Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Cheap Peace

January 14, 2020

A great little read here on a critic of how the mindfulness movement has been co-opted by corporate interests.  I find it interesting how mindfulness is always introduced as an alternative.  But an alternative for what?  I’m sure drugs and other chemical therapies are here meant, but I’d also argue prayer and Christian faith being displaced as other means for dealing with difficult things in life.

This article also helps highlight a confusion many  Christians (and non-Christians) likely have – which is that meditation and mindfulness are essentially Christian ideals and practices as well.  I maintain they aren’t.  There are similarities  of course, but the practice of meditation and mindfulness comes from Buddhism, which has a very different understanding of the individual in the context of larger reality than Christianity.

Christians pray.  Meditation in the Christian faith is not understood (historically) as an emptying of the self but rather as focused on some specific thing – Scripture, for instance.  And of course Buddhism centers around a non-personal ultimate power or force as opposed to Christianity’s very, very personal Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Mindfulness and meditation is not neutral, as the article makes clear.  In order to try and present it as such it was necessary to try and blur, obscure, or remove these connections, but at that point it begins to become something very different, something which can be manipulated by large interests.

The article points to mindfulness’ entry into therapeutic treatment at the end of the 70’s and early 80’s, but it entered our cultural awareness almost 20 years earlier through the missionary work of celebrities and artists like the Beatles.  It took time to erase or hide those explicit, religious, Eastern connections for adoption by doctors and therapists and educators, but that was always the goal.

The reality is that what we believe about ourselves and reality matters.  After 30+ years of therapeutic mindfulness, studies as a whole continue to show us ever more increasingly woefully unable to deal with reality.  Moments of silence in schools are not a sense of one’s place in the cosmos as the creation of a loving God with not just a past and a present but a very long and bright future.

As a therapy, mindfulness seems to be failing.  And until our culture is able to see this and accept it and look further back for a reason why things are so different today than they were 70 years ago, we aren’t going to start healing.  If we are indeed creatures – creations rather than accidents of chance – we need a proper grounding in a relationship with our Creator, and nothing short of this can provide the healing our culture is so desperately crying out for.

Jesus & Me – or Me & Jesus?

January 13, 2020

Here’s a short article referring to a new book by a French photographer chronicling unusual expressions of Christianity in America  (Be warned, if you scroll through the photos associated with this article #7 contains nudity).  The premise is these are all examples of niche-marketing the Christian faith to the increasing number of  self-described unaffiliated Christians – those without attachment to any particular Christian denomination, group or sect but who still describe themselves as Christian.

I’d argue that including the Ark Encounter seems misplaced here, but perhaps from someone outside of our culture the distinction is harder to recognize (or perhaps it’s a distinction less pronounced than I think it is or should be?).  The other examples seem to be another demonstration of personal lifestyle preferences driving theology, rather than the other way around.  Rather than being conformed to Christ, we are instead encouraged to conform to nobody other than ourselves, and Christ, we are assured, will be happy to conform to us.

Problematic, to say the least.  But hardly surprising.  Traditional denominations and Christian groups have fostered this for some time, emphasizing services or programs for various different population segments or demographics rather than teaching that we are all together the body of Christ and warning against narrow association with only people like yourself.  With attendance levels falling across the country (and world) and across the Christian spectrum, an aura of desperation begins to settle in some places.  Why not try clever advertising gimmicks?  After all, the important thing is people hear the Gospel, right?

Yes, as long as they’re hearing the Gospel in the proper context, which is first hearing the Law and receiving a proper assessment of their current condition.  If that condition is happy in their nudity or comfortable in their cars, there’s a distinct possibility they won’t hear the Gospel fully, or the Law at all.  If you aren’t willing to leave your car, chances are you probably aren’t really all that worried about the problem of sin and evil in your heart.

I’m all for taking the Gospel to people, but skeptical of these sorts of gimmicks that easily  confuse the Gospel with other things.

 

Book Review: The Price of Neglect

January 11, 2020

The Price of Neglect by A.W. Tozer

I was lent this book by a friend the other day.  It’s a quick and easy read, a compilation of various editorials written by A.W. Tozer as editor of Alliance Life.  Each editorial is almost uniformly between 2-4 pages in length.  His style is easy and straightforward, and his flow of thought is easy to track with.

I’m familiar with Tozer by name but have never read anything of his.  In reading this anthology, it’s important to remember they were editorials for a magazine and as such, short, to the point, and light on detailed support or explanation.  I would hope that the themes laid out briefly in these editorials were delved into in more depth in the publication as a whole, saving Tozer the time and space of elaborating and fleshing out his ideas more fully in these short pieces.

Overall, I appreciate his general view.  He was skeptical of modern theological trends and movements.  Skeptical of the revival associated with post-World War II America, viewing it as shallow and commercial in nature, something which definitely seems to have played itself out as true in the subsequent decades.

My biggest criticism – and this in light of  the strong characterizations of Tozer as a modern prophet on the back of the book  – is that he is light on specifics.  Again, I trust this is  in part due to the fact that these are editorials rather than full-fledged theological writings.  But he offers criticisms without supporting examples most of the time.  He is critical of American Christianity, exhorts American Christians to a truer Christianity, but provides few examples of what he means.

This is very un-prophetlike.

Read through Isaiah, and you’ll see he offers very specific criticisms and examples to demonstrate what he’s talking about.  Rather than just criticizing shallow faith and a greater concentration on worldly riches, he calls out vanity in specific terms, like tinkling jewelry (3:16).  In criticizing reliance on foreign policy and alliances rather trust in God, Isaiah  points to specific issues, like alliances with Egypt (31:1).

Tozer provides few specifics in his laments of American  Christianity,  but is always exhorting people to something better and truer and more authentic.  As such, his words will indeed be timeless, as there’s never a time or situation when the faithful could not be better – more faithful, more trusting, more fervent.  But therein lies the problem as well.  Tozer clearly has ideas in mind about how the modern Christian should look and act, but doesn’t specify what he means.  As such, his criticisms can never be vetted, and his criticisms will always stand valid.  And under his criticisms it’s pretty clear he doesn’t consider many people who call themselves Christian to actually be Christian.  And this is where it gets tricky.

You can call out specific sins, but to question the faith of someone who doesn’t meet your undefined standard of what a Christian ought to be is unfair.  I’m struck in contrast by Paul’s first letter to the congregation in Corinth.  As he greets them at the start of his letter, he unhesitatingly calls them sanctified and saints, giving thanks for the outpouring of God’s blessings on them.  This despite the fact he’s going to have to criticize them for some very specific things in this letter.  Sexual misconduct and an acceptance or resignation to this reality.  Uncharitableness and false faith and understanding concerning the Lord’s Supper.  Some pretty major issues that would undoubtedly lead Tozer to claim the Corinthians are not true Christians – but St. Paul doesn’t make that move!

In other places Tozer’s theology is questionable.  Fair enough, as all of us fall short in that department in one place or another!  For example  he claims that Satan was not able to stir Jesus to  sin during his temptation in the wilderness because there was no evil in Jesus to respond to the temptation.  Tozer’s overall point is that when people react poorly in situations it is because their true character is being revealed.  The problem is that God the Father declared Adam and Eve to be good – free from evil – and yet they succumbed to temptation.   Is this because there was evil in them before the Fall?  I’m pretty sure most traditional theologians would not take this stance.  Further, if Jesus was not capable of sinning, then his temptations were not really temptations at all.  He was just going through the motions, as it were, which is a problem with Christology in making it sound as though Jesus wasn’t truly and fully human as well as divine, as though his human will didn’t exist, that it was replaced with the divine will of the Second Person of the Trinity.  Problematic on multiple levels.

Finally, for all his talk about the primacy of the Gospel, he spends an awful lot  of his time and effort talking about the Law, asserting that Christians are not living up to their name and therefore are not really Christians.  Rarely does he spend any appreciable time elaborating grace and forgiveness and mercy.  This might be part of the nature of the publication he edited and the purpose he saw for it, but as a conglomeration his editorials are decidedly Law-oriented while criticizing Christians for not living up to their potential in accepting the grace of God in Jesus Christ!

Again, I agree with much of what Tozer asserts, I just wish  he was more specific.  Again, I try to  remember what these writings represent, and assume they are only one part of a larger publication that could better elaborate on his themes.  God uses many different voices to communicate his Word, each voice at times focusing more on one issue than another.  But it’s a good reminder to me to be more specific and to make sure I’m not just critical but also acknowledge the grace of God at work in even the worst of repentant sinners.

Including myself.

 

 

Just Cute

December 5, 2019

It could easily be maintained that I have no heart, based on my typical posts that veer (successfully or unsuccessfully) more towards the cerebral than the emotional.

But just to prove I am somewhat human, here is an adorable example of how something can be done well without resorting to excessive expense, profanity, nudity, sexuality, or any of our  other popular marketing gimmicks.

Take a few seconds to watch this if you’re in the mood for something wholesome and sentimental.

Meme-able

November 8, 2019

Memes are arguably what runs  the Internet, or large portions of it.  A meme is something that spreads between people in a culture.  Internet memes are generally static images with text overlay, often humorous.  The picture reinforces or makes visual the text, or visa versa.  The word itself has anchors in Greek, where variations of it have to do with imitation, but the word as we know it was first coined by Richard Dawkins 40-some years ago in his seminal book, The Selfish Gene.

Memes are often human-based,  meaning the images used are of actual people.  Sometimes celebrities and other well-known figures.  But sometimes just photos from stock photo collections.  Models, in other words, from all walks of life.  But models are people, and people have stories aside from any one particular image of theirs.  So I found this brief essay by someone who has become a major Internet meme figure over the last decade to be fascinating.  A reminder that we are all more than just our image conveys, particularly a momentary image.

More Thoughts on American Christianity

November 4, 2019

Thanks to Bernie (not Sanders!) for forwarding me this opinion article last month.  The author seeks to revisit the common notion of American Christianity’s drastic decline in the past decade and nuance that broad brushstroke description with some points that might alter the overall picture.  He makes three main points:

Lukewarm Christians are falling away in high numbers, but not more committed Christians.  I think this is very true, and I’ve seen other surveys indicating of those who worship at least once weekly, there has been practically no dropoff in numbers or activity over the years.  Hardly surprising.  Those willing to commit on a weekly basis to public worship clearly prioritize their faith and are willing to do so in tangible ways, such as their time allocation.  As Christianity (especially conservative Christianity) continues to become less and less compatible with cultural trends, there will be less and less incentive for nominal Christians to maintain their ties to the Church.

The decline in American Christianity has more to do with Baby Boomers than Millenials.  Also true.  The issues in the Church today began with the Baby Boomers.  They were the ones to first walk away from the faith or at least regular public worship in appreciable numbers, and this only made it easier for subsequent generations to either walk away or never affiliate in the first place.  I’m not sure I would agree with the author’s generalization that church attendance fluctuates by time-of-life.  Statistics seem to indicate that increasingly, those who leave the faith or regular worship as they leave home are not returning later in life.

The decline of American Christianity may be more of a Catholic issue than a Protestant one.  An interesting idea, and one that makes sense in light of the long-running abuses perpetrated, covered-up, revealed, denied, and now being called to account for in the Roman Catholic Church.  But whether or not the decline in affiliation and participation is more Roman Catholic than Protestant is unclear to me.  Definitely non-denominational and Evangelical churches have grown at the expense of more traditional denominational ones,  I still think there’s an overall decline in Protestantism as a whole.

Interesting also are his observations that there is still a strong enough Christian presence in America to forestall for the time being increasingly antagonistic anti-religious or anti-Christian movements and legislation.  Not an entirely optimistic observation, but something to be grateful for while it lasts!

 

Religious Trends

October 28, 2019

Here’s another article about the ongoing trend of millenials  (those born between 1981 and 1996) away from religious life and particularly Christian religious life as defined by a corporate/communal worship service.  This isn’t anything new, but it does remind us that things are not changing, and are not going to change anytime soon.

The title of the essay is problematic, as there’s no exploration of why millenials are trending this way at all, other than a passing reference to being in the stage of life where family, finances, and career tend to overwhelm all other priorities.  But this is hardly anything new or unique to millenials.  Every generation has to balance and manage these demands during this time of life, and for far larger percentages of our population, this was done alongside (or perhaps more accurately enabled through) active, sustained, committed participation in a religious faith community.  Primarily Christian.  The Church.  This isn’t so much an issue with religion in general in America, but with Christianity.  According to this data, 70% of Americans consider themselves Christian (not including Mormons).  Non-religious make up almost 20%, which leaves only about 10% of the population that follows other religions.

So blaming the demands of work and finances and family doesn’t cut it as the reason millenials are no longer participating in churches as earlier generations did.  But the article does point out some of the ramifications of this change.

Yes, people are lonelier.  But let’s draw a few more tangible connections, please.  Loneliness is likely a high contributing factor to rising levels  of both depression and suicide.  More pertinent to this is the recognition that Christianity and the Bible offer something in very short supply these days – hope.  A reason to continue on in the face of periods of bleakness or sorrow.

The article also references lower levels of sexual activity among young people as another aspect of the pressures on millenials.  But what about some  deeper analysis, please?  Could reduced levels of sexual activity be linked to less attachment to Christian community and  a much decreased emphasis on the value and beauty of marriage?  Dating apps may be decreasing in popularity, but they are also being singled out as likely culprits for increasing rates of sexually transmitted diseases.  And of course if traditional Judeo-Christian teachings on sexuality are being increasingly ignored, then the overwhelming prevalence of pornographic access at the click of a button with virtually no safeguards or obstacles also is likely to play a big part in changing levels of sexual activity.

Of course the article doesn’t deal with the biggest issue of all – as rates and levels of regular worship continue to drop, there is a very real risk (likelihood?) of people abandoning not just worship but the faith.  Rather than temporal mental health or social health, Christianity posits that what we believe has eternal consequences.  That’s not something most articles like this want to deal with or know how to.  The reality is that increasingly these people may not simply be lost to the Church for the time being, but eternally.  That’s a huge deal.

Millenials  aren’t coming back to church.  How many of them were really there before?  How many of them were raised in worshiping families where weekly worship was a priority, no matter how hard the work week had been?  How many of them were isolated from actual worship in youth ministry bubbles where fun and games eclipsed actual engagement with the Bible and Christian teachings, and where discussion of how faith applies to life were limited to purity rings and other one-off experiences?

We can look at lots of factors contributing to why young people are less and less interested in church, even if they still consider themselves to be Christian in some less-easily defined way.  But I think we need to include the Church itself in those factors.  Somehow, the faith was not transmitted to millenials (and the generations following them, don’t doubt it) in a meaningful and applicable way.  If most  younger Christians are essentially moralistic therapeutic deists, the Church has to wonder if it contributed to this tragic mistake?  If church is about being nice, can’t people get that other places?  School programs, work programs, TED talks, any number of other options.  What makes church unique if not the very message and heart of the Bible and Jesus and faith?

No, the youth aren’t coming back.  Not for a long time.  How is the Church going to adapt to this and plan to deal with it?  Especially given the reality the article notes, that collection baskets have suddenly gotten lighter?  And how does the Church attract a younger demographic that is going to see – and not entirely incorrectly – that a sudden surge in interest in evangelism is driven perhaps less by actual love of neighbor and more as an effort to prop up and sustain a model of doing church that is less and less sustainable as membership levels continue to drop?

Again, it should be noted: these are large scale trends.  There are (thankfully!) always exceptions to the rules, both individual congregations and even larger communities where this is not the case.  But it does mean that sooner or later these larger trends will begin to affect these places that may not really notice the change right now.

 

Picture Language

October 24, 2019

Here’s a fascinating image gallery of anti-Christian propaganda posters produced during the time of the Soviet Union.  Hopefully it isn’t lost that some of the same caricatures of religion as backwards compared to the progressive movement of the State are being utilized today.

In our own country.

 

A Desk

October 15, 2019

I inherited a very nice office when I accepted my current Call.  A large, dark wood desk with an accompanying side piece – I don’t even know what to call it – that has another large flat surface as well as cabinets above.  Both pieces have large, deep drawers with plenty of hanging file space.

It’s a beautiful desk – though I rarely see it because of my clutter.  I rally every so often to clear away the ministerial detritus which accumulates there naturally layer by layer.  There is a great – if fleeting – satisfaction to seeing the top of my desk.

But even as I admire it, I recognize it is not an ideal desk.  It is very much a desk of a different age, before the proliferation of devices and cables.  Phone and computer cords trail off of it in a rather unappealing fashion.  I could rearrange my office layout somewhat to compensate, but I don’t really care about it that much.  The multi-outlet surge protector lays on the floor beside it, also relatively unappealing aesthetically.

A desk for today would have options for cable management so they aren’t trailing across the top of it like anorexic octopuses.  It might even have a place for the surge protector to be mounted underneath, reducing cables across the floor.  And while large file drawers are still helpful, in this age of digital storage it seems somewhat superfluous.

It isn’t that the desk is bad.  It’s a good desk that accomplishes good things.  But it shows it’s age.  Not in terms of how it looks, but rather the functions it does and doesn’t incorporate.  The fact that wires and power outlets are more important these days than file folders doesn’t mean the desk was bad for its time, but rather a demonstration of how many things we take for granted also adapt in subtle or not so subtle ways to changing environments.

I was talking with a parishioner a few months ago who is trying to divest himself of his now-deceased mother’s furniture.  Lovely, sturdy, probably hand-made.  And yet despite being well-kept and lovely, he’s had almost zero interest in it.  Folks are more inclined to order something new and sleek off of Amazon, or take a trip to the nearest IKEA mega-store to pick up something full of contemporary functionality – even though it will never last as long as his mother’s furniture.  I love my desk, but the fact that I love it may not mean anyone else will.  They think of desks differently perhaps than I do.  We use the same word but have slightly different ideas in mind.

It isn’t that people are going to quit needing desks.  But they are going to look for different features in desks, and desks will increasingly adapt themselves to those needs and wants.  It shouldn’t compromise the core purpose and identity of a desk.  It isn’t as though desks will quit featuring flat tops to work on.  It wouldn’t be a desk any more!  But in other ways manufacturers will increasingly figure out and incorporate ancillary preferences and needs.  In the process, looks will change, although I have no doubt there is very fine, traditional-looking office furniture that provides for cable and power management and other modern niceties.

It’s probably time to clean my desk off again.  Time to admire the classic lines and finish.  I’m willing to deal with the minor inconveniences, but  I know others might not be.  I just have to keep that in mind, should I ever decide I want or need a new desk and want to sell this one.

Palimpsests

October 10, 2019

In the generally cool category, this article describes the discovery of some surprising things written on parchments, then erased so something else could be written on them instead.  And, we also get a new vocabulary word to describe these parchments – palimpsests!

The idea is that an isolated monastery in Egypt at one point was not able to easily procure fresh parchment, and turned to erasing some existing manuscripts to provide parchment for new copying.  A variety of previous texts have been discovered through the use of specialized cameras and lighting, and some of those texts were previously unknown or written in languages we have few extant examples of.

What a cool use of technology, proving that while we in the digital, Internet age know that nothing really disappears online, it might be true to a certain degree for people 1400 years ago as well.  Fortunately, it appears to all be textual and no compromising, hand-drawn selfies of monks.

Whew.

The article also provides a link to a site where photographs of the overlaid texts can be viewed, which is also very cool.  If my Greek was better, it might be tempting to try some translations of my own, but I’ll leave that to more competent folks!