Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The New Normal is No Normal

I was at the gym the other day and, per usual, one of the TVs is always tuned to HGTV. HGTV is almost always featuring their biggest stars: Chip and Joanna Gaines. I like those home shows as much as anybody, although I rarely care who's on them - whether it be carefully curated semi-celebrities or random people buying a house.

I got to thinking, though, that I seem to remember some small hubbub before Christmas, where a media outlet tried to embroil the Gaines' in controversy over their membership in a congregation where the pastor expressed very typical American Evangelical views on homosexuality. Maybe it was the timing - things getting lost in the holiday shuffle and people not wanting to be part of a witch hunt for Christmas - or maybe it was imply that people like them and their show so much, but it seemed to die off.

I went back to google to learn about what went down and found some interesting stuff. Chip and Joanna Gaines made a very specific effort NOT to make any statement about gay marriage or homosexuality. Yeah, maybe you can still infer that because they're part of a congregation with strong opinions that perhaps that's how they feel - BUT, they went out of their way not to say anything. The response was: "we love everyone," and "we'd rather be wrong than unloving." Those are great statements, as far as I'm concerned, especially given what was likely an uncomfortable and unwelcome situation with pretty big stakes for them financially.

However, I realized that this only became a story because of manufactured news. Yes, a story came out about their pastor in such a way the Gaines' were all but forced to say something. Outside of the Gaines' actual statement (to which almost no one linked), there was no coverage outside of spin. The larger public was really only aware of any of this because websites that are specifically in favor of one opinion used these statements to slyly move the conversation over to their "side."

Coverage from one "side" was typically something along the lines of "HGTV stars refuse to denounce hate-filled pastor," but the other "side," led with stuff like "HGTV Stars Show How to Stand Up For Marriage." This is the real problem. Everything is fodder for some culture war and nothing can be taken at face value. Christians are happy to cheer an honest and loving response, but, if their media is any measure, are completely unwilling to live it.

I'm reminded of Hacksaw Ridge, the Mel Gibson movie that was out recently. It's a powerful story about non-violence and one man's commitment to it in the midst of war. It's a tremendously inspiring story of lives saved in the midst of death and death-dealing, but it left me very conflicted. I'm just not sure how to reconcile a movie that celebrates violence and non-violence at the same time. It's almost as if our society says, "Non-violence is great, just don't ask me to do it." As a Christian - that feels as much like rejection as it does like acceptance.

TIME magazine just ran a cover story about how this next generation emerging doesn't understand gender as binary or even something worth using to distinguish between people. It talked about how both "traditional" and "LGBTQ" activists are thrown off by the notion that younger people don't want to be defined. The whole conversation around pinning down an identity seems foreign to the next generation. It's like looking at penicillin and trying to figure out how to weaponize it.

This is at the heart of every major societal argument we're currently having: the desire to control the narrative, to define "normal.

Don't criticize the President, respect the office. Be upset with the country, but don't protest the flag. Pick a bathroom and stick with it. Take a side. Stake a claim. Define yourself, then defend yourself. It just doesn't make sense. We've some how entered a war where the battlefield is our ability to define each other. I get that one of the core biological traits of humanity is our inherent desire to compare new things to things we've seen or experienced before - that's where notions of race and gender and definition come from - but we've risen about our base instincts in so many ways (or at least we aspire to do so), why can't we add one more?

I don't know Chip and Joanna Gaines - I like the TV show, when I've seen it - but taking what they said at face value, it seems like they're trying to say: "the normal is love." People seem to have a hard time with that, but I suspect that's pretty close to the gospel.

This isn't (or doesn't have to be; I don't know their intentions) a political strike in the midst of a battle. People seem to want to see someone play the rules of the game well, but what if they're just trying to change the rules or play a different game altogether?

I don't know where its visible or if anyone will see it, but I changed my gender on Facebook to "human" today. It's entirely inconsequential, I'm sure, but it feels good. People are people before (or in spite of) whatever else they might be. If we started there, it might save us a whole lot of anger, stress, and heartache down the line.

There is no "normal," and that is the New Normal.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Reclaiming Hope by Michael Wear

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware a free book isn't enough to assuage my cutting honesty. If I've failed to write a bad review, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

Reclaiming Hope is a pretty straightforward look at the author's involvement with two Obama Presidential campaigns and one full term in office, mostly as liaison with the religious community (and primarily with evangelicals). I imagine Wear has no real "home" in the polarized world of American politics and religion. He explains and defends the positive involvement of the Obama White House in religious affairs as strongly as he critiques the missteps. I've heard some of the left are pretty upset with his condemnation of the administration's political leadership - particularly their distaste for evangelicalism and religion in general and their devotion to political strategy - this is justified anger, for sure, but that doesn't make Wear wrong.

It's rare to see someone in politics who is also loyal to some non-partisan moral standard. Wear seems to truly be committed to seeing his faith convictions played out in the public sphere regardless of what party they may help or hinder. It's an amazing and admirable portrayal that can be seen as equally biting and approving of President Obama and his personal as well as public faith. I can't believe anyone truly politically connected would find any enjoyment in Reclaiming Hope, but the book does as the title implies - it gives great hope, especially to someone like me who finds literally nothing redeemable in just about any human institution, let along the halls of power, that people can actually enter the demon fray and emerge alive.

Now, that being said, the book ends with a sort of philosophical and theological treatment on hope that Wear isn't really qualified or all that good at elucidating. I find many of his presumptions narrow and his opinions weak, but although this is the conclusion of the book, it's not really the important part.

For example, one sentence pretty much sums up the nagging at my conscious throughout the book, but particularly the final section: "A holistic approach to justice and the well-being of our neighbors is inconceivable without political involvement." I agree with Wear's next sentence, that politics is one way in which Christian can love their neighbors, but I vehemently disagree with the first. I believe strongly that the Church, the people of God, are called to be an alternative to the world. That quoted sentence makes sense if you're using "politics" in the generic 'way humans interact with each other,' definition; I'm just not sure that's how Wear defines it and it's why I can't quite go there with him.

He repeats the old tropes that not voting means muting ones voice and even, at one point, says "Christians are obligated to participate in politics." I have heard him speak in other venues and I respect Wear as a person, but I find that mentality so misguided and anti-gospel, it hurts my soul. At the same time, this book is proof, as I said, that people can survive DC with a conscience intact, so far be it from me to think I'm right about everything.

The book is good, truthful, honest, and well written. It's engaging and not overly long. It's not preachy or partisan and it wreaks of integrity. It's a good book written by a good man for no ulterior purpose. Quite a rarity, both in politics AND evangelical publishing. If you think it sounds interesting, it almost certainly will be. Check it out.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze.com® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Religion Is A Crutch

I don't mean, by the title, to necessarily say religion is bad. It's funny how, with religion or God-related stuff, any analysis short of perfection is interpreted negatively. If I said, 'don't eat too much ice cream,' Ben & Jerry aren't going to be personally offended or get defensive. We might argue back and forth exactly how much is 'too much,' (with me on the side of more, quite likely), but the notion that there is such a thing as too much of a good things doesn't generally phase people... except with religion (and possibly anything else people are in denial about their dependence on).

It really is the language of dependence and addiction that makes the most sense to me here. I'm not saying that too much of God is a bad thing - that would be difficult to justify, whilst also affirming the notion that God is active and present in all places at all times - but God and religion are not the same thing, no matter how close to interchangeable we make them in our practice.

In technical terms, dependence is when someone needs something in their lives to function normally; addiction is when that dependence hampers normal function. Lots of people are chemically dependent on caffeine; very few are truly addicted to it. You may heard the term "functional alcoholic;" I doubt that's the technical way to say it, but you get the point.

I see often people who have adopted religion as their drug of choice. Usually it is a dependence on the emotionalism of religion where this crops up most often, but it could also be a rational or logical dependence as well - a defense mechanism to avoid dealing with the chaos that otherwise exists in our lives.

For those of you not regularly tuned in to this blog, I think of religion as the practices that stem from our core beliefs, although for this particular issue it might be helpful to expand that definition to include those practices which stem from our explicit religious affiliation; our intentional, religious worship. It really can end up being like a drug.

People use religion to fill some emotional void, rather than adopting beliefs and practices that shape and form a lifestyle. Obviously, every belief and practice shape and form a lifestyle (that's the first definition of religion I gave above), but often people embrace "religion" without intentional evaluation of how it works or what it does to them.

It's almost a preventative commitment, rather than a proactive one. Choosing faith, sometimes very fervently, fills a void of self-doubt or uncertainty - and our often over-emotionalizing of religious experiences just feeds the problem. People attach substantial significance to what are often chemical reactions in the brain.

Now, I don't want to discount emotion. Often a life-changing ecstatic experience does roughly the same thing as, for example, a breakthrough in psychotherapy. Emotions are real and we have them for a reason: they help our mind and body cope with experiences beyond our immediate comprehension. I wonder, though, how many contemporary worship services are really methadone clinics? Yeah, it's better than being strung out on the street, but it's not a place you want to spend your life.

We play up the emotional aspect of the preaching or the worship as a means of escape. We seek to give the parishioners (and maybe ourselves) some hit of euphoria that will get us through the day - largely because we've come to understand that ecstatic experience as God, rather than something with may (or may not) be a result of experiencing God. I can't help but think of Elijah on the mountain, waiting to see God, a God who was not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire, but in a still, small voice.

In a sense, we've created a golden calf called religion and manipulate it in ways that bring us comfort rather than challenge. I hate to through two straight bible references at you, but in the famous story, the Israelites were not constructing a god to replace Yahweh (at least not in their minds), but a representation of Yahweh that they could see, touch, and manipulate. We're far more comfortable with a god like that - an object - than some largely unseen, personal, relational God.

As I said, it happens with nearly every religion and with those religions that leave God out. Rationalism, both within theism and without, operate in similar ways: constructing a world view that is malleable and defined. The practice of religion as such is just as enabling and addictive as any ecstatic worship around the world.

Religious euphoria activates real parts of the brain that can be measured and studied (I haven't seen research on this, but as a pretty rational person, I wonder if rational certainty creates the same kind of euphoria - it makes sense to me anyway) - the same things happens when people take Ayahuasca - in fact the big draw of it is to have a "religious" experience without the religion, to escape the realities of your "you" for a time.

I'm not really opposed to either practice, quite honestly, (worship or ayahuasca) but we have to be sure we're using religion as a means of real personal growth, as a model (community) that makes us better rather than one that just makes us feel better for a time. Are these practices something that shapes and forms us along our understanding of humanity and purpose, or are they a means of manipulating our world for personal comfort?

I think I'm pretty firm in my belief that Jesus Christ did not come to create a religion, but to abolish religion altogether. The things he taught work counter to most religious practice and purpose - and yet religion is our most natural response to encountering truth beyond our comprehension and this we have Christianity.

Perhaps overt religious practice is an inescapable part of humanity (often times I suspect it is), but that doesn't mean it has to be a crutch, enabling us to live lives of our own making. At the very least, we should be aware of the ways in which religion shapes us and perhaps be working each day to be less dependent on these practices that seem comfortable, and more in line with what is often an uncomfortable truth.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Despised and Rejected

I've been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship lately. It's not a particularly fun read, but it's really good. There's enough there I could probably write something every day, but you get this one (and maybe a few more). In chapter four he talks about the call to take up our cross and follow Christ.

When Jesus calls his followers to take up their cross, he's calling them to the same path he walks - despised and rejected by humanity. Sometimes we forget this means everyone. Since we've formed this religion that reveres his sacrifice, we forget that Jesus was rejected even by his friends, family, and faith community. The call of Christ is counter-cultural and I think, in many ways, it works counter to every culture. To be faithful to the call of Christ we may very well have to challenge the very community that introduced us to Christ.

I think about my Sunday School class. We try to deal with difficult things - a few weeks ago was Christ's command to love your enemies - there's a real struggle between those who recognize the goal and their own failure to achieve it and those who have somehow compromised the goal in order to be able to achieve it. It's easy for us to move the goalposts, so to speak - Bonhoeffer calls this "cheap grace," that is accepting salvation and forgiveness without it costing us something (or costing less than it demands).

We live in a society that, despite the doom and gloom on the internet, is still very much a "christian" culture - even if it's more of a civil religion than anything resembling Christ. There is a general consensus on salvation as afterlife and not something that impacts the present beyond a general morality. When we really get to know each other, though, we discover the distance between a faith that demands something of us and a faith that merely wants us to get along. Perhaps this is why we, even within a congregation, resist those moments of real intimacy; we just don't want to be divided from each other. We don't want our culture countered.

I don't think this counter-culture has to be an outright rejection of tradition, though, but perhaps a pushing at the borders. A faithful member of any religious group does not need to - and certainly shouldn't - dump the framework from which they arose, but must, almost by necessity, expand and explore that framework in ways that make previous generations uncomfortable. This is the taking up of our cross.

I think about this in relation to Christian colleges, where parents send their kids, often in the hopes they'll be molded traditionally, when in fact they're challenged to engage Christ more deeply, which requires a reorganization of tradition. People might lose the faith of their childhood, but develop faith anew in new ways. That's a bit scary, especially to parents and loved ones, but it's necessary for vibrancy and, most importantly, obedience to Christ.

If we are taking up our cross in imitation of Christ, there will be conflict. Even among those most proficient at expressing grace for the journey to new places, an internal conflict arises. I can love and respect the faithful actions of my children without necessarily agreeing or understanding. This is a healthy approach to the counter-cultural gospel, even if it's difficult.

In the end, though, what this chapter reminds me is that the gospel is a truth that requires a response. Doing nothing is not an option. We must accept or reject, but trying to ride the tide will only wash us away. I see great conflicts bubbling beneath (and not so beneath) the surface of many Christian groups and denominations these days. Yes, both progressive and traditional perspectives have their own value and their own pitfalls; it can't be an either/or, black/white, good/bad dichotomy. At the same, though, we have to anticipate inevitable tension, because that is a requirement of faithful gospel response.

Taking up our cross means we will be despised and rejected. The key is to be truly counter-cultural and not accommodationist. The true temptation of progress is to follow the path of least resistance, when clearly the example of Christ ventures the way of most.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Movie Nerd Complaint

I've been watching the Oscar nominees this week and have come to a real, troubling conclusion: they're coming based on moments, perhaps moments used to submit a performance for nomination. Mahershala Ali is likely to win Best Supporting Actor for his role in Moonlight, which is very good. However, he's barely in the movie - like ten minutes of screen time, tops - and he gives a far better performance in Hidden Figures in an equally small (albeit, less important) role. However, he gives the best performance in one scene, when he has to tell an impoverished young black boy, to whom he's become a surrogate father, 1) that it's ok if he's gay, 2) that yes, his mom is on drugs, and 3) yes, he (Ali's character, Juan) is the drug dealer who's supplying her. His emotion is palpable, deep, and real. It's an incredible scene and, by far, the best three minutes of acting by any actor in any movie this year.

Is one scene enough to get an Oscar, though?

I hope not. But it's a trend. Viola Davis is going to win Best Supporting Actress (for a lead role, no less) - and she's fantastic. She's an American treasure and worthy of whatever awards she wins. However, she also has one fantastic scene in Fences, in which she stands outside telling her husband exactly what she thinks about her years of suffering under his imperfections and that while she's willing to raise the child of his dead mistress as her own, she is unwilling to continue being his wife. Again, tremendous, and likely the best single scene for any actress this entire year. I'm not sure the whole movie performance is better than the collective effort from Taraji P Henson, for example, who carries a ham-handedly directed Hidden Figures to incredible heights.

This can really be a problem, at some point. It's going to encourage more movies to go for the "Oscar moment," which is a Hollywood cliche, but one people generally understand. I feel that most of the Best Picture nominees are not necessarily great movies. They're good, for sure, excellent, for the most part, but when you look at every facet of moviemaking, they all have flaws. It could just be one of those years, but it feels more that these films are getting nominated because they're incredible in one area, with the overall quality overlooked.

Maybe I'm just wrong. Maybe this is like voting on MVP in baseball, where people endlessly disagree whether it should be the actual 'most valuable' or just the best player. I'm willing to just be on one side of a real divide. However, I'm hopeful other movie fans are concerned about this. It just feels like we're lowering the bar, in some sense.

I'd also like to find a way to recognize those moments - scenes of great brilliance where people stand up and take notice. If the Oscars are looking for a way to expand their audience a bit, maybe adding a couple non-traditional awards would be a way to do it. You could give out best scene and have men and women competing for Acting, Directing, Writing, and Cinematography in that category. Four new awards that could excite the masses and recognize great work. I don't want the Oscars to be the Grammys, where 100 people get trophies every year and the greatest industry shame is being introduced as "Grammy Nominee Brian McKnight (or whoever).

I don't want to give everyone a trophy, but I'd like to think we can recognize amazing scenes without having to sacrifice incredible performances, maintained over months, in some cases. That's important... and that's my movie nerd complaint.