only other destination: the Bad Place. It’s just people screaming in agony. We haven’t gotten far enough into The Good Place to know whether there are any portals between the places, or whether anyone ever gets reassigned after the initial judgment. But Eleanor has a personal reason to be anxious: she’s actually quite a bad person. And at least one of her neighbors—maybe more—also came on a counterfeit ticket. The underlying tension in Schur’s show has to do with fairness. Eleanor is enough of a bad person to worry most about being found out, not about the injustice of getting what she didn’t deserve. But as her supposed soulmate Chidi (an ethics professor, played by William Jackson Harper) tries to teach what being good actually entails, she becomes more and more aware of the conflict between the way this afterlife placement service is set up and the actual relationship of moral goodness and consequences, both heavenly and earthly. What doesn’t appear explicitly in The Good Place—at least not yet—is the notion of grace. Eleanor discovers what she assumes is a mistake in the accounts. In dealing with that discovery, she never questions whether it is in fact the accounts or perhaps some more personal force that rule all that is in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. Either way, she finds herself on the receiving end of unmerited favor. Even though nobody has acknowledged the concept, Eleanor is a picture of prevenient grace. For the first time in her life or afterlife, she wants to change, because of where this grace has placed her. And maybe that makes her more than medium good after all. Comments (0) [...]

Seeking Justice in Light of Ava DuVernay’s 13th


Most of us know that slavery was abolished in 1865 by the 13th Amendment. What we might Posted on 10/20/16 Most of us know that slavery was abolished in 1865 by the 13th Amendment. What we might not know is that there’s an exception clause explicitly permitting slavery “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” That troubling phrase lies at the heart of 13th, a new documentary directed by Ava DuVernay that explores how a loophole in what should have been the instrument of African Americans' freedom has instead perpetuated their bondage under a new label: “criminal.” It’s a tough film to watch. The interviews and investigative reporting are compelling on their own, but DuVernay overlays the information with a harrowing stream of uncensored images that sketch a disturbingly consistent portrait of black oppression, all the way from the Civil War to Black Lives Matter. Punctuating the visual onslaught is a running infographic connecting each chapter of the story with ever more precipitous rises in the nation’s prison population. By the time the credits roll, the film’s argument is as hard to deny as it is to swallow: mass incarceration is basically slavery reinvented. I’m not black, but I’m sympathetic to DuVernay’s thesis because I’ve been on the receiving end of institutional punishment and know how dehumanizing it can be. I’m also aware that mass incarceration disproportionately impacts people of color. I recall riding the "chain bus" (a prison transfer bus, so called because you're chained or handcuffed to at least one other inmate) and seeing something that could have come from a history book about slave plantations. In a remote, rural town on the outskirts of Houston, far enough away from civilization that few knew it was there, the land was cleared out for miles in every direction and laid out in such a way that if you were to break free and try running, you'd have no place to hide. Prisoners were sent out in "hoe squads" to till the soil, harvest the plants, and weed the furrows. When we were pulling into this complex, there were tractors pulling trailers full of inmates out into the fields. Just picture that scene: cartloads of black men (you could count on one hand how many white people you saw in those trailers) being hauled out by a white guy in a cowboy hat. It's hard to say slavery isn't still alive when you see something like that. Statistics back up my experience. Blacks are five times more likely to be imprisoned than whites. In fact, there are more black men presently under correctional supervision than there were enslaved to southern landowners in 1850—a shocking statistic that lends credence to the idea that the prison-industrial complex shamelessly profiting from this surge in criminal convictions is a reincarnation of the economic beast that was antebellum slavery. America’s overuse of incarceration was bound to bring us to this dark place. It made us willing to collude with private parties who lack economic incentive to reduce crime or rehabilitate offenders. Once you pollute justice with profit, you end up with a punitive machine that—quite apart from what’s in the best interest of crime victims, offenders, or the community—insists on being fed a steady stream of bodies to fill increasingly squalid institutions. And now this monstrosity has effectively reduced thousands of minority Americans (as well as foreigners and the mentally ill) to a surplus population monetized for others’ gain. I don’t think the God who defends the vulnerable and champions the oppressed is going to hold me blameless if I turn a deaf ear to the cries of my brothers and sisters in chains. I may not be able to change a system, but I can unite my voice with others calling upon those in the halls of power to t[...]

What We’ll Lose with the Closing of Books & Culture


As a student at Westmont College, I would wait for professors in the small common area in Posted on 10/18/16 As a student at Westmont College, I would wait for professors in the small common area in the English building. Among the leather couches, creaking floorboards, and wardrobe items from C. S. Lewis’ estate were always copies of Books & Culture: A Christian Review. The magazine’s articles, including some by my professors, would flit from book reviews to cultural commentary to personal stories. The magazine was like a dance and the editor, John Wilson, was the choreographer. Inspired by all the ideas at play, I'd tuck my own burgeoning binder of poetry under my arm and get to work editing the college literary magazine. Books & Culture is a literary common room in print form. Ideas, books, and strong voices meet to speak to each other. The magazine is eclectic; no knowledge, no book is off limits. Its dominant mode is rigorous thought coupled with intellectual play. Compare that to the way we lob Facebook statuses at each other. We block, unfriend, and unfollow. Ideas are rarely gifts to be gently prodded and engaged with; they are, rather, blunt weapons in the war of “us” versus “them.” When it was recently announced that Books & Culture would be closing after a 21-year run, it struck me not only as a death knell for a magazine I loved, but also an ominous sign for Christian intellectualism. In fact, film critic Alissa Wilkinson lamented exactly this in a Books & Culture article earlier this year: But what evangelicals have lacked on a broad scale is a vibrant culture of criticism. We know how to criticize, even critique, but true cultural engagement with entertainment and the arts has been restricted to small pockets that take hits on all sides. We don’t know what criticism is, or what it’s supposed to do. We don’t read it, support it, or produce it, and in many cases, we actively disparage it as harmful to our mandate to be creators. The closing of Books & Culture isn’t simply about one periodical’s lack of funding. It points to something much deeper: we do not love, in habit-forming ways, what Christian criticism offers. We would rather scroll through Facebook, turn on Netflix, and order takeout. We are content to play around in “mud pies,” to reference Lewis again, because we “cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”⁠ This doesn’t mean we should shame ourselves for occasionally checking out at the end of a long day, but it does mean that we should be discerning about how we spend our time and money. Most of us are not creators or critics; we are consumers. We consume our music, our movies, our books, even our churches. We gulp down content without chewing. Too often, we settle for anything to fill us up, rather than seek out food (actual, intellectual, or spiritual) that is full of sustenance, care, creativity, planning, and presentation, food that makes us feel loved, seen, and cared for. And so we need artists-as-critics who can point us to this food and teach us how to chew it, who can show us again how to delight and what to love. If, as James K. A. Smith writes, we are what we love,⁠ what does the closing of Books & Culture say about us? Perhaps what we love is not Wilkinson’s “true cultural engagement” but, rather, gorging ourselves. We fill up our appetites indiscriminately at a buffet of distractions. We have oversized ears, mouths, and stomachs. We do not ponder, turn over, ask questions, make connections, or challenge our own thinking. We skate on the surface of things. Writing good criticism and reading it—like the kind that Books & Culture will only be able to offer through the end of this year—can [...]

The Downside of Dylan Winning the Nobel Prize


The 2016 Nobel Prize in literature, an honor that usually rewards obscure authors with Posted on 10/17/16 The 2016 Nobel Prize in literature, an honor that usually rewards obscure authors with much-needed recognition and cash, has been given to one of the most famous pop artists in the world: Bob Dylan. Though Dylan has written both an acclaimed memoir and a collection of poems, the Swedish Academy specified that the Nobel was for “creating new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” A Nobel Prize in literature to a popular folk singer? What’s going on here? I find myself conflicted over this award. Is the academy performing some sort of art surgery, wresting Dylan’s lyrics from the context of both their musical settings and the unique voice that delivers them? As a fan of thoughtful music in general and Dylan’s genius in particular, I’m thrilled to see so many people contemplating the brilliance and influence of his work as a result of this honor. It’s hard, however, not to feel that something crucial is being missed when we reduce Dylan to a lyricist. Bob Dylan is a folk artist in the best and truest sense of that word. Few popular artists have so successfully synthesized diverse influences into personally authentic new work. He builds musical houses—some grand and sprawling, some creaky and haunted—and then inhabits those houses with characters, stories, confessions, observations, and fables. It is the authenticity of those structures that has allowed him to craft deeply spiritual and often surprisingly Biblical art in way that is accessible to all audiences. Dylan’s words don’t simply ride alongside the music; they become a part of it. In this way, his music is far more incarnational than it is propositional. Isolating his lyrics as written poetry misses the point and furthers the attitude that the words are the important part of songwriting. Popular Christian music, for example, has often been built around highly propositional lyrics wrapped inside whatever music would most effectively deliver them to listeners who already agree with them. Too often the music—even the vocals—have felt like the cheese you wrap around a dog’s pill. These types of songs generate enthusiasm from listeners predisposed to agree with them, even as they often seem irrelevant to audiences at large. Dylan has always demonstrated a more holistic way of crafting songs, in which the musical accompaniment—and even the broken voice at their center—are inexorably connected to and mutually dependent upon the lyrics. He is certainly one of the best lyricists in the history of popular music, but to celebrate his words in isolation is to miss out on the incarnational aspect of his music. Are Dylan’s lyrics literature? Reading is an interactive process between the reader and the author. It takes time and effort. Pop music, especially in the modern context, is a mostly passive pursuit. People tend to do the vast majority of their music consumption while driving, playing video games, posting on Facebook, or working out. It’s an add-on. The act of simply sitting and listening seems positively retro in this digital age. That process was, however, and still is, the way in which Dylan’s art works best. He has, for over half a century, used a disposable medium to deliver a transcendent impact. That is his subversive gift. Calling his lyrics “literature” is a flattering concept, but my worry is that—like those praise songs that are all about the words—such an honor takes away from the holistic beauty of the songs themselves. Comments (2) [...]

How You Can Help in Haiti


Editor’s note: World Renew, a sister ministry of TC, has been working in Haiti since Posted on 10/13/16 Editor’s note: World Renew, a sister ministry of TC, has been working in Haiti since 1975 and is currently involved in relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Matthew. This piece, originally published on the World Renew website, reports on the agency’s efforts. It has been just over a week since the fierce winds of Hurricane Matthew hit Moulin Cheri’s home in the community of Duchity, Haiti. The seven-room house this mother shared with her two children was swept away in the Category 4 storm, which killed over 1,000 people in Haiti. Only three of the 1,000 houses in her community were left standing. “Even the clothes that I bought for my new baby are gone,” said Cheri, who is eight months pregnant. For now, her two young children are staying with a friend in a neighboring village. She had tears in her eyes as she talked with World Renew staff about the devastating disaster. In Haiti, World Renew is responding to Hurricane Matthew in partnership with the local people of Duchity and other communities in Grande Anse, a region at the tip of Haiti’s southwestern peninsula. The majority of the people in this region live in inaccessible rural areas and make their living as small-scale farmers. Many farmers have lost their homes and crops. “Driving into the mountain communities in the southwestern peninsula was shocking,” said Senior Project Manager Ken Little of World Renew’s Disaster Response Team. “Every structure had major damage, and most houses had no roofs at all. Any tall tree had been snapped in two, and the larger ones were uprooted. In the community of Duchity, there is no food. The adults are just as hungry as the children.” When Little met with staff, partners, and community members in Duchity, there was no place out of the sun, so they sat together on the benches of a ruined church structure. World Renew has been implementing community development projects in this area, and Little is working with a 2,000-member farmer cooperative to respond to the hurricane damage. Assessments so far point to shelter as the most immediate need among Matthew survivors. With local and international staff and organizations, World Renew is providing tarps for temporary shelter and will begin to implement shelter repair and reconstruction projects in the weeks and months to come. Nearly 400 tarps have already been distributed. All supplies, such as roofing sheets, nails, and cement are being purchased locally to help those affected by the disaster and to strengthen the local economy. Immediate food aid is also being distributed to replace widespread crop and food stock losses. World Renew has a history of disaster relief work in Haiti, having responded to the catastrophic earthquake that devastated much of the country in 2010 and killed nearly a quarter million people. Last year, the agency wrapped up its earthquake-response project, which included food distributions, shelter reconstruction, well drilling, and agriculture support. World Renew has been working in southwest Haiti to transition back to long-term development work in this area after finishing up this five-year, $17-million response. “Haitians are just beginning to live with the new reality that this storm has brought,” Little said. “The loss of life, the extensive destruction of homes and crops, and the loss of livestock leave thousands of Haitians more vulnerable than before. Your donations are urgently needed to support those that are hardest hit.” To contribute to World Renew’s efforts in Haiti, click here. Comments (0) [...]

Canned Pumpkin and Christian Authenticity


Part of the magic of fall, at least for me, is the proliferation of all things pumpkin. Posted on 10/11/16 Part of the magic of fall, at least for me, is the proliferation of all things pumpkin. That’s why I was distressed to come across a recent Food & Wine exposé claiming that canned pumpkin is actually made from squash. I don't like squash, and it felt like someone was out to ruin pumpkin pancakes for me. But as it turns out, the claim is slightly overblown—and I probably do like squash more than I realized. The problem is that, like many, I imagined there was a sharper distinction between pumpkins and squash than there really is. “Squash” is a botanical term, while “pumpkin” is a culinary reference. All pumpkins are squash, by definition, though only certain squash are customarily called pumpkins—and any edible variety technically could be. Canned pumpkin is derived from a cultivar of Cucurbita moschata, a squash species that yields better-tasting and more easily processed pumpkins than the ones we carve at Halloween (which come from Cucurbita pepo). It also typically contains one or more other varieties of squash blended in for flavor and consistency. Commercial labeling standards permit this, even when pumpkin is listed as the sole ingredient. So what we have here is an ambiguous definition, compounded by some misleading packaging. Canning companies put the familiar orange gourd on the label because that’s the only pumpkin most of us recognize, even though we'd probably make fewer pies if it was the only thing in the can. In this case, ignorance is bliss. Still, I think there’s a spiritual parable for us to heed in this matter. People might grow less disillusioned with Christianity if we didn’t act like there’s a greater distinction between the words “sinner” and “Christian” than there really is. In our well-intentioned desire to disown the sin in our lives, we too often encase our brokenness in unrealistically photogenic packaging that diverts scrutiny and leads others to believe we’re more “put together” than we are. Worse, many of our congregations tend towards a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to Christian fellowship that preserves an outwardly pleasant but inwardly anemic community, where it’s neither comfortable nor safe to air our struggles. This is tragic, because all Christians are sinners in the same way that all pumpkins are squash. To call ourselves "Christian" is, by definition, to proclaim that we are sinners. Brokenness, after all, is a prerequisite for grace. The difference between Christians and other sinners isn’t primarily the way we look on the outside; it’s what the Holy Spirit is doing on the inside. No matter how dubious the concoction of our lives might be, the alien righteousness of Jesus is the only ingredient God sees. And that sort of faith needs to be lived out in an authentic spiritual community where we can enthusiastically revel in the “already” of our accomplished salvation while safely navigating the “not yet” of our sanctification. This requires courage, though, because outsiders may scoff at the dubious assembly of sinners God redeems and calls his own. Yet by dropping the façade, we testify to how God meets us where we are, even if he doesn’t leave us there. We invite others to experience a living faith community that may not always look pretty on the outside, but which always has room for one more. Comments (3) [...]

Luke Cage’s Call to Action


It’s impossible to talk about Netflix’s newest Marvel series—Luke Posted on 10/10/16 It’s impossible to talk about Netflix’s newest Marvel series—Luke Cage—without noting how deeply rooted in African-American culture it is. And it’s impossible for me to mention that without immediately acknowledging how awkward, and problematic, it is for me as a white person to write a post about this quality of the show. And yet, this is why I think the series is important. Luke Cage is the third Netflix show based on “normal” superheroes living in New York City. Like the characters in Daredevil and Jessica Jones, Luke Cage (Mike Colter) doesn’t wear spandex and has no ambition to save the world. On their best days, these heroes make their impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhoods a slightly more hopeful place to live. Luke Cage, like Jessica Jones, also functions as a platform for social views. If Jessica Jones went out of its way to reverse the idea of the “male gaze” in its plot and cinematography, Luke Cage goes all-in on creating a superhero world that’s about far more than superheroes. First, the obvious: Luke Cage, a large and physically intimidating black man, has super-strength skin that is resistant to bullets. It’s impossible to type that sentence and not immediately think of the scores of recent police shootings of African-American men. That the show—at least during the first six episodes I’ve seen—doesn’t forcibly draw attention to that is to its credit. Luke Cage doesn’t need to sledgehammer its point with the power of its eponymous hero’s fists. Cage’s skin being a source of his strength rather than a source of danger is in itself a powerful idea. Yet the show goes so much further. Unlike any Marvel movie or series I’ve seen, Luke Cage puts music front and center. An early fight scene is set to a Wu-Tang Clan song. The soundtrack also references the blaxploitation films of the 1970s. The nightclub owned by the villain is the setting for extensive numbers by real artists such as Raphael Saadiq or Faith Evans, whose powerful performances create a specific sense of space. Beyond that, characters continually make reference to the importance of knowing black history and living in the legacy of both local and national black heroes. The “n-word” is used several times, but each time another character—usually Cage himself—pushes back against its use, claiming it is demeaning. In other words, by the end of the first episode Luke Cage establishes an atmospheric presence that is proudly, purposely black. The casting of the show, meanwhile, is almost uniformly African-American, with only one white supporting character getting more than a few seconds of screen time. As a white viewer it’s impossible not to notice this. As I watch Luke Cage, it’s not that I’m treated as an outsider to this world as much as I’m being invited into a world that isn’t mine. By watching Luke Cage and subtly feeling like I’m the “other,” I’m able to realize in a small, insignificant way what it must be like to live in a world in which my skin tone doesn’t fit what’s considered “normal.” This mirrors my own faith journey over the last several years. As a follower of Jesus I’ve been forced to realize how marginalized the black community in America is, and to ask what I can do to be a part of reconciliation. Even in this—the topic of race and spirituality—Luke Cage has something to say. In the show’s fourth episode we find out that “Luke Cage” isn’t our hero’s original name. In an attempt to br[...]

The Chicago Cubs: Suffering to be Good


I do not like the Chicago Cubs. As a son of the Milwaukee suburbs and having worked at Posted on 10/10/16 I do not like the Chicago Cubs. As a son of the Milwaukee suburbs and having worked at Miller Park in high school, my blood bleeds Brewers blue and definitely not Cubbies blue. Now, living in the Chicago suburbs for school, I find myself surrounded by Cubs fanatics.  Even as a cynical observer, though, I’ll admit the 2016 Cubs’ season has been very impressive. And one reason they’ve nearly won me over is because they’ve been showing how good they are instead of telling me. Last year, the Cubs promoted a hashtag on social media: “#WeAreGood.” This drove me nuts. Just because you say you are good does not mean you are. If you stood on Addison Street outside of Wrigley Field and yelled, “I am Superman,” that does not mean you are Superman. Granted, the Cubs were pretty good during the 2015 season, but I don’t want to be told this. I want to be shown this. That is exactly what the Cubs have done in 2016. Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Jake Arrieta headline one of the most talented baseball teams I have ever seen, and they let their actions on the field speak for themselves. Bryant was third in the National League in total home runs for the season. Russell has become one of the most entertaining short stops in the majors at the age of only 22. The Cubs’ pitching had the smallest earned run average of any team in Major League Baseball and had the third-most strikeouts. Their on-the-field success has nearly won me over. They no longer need to say #WeAreGood, because they have shown me that they are. But that good would not have come if it were not for the long suffering of the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs rebuilt under Theo Epstein, who stayed the course as president of baseball operations even when the Cubs were awful. Being a general manager in Major League Baseball is one of the toughest jobs in all of professional sports. When Epstein took over in 2011, the Cubs were not good. Epstein made hard choices. He made smart trades for prospects and did not waver even when the Cubs did not find success. He knew that rebuilding the Cubs was going to be a long and difficult process. Now, five years later, the team is reaping the benefits. Watching the Cubs, it strikes me that this is much like Christian life. One of the challenges for us as Christians is to not only claim that we pursue goodness, but to actually follow through on that claim with our actions. James 3:13 reads,“Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” Yet we do not always back our words up with visible proof of the “good” we are called to.    Perhaps this is because we are scared of the suffering that comes along with the pursuit of goodness. Yet in baseball as in the Christian life, there is no goodness without struggle. Just like the rebuilding process in baseball has many benefits, so does the suffering that comes with goodness. As Christians, we know we are going to fall short. We know we are going to sin. We know we are not perfect, but we also know we are called to imitate Christ. Christ did not only say he was good; he also showed it. He lived humbly, was a servant, and loved. All of that was self-giving and exhausting. The suffering of Christ did not only come on the cross, but through all of his mission on earth.   Christ invites us to suffer with him. 1 Peter 5:10 says, “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.&rdq[...]

Bon Iver and the Sounds of Change


“Skinny Love” and “Re: Stacks” were some of my favorite Bon Iver Posted on 10/07/16 “Skinny Love” and “Re: Stacks” were some of my favorite Bon Iver songs in my early twenties. Back then I prided myself on knowing about a band before they went mainstream, and I hung out with a like-minded group of friends who were mainly interested in music, film, literature, and art. Recently I turned 30 and developed a growing nostalgia for the “cool me.” At home with a preschooler and toddler, art revolves around paper plates and popsicle sticks. And while I’m behind on my music game, I’m on point with Elmo, Daniel Tiger, and PAW Patrol. My role as a wife and mom has changed me significantly, so I can relate to the significant change in Bon Iver’s sound on the new album, 22, A Million. I was a different person in my single, early twenties. Though parts of that person are still in me, I’ll never be able to completely recreate my old self, because change has progressively moved me forward. As we are entering the fall season, with leaves changing to yellow, red, and brown, I’m reminded that change brings a form of death to us. Christians see an echo of Jesus in the way the leaf must first die and fall before we get to the resurrected buds of spring. With 22, A Million, Bon Iver similarly shows us how change is a necessary progression forward. The man behind Bon Iver, Justin Vernon, has made a significant departure from the two previous albums. For Emma, Forever Ago was a stripped-down debut, with bare vocals and contemplative lyrics. Vernon’s second album, Bon Iver, Bon Iver, brought a fuller sound by incorporating more instruments and collaborators. 22, A Million features a new playfulness and experimentation with sound. Vernon has traded in his little friend, the acoustic guitar, for a portable synthesizer, sampler, and customized vocoder. The majority of the songs have enhanced vocals, which often seem to disrupt the arrangement. Vernon also draws heavily from saxophone sections, reportedly weaving 150 saxophones into the mix. If the past albums were simple in presentation, Vernon now offers chaos tied and looped together into a vast web of complexity. (It should also be noted that lyrically, 22, A Million offers a complicated web of religious references, some of which are explored in this Christ & Pop Culture post.) On 22, A Million, Vernon progresses forward in his own way, and he isn’t looking back. This sort of change can be uncomfortable for us, because it is a form of death. The old passes away and something new is born. Much like the sonic contortions of 22, A Million, change feels like a distortion and a disruptive interruptance to the daily flow of life. Yet change is not only a necessary part of life, it’s also a crucial benefit. It’s interesting to note that Vernon uses distortion and disruption to move us forward toward the serenity of the last few songs on the album. “00000 Million,” the final song, has more of the old Bon Iver in it, with the simple beauty of heartfelt vocals accompanied by a piano. 22, A Million loudly builds to a place of soft calmness. Such is change. Though we serve a God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, he is also the sovereign ruler over the change in our lives. Change can be the purifying flame God uses to make us like his son and remind us that we are dependent creatures. We can be surprised by the bumps along the way, but ultimately if we trust in the kindness of the Good Shepherd’s staff and rod we will be led to green pastures and still waters. The soft calm that 22, A Million builds to echos the state of hear[...]

Donald Trump and the Trouble with Taxes


If taxes are in the news and it isn’t early April, then the story must have Posted on 10/05/16 If taxes are in the news and it isn’t early April, then the story must have something to do with politics. The slow boil of controversy surrounding the tax returns of presidential candidate Donald Trump has now bubbled over into a hot mess of hubris, greed, and grasping for power. And while the odor of political and economic machinations may be enough to turn one’s stomach, there are legitimate and important questions about the moral status of taxation and the Christian duty to, as Paul puts it, “Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes.” Note, however, the conditional status of Paul’s injunction. A great deal hangs on that little word, “if.” Who gets to decide if we owe taxes and how much? The answers to these questions are pretty clear: the government. But as anyone who has filed taxes knows full well, establishing the actual amount that is due is often much more complicated. This is due in no small measure to the complexity of the American tax code, which currently clocks in at 74,608 pages. The more wealth and assets you have, the more income you have to declare, and the more of those pages come into play. When filing your taxes, there’s some truth to the adage “more money, more problems.” So while we can affirm the general duty to pay taxes, actually discharging that obligation is in reality a bit more difficult. In fact, the complexity of the tax code can obscure the many ways in which the current system actually helps the wealthy. The rich can afford specialized attorneys and tax professionals to help them optimize their returns to minimize their payments. Many of those thousands of pages of tax code include specialized options for high-income households to spread out their obligations and, in some cases, negate or minimize them over time. When one exploits the tax code in a way that allows one to pay no net income taxes, is that intrinsically wrong? Perhaps the best way to look at it is via that final number, the amount a person owes or does not owe after establishing all the facts of his or her income and losses. In the final calculation, if the amount owed is zero or less, then Paul’s conditional “if” no longer applies. The government has established that such a person has no tax liability, so no further taxes need to be paid. If we sense that something is wrong even when the law has not been violated, that might be an indication that there are some underlying problems with the law itself. A few other distinctions are in order as well. There is an important difference between legal tax avoidance and illegal tax evasion. So too is there a difference between complying with legal requirements and meeting our moral obligations. Thus it may be possible to pay what is owed in taxes by law and still violate moral and Christian norms. We do so, for instance, when we seek to “maximize after-tax income” out of a spirit of greed and miserliness. One final distinction is also in order: the difference between paying taxes and giving in Christian charity. Thus Paul writes that “If you owe taxes, pay taxes,” but he also writes that “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Paying taxes is a matter of justice, while Christian giving is a matter of charity. There is no duty to pay anything other than what we owe in taxes. But whatever we do owe we must pay in good conscience and out of a spirit of justice. And, as Christians, we shou[...]

The Birth of a Nation, in Exodus and 1831 Virginia


Two things made me very uncomfortable recently: revisiting the death of Egypt’s Posted on 10/05/16 Two things made me very uncomfortable recently: revisiting the death of Egypt’s firstborn in Exodus, as part of our Scripture reading in church, and watching The Birth of a Nation, a dramatization of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion, which also involved rampant death and was largely motivated by Turner’s understanding of Scripture. These instances made me uncomfortable partly because they have a lot in common. The Birth of Nation is, in fact, an act of Biblical exegesis even more than it is a historical drama. The movie depicts Turner’s transformation from a plantation preacher who espoused appeasement into a revolutionary who came to see the Bible as a call to carry out God’s righteous wrath. (In the rebellion, some 55 whites were murdered, followed by the retaliatory killings of about 200 African-Americans.) The movie explores, compellingly if somewhat clunkily, how the same God-given text could be used by white slavers to justify their oppression and by black slaves to motivate their violent insurrection. Preaching on Exodus 12 last Sunday, my pastor (who had not seen the film) connected the story of God striking down the firstborn of Egypt with liberation theology, which developed in Latin America and was expanded by African-American preachers during the civil rights movement. James Cone, one of the early voices of black liberation theology, described it this way in Black Theology and Black Power: “...unless the empirical denominational church makes a determined effort to recapture the man Jesus through a total identification with the suffering poor as expressed in Black Power, that church will become exactly what Christ is not.” In Exodus, the oppressed Israelites are not only the poor—they are slaves, like those living under the white power structure of 1831 Virginia. And in both instances, massive death takes place in the name of God’s righteousness, in an attempt to liberate his people from the oppression under which they live. What do we do with this? How do we reconcile our understanding of a merciful God with the reality of killing that is done in his name? Crucial distinctions can be made between the two stories, of course. The actions recorded in Exodus are those of God himself, as described by Moses but not initiated or committed by him. The Birth of a Nation, meanwhile, wants to depict Nat Turner (played by director Nate Parker) as a Moses figure. (One of the “visions of what’s to come” that he experiences consists of an ear of corn that oozes blood.) Yet ultimately he was one man whose actions were driven, in part, by his own interpretation of the Bible. Given those distinctions, however, I still think it’s instructive—particularly in this racially charged moment in the United States—to see the people of Israel and the slaves of the American South as brothers and sisters under oppression. And in turn to see the Gospel as a message not of comfort and placation, but as one of spiritual liberation. If the plagues were in part an overturning of the Egyptian gods and the system of oppression they allowed, Turner’s rebellion could also be seen as the attempted overturning of the economic god of 19th-century America and the system of slavery it demanded. I wonder what it would be like for those of us who have not experienced oppression—because of our class, birthplace, or skin color—to read the Bible as if oppression was all we knew? My pastor put it this way: “The oppressed read a different narrative than[...]

Antibiotic Resistance: Have We Misused God’s Good Gift?


For years now there has been a building alarm about antibiotic resistance among those who Posted on 10/04/16 For years now there has been a building alarm about antibiotic resistance among those who study disease, medicine, and globalization. Wonder drugs like methicillin were rendered ineffective by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) within a decade. In hindsight, 10 years without serious resistance was an incredibly long time. Newer breakthrough drugs like ceftaroline led to resistant bacteria within a year. Both the amount and rate of resistance are growing and making matters worse, as the development of new drugs to take the place of ineffective ones has slowed to a trickle. The CDC says that antibiotic-resistant bacteria already sicken more Americans than cancer. The broader public has finally begun to catch on. In 2013, the New York Times warned of more than 20,000 deaths a year from antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Last year, the BBC announced: “World on cusp of post-antibiotic era.” Finally, last month, the United Nations met to discuss the threat that these so-called super bacteria pose. The document prepared by that meeting is remarkable. In it, the high-ranking members of the UN state that they: Acknowledge that the resistance of bacterial, viral, parasitic and fungal microorganisms to antimicrobial medicines that were previously effective for treatment of infections is mainly due to: the inappropriate use of antimicrobial medicines in the public health, animal, food, agriculture and aquaculture sectors; lack of access to health services, including to diagnostics and laboratory capacity; and antimicrobial residues into soil, crops and water: within the broader context of antimicrobial resistance, resistance to antibiotics, which are not like other medicines, including medicines for the treatment of tuberculosis, is the greatest and most urgent global risk, requiring increased attention and coherence at the international, national and regional levels. “The greatest and most urgent global risk.” In a world of Ebola, Zika, HIV, malaria, tuberculosis, lack of access to clean drinking water, and lack of global healthcare, the UN recognizes that the world’s greatest health risk comes from the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria. The problem is serious, growing, and complicated. Why this is happening? In part, resistance is the result of an abused gift. The advent of antibiotic drugs was a medical miracle to a degree that has not been matched in our lifetimes. Infections that were life-ending became easily treatable. Antibiotics are a redemptive gift. God’s blessing and provision through science has equipped us to be able to stop suffering and prevent disease. But we found the power of antibiotics too alluring and we began to overuse them. As the generations who first received the gift of antibiotics have passed, we began to use these gifts in ways they were never intended to be used. Antibiotics are a regular part of animal feed—not to prevent illness, but to speed growth. Antibiotics are prescribed for non-bacterial infections constantly. As recently as 2013, 73 percent of patients diagnosed with bronchitis in the United States were prescribed antibiotics, despite the fact that we have known for decades that zero percent of bronchitis cases are caused by bacteria.   Another reason why this is happening is that we mistakenly believe all bacteria are dangerous germs that need to be killed. As Ed Young writes in I Contain Multitudes, we are an ecosystem filled and covered with huge numbers of bacteria. We depend on them for our health. [...]