Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Losing Our Cultural Baggage

At first, my anthropology professor danced gingerly around the issue.

She had been discussing the cross-cultural encounters Christian missionaries were creating in the late 19th Century: white Anglos "discovering" native tribes in Africa, South America, and the Far East.

Back when whites called these people groups "savages," and the "savages" had no idea white folk even existed. In addition to their religious message, early missionaries introduced Western clothing, rudimentary healthcare and technology, and other society-altering concepts to the natives.

From a purely post-modern, 20th Century perspective, this college professor had been trained to hold those white missionaries in disdain, not only for claiming religious superiority, but for trying to foist Western culture on illiterate tribespeople. Why didn't these so-called Christians have any respect for the world's primitive yet sustainable foreign cultures? Even if you took religion and faith out the picture, should they have deliberately asserted their values onto another culture?

Yet my professor also knew the direction our class discussion might head when she was finished with her lecture. What about the malnutrition, lack of medical care, and the oppressive treatment of women which characterized many of these "uncivilized" tribes? Isn't it worth disrupting a culture when the changes you can bring to it will actually benefit its society in the long run?

As the class discussion progressed, our professor tried to indoctrinate us with what has become a widespread belief: that all cultures are equal, that they all have intrinsic value, and that to make judgments or infer a hierarchy of qualities between them represents arrogance and a Western ethnocentricity that belies a lack of education, respect, and understanding.

Are All Cultures Equal?

Coming from the typically liberal mouthpiece of scholastic universalism, such a tolerance and celebration of culture automatically sounds sinister to evangelicals, doesn't it?  But what is the degree to which we people of faith have bought into the same mindset?  Although we agree that ours is the one true faith, and all other religions of the world teach falsehoods, everything else about culture - both our own, and foreign - is largely good.

Isn't that a bit dangerous?

For the most part, the styles and normalcies of anybody's culture should enjoy the right to be free of suspicion or any other negative light.  We hear this from politicians who want all of Islam - except its fanatics - to be respected alongside Judaism, Christianity, and other non-totalitarian faiths.  We hear this from urbanists, who tried to convince New Yorkers that illegal graffiti was a legitimate art form, and who say that gangsta rap gets a bad rap from uptight bigots who don't appreciate urban angst.  We hear this from amnesty advocates who malign English language proponents as being anti-pluralistic.

We even hear this in our own churches, from parishioners who are trying to marry their love of our North American pop culture with personal lifestyles, evangelical mandates, and corporate worship programs.  If we don't understand the culture around us, if we don't emulate it, and if we don't make church relevant to it, then we're going to become impotent and incapable of impacting our world for Christ.

At least, that's what we're told.

The longer I participate in organized religion in the United States, however, the more convinced I become that we are drinking the pop-culture Kool-Aid when we subscribe to notions that the Gospel's relevancy depends on our culture.  Isn't that a completely backwards approach to doing church?

Part of the problem is that since we live and breathe the culture we're in, it's hard to fight the conviction that our lifestyle is a good sort of normal.  It's easy to think that our comparatively exceptional North American society is worthy of emulation. That it isn't as bad as the fire-and-brimstone preachers of old claimed it to be. The Jesus People, seeker-sensitive, church growth, and even Contemporary Christian Music movements have all been built on the idea that pop culture can contribute to faith in God.  And judging by the numbers, the success of these movements in keeping churches relatively full appears to give them - and their idolization of pop culture - validity.

Anthropology's Little Secrets

Nevertheless, if any culture can be proven to be less than ideal, then how does that fact impact the whole model of cultural tolerance for tolerance's sake?

The current June issue of National Geographic featuring, ironically enough, an article entitled "The Birth of Religion," also discusses the surprisingly common practice of child marriage. Even if you're already familiar with this despicable cultural phenomenon, listen to this explanation of it from as anthropologically-sympathetic a source as can be found:

"Forced early marriage thrives to this day in many regions of the world - arranged by parents for their own children, often in defiance of national laws, and understood by whole communities as an appropriate way for a young woman to grow up...

"Child marriage spans continents, language, religion, cast. In India the girls will typically be attached to boys four or five years older; in Yemen, Afghanistan, and other countries with high early marriage rates, the husbands may be young men or middle-aged widowers or abductors who rape first and claim their victims as wives afterward, as is the practice in certain regions of Ethiopia." (page 87)

Pretty grim, huh?

I could go on about the vaginal checks for virginity that Egyptian army personnel conducted on women arrested during protests there this past March.  Or the inter-tribal slaughter going on in various corners of Africa.  But it doesn't take much evidence to convince most people that my anthropology professor was wrong.  All cultures are not equal.  All societies aren't good.  Some are better than others.

Which, while some may be better than others, doesn't mean that even the good ones are entirely good.

Pop Goes the Culture

Writer Stephen Johnson has tried to put a positive spin on North America's pop culture by writing a series of books explaining the industrialized world's obsession with technology.  In his 2005 bestseller Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, Johnson asserts that modern media like television, movies, and video games has actually improved our society.  However, his argument rests on the success of a tiny portion of what media experts consider to be good programming, such as the TV show Lost.  That's hardly a foolproof way of validating our entertainment-driven society, is it?

Few critics can lambaste all that makes up pop culture as universally horrible - not even me!  What people like Johnson who defend pop culture fail to see, however, is that they're taking what few attributes may exist - and most cultures have at least a couple redeeming qualities - and extrapolating them into an exoneration of the entire culture.  And in Johnson's case, raving about Lost completely ignores the fact that math and reading scores among United States schoolchildren continue to slide. 

So much for pop culture making us smarter.

Nicholas Carr, on the other hand, has posited a far more realistic perspective of what is perhaps the singlemost influential factor on North American culture today:  Internet technology.  In a surprisingly candid article on Brietbart.com, Carr admits that although the Internet has provided society with an unprecedented amount of easily-accessible information, it is, at the same time, corrupting our ability to extrapolate that information and glean pertinent conclusions from it.

"It encourages quick shifts in focus," Carr explains, "and discourages sustained attention and the ability to think deeply and creatively about one topic and to challenge conventional wisdom."

Not only might Internet technology be dulling our senses and intellectual reflexes, it may be costing our economy money.  Carr relates that he has "heard from several companies struggling with otherwise intelligent employees who were unable to focus and concentrate on problem-solving."  This after years of their employees being exposed to our Internet culture.

Now, obviously, the Internet itself is not evil.  Neither is television, or religion in general. Or even, for that matter, pop culture.  It's what you do with anything, the value you give anything, and your ability to corroborate anything with the benchmark of truth.  Not popular beliefs, not good-sounding theories, but utter, infallible truth.

Democracy isn't inherently truthful.  A majority of us may vote for something - or someone - that turns out to be a mistake.  Capitalism isn't inherently truthful, either.  Money is neither good nor evil, but loving money is a sin.

Let's see; what else makes up our North American society?  Rock music was born out of musical rebellion, extramarital sex and divorce out of sexual perversion, horror movies out of an unholy lack of respect for death... shall I go on, or have you already started to tune me out?

In, But Not Of

My point is simply this:  believers in Christ are to live our lives as actors in this world, but not adherents of it or slaves to it.  God warns His followers that the world is not our friend.  To the extent that His Creation exists for His purposes and our pleasure, we can enjoy the many graces God extends to us through His sovereign provisions.  But through it all, should our focus be on the created, or the Creator?

Maybe it would bring some comfort to my former anthropology professor if she realized that Christians who evangelized unreached people groups in the 1800's didn't bring nearly as much "civilized" culture with them as evangelicals try to stuff into our lives today.  Although the culture in which you and I now live is arguably less holistically genuine than theirs was then.

Still, God has specifically placed us in this day and age with the same expectations He had for His 19th Century servants.  To worship Him and enjoy Him forever.  The tools available to us today may be different and more sophisticated, but then again, so are the temptations and opportunities to stray from our mission.

Some believers may consider this an unnecessarily negative way of looking at culture.  I, on the other hand, consider it to be quite freeing. Picking and choosing from culture according to our Standard, Jesus Christ, helps us keep the strains and compulsions of the world around us in context.

Not just because North American society is so corrupt, carnal, selfish, temporary, and vapid.

But because our Eternal Hope isn't.

Friday, May 27, 2011

There's a Law for That

Most Texans hate being told what to do.

So it's been somewhat surprising to see our state representatives from both sides of the aisle falling in line behind new legislation banning texting while driving.

The state's House of Representatives crafted a bill in April, and this week, our Senate approved it. Although they tweaked it with some minor revisions that the House needs to ratify, not much stands in the way of the bill becoming law in the Lone Star State.

Still, having Texas come out against texting while driving represents a fairly provocative - albeit dismal - acknowledgement about society. Sometimes, when people in a society don't police their own behaviors, government needs to intervene to protect the rest of us. Unfortunately, this is one of those times.

Yes, it is scope creep for the Nanny State, something that I've already complained about on this blog. But this is what happens when ordinary people fail to make good decisions on a daily basis about their personal behavior. In this case, if you're too selfish and text while you're driving, I'm glad the state recognizes it needs to protect me from you.

Statistics indicate that texting while driving is six times more dangerous that driving drunk. I've seen police officers doing it, and untold number of teens and college-aged folks. One of the state's most influential conservative legislators, Republican Tom Craddick, actually helped to sponsor the House version of this bill after a tragic texting crash in his home district.

Smartphones have been around long enough now for people to have been able to develop and demonstrate responsible use of the devices, but they have not. We fought this same battle when cell phones became popular years ago, and many jurisdictions passed laws mandating hands-free devices. It's more of the same: I need to make my cell phone call or send this text message. I don't care that I'm compromising my safety, plus the safety of everybody else with whom I'm sharing this street. I've completely forgotten that driving is a privilege, not a right. I'm my own little universe.

Multiply this mindset by thousands upon thousands of drivers, and before long, the traffic accident statistics start climbing. And whether you realize it or not, one of the primary responsibilities of government is protecting the citizenry from those without sense, or who display disregard for public safety. From wars fought in our name to legislation that curtails what we consider to be personal freedoms, defending the public good doesn't always look pretty. And little by little, governments get larger, and need more tax dollars to enforce laws that would be unnecessary if we would all voluntarily be accountable for our actions.

One of the saddest facts about the increasing dominance of the Nanny State is that since so many people refuse to adopt safe behaviors with technology, things will probably only get worse. I've already heard some talk about drafting legislation for the GPS computers people have in their cars, because too many drivers refuse to pull into a parking lot and consult their onboard computers for directions.

I'd like to think that our society could realize that we're only bringing much of this legislation on ourselves, repent of our selfishness, and mend our ways. Even cell phone companies have started advocating for responsible behavior by people using their technology. Not that their promotion of public safety is entire altruistic; they're trying to mitigate the need for future laws which would risk stifling their industry.

It's a lot easier blaming big government, bureaucratic control freaks, and pandering politicians for the spider-web of rules and regulations being spun at all levels of society. But who's the bigger culprit? The people making the laws?

Or the people who prove we need them?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Money, Health, but Little Wealth

Have you heard? Harriet Chase died yesterday.

Yup - she was 104.

Of course, her real name was Huguette Clark, but... like most people, I had no clue who she was until I read her obituary today in the New York Times. It's one of the day's most popular articles on the Times' website, as a matter of fact.

But not because she was such a socially-connected person.

What Can't Money Buy?

Mrs. Chase - er, Clark! - died at the place she called home for a number of years: Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City.

Yes, it's a hospital. Quite a good one, in fact.

Apparently, late in the 1980's, she checked herself into another posh private hospital in Manhattan and spent the rest of her life as a paying patient - whether she was sick or not.  She employed her own personal nurses and decorated her sterile environs with collectible dolls as homey accessories.  Last year, financial analysts at MSNBC estimated her wealth at about half a billion dollars, the remains of a copper fortune built by her father, William Andrews Clark, whose name is on the family's acclaimed art collection at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC.

At one time, the Clark family was worth the equivalent of $3 billion. So to be left with but a sixth of that inheritance makes one wonder where the rest of it went. She had been married once, but never had children. No immediate family seems to exist. Decades ago, Huguette withdrew from New York's elite society and holed herself up, first in a sprawling 42-room Fifth Avenue apartment, and then in at least two prominent Manhattan hospitals. She never traveled or entertained, spending her days playing the harp, watching television, and collecting heirloom dolls.

Mrs. Clark, as she liked to be called (even though she was divorced), also owned and maintained an oceanfront estate in California, plus a country manor in Connecticut that, after she purchased, she never visited. Her closest friends appear to have been her lawyer and accountant, both of whom MSNBC suspects of having wielded enormous - and perhaps self-serving -influence over her financial decisions.

Solitude and Care

What is most striking about Mrs. Clark, however, isn't the money she left, or even the trophy properties she rejected for hospital suites. Although, considering her impressive age at death, she certainly seems to have gotten her money's worth from intentionally living in hospitals. As some of her more distant relatives have put it, Mrs. Clark ultimately seems to have been driven by a "dual desire for exquisite solitude and exquisite care."

Some of this narcissism may have been due simply to the rarefied world of luxury into which she was born and raised. Some of it may have come from the death at age 16 of her beloved sister, or her divorce, or even her marriage which her ex-husband claimed was never consummated. Her father appears to have been a vile man, and her mother - her father's second wife and child bride, a melancholy soul herself.

Judging by her spurts of philanthropy, the youngest Mrs. Clark wasn't a scrooge or particularly mean-spirited. She donated to charity and treated her staff well. Yet when it came to functioning in society - either the wealthy New York kind or our more generic culture - she saw something that didn't suit her, and so she dropped out.

Fortunately for her, she had the money to live a life of privileged seclusion. Her uptown apartment alone has been rumored to be worth upwards of $100 million. And as she aged, setting up residence in the some of the world's best hospitals afforded her uncompromised medical attention whether she needed it or not.  Nice work if you can get it, right?

Stop the World and Let Me Get Off

Perhaps I shouldn't admit this, but many's the time I've longed for living separately from the world. Regular readers of my blog know that I don't fit in here very well. My thought patterns and proclivities don't jive with the status quo, I find pop culture boring, and even my own efforts at relating to other people seem contrived and superfluous. During one of the summers I spent in Maine years ago, I fantasized about a little waterfront cottage just far enough away from everybody else so that I would only have to interact with other people when I chose to.

But, for better or worse, I couldn't come close to affording it - either then or now. Mrs. Clark didn't have my problem, although I suspect she shared my desire for seclusion to a great degree.

Believers in Christ aren't called to be cut off from community, though, are we? Either in the church, or outside of it. We shouldn't give up meeting together, and although we aren't to be part of the world, we're still to be in it. Christ went into the desert for 40 days, but He came out again to continue His ministry.

Yet I'm not talking about a sabbatical - which Christ's wilderness experience certainly wasn't, since the Devil thought he really could tempt Jesus. I'm talking about letting the rest of the world run with abandon to the cliff and topple over it, like the herd of pigs when Christ sent the demons into them. Yeah, just go jump off the cliff, you idiots! That's my attitude lots of times.

Then I'm reminded that just as I have difficulties relating to other people, they likely have difficulties relating to me. Oh sure - some people give up trying to befriend me right after meeting me. But others do try and make and effort, even when I don't reward their work. So if I feel like a misfit, how much of that feeling is my own fault? The result of my own lack of investment in community?

Maybe one of the reasons God has not blessed me with great wealth is to remove the temptation for me to purchase just the right seaside cottage in coastal Maine and blend into the rocks and pine trees. Or a 21-room Fifth Avenue apartment, high above the city, with stunning views of Central Park from every window and a wrap-around balcony for whatever fresh air I can gasp.

Ahh - these sound like heavenly places to me, but in reality, as a child of God, my Heaven is only going to come after I die. Until then, I'm afraid you're stuck with me down here.

Although it's intriguing, the life Mrs. Clark led in parallel to the rest of us boasted lots of money but little wealth. Do you see what I mean? It may sound trite, but God designed His people to invest in relationships. With Him, and with each other.

MSNBC may have been concerned about her missing money, but Mrs. Clark was more impoverished than her balance sheet let on.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Crossing the Church's Cultural Chasm

Talk about being a rare breed: I've got a black friend who is a recruiter for a Presbyterian college in Tennessee.

You don't see too many black Presbyterians, especially in the conservative Presbyterian Church in America, to which we both belong. And that's tragic, because it only serves to highlight the racial and ethnic divide that permeates not only the PCA, but the evangelical church in general.

In addition to being a college recruiter, my friend Andrew is also a musician, and recently on his blog, he mused about how a cross-cultural church might approach decisions regarding corporate worship. In other words, assuming that we can get people of different cultures and lifestyles to worship in the same room at the same time on Sunday, what would it look like?

Andrew grew up in the Bahamas, exotic home of junkanoo and calypso rhythms. He jokes that, "if you want to communicate to the heart of a Bahamian, play some junkanoo music and give them a whistle... then WATCH OUT! Cuz dey ga break it down bey!"

Now, obviously, there aren't many churches in North America - Presbyterian or otherwise - that wouldn't find that expressive of a worship service a bit unusual. Parishioners might consider it a tolerable diversion or even a delightful break from the ordinary, but few of us would welcome it every week. And Andrew points out that in the Bahamas, many of our white styles here in America would be about as popular.

Nevertheless, I think Andrew's right in pursuing the issue because it does help us explore some basic questions about corporate worship that would benefit even homogeneous congregations.

Culture is Ancillary in Worship

On his blog, Andrew reviews some of the primary considerations for corporate worship with which nobody can argue. First, the object of corporate worship is God. Period. We participate, but it's not all about us. Second, we cannot worship without love; love both for God, and for those around us in the congregation and in the community.

Up until this point, we should be all on the same page, right? But go any further, and we usually start picking sides, don't we? We rely on our own personal experiences, cultural prejudices, normative values, and sheltered worldviews to establish the methods and aesthetics for what corporate worship should look like. And to a certain extent, I believe that part of the reason greater racial integration hasn't taken place already within evangelical congregations stems from unresolved issues regarding the style with which we worship God.

To the extent that we value corporate worship, it's good that we're conscious of and deliberate in the ways we engage with the Creator of the universe. And there is some merit to the argument that the reason God does not prescribe a specific order of worship in the Bible involves the proliferation of cultures God knew would blanket the globe.

But personally, I believe that we give culture too much control over our lives, and our corporate worship. Whites, in particular, have been taught that we need to respect other cultures, with the assumption being that all cultures are equal in terms of their integrity, importance, and intrinsic value. Blacks, at least subliminally, have been taught for generations that my white culture is superior to theirs.

To all of that, with every ounce of political incorrectness I can muster, I say: "Balderdash!"

Yes, God has ordained that the kaleidoscope of human experiences we call culture should proliferate across the globe. But all you need to do is take a good look at our dominant white, middle-class, suburban culture in the United States to see that it isn't perfect. And if our culture isn't perfect, chances are, none of the others are, either. Even in the Bible, God did not consider all the cultures of Israel's day equal in merit.

Instead, we would probably be better off picking and choosing the good things from a panoply of various cultures instead of assuming everything's equally valid when it comes to how different people groups live their lives.

I realize that for some people, getting beyond that concept will be difficult. But please try. Because the values we could pick and choose should seem pretty obvious.

Simply put, they're qualities that respect God's Word, character, authority, and creation, with humanity receiving significant affection, since we're the part of creation for whom Christ died.  Stripped of the clutter of culture, then, corporate worship seems so much more refreshing and genuine, doesn't it?

Common Ground of Separateness

We can't stop here, however. We can still go a bit further with finding common ground in corporate worship, because we actually do have tidbits of scripture which inform us of God's expectations of us.

Perhaps the most significant instruction is that we are to "worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness." This means we are to incorporate a proper perspective in and for our worship; one that does not exalt ourselves or draw attention to ourselves, but defers all praise and significance to God.

Another is that we are to rejoice in gladness and come before His presence with thanksgiving, knowing that the Lord is our God, and it is He Who has made us. From this instruction I believe we are to assume that our joy and thanksgiving are directed upwards, which further enforces our position as unworthy recipients expressing gratefulness to the One Who created us, and Who bought us with a holy price.

From these two observations, I find it difficult to advocate for worship practices and styles which draw attention to those leading in worship, those participating in worship, and even the components of worship. Irrespective of culture, the idea of making a spectacle of one's self during corporate worship should be severely measured against the degree to which such activity can draw anyone's focus off of God. Remember, He is a jealous God, and we remove our gaze from Him at our peril.

It kinda sounds scary, doesn't it? Except that corporate worship should be anything but, at least for people of faith. Joyful, orderly, reverent, authentic, loving, and purposeful; yes.

Wholly befitting the King of Kings.

Why Not Aim High?

I'm going to propose something that might seem a bit radical to some people, and positively archaic to others. Hardly anybody agrees with me on this 100%, but if you think about it, nobody else has any better ideas on bridging our culturally-based corporate worship divide.

Are you ready?

I don't pretend to be an expert on classical music, nor will I insist that a corporate worship style which ignores classical elements is wrong.  I surely can't say it would be sinful.  Yet I can't help but insist that classical elements be given far more respect and consideration than our throw-away culture wants to give it.

And the reason has to do with that troublesome "c" word: culture. Here in the United States, we've all been virtually forced to tolerate classical music as the silly blandishment of society's elite. We've been told it holds no relevance for modern life, with the possible exception of weddings and funerals.

Yet therein lies the proof of classical worship's exceeding relevance even in today's myopic culture! Weddings and funerals are singularly special in their function and form, and so should corporate worship be! If we're worshipping the Lord in the splendor of His holiness, what gives us the right to treat it as just something else we do on the weekends? Corporate worship itself should be set apart from the ordinary in that although we should be comfortable with incorporating worship into our lives, it should not be something that mimics a pep rally or rock concert.

Here again, we must remember: corporate worship is not an opportunity to celebrate our culture. In Heaven, our culture will be meaningless, and here on Earth, each culture is fraught with sinful routines and carnal motivations. Indeed, culture has been one of the most significant factors separating, well, different cultures in communities of faith.  So why do we insist culture matters so much?

Calvary Set the Standard

Well, probably because nobody has been able to figure out how to cross the gaping cultural chasm in corporate worship. But I think my wonderful former church, New York City's Calvary Baptist, did.

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my experience at Calvary, probably the oldest evangelical church in Manhattan, and until Redeemer Presbyterian came along, one of the most famous.  What had been a mostly-white congregation got noticeably darker during the years of white flight from New York City, and by the time I started attending in the 1990's, American and African blacks comprised about 50% of the church's membership of about 1,000.

The rest was a robust mix of WASPs, Puerto Ricans, Filipinos, Chinese, Dominicans, Brazilians, Koreans, Central Americans, and ethnic whites like Russians, Greeks, Scandinavians, Italians, and even converted Jews. At least one homeless man regularly attended services, while at least one genteel matron arrived each week in a chauffeur-driven limousine. Republicans who were furious that Bill and Hillary visited our church one Sunday, and Democrats who were thrilled (and the political affiliations didn't fall along strictly racial lines). Young families and elderly never-marrieds.  University professors, Wall Street brokers, secretaries, doormen, Park Avenue private school teachers, the administrator of the Harlem Boys Choir, advertising executives, fashion designers, municipal workers, Broadway actors, office clerks, Metropolitan Opera singers, accountants; Calvary had them all. It was utterly and lavishly diverse.

So, all you people who think culture should dictate worship style: what do you think Calvary's corporate worship looked like?

To my amazement, it was classical.  Not just traditional, but classical with an urbane dose of choral, solo, and instrumental participation from some of the city's best musicians.

Why classical, you may ask? Because it attracts the widest spectrum of affirmation while managing to be remarkably acultural, shared, and even neutral. True, most classical music was written for European whites by European whites, but the quality of the music is so stellar that today, it's studied from Russia to Argentina and Kenya to Vietnam.

Can rock music claim such a pedigree? Soft rock? Black gospel? Bluegrass? Techno-funk? OK; now I'm just being silly.

Do You Get My Point?

Even though today, Calvary has added a contemporary service, and the classical service is less grand that it was when I attended, the fact that their flagship traditional service remains relevant to the diverse congregation should not be dismissed as merely one church's solution.

Should it?

Granted, New York City is a pretty unique place. Not everything that works there will translate to suburbia. But is Calvary really an aberration? After all, Calvary isn't the only multi-racial church which uses classical music as a cross-cultural worship component, although unfortunately, it is one of the few evangelical churches that does.  I suspect one of the reasons is that white and black conservative evangelicals typically spend more time wanting to emulate our peer cultures than is good for us. Another is that classical music can be perceived as elitist, it requires substantial training to be done well, and its musical instruments can be expensive.

Although I'm a huge pipe organ fan, I'm not saying that to do classical worship correctly, every evangelical church needs to install a massive pipe organ. Or purchase a $50,000 Steinway. Or sing in Latin.

Good grief - the reason classical music won't die is because there is a core repertoire that appeals to a surprisingly broad cross-section of people. A well-trained musician should be able to help a church on a modest budget craft worship services of integrity with as much as an acoustic guitar for accompaniment.

Just don't be scared of old music. Whatever your race or background, don't automatically wince at the thought of enduring mathematically-intricate noise by dead Europeans. If you haven't been taught to appreciate good music - which many Americans of all races and classes haven't - then be teachable.

Either that, or try coming up with a better idea for solving corporate worship's cultural chasm.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Churching Manhattan

Rome. Istanbul. London.

Even Paris, and maybe Moscow.

But not New York.

Of all the world's great cities, New York has never been known as being particularly religious.

At least, not until the last ten years.

According to a recent study by researcher Bob Smietana, Manhattan alone had 10 evangelical churches in 1975. Today it has more than 200, and 40% of those were launched after 2000.

To the uneducated observer, it looks as though New York City's most exciting borough is experiencing a dazzling wave of discipleship. Except reality, like so many things about New York City, is far more complex, and not as it appears.

In his May 19 article for Christianity Today, Smietana suggests that new urban churches - particularly in New York City - aren't "reaching" the numbers of unchurched people the booming attendance numbers might suggest.

And one of the modern pioneers of church planting in Manhattan agrees.

More than Conversions in the Numbers

First of all, let's get re-acquainted with the political geography of New York City. Most tourists really only spend time on Manhattan Island, and assume that it represents New York City in its entirety. But New York City actually is comprised of five counties in five boroughs, of which Manhattan is only one. However, Manhattan is the most densely-populated and famous of the five boroughs. And during the past decade, in New York City, church planting has been the most prolific in Manhattan.

Which, actually, isn't particularly surprising. It experienced a population boom after 9/11 that has caught everyone off guard. In Manhattan alone, the increase was 93,000 people (depending on the census data, which is in dispute).

If you're keeping score, that's roughly one new church for every 1,162 newcomers to Manhattan in the past decade.

Public schools that once faced closure are now bursting at the seams, and parents in some downtown neighborhoods are demanding new elementary schools be constructed - dilemmas the nation's largest school district hasn't faced in generations.

In addition, new private schools seem to be popping up everywhere, and charging fees upwards of $20,000 per year. Most new construction these days has been for glassy apartment towers where condos cost at least $1 million per bedroom. And the number of whites in Manhattan actually increased during the past decade for the first time since white flight began in the 1950's.

It stands to reason that with these changes, church attendance would increase.  Out of all of these newcomers to the City, at least some of them would want to attend church.  And, as they scouted the country's migration hotspots, church growth specialists would have found it hard to ignore the demographics of New York's new class of newcomers:  generally well-educated, earning high incomes, and relocating from suburban America where the church culture is relatively common.

The Presbyterian Church in America, of which Tim Keller's celebrated Redeemer Presbyterian is a denominational church plant from the 1980's, was actually founded as an outreach to the city's professionals. Subsequently, newer church arrivals to the City have been mainly targeted to, well, the newer churched arrivals.  It's as if Manhattan's large lower-class minority population and small middle-class population didn't merit any sort of focus until all the rich whites started moving in.  The only church I know of that came to Manhattan to reach "the least of these" is Times Square Church, founded by the recently-departed David Wilkerson, who, like Keller, founded his church in the relatively long-ago 1980's.

Another aspect to consider involves the severe culture shock inherent with any move to New York City.  You have to be a little crazy not to find the Big Apple jarring. (You also have to be a little crazy for staying after you've acclimated to the City's demanding personality, but that's another story!) From the crush of humanity to the intensity of mass transit to the incessant noise to the absurdly high prices for everything, New York is an assault on all of your senses.

Which usually means, despite all of those people in such a small area, loneliness runs rampant. I speak from experience when I say that starving for interpersonal interaction quickly becomes part of everyday life.  Turning to church - even if you never attended one before arriving in New York - is an easy way to numb the city's social hostilities.

When Church Growth Can be Oxymoronic

So, who cares if all of these churches have popped up in one of the most hedonistic, materialistic, and carnal places on Earth?  Isn't this a good thing?

Actually, Smietana suspects the explosion of churches in Manhattan owes as much to fickleness as anything else. It's likely the result of an artificial inflation of church attendance numbers by churched people playing musical chairs. Or, should I say, "musical pews."

In other words, even though the raw numbers have increased, the actual number of people attending evangelical churches in New York City isn't as impressive as the data would have us think.

Even Redeemer's Keller is aware of the problem.

He once blogged that "for every one New Yorker/secular person who came to Christ, we saw 2-3 others join who were coming from other churches" inside and outside metropolitan New York. "Without that, we would be a quarter to a third the size we are now."

The significance of the musical pew phenomenon comes when you consider how it disguises the true church growth dynamics in Manhattan since 9/11. Church growth leaders don't appear to have been particularly interested in Manhattan until affluent whites started moving there in droves.

It's no secret that New York City in general, and Manhattan in particular, has been home for years to a significant population of poor blacks and Hispanics. Yet even now, why have most of the church plants been located in whiter, trendy neighborhoods? Granted, some denominations - particularly Pentecostals - have started reaching out to the immigrant communities in the outer boroughs. But these ethnic enclaves, with their cross-cultural challenges, seem to have a harder time competing for ministry resources.

Us Versus Them

To a certain extent, I have little right to question the motives and mechanisms of evangelical organizations who've set their sights on New York City. I haven't even visited my hometown myself in a number of years, and have no plans for moving back. I know how difficult and expensive maintaining a church in New York can be, and on a purely logistical level, I can understand church planters relying on a relatively dependable and affluent white demographic upon which to build new urban ministries.

Yet at some level, I am compelled to speak towards what appears to be a discrepancy between the overt needs of New York City and the highly concentrated efforts of church planters to a specific - albeit influential - subset of the city's population.

On the one hand, evangelizing a group of people known to be nomadic - young white professionals generally consider New York better short-term resume fodder than long-term investment - can benefit the Church Universal as young professionals hear the Gospel in Manhattan and then take their faith to their next job assignment in, say, Los Angeles or Lisbon.

But on the other hand, does this scramble to attract New York's professional class continue to overlook the masses of browner, poorer New Yorkers who still don't fit into the trendy church plants sprouting all over Manhattan Island's hip hotspots?

And when these new congregations of new New Yorkers perform outreach ministries to the City's poor and disadvantaged residents, might they be inadvertently perpetuating stereotypes and further dividing the people of New York into "us" and "them?"

"We" are the new arrivals to the Greatest City in the World, who have the education, jobs, and money to really make a difference for "those" poor blacks and Hispanics mired in generational poverty.

I understand that generally, the small percentage of hardened welfare cases these new churches shower with spurts of attention will never darken an evangelical church's door for worship. But can we forget that many people who aren't white, aren't rich, aren't college-educated, and don't work on Wall Street neither need nor want gratuitous charity?

Native New Yorkers - and most people on welfare in New York City are natives - are a savvy group of people. They can tell when Christians are simply checking off the "service" box, feeling guilty about the way they're earning their wealth, or stoking their own ego with naiive forays into the thrillingly freaky world of deep urban poverty. Even New York's working poor know the difference between genuine affinity and tax deductions.

Legitimate, honest relationships have always worked the best when it comes to outreach of any kind, and while I don't pretend to know the personal motivations of every white Christian in Manhattan, I'm not stupid enough to ignore the part altruism and trendy compassion plays in charity efforts of all sorts. Particularly in a place like New York City, with its incongruously glamorous ghettos. Particularly because I've been guilty of doing that myself.

Not that the Lord can't use all of these hipster church plants for His glory. Or that the spiritual environment of New York City would be good enough without them.

It's just that with so much hollow trendiness already endemic within the towers of Manhattan Island, it would be a shame if evangelical Christianity got lumped into all of the other fads which sweep through its streets.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Liberty or Patriotanity?

Which is the best way to evangelize the United States?


Or the Gospel?

Most people of faith would - or should - automatically choose the Gospel, right? Yet, an increasing number of people who call themselves born-again Christians seem to get more excited over a bunch of dead white guys than the living, reigning Son of God.

As if we didn't already have enough partisan acrimony in the United States, this new crop of right-wing activists is politicizing religion through a movement I'm going to dub "patriotanity."  It's the mixing of Founding Father hero worship and pick-n-choose Christian morality with a twist of hard-line capitalism. Unfortunately, although it sounds like it could work, the combination creates an elixir which dilutes everything good in each of its ingredients.

Not that proponents of patriotanity have bad intentions. They want what many people want for the United States: freedom, affluence, and control. The problem is that none of these things are guaranteed to followers of Christ.

Are they?

The freedom Christ promises His followers isn't political, but spiritual. God doesn't say money is a sin, but loving it sure is. And Christ plainly teaches that anyone who wants to control his life will lose it.

It's right and good to abhor evil in our society, and work against it. But which is the more effective way of doing that: establishing a new theocracy in the United States, or creating disciples of Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit?

And don't scoff when I say proponents of patriotanity want to create a new theocracy. It's the only explanation for their worldview.

Abusing God's Word

Take, for example, my recent discovery of The American Patriot's Bible, which was published a couple of years ago.

Ostensibly, it's a celebration of how God has blessed the United States through the leadership of Bible-believing Colonists. Woven between legitimate Bible texts can be found factoids and short articles regarding great events and personalities from American history.  But practically and literally, it's simply a contrivance to wrap the cross of Christ in the Stars and Stripes. 

There's already been enough controversy over the recent trend by booksellers to re-package the holy Word of God into themed gimmicks for sports fans, businesspeople, empty-nesters, students, new parents... basically, everybody for whom the Bible is already wholly adequate. So questioning whether adding sound bites from the likes of retired General Colin Powell and the founder of Colgate-Palmolive to the Bible - which is what has happened in The American Patriot's "Bible" - is unnecessary.

It should be noted, however, that not only are the historical stories sprinkled amongst the holy Scriptures unnecessary, their very content can be borderline heretical. One of the sample selections about patriots details the "Four Chaplains" who were killed in World War II. One was Jewish and another Roman Catholic, yet this "Bible" lumps them all together as "men of God."

Can that be done theologically, since it is likely the Jewish and Catholic chaplains didn't believe in Jesus Christ as their savior? This account took up a whole page in the Patriot's "Bible," which makes me suspicious about what other fallacies are included.

Oops! Here's another one! On page 1217, a tribute to the Bill of Rights is prefaced with John 8:36, which says "if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed." But is the freedom of Christ a political freedom? Of course not! Plus, not even the original Bill of Rights granted political freedom to women and blacks. A key document of our government it may be, but a divine mandate it is not.

The Bible Isn't Just for Americans

What particularly appalls me about this Patriot's "Bible" is its unabashed attempt to promote a version of American history - that is not inerrant - using the infallible integrity of God's Word as an endorsement. The Bible is sacred. American history is not.

Even if there was no dispute in America's evangelical community as to the orthodox, Holy-Spirit-led development of the United States as a Christ-honoring republic, there is absolutely no justification for promoting such a viewpoint with the Bible. Doing so trivializes the very authority God's Word is being banked on to lend credibility to this book.

Remember, the holy Scriptures were not written especially for Americans. God did not divinely inspire the writers of the Canon to document His Gospel for our benefit alone. The histories of many European countries, for instance, are littered with heroes of faith, yet none of them dared to claim God liked their nation best.

I don't doubt that many of the good things with which America has been blessed have come as people in this country have sought to serve God rather than man. And I don't deny that capitalism provides one of the most lucrative mechanisms to achieve high standards of living. But the only people for whom America is the promised land are those with no hope of eternity with Christ.

In Whom Do You Believe?

Please don't get caught up in the thin theology and weak doctrine which purports to undergird patriotanity. It's admirable that so many of our Founding Fathers incorporated statements of affirmation concerning God and the Bible, but that's not the same thing as proclaiming Christ as your Lord and Savior.

Believing the Bible is the word of God isn't enough to save anybody. Nowhere in the Bible is anyone guaranteed faith by only believing God wrote it. Even Satan himself knows more about the Bible than we do. But he doesn't trust in Christ as the Son of God and Savior of His elect. Take the Apostle John's word for it: "These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing, you might have life in His name." - John 20:31. We have life in Christ's name by believing that He is the Son of God. Not by the "things that are written."

Yes, America has had an incredible history. Yes, I'm grateful to be an American, and I want to see my country and its people thrive and prosper. Yes, I am concerned about the downward spiral of morality in our society, and yes, I'm convinced our government needs to be downsized, and our citizenry needs to be individually and collectively held accountable for its actions.

But can we fix the problems we have in our country by trying to convince Americans how Godly our Founding Fathers were? Has any country in history ever managed to right its ship of state by codifying theocratic principles? Just as Christ didn't come to establish a human government, so the faith of our Founding Fathers - whatever it was - won't change our government today.

Do we evangelize because Billy Graham is a noteworthy evangelical? Of course not. Then why should we evangelize because we believe George Washington was born-again? Nobody's faith can save anybody else. Nobody's faith can encourage a country to be more moral. And nobody's faith can convince politicians to eradicate entitlement programs.

Discipleship can change people, and in the process, people can engender changes within a society as they walk by faith in Christ. But why rely on what the Founding Fathers may have believed? Look to Christ in faith. Seek to honor Him. Then watch Him work.

America's hope isn't in a bunch of dead white men. Our Savior is alive!

Glory, glory, hallelujah! It's HIS truth that marches on!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Temp Work

It was my last day at work.

For almost a year, I had been a temporary employee. At an assignment that was only supposed to last a couple of months. The company, one of America's largest medical supply conglomerates, with a massive distribution center here in north Texas, had provided me some remarkable experiences during my tenure. But after I had received several extensions to my contract, time had run out.

At the beginning, I re-organized all of their safety files, a project which in itself had morphed from updating training records to helping my manager overhaul the distribution center's campus safety system.

Being a high-profile player in the nation's medical supply industry, constant training in safety procedures was a way of life at this company, both for the warehouse employees, and the managers in our upstairs offices. Why such an emphasis on safety? At one point, just before I arrived, this facility secretly held every drop of flu vaccine in the United States. In addition, some of the chemicals stored in its specially-designed haz-mat room could, if exposed to the right elements, have sent parts of our building into a nearby residential neighborhood.

Oops - should I have said that on the Internet?

I Remember Where I Was

Well, it doesn't matter much today - my time there started before 9/11, before safety considerations forced people to think about everything with a haz-mat label as a potential terrorist tool.

Indeed, after that fateful day, lots of changes took place at the warehouse, not only because of the chemicals stored there, but because all of the products shipped from this location. From surgical gloves to medicines to sensitive operating instruments, just about everything in the warehouse would be needed by first responders and medical personnel in the event of a disaster. Sure, before 9/11, we all had an intellectual appreciation of that fact, but afterwards, society's perspective shifted from "if" to "when." And in today's just-in-time world, being on backorder is practically a sin. Some industries, like healthcare, have to be prepared for anything.

Because, sadly, "anything" is now possible. Dumbfounded, I watched on live television in the first-floor breakroom as Tower Two fell that awful morning. I was sitting next to an inventory control clerks who received the call from our upstate New York warehouse for thousands of body bags (which, you'll recall, weren't needed after all).

The parent company's warehouses along the East Coast were scouring their nationwide inventory for emergency supplies to respond to crisis locales in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC. Hospitals from Chicago to Los Angeles were proactively stockpiling supplies for fear of still more attacks. Suddenly, the medical industry had become intensely essential, no matter the cost; not the ephemeral money-hog it's been portrayed as being in the debate over Obamacare.

Perhaps the saddest reality in the office that day, and the days that followed, was that none of those body bags and other emergency supplies were needed after all at Ground Zero or Shanksville, Pennsylvania. All of those victims; their bodies literally erased from existence in the pulverization of the Twin Towers and the obliteration of Flight 93. No survivors pulled from the wreckage to bandage and suture. After being on stand-by for hours on end, yet with no demand for supplies, our inventory personnel somberly stood down.

You're Paying for This

Since my temp work was in the facilities department, I was assigned tasks which sent me into every corner of the building. Such access took me from the special section where the explosive chemicals were stored, to the executive offices, to the picking stations of the hulking German-built computerized inventory machine.

I had never seen such an enormous, intricate contraption in my life. Towering probably 40 feet above thin rail tracks and spanning five or six of those tracks, lined with hundreds of little baskets, this machine was state-of-the-art, at least for 2001. Each of those little baskets held small pieces of equipment and supplies needed by hospitals and doctors, and fast-moving robots would whiz along the tracks, programmed by inventory clerks in real time, plucking the requested items from their baskets and conveying them to human beings at one end of the machine.

The only people to handle the items, these employees would take what the automated pickers delivered to them, match it to a corresponding print-out label, and ship it out. Hour after hour. The computerized robots would be picking all sorts of items used in healthcare that had been requested through the company's online inventory system. The process was so complex that we regularly had engineering experts from its manufacturer's headquarters in Germany on-site to troubleshoot mechanical and software glitches.

As regular readers of my blog well know, few things significantly impress me: this picker was one of those things. It ran constantly, 24/7, both pulling inventory and stocking it. The next time you gasp at your hospital bill, remember that at least part of it probably is going to pay for machines like this that help stock the supplies needed for your surgery.

Getting to Know You

I'm still not sure why, but I managed to strike up affable acquaintanceships in departments all over the building. They were like most office relationships - not quite friendships, but you got to know these people well enough that you didn't just nod at each other in passing. You learned who their spouses were, where they lived, what their politics were, and what they thought of everybody else in the building.

The workers who staffed the amazing picking machine would yell greetings to me above the contraption's mechanical humming, the senior executive secretary upstairs would whisper confidentially to me in a corner of her cubicle. My boss's secretary would blab out loud about anything to me, while my boss would mutter warily, constantly glancing over his shoulder to see who was nearby, even if what he was saying was absolutely harmless.

One older, gentle-featured lady who prided herself on owning a weekend farm could yell obscenities into the phone just like the truck drivers her boss managed. A cute, hyper young girl and the office's token gay guy, who I actually knew from high school, provided most of the workday entertainment. And then there were all of the middle-aged clerks across the other side of our wide-open cubicle farm who spent their days doing work on their computers but gabbing on their phones to spouses and fellow co-workers upstairs.

As my days there dwindled down, I unsuccessfully applied for a low-level position with management potential in a department headed by one of the few executives in the office who never really liked me. I later learned that the vice president in charge of our facility was pressuring his mid-level managers to either find a position for me or get rid of me, because having a temp worker on his books for so long was making him look bad to the suits at corporate. So whatever her reason for not hiring me - whether bristling at some perceived pressure by her own boss or simply thinking I wasn't qualified - my days at the company were suddenly finite after months of establishing my presence there.

Perhaps it's just as well I didn't get the job, which after all, was with a huge corporation with a big-business culture and a high-pressure advancement system. My immediate boss - who didn't have a college degree - was expected to work 50 hours a week, and all of the career-tracker management trainees hired straight out of college were told 60 hours was the minimum. And a lot of those hours were spend doing far more manual labor than these sorority and fraternity-type business majors had expected.

Being a temp whose workload was a fuzzy mixture of clerical and administrative, with some significant responsibilities, I didn't fit the corporate mold. I had a college degree, but was on first-names basis with the janitors. If any of this was some sort of threat to the local management, then the reason eluded me. Which probably helps explain why, on my last day, I was so embarrassed.

Actually, It's Not All About You

It was like any typical Friday, walking in from the parking lot, through the security doors, taking a shortcut through the break room, and on into the long room housing the cubicle farm. As I continued to my own cubicle, I saw a long row of tables set up with food piled on them. And co-workers from all across the first floor gathering beside it with big smiles on their faces. It was a going-away party for me!

"We've never had a going-away party for a temp before," one of the secretaries explained, "but we had to give you one!"

I was stunned!

"We've never had a temp like you before," I remember someone else clarifying.

But before my ego could get too big, someone else sidled up next to me and put it all in context.

"Well, we're not really doing this just for you," she explained, a look of consternation on her face. "We're also trying to make a point in front of Mary Jones!" And by the way, Mary Jones is a pseudonym for the woman who didn't want to hire me.

Apparently, Mary had arrived at this facility with an attitude already in place and a chip on her shoulder. Few people liked her, and she liked even fewer people - all of them managers, of course. She towed the company line harder than some of her own superiors, and shocked everybody on 9/11 when she actually complained that the FAA had grounded all airplanes. Her husband was scheduled to fly somewhere for a meeting, and his flight couldn't depart. I was never sure if she was mad because her husband couldn't leave town, or make his meeting. At any rate, I remember her coming out of her office, announcing her disgust to nobody in particular, and the rest of us - already reeling from everything that was taking place on the East Coast - dumbfounded by her narcissism.

So when Mary didn't hire me, the office took it upon themselves to make some sort of statement. Which was made that much more emphatic when the office's second-in-command was the first to express his disappointment at my leaving, and then helped himself to the first plate of food.

Eventually, that afternoon, Mary did come by my cubicle and say she was sorry things didn't work out. And from an employment standpoint, I was too. From a philosophical standpoint, however, I wasn't.

All Things Come to an End

I've never regretted not staying on at that company. Working sixty hours a week for a 40-hour-a-week salary doesn't particularly thrill me. Surviving the rigors of management trainee boot camp so I can earn a six-figure income with even more hours on the clock doesn't excite me, either. Not that I've become independently wealthy writing blogs. But certain experiences in life help you hone down the things at which you excel from those at which you don't. And what you think is worthwhile.

The gay co-worker at the office who I'd known from high school committed suicide several months after I left. At his funeral, as I commiserated with all of our fellow co-workers who packed the small, fundamentalist Baptist church his parents attended, we expressed our grief at how somebody so young - remember, he was my age - could give up on life so soon.

I have my suspicions for his reasoning, but they have nothing to do with that company we worked for. At the same time, his job obviously didn't meet him where he needed to be met most. Any job is too inadequate to do that.

At least two of our former co-workers got divorced not long after his suicide. Not because of it, however. Several others were laid off during a merger with an affiliated company.

There were so many bad endings associated with this company. At least I got a party.

Even if it wasn't all about me.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Christ our Passover

(Scroll down for a video link)

You know, I used to idolize traditional corporate worship.

Yeah, yeah:  Chalk up yet another weird obsession for this different-drumbeat blogger - who, speaking of drums, still isn't crazy about them in church!

Well, with the exception of timpani. But more about that in a minute.

Back when I was a kid, corporate worship was merely something your parents made you attend.  It wasn't important or unimportant, fun or awful, traditional or contemporary, or anything else.  It just was.  Every Sunday.  Even on vacation.

It Used to be Called the City of Churches

Then, after college, I moved to the borough of Brooklyn in New York City.  In the 1990's, young unmarried adults had yet to flock over to Brooklyn from Manhattan (once again, I was before my time).  And in Brooklyn's rough Sunset Park neighborhood, as in much of the borough, many of the singles my age either had kids, were in and out of jail, or both.  For them, church was where people had funerals.

So... I found myself unable to find a solid, Bible-believing church with a decent singles ministry in all of Brooklyn, and becoming profoundly aware of the void being without a community of faith can create.  Although today, I'm no longer convinced single adults must prioritize singles ministries when they church-shop, back then, even though there was a Gospel-oriented Baptist church only two blocks away, I dismissed it because it was mostly families and senior citizens.

Back in Texas, my family had been suggesting I try the venerable Calvary Baptist in midtown Manhattan, but they understood my hesitancy because of the commute; on weekends, with sporadic subway service, it was at least an hour one-way.  But finally, practically in desperation, I took the plunge and checked out Calvary.

When I walked through Calvary's thick, wood doors off of 57th Street, I felt immediately at home, even though I didn't know a soul there.  Wow.  I've never experienced anything like it.  During a previous visit years ago, I learned their worship format was traditional, but that really didn't mean much to me at the time.  The church from which I had come in Texas had a mild contemporary mix, but back then, I was naive to the brewing contemporary/traditional controversy.  All I knew when I walked into the foyer at Calvary that Sunday was that I'd found my church home in the big, bad city.

It didn't take long for me to fall in love - with the worship format at Calvary. Majestic and robust, this was doing church like I'd never seen it done before.  We recited psalms.  The choir would sing a plaintive response to pastoral prayers. The congregation would erupt into mighty hymns, the organ in full vibrato causing the wood floor to quake under our feet.  And from the sanctuary's main level, I'd look up into the horseshoe-shaped balcony, packed with people of ethnicities from across the globe, and marvel - sometimes with tears in my eyes - at how it all must be a foretaste of glory divine.

If you haven't really experienced a Biblical, God-focused, traditional service born of an orthodox desire to worship our Creator instead of the created, then you likely have no clue as to what you're missing.  Yes, a lot of Americans today immediately protest comments like mine with accusations of preferences, desires for keeping up with the culture, and a lot of other populist rationalizations for why designing a corporate worship service for God instead of us doesn't make sense.

Substance SHOULD be the Style

And for a while, back in Texas, I dove into this controversy with gusto, first as a conscientious objector, trying to tolerate contemporary styles. Then as a refugee from the seeker/contemporary movement, ultimately landing at my current Presbyterian church.  And then reveling in its worship style so obnoxiously that it took the Holy Spirit to convict me for attending church not for the sermon or even the fellowship, but the style.

The same reason a lot of contemporary aficionados attend rock-and-roll churches, and think I'm a blithering idiot.


It's taken a while, and even though I'm still convinced traditional, classical worship glorifies God best, you're not a heretic in my book if you don't take my side. Well, not completely, anyway.  But that doesn't mean I'm going to give up trying to explain my point of view.

Now, before you click off this blog in disgust, please hear me out!  I've even got a video for you visualists out there.

This past Sunday where I worship, our Chancel Choir sang Christ Our Passover, composed by Robert MacFarlane in 1906. It's one of my favorite pieces in my church choir's repertoire, combining all of the elements necessary for Christ-centric worship music:  scripture set to a score exemplifying the best practices of composition and performed on acoustic instruments.  In other words, music with objective integrity.

So you'll understand my giddy desire to share this glorious Eastertide anthem with you, even if you have to stretch to the depths of your patience to indulge me.

And by the way, about the timpani:  several years ago, the former choir director where I worship commissioned an accompaniment with brass and timpani for this piece from Sterling Procter, whose arrangement you'll hear in just a moment.  Who says classical music has to be boring?

Below, I've provided the text for the piece, which is 100% solid scripture.  Use it for your reference along with a YouTube video of the work sung on Resurrection Sunday this year at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church on New York City's Park Avenue.  Although the video is not of the best quality, it does convey the wonderful spirit of this anthem which celebrates Christ, Who was indeed sacrificed for us:

Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us: therefore let us keep the feast; not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Corinthians 5:7-8)

Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more: death hath no more dominion over Him. For in that He died, He died unto sin once: but in that He liveth, He liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 6:9-11)

Christ is risen from the dead, and become the first-fruits of them that slept! For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive! (1 Corinthians 15:20-22)

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: World without end. Amen!

I'm telling you: if this doesn't call you out of your mortality for at least a brief moment and fill your mind with awe for what God has done for you, you probably don't need to be reading my blog right now.

Instead, you need to be re-reading the incredible scriptures I referenced above!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Who's Your Nanny?

We hear a lot of complaints these days about how America is turning into a "Nanny State." The staggering number of laws, rules, regulations, ordinances, and legislation that our society generates can make it feel as though our lives are being manipulated and suffocated by the government.

Take, for example, the plethora of zoning regulations that exist in most of our municipalities. Here in Arlington, Texas, we have laws governing every sign, from garage sale signs to billboards. Grass gets regulated - both the illegal kind, and the stuff that grows in your lawn (and you're really in trouble if they're both the same thing.) No matter how old your house is, zoning ordinances govern what materials you use if you need to construct an addition.

A neighbor up the street wanted to build a new garage on the very back of his brick house.  Even though the addition wouldn't be visible from the street, however, the city insisted he use brick instead of wood siding. The homeowner got signed agreements from all of his neighbors approving of the siding, but no; the city insisted on brick, because that was the code. What wasn't in the code was the fact that since the house was several decades old, the customized brick originally used for its construction is no longer available. So the garage actually looks stranger with the closely-matched brick than it would with appropriately-painted siding.

At least we can't see it from the street!

Laws are Born from Somebody's Bad Behavior

Upon first glance, it all sounds so silly and intrusive, doesn't it? Good grief; if you're paying your mortgage and your taxes, what right does the city have to tell you what your house can look like? Especially an improvement that won't be seen from the street? And aren't they nitpicking by confiscating innocent garage sale signs by the side of the road?

Yes... and, no.

One of the reasons cities like Arlington have so many zoning codes stems from the discouraging reality that not everybody is interested in maintaining their property. Not everybody has the requisite common sense to draw a correlation between personal responsibility and infringing on the general population's sensibilities.

After all, most reasonable people know what adequately-manicured lawns are supposed to look like. We don't like signs plastered everyplace, or under-used RVs and boats languishing on front lawns. Civilization as we know it won't come to a screeching halt if your Christmas lights stay up all year long, but your ambivalence about neighborhood aesthetics won't do civilization any favors, either.

Will it?

Here in my old central Arlington 'hood, a number of us - and yes, I'm included - have grown weary of people moving in to our aging houses and, through their ambivalence, proving why zoning laws are necessary. Oddly enough, the elderly and less-financially-robust of us aren't the ones neglecting their property. No, the eyesores are owned by people who simply don't care. Not that we're an exclusive enclave by any means. But neither do we want to get as dumpy as other neighborhoods near ours have gotten.

Just because we're a solid middle-class subdivision doesn't mean we don't expect certain standards to be kept. Do you really think nobody's going to hear the whinnying of the horse you're hiding in your backyard? Why do you think we get upset about the engine you've got dangling from a tree in your front yard?

Seriously. This ain't Arkansas.

Sometimes, There's Value in Conformity

The greatest argument for building standards and codes involves the preservation of property values, which of course, benefits both the homeowner when it comes time to sell, and the city in terms of taxes it can collect. And just as home sellers in your neighborhood compete with homesellers in other neighborhoods, cities also compete for economic viability. Some people sniff at codes as merely tools to enhance the snob factor of a community, but the basic financial benefit of codes can't be ignored.

But would we need all of these rules, regulations, and codes if everybody subscribed to the same set of expectations within a given community? Think about it: All it takes is a few people who lack accountability to spawn all sorts of laws meant to bring them in line with basic standards.

And it's not just neighborhood livability that all sorts of laws have been designed to protect. If this essay has sounded like so much intolerance, rigidity, conformity, and foolishness to you, then consider the bigger picture here.  Are you frustrated by the myriad regulations governing Wall Street, our aviation industry, and the foods and medicines we consume?  What if businesspeople acted with integrity on behalf of our entire society and didn't try to cut corners?  How many protections would our government be compelled to create then? If industries could rely on their participating companies to operate ethically and self-police themselves, by how many fewer laws could they be bound?

We Lose Freedom When We Disrespect Others

Our Nanny State hasn't evolved solely because a bunch of bureaucrats have succeeded in crafting job security for themselves. Do you really think most politicians like being squeezed by their constituents who are advocating for or against something that used to be unregulated? Sure, most all cultures have hyper busy-bodies agitated over things they think should or shouldn't be done for all sorts of reasons, and you'd probably throw me into that group.

But you have to admit it: with human behavior being what it is, the Nanny State has taken the place of personal responsibility.  And not just because our government has lusted after that role.

The practical side of me thinks many of our laws, rules, and codes should be unnecessary. But the cynical side of me suspects that those same regulations are probably necessary, considering how spoiled, selfish, calloused, and greedy many of us are.

If we all took greater responsibility for the way our lifestyles and choices impact those around us, we could enjoy far fewer laws, regulations, and even taxes.  Unfortunately, the more that trust within a society erodes, the more protections people feel they need to mitigate that loss of trust.  It's the same with gates and fences - freedom to roam gets restricted by gates and fences when you make a habit of trespassing.

As it is, somebody has to protect you from me. And me from you.

That's where we enter... the Nanny zone.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Canonizing America's History?

Thank you for your patience as we've waited for Blogspot/Blogger's technical issued to get cleared up!

There was a comment posted on last Wednesday's essay, but it and my subsequent reply were deleted.  I think we're back to normal now, though... or, at least, as normal as I get.  ;-)

So, without any further ado:  today's essay!


And evangelicals still wonder why I'm so skeptical about the "faith" of our Founding Fathers.

With the drumbeat of conservatives who preach a sanctimonious Christology of America's political heritage growing ever louder, imagine my surprise, stumbling across further proof that our our historical leaders may have been relatively moral, but probably not orthodox Christians.

It seems the self-avowed Deist, Benjamin Franklin, wanted to incorporate an official prayer into the daily proceedings governing the 1787 Constitutional Convention, but was met with stiff resistance by other national leaders of his day. Basically, according to a note in the Library of Congress regarding Franklin's proposal to start each day of the convention in prayer, "the Convention...thought Prayers unnecessary."

So Franklin's idea for prayer didn't really catch on with the bunch of guys modern right-wingers claim to have been so spiritual.

Interestingly enough, part of Franklin's speech that day seems to have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Franklin warned that if they didn't request God's guidance, "We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and a bye word down to future age. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human Wisdom, and leave it to chance, war, and conquest."

Sounds more like 2011 than 1787, doesn't it?  Particularly since this morning, we hit our nation's debt ceiling, and nobody inside the Washington Beltway seems too anxious about it.

Pressing the Issue of the Press

Which brings me to a second point. We all know how acrimonious politics are these days. A lot of the discord has arisen because today, for better or worse, we have the technology to share information and opinions with the entire country. We also have a press machine - with both conservative and liberal biases - that sticks its nose into everything. Nothing is off-limits, and stories are spun and counter-spun in sensationalistic ways to attract attention, generate advertising revenue, and pretend to convey relevance.

The pace at which 21st-Century information overload swamps our senses with all that's wrong in our country makes it seem as though these present-day problems are bringing the United States to the brink of collapse. And maybe we are.

But how might our present-day mess compare with the good old days during the founding of our country?

Back when we didn't have TV networks, bloggers, and talk radio to document all of the foibles, controversies, immorality, deceit, duplicitousness, and ineptitude which suddenly seem unprecedented today.

For example, consider what I mentioned above when discussing Franklin's prayer idea.  Neo-conservatives tend to wax nostalgic these days over what they perceive as having been some sort of humble theocracy back in country's olden days. Making slogans like “one nation under God” some sort of template by which the Washingtons, Franklins, and Jeffersons of our past intended future Americans to subjugate citizens with other belief systems. Perverting the deific properties of our nation’s documents of incorporation to emphasize the Biblical semantics by which our government today should function. And accusing academics - who’ve acknowledged the frailties, inconsistencies, and outright fallibilities of America’s historic icons - of revisionist propaganda, while perpetrating their own romanticized revisions of what motivated people to establish our great country.

If we knew as much about the events of 1776 and our first Constitutional Convention as we know about today’s power politics, would we be as certain of the righteous intentions of our early government as we are the damnable incompetence of our current legislators? Being the skeptical cynic I am, I wonder how much of what we know of modern government is simply born through the light of incessant media coverage that simply didn’t exist 230 years ago.

Reputations Sometimes Age Well

Granted, starting a brand-new government practically from scratch, incorporating some relatively unproven political ideals on the fly, and stitching it all together among a patchwork of geographically and culturally disparate colonies, remains a stunning sociopolitical feat in the history of civilization.  A pivotal achievement no matter how you look at it, wouldn't you agree?  I can't envision anybody in office today as being capable of dreaming up and implementing what our Founding Fathers did.  And they succeeded back before all of the technological marvels today we think we can't live without!

Yes, they did have the press, and Franklin himself made a small fortune running printing presses and printing periodicals.  The first genuine mass-market newsletter, however, didn't evolve until 1830, in Boston.  And newspapers with what we would consider to be more comprehensive news coverage didn't arrive until the turn of the 20th Century.  Before the First World War, hardly any news organization had a budget for comprehensive news coverage like today's media conglomerates boast.  Which meant that although major stories may have gotten coverage, those who reported them were at the mercy of limited avenues of sources and corroborative agents.  Which meant that the whole truth and nothing but the truth may not always have been what the public was led to believe.

After all, anybody can tell you anything, but unless you can cross-check and verify sources, you're still only getting one side of a story.  Wouldn't it be much easier to run a government when the public has less access to complete truth?  Of course, even today, some conspiracists at the opposite ends of the political spectrum are convinced we're not being told the whole truth about anything.  But we have a much broader perspective of world events today than even our Founding Fathers had.

Not that acknowledging this truth makes the problems we have today easier to solve.  But perhaps it helps to shed some light on why America's early years seem comparatively righteous. 

I'm not saying that today's politicians are really saints;  just that yesteryear's politicians probably weren't either.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Revolting Against King Content?

Note: This essay was originally posted on Wednesday, May 11, but was inadvertently deleted during a Blogger service failure and reposted.

Might some Christian websites be unintentionally making themselves obsolete?

Not through the poor utilization of cutting-edge technology. But by the poor choices they're making regarding their content.

I used to work for an Internet technology company, and one of the mantras my employer constantly stressed was "content is king." And he's right: there's no reason to visit any website other than to access its content. By itself, Internet technology doesn't soothe you, it doesn't make you rich, it doesn't educate you; there's no benefit for any organization to simply have a website. It must deliver relevant content to be worth anything.

That makes sense, doesn't it?  But it's so easy to forget.

Now, where Internet initiatives make their profits comes with how you define "relevant." And the proliferation of websites during the past 14 years promised the world a treasure-trove of accessible news, information, opinion, and products that would help make the human experience more informed, sophisticated, efficient, and productive.

And, to a great extent, this has happened.

When Content Quality Isn't Job One

Yet, as I troll the Internet searching for content that can be exploited into an essay for my blog, I've become aware that too much of the content - particularly on Christian websites - is rapidly becoming either redundant, suspiciously inaccurate, or is cunning marketing pablum in disguise.

For example, how many articles on Christian websites are written by or about Christian authors who've just had a book published?

Like the old TV talk shows and print magazines, which provided a forum for celebrities to publicize their newest productions, many Christian websites have become hazy PR factories. Which helps explain why so many organizations let their marketing department manage their website. However, in the rush to maintain a web presence, post content that won't scare away advertisers, and attract new website visitors, content isn't king like it's supposed to be. But they still want you to think it is.

Just yesterday, I was on a well-known and heretofore well-respected Christian website run by a legacy Christian magazine. I had found an article by a person I'd never heard before, but who I assumed was some sort of expert, since his piece was featured on the home page of this famous magazine's website.

As it turns out, the guy just had a book published, and what he wrote as thinly-veiled marketing material for this website was sheer blather. It didn't make sense, there was no coherent train of thought, and the condescension he lathered throughout his ill-fitting paragraphs in an attempt to sound avant-garde was palpable. He claimed to be writing about contemporary Christian music, so I didn't expect to be particularly impressed anyway. But even other readers, CCM fans who've commented on the article, have blasted its author - and the website - for tricking us all into thinking this was valid content.

Their frustration validates my own concern that this website wasn't interested so much in educating or even entertaining us, but simply fulfilling part of a publicity contract for the author's publisher.

This isn't the first time I've finished reading an article on a Christian website and realized I'd just wasted 5 minutes that I'll never get back on junk literature.  I just didn't expect it of such a well-known marquee.

Surfer Savvy Eclipsing Conventional Content Standards?

Which leaves me wondering: how long can these sites peddle such drivel before their Internet readership catches on and becomes ambivalent about the organization's integrity, or gives up visiting their site altogether? Believe it or not, most of us have better things to do than devote time to seminary professors whose ivory tower gibberish fails to translate into everyday life, pseudo-famous preachers and "experts" whose craft better titles than articles, and the growing swarm of authors more interested in selling uninspired books than conveying significant ideas. I mean, seriously, people: we Americans already have more material and study guides than we know what to do with, and we're still not wowing the world as salt and light, are we?  In a way, we're choking on our own food.

Granted, some websites give their visitors some sort of code or heads-up about the purpose or relevance of their content before we commit to exploring it. In addition, some articles have readers' ratings, but not all of them. Of course, those can be biased or even rigged by publicists, so their accuracy isn't foolproof. And sometimes, the best content is the least popular.

I suspect other websites - like the one I visited yesterday, which exist simply as online extensions of print magazines - have had a more difficult time adjusting to the transition from print to Internet than they'd care to admit. They really still want us to subscribe to their print magazine, so they sprinkle teaser pieces on their website to try and generate interest in subscriptions once they've captured visitors on their site.  In effect, they're banking on the legendary legitimacy of their print magazine to cover a multitude of sins on their website. Trouble is, the Internet isn't going away anytime soon, whereas print editions...

Being Tricked by the Trade

Despite all of the rapid advancements in Internet technology, the only way we can currently determine the integrity of an online article is by clicking on its link. That click doesn't prove the article is worthwhile, however; it really only tells tracking software how convincing the article's title was. Once we land on that page, and realize it's junk literature, we can't go back and erase our indication of interest. As far as the webmaster is concerned, the article's content was successful. Even if readers are hitting the response buttons with withering criticism of what they've been tricked into reading.

Odd, isn't it, how with magazines, you never really got that agitated if something was junk literature. Maybe because we could quickly skim ahead to try and figure out where the author was going. More likely, however, it was because with a print magazine, you purchased the whole thing, and you knew that its editors weren't making future content decisions based on individual articles. With the Internet, most readers know that what they view is helping the website's owners determine future content. So, being suckered into virtually affirming something we didn't like is more than frustrating; it's misleading, and could result in more of the same bad content down the road.

At this point, the capitalist would say that we have a handy-dandy fix for this problem: Internet advertising revenue. But even that has its problems. For now, advertisers still think that click-throughs and page-view counts are providing them relevant data which supports the prices they're paying for ad space. Meanwhile, without our being aware of it, our Internet habits are being compiled and vast data mines are being created to help websites selling ad space - and advertisers looking to buy ad space - figure out how to get you and me to spend more money. The more we click on links to articles with bad content, we actually pollute the data being collected on our reading interests with endorsements for more bad content. As data mining becomes more pervasive, it will become a vicious circle of bad content affirming more bad content.

I wonder how long it will take for some of the advertisers on Christian websites to realize that many visitors to these sites are getting increasingly jaded by misleading titles and hollow articles. Unfortunately, the media companies who are pushing for some of this content won't be convinced their current model isn't working because it all still generates some sort of exposure for the person or idea they're trying to showcase. It's like the late Irish author, Brendan Behan, said: "there's no such thing as bad publicity."

Except maybe on the Internet.

The whole information technology genre is based on instant access. Some people have interpreted this to mean that content can be disposable in quality. And certainly, for some people, all they can digest is disposable content, and sites which pander to these types of people won't go off-line anytime soon.

But I suspect that people who visit Christian websites have a significant interest in substantial content. They're willing to explore concepts and ideas which directly relate to basic core principles of life. And they expect instant gratification that's legitimate.

They're not visiting Christian websites hoping for junk content that will blow a spare three minutes between tweets. They're willing to think over valid content that they're taking the initiative to find. They don't want their website visit to waste their time and /or insult their intelligence with anything less.

Over time, the more they get burned, the less likely they are to visit such websites. Another thing my IT boss used to say was it's a lot easier to keep current website visitors coming back than finding new ones.  Which brought him back to mantra #1:  content is king.

Why have I harangued on this topic so much today?  Because I've invested over a year and a half to improve my skills as a writer, which means I want to contribute meaningful content in the Internet age.

I also think it would be a shame for certain Christian websites to peak in their influence so early in the Internet age.